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Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment (Xbox 360) artwork

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment (Xbox 360) review

"On one level, Flames of Judgment proudly lives up to the original's standard. This Live Arcade release did bring me back down memory lane a few times. The problem is that it didn't do so for very long. The average turn-based strategy game I've played seems to have about 25-35 main quest battles. Here, there's about 15 or so."

There was excitement in the air when I started playing Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment a few days ago. The original Vandal Hearts, released many years ago for the PlayStation, was one hell of a fun experience in turn-based strategy. It wasn't TOO difficult, but challenged players by often giving them different objectives than the basic "you attack them, they attack you, try to win" goal. In one quest, you were attacked by possessed villagers, but instead of slaughtering the fools, you had to keep as many alive as possible while smashing the statues controlling them -- which wasn't easy, as the game's battle system boasts an instant-counterattack feature, so whenever a villager attacked a party member, they'd likely get killed by the return blow. In another, you were besieged in a city by a number of boss-level villains and their subordinates. You COULD try to fight them, but I'd guess many players took the "easy way out" and simply achieved the level's goal of escaping before it was too late.

On one level, Flames of Judgment proudly lives up to the original's standard. This Live Arcade release did bring me back down memory lane a few times. The problem is that it didn't do so for very long. The average turn-based strategy game I've played seems to have about 25-35 main quest battles. Here, there's about 15 or so. Sure, there's a number of secret optional maps and it might not be fair to expect a $15 download to provide as much content as those games I was paying $40-50 for at stores, but I still found it a bit disappointing to cruise through the game's first three (of four) acts in very little time...especially when you consider there is only one fewer secret level in the game than there are legit story-advancing fights over those initial three acts. Don't get me wrong -- these secret fights can be fun and each one hides a nice piece of equipment (really loving the Blight bow), but I'd rather have had more quest encounters than all this optional stuff.

Especially when you consider that with barely more than a dozen confrontations to tell a story, the tale told by Hijinx Studios (who developed the game for Konami) was as generic as they come. The main hero is Tobias, a youth who's the ward of a church. His peaceful life becomes shattered by a horde of bandits, which winds up leading him and five comrades on a mission to prevent a war between two neighboring countries who've had less-than-friendly relations for some time. Meanwhile....are there shadowy forces out there who seem to be manipulating others in order to create chaos for their own purpose? You betcha -- although the "behind the scenes" catalyst only makes a cameo before your swords remove him from the game because the fourth act is essentially the game trying to wrap everything up as quickly as possible.

When you have to move the story along so rapidly due to the game's brevity, there's no time to even pretend to flesh out characters. This makes certain scenes, such as one of Tobias' friends attempting to appeal to a traitorous friend's character, just seem out of place. Youthful nerd Calvin may have been right when professing how this dude was an artist instead of a murderer, but all I could think was, "What? The guy's been an annoying one-dimensional jerk every time he's interacted with anyone! Can we just kill him and get it over with!" And I have to admit I cringed when a bounty hunter sent to terminate my party issued a Ted Woolsey-esque one-liner to the effect that she just wanted to "borrow" our heads, but we could have them back.

From reading my review to this point, I'd expect you to think I disliked Flames of Judgment. That's not the case at all. I was disappointed by it, but there were enough fun aspects for me to say it's probably worth the $15 cost. While nearly every battle does fall into the "kill everything else while staying alive" way of doing things, Hijinx did keep that formula pretty entertaining. They have their own take on the "escape the town" level from the original Vandal Hearts, as well as a fight where a party member gets possessed by ghosts, so you have to make sure you don't kill him by accident while hoping his attacks don't prove to be the nail in your coffin. To assault the fort of the bandits, you have to knock rocks into its gate to smash it. A particularly tough boss alternates massively damaging area-of-effect spells with an ability to teleport party members into holding cells placed around his arena. Unless you're confident that you can take him out quickly, you'll want to free anyone who's trapped, as the fight's over if your only surviving troops are imprisoned.

And the final battle proved to boast a certain originality that actually makes it somewhat memorable. Tobias will be fighting alone...but he can convert minions of the final bosses by defeating them. Early on, it's a battle simply to keep your head above water, as you're hopelessly outnumbered; but as you turn enemies into allies, you'll gradually be able to take control of the situation. It was a fun way to end a decent, if short, game.

Keeping in line with Flames of Judgment's length, the combat system is simple, which didn't bother me one bit. While certain characters are inherently designed to be better at some things than others, EVERYONE is capable of melee combat, the use of bows and various forms of magic. The more you use a certain spell or type of weapon, the better you'll get with it, so a character who's been raining arrows upon foes the entire game will cause far more damage with those attacks than someone who only whips out his bow while waiting to get into melee range. The game was simple, but in a fun way, as I didn't find myself having to micromanage a million little details, which is a nice change of pace from some of today's more complex RPG-type games on the market.

If you play Flames of Judgment under the impression you'll be completely reliving the glory days of the turn-based strategy game, you'll be disappointed. The game's short and it seems like Hijinx tried to cram 35 battles worth of story into a 15-fight game. Still, it's a pretty cheap pick-up that has its charm. While not a great game by any stretch, it kept me entertained for the 12 hours or so it took to make it from beginning to end. It's competent turn-based strategy fare, and for someone like me who's gotten a ton of enjoyment out of the genre over the years, it's nice just to see people working to keep it alive.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 30, 2010)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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jerec posted January 30, 2010:

Thanks for reviewing this. I saw this game show up on XBLA and I was wondering if it's any good. I never played the previous Vandal Hearts games, but I do like some turn-based strategy. Sounds pretty good... but not enough, content-wise. Hopefully they'll put this up as Deal of the Week sometime, then I'll grab it.
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EmP posted January 31, 2010:

Thanks for covering this one. I'm a big Vandal Hearts fan, and your review let me know exactly what to expect from the newest offering.

I think I'll pick it up when the chance comes along.

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