Vandal Hearts

About a year after Konami released Suikoden, the company’s first foray into the RPG genre, they made their first attempt at a tactical RPG, Vandal Hearts, which saw its American release only a few months before Final Fantasy VII, and was in fact the first strategy RPG for the Playstation to reach U.S. shores. As with Suikoden, Konami’s first attempt at a tactical RPG is surprisingly decent.

Vandal Hearts features a traditional grid-based and elevation-based tactical battle system, with the player able to command a party of up to twelve characters. Both the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, with the player able to move his or her characters around to perform various commands, including attacking, using magic, using an item, or pushing the occasional crate or boulder littering the battle map. Using attacks or performing magic nets a character experience, with a hundred points necessary to level up. Each character can also carry only two items into combat, and thankfully, if they open a treasure chest with a full inventory, the item received will go into your party’s depot.

Each of the twelve characters the player acquires through the game, moreover, has a class, such as swordsman, archer, magician, and the like, which the player can change at a Dojo once a character reaches level ten; the player can upgrade the chosen class when a character reaches level twenty. This system makes for a few interesting possibilities; for instance, the player can change archers to a flying spearmen when they reach level ten, or change healers or magicians to monks once they reach level ten, as well. Each class, moreover, is effective against certain kinds of enemies; for instance, swordsmen deal more damage against archers, and archers deal more damage against flying enemies.

One interesting feature of Vandal Hearts is that there are no extra battles where players can do additional leveling for their characters (actually, there are a few secret battles, though they’re very well hidden); luckily, the game is balanced to the point where this isn’t an issue at all. Another nifty feature is the ability to perform in-battle saves (with one slot available for this), useful when you make accidental screw-ups in the heat of combat. In the end, there are only a couple of minor issues, such as the inability of archers to open treasure chests, but otherwise, combat is very much enjoyable.

The interface, moreover, is one of the cleanest I’ve ever seen in a tactical RPG. Menu navigation, character management, shopping, class upgrading, and so forth, are simple tasks, as is advancing the game, what with easy menu-based town and world navigation outside of battle. The translation contains a few errors, but otherwise, interaction is solid.

Vandal Hearts doesn’t flagrantly rip off of other tactical RPGs, although it really doesn’t do a whole lot to innovate the genre, except maybe with the ability of characters to push objects in battle, which I have yet to see in any other TRPG to date. The ability to save your game in battle might have been a first in the game’s time, as well.

The plot isn’t anything really special, either, although it is still above average. You play a knight named Ash Lambert who gets embroiled in a country’s civil war and recruits a few allies to help him survive. Some characters contain decent development, though many others stay neglected, although the pacing of the game is decent, and the story effectively glues the game together, if nothing more.

Various composers provided Vandal Hearts’ soundtrack, among them being Suikoden veteran Miki Higashino. She and the other composers provided plenty of fitting music, from the epic battle themes to the peaceful town pieces. The sound effects are at times out of place, though, although the aurals serve the game well.

One cannot say the same of the visuals, which are unfortunate at best. Everything contains a dull, blocky, pixelated look, and many of the character designs demonstrate that art isn’t for everyone. The FMVs and still scenery during story scenes between chapters look alright, although the graphics are still below average.

Finally, Vandal Hearts’ difficulty ranges from easy to medium, and playing time, with few sidequests or extras of which to speak, spans from twenty-five to thirty-five hours.

It might not exactly be a masterpiece, but Vandal Hearts is pretty decent for a company’s first tactical RPG, with its simple though enjoyable combat system, clean interaction, and soundtrack standing out the most. It might lack the complexity of later TRPGs such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea, although if you can look beyond that and the lackluster graphics, it’s certainly worth playing.

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