Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment (XBLA) Review
Title: Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment
Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment
Developer: Hijinx Studios
Genre: Strategy RPG
Rated: T for Teen
The original Vandal Hearts released in 1997 in America for the PlayStation. A sequel was also released for it in 1999. After that, the series seemed to go by the wayside.
Fast forward to 2010, and Konami has decided to revisit the game with developers Hijinx Studios. Subtitled Flames of Judgment, the game is actually a prequel to the original entry in the series.
Even with a 13 year difference from the first game to this game, FoJ is a good entry into the strategy RPG series. Like Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, the game is set up on a gridded board where players move their characters around trying to get tactical advantages on enemies and kill them without having their party killed first.
The game centers on Tobias Martin, a war orphan whose city is attacked and destroyed by bandits. After seeing his friend’s fiancé killed in the city, the group of six that forms early on takes on the bandits while discovering a twist. The story takes place in four acts, and has two distinct endings that a player will have to choose from.
Before throwing you into the action, the game starts off with a brief tutorial that shows you how to move, attack, use magic and more. Two interesting features the game uses in combat is the ability to switch between two weapons without losing your turn and swapping positions with teammates adjacent to you. Switching weapons out can help change a short range fighter to an archer or take away a hammer (which can damage anyone within the hit radius) and give a different weapon to use. The teammate switch is useful to get a teammate away from a bad situation and put someone there instead to soak up the damage.
After the tutorial, you do get thrown straight into a battle where the goal is to defeat all enemies. Like other SRPGs, there are win and loss conditions for each battle. Not all conditions center on killing enemies, however. One has you trying to get all members to safety without dying, while another has you trying to protect a person and defeat all enemies before she dies.
One thing to watch out for though is surprises that may happen in a battle. In one of the examples mentioned above I split my party up to try and get treasure on the map while having members exit to safety. Reinforcements came in halfway through, however, and ganged up on one character. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, the game over screen just kicks you out to the main menu and allows you to start from the last save.
The stat system in the game is a nice change from the norm. Instead of choosing a specific class for a character, you level up skills by continuously using them. This allows you to make a character out to be whatever you want them to by focusing on certain things.
Spells can be learned by equipping books and casting it until it levels up at least once. Any member can learn any spell, although some take more time due to smaller mana levels. There are four types of spells to learn from: damage, hex, heal and augment. Also, bigger damaging spells can hurt teammates due to the spell area, so you do have to be cautious of this.
There are various other aspects of the battle to know as well. Characters can automatically counter attack if they have the right type of weapon selected at the time (range counters range, melee counters melee). Like in other SRPGs, back attacks do more damage than front attacks, and you can choose your position to face if you defend to end your turn. Also, teammates can sometimes help perform a team attack, although the chance of this happening is random. Finally, teammates that die in battle can’t be revived during the battle. Instead, they’ll come back at the end of the battle.
The game contains a good number of maps you’ll unlock during the playthrough of the story. Some of these maps will become skirmish maps to go back and level up skills at or try to get treasure. In addition to this, some hidden maps can be found on maps that unlock new paths and areas to battle.
While moving around outside of battle, you’ll be in an overhead map that allows you to choose where you want to go battle or if you want to go to a store and buy items. After buying items, you equip them in the stats screen at camp. You can also check out skills here, as well as a journal that keeps track of characters, locations and events.
Even after getting both endings, there’s still the option of coming back and leveling up your characters (as long as you have a save before the final mission). While it has no benefit except to prepare them for possible DLC maps, you can try to increase your standings in the online leaderboard included with the game.
I want to wrap up my review by talking about the graphics and sound. Graphically, I was disappointed with the game. I liked the original Vandal Hearts’ graphics, but these cartoony graphics really reminded me of the Xbox Avatars. They may be nice to see on my Dashboard, but they really don’t fit the feel of a SRPG.
The cutscenes are semi-animated, which work for the game, yet feel weird at the same time. Some characters move during these, but a lot of it is still images with text. There’s nothing wrong with the graphics overall, but getting a polished and updated feel from the original Vandal Hearts would have been much better.
The sound, however, is quite good in the game. The orchestral pieces during the battles are nice to listen to, and the characters, when they do talk, help add personality to who you’re controlling. I liked what Hijinx did with the sound and thought it was really well done.
Overall, I’m glad to see SRPGs still getting love. Flames of Judgment may be simplistic, but this also leads to the game being easy to pick up and play for new entrants into the series as well as genre veterans. The skill system is also good for allowing players to make characters how they like instead of using classes. Except for the mediocre graphics, Flames of Judgment offers a good SRPG for fans wanting something to check out. New entrants into the genre may want to check the demo out first, however, as this game will not be for everyone.