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Vandal Hearts (PlayStation) artwork

Vandal Hearts (PlayStation) review

"While Ogre Battle now receives the credit it deserves, Vandal Hearts has gone ignored by the same audience. It may not offer the immense depth of these previous titles, but it does feature simplified gameplay and a good plot that should endear itself to the Final Fantasy Tactics crowd."

Final Fantasy Tactics has become the poster child of turn-based RPG and strategy hybrids. This award is not without merit, as it simplified the dense action of predecessors like Ogre Battle and the niche war games of Koei. While Ogre Battle now receives the credit it deserves, Vandal Hearts has gone ignored by the same audience. It may not offer the immense depth of these previous titles, but it does feature simplified gameplay and a good plot that should endear itself to the Final Fantasy Tactics crowd.

In Vandal Hearts, you follow the exploits of Ash Lambert, a member of the Ishtarian Domestic Security Force. In another departure from past games, you are not part of a liberation movement, as the evil empire has already been overthrown. You are attempting to keep the peace between the disposed nobles and the bloodthirsty peasants who seek revenge for years of oppression. However, behind the scenes of the new government shadowy figures emerge, trying to reclaim totalitarian power.

The story of Vandal Hearts is for the most part darkly themed if simple in scope. The main plot branch ambles on well-enough, but there isn’t the side politics seen in Final Fantasy Tactics. Also, the pasts of some characters aren’t explored nearly well enough; the “pals” of your major characters serve as little more then units for combat. Like Final Fantasy 6, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a tighter story could have been achieved if these pals had been eliminated altogether. As it stands, it is only exceptional when compared to the thin Ogre Battle plots.

The gameplay of Vandal Hearts is fulfilling, but many will be turned off by the lack of depth and limitations of the growth system. It does feature the customary staples of the RPG-strategy hybrid: a three dimensional overhead perspective, grid-based movement, terrain effects, a class system, and round by round combat. Plot twists take place via game action and between chapter voiceovers. There is nothing especially fancy here, just things which get the job done without the steep learning curve of other games. Vandal Hearts is the ideal “starter” for the genre; you do not have to worry about ten delicately balanced statistical categories (Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre) or the merits of changing your character class (Final Fantasy Tactics).

Unfortunately, this simplicity leads to the main issue with Vandal Hearts, its lack of depth. Each character has only two classes that they can advance in, dependant on their base class. For example, if your character starts as a fighter, he could advance to specialized classes which focused on offense or defense, but not to a spell casting one. Once you make this choice, there is no way to revert back. Since certain class paths are ridiculously overpowered as compared to others (re: mages) this can make Vandal Hearts significantly more difficult, not to mention the possible experimentation that is destroyed. Other games realized that the classes were a big part of the appeal of this genre and thus allowed easy transitions between them.

Also not substantially helping the cause of Vandal Hearts is the stagnant character growth and leveling. You can not replay levels or train between stages, so all experience and gold must be gained while still in the parameters of the stage objectives. This is magnified when you have around a dozen characters to control towards the end of the game. This makes strategy important in every stage since you will never be significantly stronger than the enemy forces. While this emphasis is nice for myself, an RPG veteran, I understand that not everyone is adept in battle strategy. Giving novices the option to overpower themselves to overcome strategic hurdles (as most new RPGs do with immense depth and numerous side quests) is something that Vandal Hearts does not provide.

Visually, Vandal Hearts is notorious for one aspect - blood spray. Anytime a unit dies in Vandal Hearts, an enormous spray of red shoots up like a geyser. It’s fairly comical and incredibly unrealistic, making for good fun all around. Outside of airborne body fluids of a non-hentai variety, there’s nothing that really surpasses the muddy look of similar early Playstation games.

Vandal Hearts is not the best of its genre. However, it does deserve more attention then it has gotten. For those suffering from Final Fantasy Tactics withdrawal, but who aren’t willing to stomach the eighty dollar price tag of Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts is an acceptable substitute. The lack of depth prevents it from world beater status, yet there’s still enough to sink your teeth into, especially if you’re new to the RPG-strategy genre.

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Staff review by Stephen Greenwell (August 30, 2003)

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