Vandal Hearts - Retroview

Strong Brains VS. Bad Technology -- Part I

By: Noj Airk

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 10
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 5
   Originality 8
   Plot 8
   Localization 8
   Replay Value 6
   Visuals 2
   Difficulty Medium
   Time to Complete

8-15 hours


Title Screen

   In a day like today, it is easy to see games with more glamour than a Hollywood flick, and the brains of a half-eaten Dorito. Old school RPG’s, which can soon be classified as 32-bit RPG’s, are starting to be passed up for the games in which being smart or not is a coin toss. However, one game that will most likely immediately and quite harshly be neglected will be Vandal Hearts, one of the earlier and best of the Strategy/RPG genre mixup. Why is this? Well, it’s mostly because of the casing in which this game comes in. The graphics are painful, the music mediocre, and even the jewelcase design weak. Even at its release several years back, it was far from the more impressive titles upon its release; it doesn’t require several years of gaming evolution for this game’s technology to quite unimpressive. What people will not know for a long time in the future is that if they actually sat down and played it, Vandal Hearts is quite an intelligent game, with some great strategic requirements for the players, and a solid plot.

   While Final Fantasy VII was a superb game, we have one thing to really thank it for: allowing the idiotic and impatient people into calling themselves “role-players.” Making RPG’s mainstream was its intention, and it succeeded, in my opinion, too well, and as such, many games that were almost promised success due to their intellects were discarded by the masses as not being worthy of their time, traded for the sparkly RPG’s made for money-making purposes. Vandal Hearts is an older game, and its technology shows well beyond its age, as the same principles have been used since, and increased to amazing amounts today. The solid plot and battle system are really all that this game has to offer, and that was all it had to offer only a couple of years after its creation.

   Like I stated before, the battle system is truly a winner, perhaps even superior to that of Final Fantasy Tactics. The first level in Chapter 2 is one in which your party must take out some statues which are forcing some peaceful peasants to go mad and attack you. Your objective: use push-able boxes and long-ranged attacks to destroy the statues, and block off the villagers so that you kill as few as possible. Sadly, Front Mission 3 and Final Fantasy Tactics both lacked the level of interaction with level for strategic advantage that you’ll find here in Vandal Hearts. Luckily, this is also one of the easiest games of the genre, which I, and many others, have associated with incredible difficulty levels, mostly due to the fact that unlike Tactics, you will rarely be in the instance in which every single enemy comes at you at once. You are commonly surrounded, but only the closer enemies will attack you, unless they are capable of long range attacks. While the whole square-movement system is a bit weak by the standards made by Squaresoft’s masterpieces, and so is the character selecting and using procedure, but with this truly being a decently old game, it is perfectly acceptable. If your only experience with the genre have been with either Front Mission 3 or Final Fantasy Tactics, think of this as switching user-friendliness for strategy. Fair trade, eh?

Great blood effects make things more fun, and brings emphasis off of attempted convincing-ness.
Great blood effects make things more fun, and brings emphasis off of attempted convincing-ness. 

   The interface is also as nice and smooth. However, apart from some class changing abilities, there is almost nothing that makes this game really great. Characters each have to select different types of weapons and armor, and the character classes are quite varied, but those are in every other games with those features. You can wander around the site-to-site map, similar to that found in both Final Fantasy offshoots: Tactics and Mystic Quest. However, backtracking does you almost literally no good here, as you cannot fall under attack in a battle that isn’t pre-determined, and very rarely will people in the pubs say anything different than they did when you first showed up in town.

   The sound suffers from some limitations too. I recall playing Biohazard CODE: Veronica X recently before playing a bit of this game, and the mediocre in itself sound of Vandal Hearts simply couldn’t compare to the superb sound of the great survival horror game. So, as such, maybe I’m being a bit harsh on the sound rating for Vandal Hearts. However, this game came out only six months before Final Fantasy VII, and it also pales in comparison to that as well. The sound effects are quite cartoony, but rather solid. Whether you consider it a good thing or not, is completely up to you. I liked it, even though it was a tad silly, and some sound effects grated at my nerves. Overall, the sound effects, just like they ussually stand in games, aren’t worthy of much mentioning, and quite unimportant. What really can upset the person, however, is the music.

   Once someone said: “The music in Vandal Hearts neither weakens nor strengthens the game to any real extent.” That is true, although, it is being a tad nice to the soundtrack. The soundtrack has three limitations to it: the synthesization, the normal track, and the powerful track. The synthesization was decent when it came out, a tad above that in Final Fantasy VI, but by todays standards, weak. The normal track is about the same, non-great, non-terrible classification. While Nobuo Uematsu has composed many weak tracks, even in his glorious fourth and sixth entries to his series, but his were still a notch above what you’ll find here. However, what really hurts the soundtrack is the tracks that stand out; there aren’t any. Chrono Cross had a similar problem, but at least all of the tracks in that game were great in themselves. Even the sometimes painful to listen to Final Fantasy VIII musical score has some tracks that alone more than warrant purchasing the soundtrack. This game is almost totally void of those.

