Video game satisfaction usually doesn’t mean a perfect product. Some aspects excel while others are left wanting. Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment falls in that category. It won’t necessarily challenge anyone except those who have very little experience with video games. On the other hand, the art, voice acting and writing make the journey through Vandal Hearts: FoJ worth the time and money invested.
Years ago, an epic battle between two neighboring kingdoms – Balastrade and Urdu – took place with General Daldren Grey leading the Balastrade army. The clash was so bloody and violent that God had to end the war by casting down flames from the skies, destroying both armies almost to the last man. Years later, Tobias Martin – the son of one of the Balastrade officers that fell during the fight – and his friends are enjoying the peace of the aftermath. When bandits attack his village, Tobias and company are thrown into a whirlwind that’s far greater than a simple bandit raid and escalates into God-like proportions.
Vandal Hearts: FoJ is strictly a turn-based strategy game. In fact, there’s very little movement to be had outside of the turn-based strategy arenas. Players get to explore a world map, but navigation is limited to rails. Occasionally, the rails branch off to “secret” areas where exclusive items can be discovered, but those opportunities are very few. Locations on the world map fall in either battle arena or shop categories. When visiting a shop, players can purchase new equipment or visit the tavern to catch up on what the local citizenry are talking about. These moments are handled by text and a static screen. When the player does select an arena, he or she is immediately thrust into a battle on a 3-D grid.
The battle arenas are where the player will spend almost all of the game, which might be disconcerting to some who are expecting traditional RPG exploration. Instead, the characters will mostly be fighting everywhere they go. They will be attacked by wolves, bandits, soldiers and sundry other enemies. To help win the encounters, the player has access to a number of abilities for each character, including basic attacks, magic and item use.
The strategy involved is light and includes flanking and backstabbing enemies for maximum damage. Players also need to manage counterattacks, which happen each time a character is attacked. So if a character is low on health and will not likely deliver a killing blow to a target, it’s best not to attack since the target will counterattack, possibly killing the character. It’s a decent convention that increases the challenge, but not by much. Since characters increase their abilities by using them over and over again, players can customize the characters in the party by focusing on specific actions. Want Tobias to be a master swordsman? Simply have him attack with the sword. Want him to be a powerful mage? Have Tobias mostly cast magic. It’s simple and liberating. On the other hand, each character already starts with several points devoted to a particular skill. So while customizing the characters is definitely possible, it seems more prudent to promote their starting skill set.
Since the majority of the gameplay takes place in the arenas, most of the exploration takes place there as well. Unfortunately, the player is whisked out of the arena as soon as the last enemy is killed. This mechanic can lead to silly moments of dodging the last enemy for several rounds while the player sends characters to open chests and search boxes scattered around the map. Regrettably, the items to be found aren’t worth the effort.
Despite not being a full-fledged RPG, Vandal Hearts: FoJ is still immersive on a character level thanks to the poignant writing and artwork. Character interaction is handled via mostly non-interactive dialog and cutscenes where characters don’t move their mouths. Nevertheless, their personalities shine through and the player will get a good sense of each character’s motivations. The convention is a bit simplistic, but it gets the job done.
Players could probably plow through Vandal Hearts: FoJ in a day if they didn’t bother with opening any chests. Those that do try to nab as much loot as possible will find the game time extended significantly, but the quality of the gameplay will fall off a cliff as they chase down chests just to find a magic herb that could purchased at any shop. Overall, style wins over substance here and players will enjoy their time spent exploring exotic locations, fighting fearsome enemies and getting to know memorable characters.