|System: X360 (XBLA), PS3 (PSN)||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Konami||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Konami||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Jan. 21, 2010||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Tony Capri
Konami resurrect the Vandal Hearts series on current-gen consoles in the form of a downloadable title for the Playstation Network and Xbox LIVE Arcade. Does this latest tactical RPG breathe new life into the genre, or will fans be better off letting the adventure pass them by?
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is set up as a prequel to the first game in the series, and the story is mostly told through still art and text. The plot is certainly cliché, but smart writing and decent pacing help to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, it's not enough to make you care about the characters, as the presentation just doesn't quite get the job done in terms of conveying the seriousness of the story.
For those who haven't played either of the previous Vandal Hearts games for the original Playstation, Flames of Judgment is a strategy RPG much in the vein of Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics. Through battles, you'll build up a small group of characters, and skirmishes take place within grid-based locales. What's on offer here is standard fare, really, though there is a small handful of well-devised mechanics that give the game a mild flavor of its own.
After a bit of tutoring, your adventure promptly gets underway. Like many games of its ilk, Flames of Judgment starts you out with just two characters in your party, but new faces will quickly join in on the quest. Rather than distinguishing party members by specific classes, each character has strengths and weaknesses based on three main attributes - melee, ranged, and magic. One of the more interesting elements of Vandal Hearts is in how the game allows you to use characters in almost any capacity you see fit.
Rather than giving you the option to level up your characters, your party members will increase in power simply by using their skills. Executing melee attacks, for example, will increase your power with melee weapons, and the same goes for ranged combat and magic. Using magic, however, requires that you first equip your character with books that teach them specific spells. Once the character has used the spell enough times, they'll no longer be required to equip the corresponding book(s), though doing so will increase the power of the spell. Neat little tidbits such as these definitely go a long way to giving the gameplay of Flames of Judgment some much-needed personality.
Battles are varied up in terms of your objectives, but there's nothing really out of the ordinary here. "Defeat all enemies" is often the order of the day, though you'll occasionally be tasked with escorting V.I.P.s or escaping without losing a single party member. The actual mechanics, though, are the same throughout - move around the grid like pieces on a chess board, attack enemies, heal allies, and so on and so forth.
The controls are also fairly straightforward. You can use either the left analog stick or directional buttons to move your cursor around the map and the appropriate face button to execute commands. You can view the stats of any unit, including their strengths and weaknesses, by simply highlighting them and pressing the triangle (or Y) button. It's a good system, one that makes planning your strategy on the battlefield quite enjoyable.
The gameplay is somewhat challenging, but unfortunately, much of the game's difficulty comes from an overabundance of enemies during skirmishes. To be fair, many of the enemies you'll encounter aren't meant to actually be defeated; mostly, they seem to act as obstacles in the way of your escape. However, wading through the turns of 12-15 enemies, plus your own party members, can get old fast. Though the pacing of the story moves along fine, the actual gameplay is in need of a bit of grease.
Occasionally, you'll be prompted to choose how you want to respond during character conversations. After trying out the various options, it was evident these additions were strictly for show. No matter how you choose to respond during cutscenes, the outcome is always the same. It's also a bit disappointing not being able to skip past character interactions.
When you're not battling, you can duck into shops to upgrade weapons and such. The inventory system is easy to navigate, and you can even find bits of back-story for each character by digging around in the menu.