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• Vandal Hearts

developed & published by Konami
1 player / SONY PlayStation / 1997.3.27

Vandal Hearts box art

Konami threw its hat into the turn-based strategy RPG arena with Vandal Hearts on the PlayStation, an unusual move for a publisher that had virtually no genre experience or reputation. Perhaps as a result Vandal Hearts makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel, owing much of its design and mechanics to mainstays Shining Force and Tactics Ogre. What it brought to the table was glossy 32-bit presentation, which for 1997 was more than enough reason to play it, and which set the standard for games that followed.

Plot

Ashe, whose disgraced father betrayed the Empire, leads a small group of soldiers for the army. It’s only a matter of time before he uncovers a plot that, if thwarted, might reclaim his family’s good name. Most of the story is presented using in-engine expository dialogue, with some narrated CG slideshows setting the stage for each of the game’s half dozen chapters. For such a short game, it does a pretty good job of ensuring each character has time to shine.

map screen

Simple Strategies Can Work Too

There’s not much in the way of party management outside of buying the latest equipment. New party members with predetermined classes are recruited automatically as the story progresses, and there’s no perma death for units. Furthermore every party member automatically joins each battle (up to 12 per mission), so there’s no unit juggling. It’s simple enough for players new to the genre and refreshingly pared down for veterans who want a short campaign.

Character customization is fairly typical of the genre, with branching class promotions once every 10 levels. Similar to Tactics Ogre offensive and defensive bonuses and penalties apply depending on the direction and altitude of characters enjoined in combat, and if allies are adjacent. You’ll always want to attack from the rear or flank. These bonuses, in addition to the ranged bow attacks and spells, lend some strategic depth to unit positioning. Additionally if characters are within range they will always counterattack which helps to speed up missions.

battle

Presentation

Vandal Hearts was among the first console games in the genre to feature 3D polygonal battlefields, dramatically improving on earlier 2D isometric types. Simply being able to rotate the field was amazing at the time (and sorely missed in later games like Final Fantasy Tactics A2), and you can even switch to a bird’s eye view when planning.

Though the environments and textures are blockier than those in Final Fantasy Tactics, they load quickly and are generally much larger and contain more gimmicks. For example, you’ll hit switches to lower drawbridges in one mission, and the next you’re forced to move up a speeding train while trailing cars detach at regular intervals.

Rather than going overboard with the characters, as SEGA did with large prerendered sprites in Blazing Heroes (aka Mystaria / Riglord Saga), Vandal Hearts has fairly small (some might even say ugly) sprites but manages to maintain a smooth frame rate. Though somewhat poorly drawn they certainly look unique, and each has multiple variations depending on the classes they assume. Audio is about average, with somewhat goofy sounding narration between chapters.

cutscene

Conclusion

It’s hard for me to believe that Vandal Hearts is already 20 years old. Part of its charm is its novice difficulty and quick campaign relative to other SRPGs. It can be comfortably completed in about 25 hours, a fraction of the typical commitment, at the cost of sophistication and depth.

It may be a bit on the ugly side, and there’s not much in the way of side quests, but what’s there is entertaining. If you’re a fan of turn-based strategy RPGs and you’re looking for a good one from the PlayStation 1 era, definitely give this one a go as it holds up pretty well. It’s a shame that what Vandal Hearts gets right, like its assortment of fun mission gimmicks, are rare in games that followed.

PROs:
+ Simple & short compared to most other SRPGs
+ 3D battlefields allow you to rotate view
+ Larger battlefields than its contemporaries
+ Fun gimmicks in several missions

CONs:
– Not very challenging
– Ugly character sprites