Vandal Hearts - Staff Retroview  

A Strong Heart
by Michael "Macstorm" Cunningham

Easy to Moderate
20-30 Hours
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Vandal Hearts is one of the earlier tactical RPGs to hit the PlayStation. Published by Konami, it was marketed in the same light as the first game in the Suikoden series. While the two seemed destined to become long-running series, only the Suikoden series has continued on, as the Vandal Hearts series ran into a wall after only two games. A simple tactical RPG, Vandal Hearts may not have had much depth, but it still stands as a solid overall game.

   The story of Vandal Hearts is rather basic, but attempts to make up for it with a variety of characters, villains, and plot twists. Faced with a world of constant local skirmishes, Ash Lambert and his friends in the Ishtaria Security Force find themselves diving into the heart of a deeper political conflict. Struggling to overcome his family's dishonored name and redeem himself from the sins of his traitor father, Ash fought against all odds to become the leader of the Security Force. Throughout his adventures, Lambert encounters many different characters and uncovers a ever-changing political scheme that he must thwart before it destroys the world. With decent character development, but trite dialogue, Vandal Hearts's attempt at weaving a grand tale falls short of the epic mark, but provides enough of a story to be a decent title. It just doesn't really break much new ground.

Eat that, Jack! You don't like blood? Well too bad, Jack!

   The combat system in Vandal Hearts is fairly solid. It's a classic tactical RPG in which the player's characters and enemies each are given turns to take action. Taking the first turn, the player can take an offensive path to get a few early hits in or play it safe and strategically position characters for greater defense. Combat is the basic attack/counterattack fare with the game's true depth coming from the characters and their classes. While there is a constant mix of characters joining and leaving the party, never does the player have to decide which to take to battle as each character in the party will be available. Characters have a specific classes, most having two branches that are possible to traverse. Some examples are Archers that have the option of continuing down the path to becoming the more powerful bow user known as a Sniper or being made into flying Hawknights that are capable of passing over land or sea. Healers can strengthen their curing powers by following the Bishop/Archbishop track or can blend fighting and light healing by taking the Monk/Ninja path. There are a total of four branching base classes: Soldier, Archer, Mage, and Healer. Ash's Hero class is unique to him and offers no branch upon upgrading. With the right tactics, these job classes can work together quite smoothly and make for an enjoyable experience.

   The interaction system within Vandal Hearts works well enough, but there are a few awkward areas. Character movements are standard, but there are a few minor issues that just don't blend well, such as the overhead view of the map. The view is adjustable, but it never seems to land on a perfect view to view everything that needs to be seen. Combat is simple enough, but some things don't make sense like Archers not being able to attack in any direction. Instead they can only fire in a straight line, which makes them less effective for no logical reason. Most other classes seem to work without issues. Shopping for items and equipment is very basic. Equipment is shown to increase or decrease stats based against what the selected character is currently using before purchasing it, keeping the user from making a non-productive purchase. An option to equip upon purchase is also available, making the equipping process go rather smoothly as well. Like most tactical RPGs, gamers can save both in and out of battle. Overall, in-game interaction is very basic, but easy to use.

Johnny Cash! I'll burn you in my burning ring of fire!

   While Vandal Hearts shines in the area of gameplay and interaction, it lacks in the area of aesthetics. The visuals and music offered in the title are less than stellar. Visually, the game is rather low quality for a PlayStation title. The real-time graphics are sprite-based and offer little variety in terms of design and originality. The cutscenes that take place between chapters are nothing impressive either. These scenes are merely a series of still shots with a bland voiceover telling of the events that took place between the current sections of the game. The voiceover quality is just laughable, as the actor sounds like a newscaster discussing the events that are taking place, but in a sinister tone that makes him sound like a wicked villain himself. The game's music is rather lifeless and annoyingly repetitive. Gamers are forced to listen to the same battle tracks and town themes over and over throughout the game. The voiceovers and bland music will have people turning down their volume to enjoy the game without the headache and the graphics won't be impressing anyone either.

   Other than being the first North American tactical RPG to make its way to the PlayStation, Vandal Hearts brings no great innovations. The game features little that wasn't found in prior generation titles from the same genre such as Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and Shining Force II, and even lacks some of the depth of those two. What Vandal Hearts does offer is about twenty to thirty hours of tactical RPG gameplay. With the right tactics, the game is not extremely difficult for anyone with tactical RPG experience, though it does offer a potentially challenging side quest to obtain a master class for the main character. Other than this optional romp, don't expect to have to reset very often as character deaths are not permanent and battle objectives are not too pressing. Escaping from a swarm of powerful enemies or defending weak characters from meeting their demise is about as far as Vandal Hearts strays from the typical "defeat all enemies" edict.

   Vandal Hearts is a basic, run-of-the-mill tactical RPG. However it does succeed in being easy to play and rather engaging. Even if the story or visuals seem to be lacking, Vandal Hearts will keep players entertained with its solid gameplay, branching class paths, and large party of characters. It was a good start to the PlayStation's era of tactical RPGs and a good partner to the Suikoden series. And while it hasn't lasted as a series, it was a decent enough start.

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