JPWPI 2010-01 – Vandal Hearts

Developer: Hijinx Studios
Publisher: Konami
Platform: XBLA or PSN
Price: 1200 points or $15 (Prices at 2010-01-23 – unchanged 2018-09-15)

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement is a turn based strategy RPG, along the lines of Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, albeit far less involved than either. As I understand it, this game is a prequel to the venerable Playstation 1 game Vandal Hearts.

Before I continue, I should warn you dear reader, that I have a love-hate relationship with SRPGs, that began with Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1. I love these games a great deal, but I don’t have the patience nor the correct mindset to do really well at them. I tend to get so angry at my inability to do well (usually after getting totally flattened by the computer) that I have to quit the game. Thankfully, I only reached anything even approaching that frustration occasionally with VH:FoJ, and a quick reload alieviated that.

Almost the first thing I noticed upon loading up the game was the art style. All hand-drawn, the art was reminiscient of Carcasonne and Settlers to me. I had the impression that Hijink Studios was trying to appeal to Eastern audiences while still keeping a Western aesthetic. The characters are all in something like a super-deformed style, with relatively normally-proportioned bodies and large heads.

The first cutscene, that sets up the world, is indicative of the ones used throughout the game: a sort of montage of stills that are – as more than one person put it – essenially a glorified Flash animation. It does the job, however, and sets up the world and the backstory of a main character.

When you get into the tutorial stages, you see that the hand-drawn style extends to the world. This, combined with the low-poly models in the world, maked for a relatively primitive-looking effect, that really just looked like it was half-way between a PS1 and a PS2 game.

So, getting into the game, I’m introduced to my main character, Tobias, his clearly juvenile and nerdish companion Calvin, and the blatant to-be-enemy Melnicks. There’s also your trainer, who’s eventual fate is oh so tragic, but really, he wasn’t important enough for me to bother remembering his name. I was also inflicted with the ‘my turn’ acknowledgement sounds from each characters, which in short order irritated the crap out of me, but more on that later. The ambient sounds also got annoying quick.

By the way, torrefaction (note: CoG poster at the time) was right. Load times, sometimes 20-30s long ones, everywhere.  Gah.

Finishing the tutorial, we get into the plot. So, bandits are attacking the villiage, and we’re sent to get help from the army garrison. On the way, we run into Tobias’ delinquent friend Connor, and a girl being attacked by wolves. Ye gods, if I had only known how much I’d hate her, and I had the option, I would have left her to the wolves. But no, we save her. And lo, she speaks a different language – she’s an ‘Urdain’ from the neighboring country – and her acknowledgements and other sounds drive me batty. Her name is Altyria, and I want to fire her out of a cannon.

We get to the garrison, which appears to be staffed by two people, a woman called Luce who’s a knight of the ‘Silver Order’ and her friend Gren, who is the strong-silent type. Well, not really, he’s more the mash-’em-into-a-paste-but-silent type, but who’s counting? They come along, and we’re presented with … a choice. Yes, my friends, at various moments you get to choose to side with Altyria or Luce. Depending on who you choose you get a marginally different ending. I went with Altyria, because I must hate myself or something.

Now that we have what later proved to be my full roster, let’s talk about some of the game mechanics:

1) There’s no classes. Any character can learn any skill, cast any spell. Of course, while this may initially mean to you that you can train anyone to be anything, it doesn’t work that way, due to base stats making everyone better at something, so that’s all you do.. Tobias makes a good all-rounder, okay at magic (making him a decent healer), okay at combat. Calvin is great at magic, and mostly useless with a weapon. Connor’s a good fast-striker, he gets to act first in a round and hits hard. Luce’s similar, but she acts later on, and has some nice buff/heal spells – she’s much like Tobias, but a bit more combat-oriented. Altyria’s an incredible archer and can do okay at spells, if you teach her some. Gren – well, he’s really good at mashing things up with his hammer. You do end up with some interesting skill setups due to the way you play – for example, as we went on, everyone ended up being great at the spell that makes you move farther.

2) Back attacks are more effective. Get used to the computer constantly walking around your chracters to hit them from the back.

3) When you attack someone with a weapon, they have the opportunity to counter attack. No limits to it, so if someone gets surrounded with melee he can counter every attack. If a bow-carrier gets hit with an arrow, they can counter. Since you can switch between a primary and secondary weapon for free, this makes choosing which weapon to end the turn with a bit of a strategic choice.

