Vandal Hearts - Retroview

Terrifying for all the bad reasons
By: Phillipe Richer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 7
   Music & Sound 2
   Originality 5
   Story & Plot 6
   Localization 5
   Replay Value 5
   Visuals 2
   Difficulty Moderate
   Completion Time 25-30 Hours  

What the hell's going on?
What the hell's going on?
Vandal Hearts

   Being the very first TRPG to appear on the PSX in North America, Vandal Hearts satisfied many gamers looking for simple strategic fun. Those who were able to look past the terrifying visuals had perhaps discovered the single most interactive TRPG ever produced. However, interactive environments or not, Vandal Hearts has many problems that cumulate to form a short, simple, yet strangely fun adventure.

   Ash, Clint, and Diego are all members of a special knighthood of the empire. One of the imperial general, Magnus, goes missing on an island down south, which the government interprets as being a sign for a future coup d'état. The three warriors are dispatched to investigate the events, and as in every good RPG, they'll quickly discover that some high-end people are plotting for control of higher powers. Your quest will be long and arduous, but someone somehow has to bring peace to the continent, right?

   The strength of every good TRPG lies in its capability to captivate players with its gameplay, but Vandal Hearts really doesn't have much to aid its cause. It is thesimplest TRPG battle system ever. You move your characters all at once and then give the ball to the enemies. Whenever you attack someone, you have to brace yourself for a counterattack, unless you hit your foe with a ranged shot. The damage system is based on a rock-paper-scissors principle, where characters fit the bill of Infantry, Wingmen, or Archers. Once your characters reach certain levels, you'll be able to change their class in the temple, but the choices are slim, as you only have two different paths for each character. You can use items if you've equipped them on your characters prior to fighting, and spells use various amounts of MP.

   The extremely volatile environments save the battles. You'll be able to push crates to block paths, push boulders to stamp on enemies, or even use levers to alter the height of many platforms. This interactivity combined with many special requirements aside from "kill everyone" are the two things that make Vandal Hearts tolerable to play through. The game offers absolutely no random encounters under any form, which means that your party has already been programmed to be able to succeed in every battle without leveling-up. That doesn't mean that battles are incredibly easy, because most of the challenge will instead come from being able to take full advantage of your surroundings.

Even a blind person could read those prices.
Even a blind person could read those prices.

   Choosing the right command during combat usually isn't too problematic, but the lack of information regarding the "use" command, which allows you to interact with just about everything, may lead to attempt a special action where none can be performed. Shopping and outfitting your party is done with ease, while navigation outside of combat is totally nonexistent. The game is pretty much composed solely of a good deal of (frightening) cut-scenes intertwined with various battles. Given how simplistic battles are, (aside from the interactivity, of course) the developers would have been hard-pressed to propose a complicated interface.

   There are several rudimentary FMVs used to narrate the story in several instances, and those sequences are told with good voice acting from the narrator. That's pretty much the sound department's only high note, because everything else from music to sound effects is a complete mess. Characters grunt like wild boars when they strike and objects sound nothing like the real things, while the many spell and weapon sounds are absolutely awful. The music during cut-scenes is barely tolerable, and battle themes inspire more terror than enthusiasm with their dated and distasteful compositions. There are several bad battle themes for your party, but there is only one, annoying, excruciatingly unnerving theme used during the enemy's turn. The "soundtrack" feels like a test of mental strength and endurance, which is regrettable considering the talent present at Konami, shown in the great Suikoden.

   The plot is more-or-less the usual evil religious conspiracy gone haywire with a few twists. Some government figures want to acquire a new power at all cost, while your team of good-willed warriors will do everything to uncover their plans and stop them. A pleasant surprise comes from the generous amount of interesting and well-defined characters that all have their moments in the sun along the storyline. The cut-scenes are intelligible enough for you to comprehend the many events, even though the localization job is a bit lackluster. You'll be thrown in many singular battles, such as rescuing comrades or helping defenseless villages, which get you more involved with the story. The pacing is decent and the plot twists intriguing, so in the end the story does its job to keep the game compelling.

   The script tries to stay very casual so as to never take itself too seriously, a good thing considering the mild competence of the translation. Because of this, the various characters barely exhibit their own personalities in their dialogues. Most cut-scenes are easy to understand even though there's nothing "Vagrant Story-ian" about them, but given Vandal Hearts' age the effort is there. It's not like people have just started learning how to speak, but game localizations got far less attention in the "old" days.

Where did he come from? I didn't even see him coming!
Where did he come from? I didn't even see him coming!

   Thankfully, the game is relatively short, taking about 25-30 hours on an average playthrough to complete. There are no alternate paths and no secret bonuses, if anything to be acquired outside of shops, aside from the items found on the battlefield and the six special trials of Toroah. If you complete those, Ash will turn into a Vandalier, immediately removing every challenge from the game. You can choose the other class for your characters on another playthrough (there are only two after all), but that doesn't do much in the way of adding replay value. Good thing the game is short.

   When I first started playing, I couldn't tell my characters apart from the battlefield. The ultra-low screen resolution and the disgusting color palette make the graphics extremely hard on your eyes. The FMVs are extremely grainy, and let's not mention the atrocious cut-scenes backgrounds or the terrible, terrible animations during combat. The terrifying graphics look more suited for the NES than the PSX. There will be blood gushing out of every enemy once they're slain, and although that's not too realistic either, it's the only positive point for the graphics. Well, that and the decent character portraits. You can't imagine how awful the game looks.

   Vandal Hearts is terrifying to hear and to watch, and it's not because of the cartoony blood either. The game is quite lacking in many areas, including the battle system, but because it offers some of the most unusual and interactive fights ever seen in a TRPG it deserves a look. And since it's one of the first PSX RPGs, you can find it anywhere for practically nothing. Just keep that blindfold and that remote close and you should be able to get out of this terrifying experience unscathed.

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