   The plot, however, ranks more along side the battle system than the epic musical score or the eye-candy. The plot is similar to that of Final Fantasy Tactics, yet when on the same wavelength, Vandal Hearts is quite weaker. Some players may be attracted to this game due to the recent re-release of Final Fantasy Tactics, and may be turned off by the similarities. However, luckily, it soon blossoms into a plot that is almost totally different. This game isn’t one to really be felt like Tactics, as it is more of a relic-hunting, sometimes time altering adventure. It has a cross between Chrono Trigger and Legend of Mana as much as Final Fantasy Tactics (despite that the main character talks). The game takes place after a successful revolution against the royal families, in a long and hard blood feud. However, after a generation of being degraded, the nobles start a hunt for artifacts to prove that they were the descendants of Toroah the Messiah, and as such, they would have the right to be the rulers of the land. The plot twists are commonly weakly told, but luckily, they’re always interesting enough to keep interest, and one plot twist near the end is one that will go down in my book as one of the greatest plot twists ever.

Some nice scenes really move a nice story at a good pace.
Some nice scenes really move a nice story at a good pace. 

   The speech isn’t at all like Final Fantasy Tactics. It is more realistic in Vandal Hearts, more well translated, and almost completely without poetry. The characters are more about speaking their lines, in more of a manor that Hamlet’s mother said: “More matter, less art!” The main trio: Ash, Clint and Diego, are almost identical to the normal trio you’ll find anywhere else. They mostly remind me of Sion, Kou and Volt from The Bouncer; one is the lead, who is brash with a less than perfect past, one is strong and serious, and one is the comic relief. The lines themselves are a tad bit stereotypical, but nothing’s too bad. It seems apparent that character development was something Konami decided would only really happen at the plot sequences, for outside of them, there is almost never any moments of conversation; not even at the local bars.

   This game is rather linear, and unless you attempt to carry out the one secret side quest, this game won’t ever really change besides battle for battle. True, the battles are very fun, and it is right up my alley to play it over and over again, simply because it had a nice plot, and killing the baddies is good fun. Not to mention, replaying this game, as well as others I have beaten in the genre keep my mind sharp and ready for anything the genre will throw at me later. The one side quest I mentioned was a search for six keys, in which with them, you can unlock the ultimate class, and an alternative, “true” ending. However, I am only recently attempting this conversion, but it isn’t enough alone for anyone to really want to try it again. However, luckily, this game is quite short, and playing through it again isn’t too much of a hassle anyway.

   Now, where would my argument about bad technology be without bad graphics? Well, it wouldn’t exist, would it? Luckily, for my sake while writing this, but unlucky for the sake of all while playing this game, bad graphics are a rather pleasant way of describing this nightmarish technical light show. The visuals in this game are primarily composed sprite characters, and polygon backdrops. Polygons, however, might not be fitting, as all landscape polygons are really either square, or rectangular. The characters are single sprites for each class, character, and situation; direction does not fall into the equation. True, it didn’t in Final Fantasy Tactics either, but at least there the men weren’t carrying their weapons out in the open. Here, when the camera spins, your men will go from being right handed to being left handed. These characters are as such, not overly convincing, and the location textures don’t fare any better either.

   Now, I can understand this game playing like Final Fantasy Tactics did in terms of style, but being weaker, but sadly, it’s not that simple. This game is not ugly due to the crude graphics themselves, but the fact that the game shows its graphics as if they were the greatest graphics in the world. After an attack by a character, the camera slowly pans around them, just like in Front Mission 3, only closer. And trust me, close up shots of ugly textures and square shaped polygons, is a very hard to swallow sometimes. The spells also follow the “look at me, I’m beautiful” attitude, as they fare little better. These spells can last up to a good twenty seconds or so, and all they usually are, are weird polygon configurations. Behind every map, also, is a single background texture that scrolls past, like it were the borders of the world. While it doesn’t look too bad itself, the moving backdrop to the still map really hurts the eyes, and this pain does not subside after long exposures to the game.

Hurts, don’t it?  I meant the eyes.
Hurts, don’t it? I meant the eyes. 

   Vandal Hearts is a very good game, only shrouded in bad graphics, weak sound, and an unoriginal interface. The core of the game, as common with the genre, is the plot and battle system, and both are shining today as they did when the game was first released, which is more than can be said about its technological aspects. Its fun, it’s creative, and its sometimes hard to make it through. I wish that a new drug could come out, one that they would call “the eyesore medicine.” Give me this medicine and Vandal Hearts any day! Give me Vandal Hearts…most days, but certainly not all.

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