Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment Review for PlayStation 3 (PS3)

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment Review for PlayStation 3 (PS3)

The Heart of the Matter

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 screenshot

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.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment screenshot

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.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment screenshot

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.

As far as interacting with NPCs goes, you can stop into taverns and poke locals for info. However, there’s really little of value they have to offer, and if anything, it’s just another unnecessary aspect of the game that makes Flames of Judgment feel a bit cheap.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment screenshot

In spite of my criticisms of the game, it’s still a very competent SRPG with hours and hours of content. It doesn’t offer the type of story or gameplay variety that makes it a fun option for long bouts of play, but it’s certainly good for a skirmish here and there.

On the production front, the game’s definitely a bit of a disappointment. The visual style isn’t particularly interesting, and the chibi-esque character models seem to be at odds with some of the more mature content: blood geysers, harsh language, and some seriously heavy-handed lines of dialogue. The real issues I had with the game’s presentation, though, are of a technical nature. Flames of Judgment does precious little to take advantage of the power of the hardware, and having the camera locked to the grid of each battlefield posed many problems when trying to map out a decent strategy. You can move the camera to one of four positions, but environmental objects often obscure the view.

On the upside, the feedback the game gives you while playing is really entertaining. The music is nothing special, but the sound effects and controller rumble add a surprising level of excitement to what would otherwise be a fairly dry gameplay experience. I’m not one to ask for gore for gore’s sake, but defeating enemies in this game is always viscerally satisfying. The voice work during cutscenes also isn’t half bad, though again, some of the hammed-up voice blurbs during battle don’t seem to match up well with the serious nature of the story.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is pretty much your typical SRPG affair. There are a handful of elements tossed into the mix that give the game a subtle waft of freshness, but it’s solely something for those jonesing to play this type of game on their console. Like boxed wine, you get a lot of product on the cheap, but don’t expect the taste to be great. The production values get the job done – nothing more, nothing less. Though the overall adventure isn’t at all compelling, the gameplay is fun in small spurts.

Love the blood geysers upon defeating foes. The art style and overall technical elements, however, are fairly weak. 3.9 Control
Controls work fine, the interface is comprehensive and easy to navigate, but the camera is quite restrictive. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is unoriginal and uninspired, but the sound effects play a huge role in terms of lending impact to attacks and such. 3.0 Play Value
You get a lot of game for $15, but a ho-hum presentation and antiquated gameplay counterbalance the actual value of the package. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.

Game Features:

  • Classic gameplay, expanded and streamlined – Combines the speedy RPG pace of the original Vandal Hearts with improved user mechanics and top-notch presentation.
  • Strong story – Serving as the prequel to the original Vandal Hearts, Flames of Judgment delivers a rich, focused, and character-driven storyline.
  • Party members adapt to the player’s style of gameplay – Player characters naturally and automatically improve at whatever they do, providing a wide range of customization options.

  • To top