Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement Xbox 360 Review

May 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews & Features, Xbox 360, Xbox

Nippon Ichi have taken a unique approach to Strategy RPG gaming, coming up with fresh, often zany game mechanics. But even the biggest of devotees will be unable to argue that it’s often at the cost of true strategic encounters, something that the Vandal Hearts series has never been short of.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement is the revival of an old series, the first of which is looked back fondly on by its fans, whilst the sequel was widely viewed to be deeply flawed. It has never been a particular commercial success, so this new entry is sensibly digitally distributed via both Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.

The series is known for its complex narratives, but Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement is simpler. It centres on Tobias, as he attempts to drive invaders away from his homeland. It’s a fairly weak story that doesn’t really get going until the game is drawing to its conclusion, and there’s not much in the way of memorable characters that could have better held the plot together, either.

Nor does the odd choice of art style help on the story side of things, either. It’s fairly distinct, but also childish and completely at odds with the mature theme that is running throughout the rest of the game. It results in it being unintentionally comical, particularly when you witness the serious conversations that the big headed, small bodied characters become involved in for much of the game.

Compared to Nippon Ichi’s output, on the battlefield it’s a much simpler and restrained affair, though consequently more strategic. All the core genre elements are accounted for: attacks from the rear or the side will cause heavier damage; archers attacking from elevated ground will receive a bonus to their attack and every action is determined by underlying stats. For Vandal Hearts fans the blood geyser that comes as a result of defeating enemies is intact and remains a treat, though the gushing gore is not quite thick enough to be as gratifying as what it previously was.

Characters can have up to two weapons equipped, of which can be switched between tactically, for instance a ranged weapon can be in one slot for the distant enemies and a melee weapon can be in the other for the more up close and personal encounters. Furthermore, just as long as they have an appropriate weapon in their clutches, characters that are attacked are able to retaliate with an attack of their own, which further solidifies the games strategy credentials.

Besides the lovely fountains of blood, another thing that fans enjoyed with Vandal Hearts was its class system. Sadly that has been omitted this time around in favour of skill enhancement. Characters don’t level up in the traditional way, but instead grow stronger through their actions. So if you opt to keep using a sword with a certain character, he or she will become more proficient at doing so, magic is mastered by equipping books, of which once learned can then be used without the book, though keeping it equipped will grant a bonus to the spell. It’s a very flexible system that allows you to tailor characters for whatever situation you desire, so if you want a frail mage to also be a deadly warrior, through some time and effort he or she can be adept at both.

Upon victory in battle you’re rewarded with gold for each enemy vanquished, though your overall performance is ignored. So additional bonuses aren’t doled out for finishing a battle in less turns or for having all six of your party still standing at the conclusion of a fight, which is a bit miserly and not the best way of making players feel good about their achievements.

A bigger problem is the game’s interface, which can be initially confusing, and simple tasks such as equipping weapons and armour can feel like a bit of a muddle. Obviously it gets easier over time, though things never get to the point that they feel as if they are conveniently laid out.

Size wise, Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement is not a forty hour epic, but is minute in comparison, clocking in at only around the ten hour mark. To some this will be disappointing, but, with the relatively cheap price taken into account, to expect a larger game would perhaps be expecting a little too much. There are additional endings to discover which extend the lifespan of the game, but would be more notable if the overall story was of a better quality.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement has varying problems, though most are small, with the most substantial being its largely weak narrative and characters. A big problem for some will be the game’s refusal to embrace the invention and complexity that Nippon Ichi have, but others will welcome its classical strategy framework with open arms and perhaps with some nostalgia induced tears in their eyes.