4) As their primary attack (not the counter, thankfully), hammers hit the all four spaces around the attacking character, friend or foe. This gets both fun and annoying.

Anyway, carrying on. So, I’m now shopping in the garrison, and…my word, is that French I’m hearing in the ambient sounds? Riiiiight, this game is SO European developed. So, I move on to the combat where I get to rescue the town, and…okay, let’s try that again. A little better strategy, and I romp through the mission. Whee. I continue on to the map that ended up to be the end of the first chapter, and I get pasted. So, I go and see if I can grind, and I can, visiting an old combat map again for treasure and experience. I also discover a hidden map, and scurry off to GameFAQs to get clues to the rest of them. Doing these saves me from a LOT of grinding. Yay.

Ooh, a plot twist at the end of Chapter 1. I never saw it coming. This is such a suprise. Can you tell I’m being sarcastic?

Daldren Gray, the big hero general from the last war, has a nifty flame rock and is trying to cause a war! We must stop him! And that, ladies and gents, is the focus of the plot.

So, we’re now on the run, and this escape into a mine bit sucks. Not hard, just a bit nervous. And the caves…bleh. Nice bit at one point with the enemies (cave monsters and pursuers) fighting each other, that was neat. Interesting boss battle, fighting a big enemy that can hit everyone around it (or poison people at range), but doesn’t counter. Spent most of the combat not killing him so I could collect some treasure. Happily, that finished Chapter 2.

Okay, out of the caves, and…we’re captured. Wow, we’re competent. And next fight is…an escort mission (our King, who Daldren wants to kill and blame on the enemy country) with a whole crapload of chests. Bigger problem I’ve discovered, I let the escortee almost die because I was busy being greedy. Man, I hate gimmick fights sometimes – I can’t control the damn escortee, and he’s a weak-ass bow user. His guards are kind of handy, though. And Jesus, they throw LOTS of enemies at you at times. Like 20 people versus your six. I finish off Chapter 3 with a rescue mission, where we have to open a gate before Luce dies. I notice at this point that the enemies are getting better AoE spells than me, and resolve to go get something better.

I also notice I have no money concerns any more.

On to Chapter 4, wherein I ignore the plot and go back to treasure hunt and open secret maps. I discover that this is sometimes easier when there’s no plot-based combat restrictions, and far less enemies, and makes the ‘keep one guy alive so you can ransack the area’ plan much easier to execute.

Continuing on, I am sent back to the place we started all this in, the Church near the starter town. Lo and behold, our evil aquaintance Melnicks is there, and he’s attacking our schoolteacher Liana, in a moment I found remarkable ineffectual, since in all her dialogue she’s pretty much a bitch. Vaguely interesting combat, where we had to run though a gauntlet as he ran away in stages – I was more interested in getting the clue to the hidden area, to be honest. He wasn’t much of a challenge. He had nifty flame powers, which I want. And in the least moving death scene since Polonius went ‘Oh, I am slain!’ Liana dies, giving us a clue where to go next.

Pause whilst I head to a secret area, to get a new weapon for Altyria, which also proves to get me more money than I ever need. Head to the next area, and oh my god, there’s a secret group using Daldren! What a deep, convoluted plot this game hasn’t.

Unfortunately, friends, at this point life decided to break in, and I had to stop playing. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to play much more – I had limited myself to 20h on this game.

Overall, I enjoyed this game. It’s really a SRPG-lite, with the combats being simple enough for you to manage with a little bit of thought, but never so tricky as to have you tearing your hair out. The plot is thin, but really, it’s a 20h game at worst, I didn’t expect too much. With two endings, there’s enough there to keep you interested for a bit, and I strongly suspect there may be expansion DLC down the line. Not fabulous, but decent.

For each game, I list three ratings:
1) The JPublic Fun Rating: A rating of how much fun I had. Consider it equivalent to your standard game score. 3 out of 5

2) The JPublic Irritation Rating: A measure of how much I wanted to throw the game out the window at my most frustrated. Not really an issue until you get to the above 4.0 rating, but a warning. 2 out of 5

3) The JPublic Value Point: A level at which I’d say it’s a must buy, because at that price it’s a great investment. 800 points or $10