There’s no denying that RPGs flourished on the original Playstation. Contributing to this was the hardware’s mass-market appeal and Squaresoft, the developer that was once considered the king of the genre, being in its prime. In this period, several other companies tried their hand at creating new RPG IPs, some more successful than others. Sony published Arc the Lad and Wild Arms, Game Arts ported their hit Lunar series, and Konami made Suikoden and Vandal Hearts. Surprisingly, this last one managed to stay off my radar until well into the PS3 era, but I was anxious to try out a game that produced a sequel and a prequel (both of which I will also be reviewing).
The game begins with a sizable narration about what has transpired in this world leading up to the events of the game. In brief, thousands of years ago, Toroah the Messiah helped usher in an age of peace and established the Holy Ashah Empire that was then overthrown by Arris the Sage 15 years ago. Arris then disappeared without a trace as the Republic of Ishtaria replaced the former empire. Over time, the politicians of the republic have become just like the ones they overthrew, brutally destroying any resistance against them. This is when Ash Lambert and his buddies, the main characters of the game, get involved as they sense a conspiracy.
It should be noted that there is A LOT that happens in this game, despite its short runtime. The story is deceptively complex and most of the characters are pretty well-developed, each with their own motivations. I find it interesting that while the developers adopted the typical political scenarios that most tactical RPGs use–class inequality, religious authority, conspiring to attain otherworldly absolute power–they mix in some science fiction machinations such as time travel and even real-world concepts like self esteem and betrayal. So while some specific events may feel similar to those from other games, as a whole, this one has a way of blending them together to create a story all its own.
Some people might want to compare this game to Final Fantasy Tactics, but that comparison is somewhat disingenuous to me as Vandal Hearts came out first. In fact, the gameplay more closely resembles that of a Fire Emblem or Shining series game. Each unit has its own strengths and weaknesses and job progression follows predetermined routes. As a unit gains levels, they will have the ability to grow into stronger jobs. There isn’t a ton of variety, but what is there provides a small amount of choice in how to develop your squad. Small changes in the beginning of the game may force you to rethink your strategy in battle further down the line.
Vandal Hearts isn’t without its own set of faults. Though I found the audio to be serviceable for the most part, the narrator is extremely muffled, so you will need to turn your TV up a few notches during the segments between chapters. Also, the song that plays in the overworld irritated me to no end for musicality reasons: they added what seems to be an extra eighth note in three measures of the song which throws off the rhythm. On the gameplay side, the process for buying and equipping items can be cumbersome, and the menus overall could have been tightened up. Finally, battles could be a little irritating when there are a lot of enemies as the game will show you each one of them every turn, even if they don’t move.
Most of these are small gripes and don’t do much to detract from a quick but fun game. Though it took me a bit to get into the story because of how dense it is, once I did, I totally dug it. The script wasn’t very tight, but the personality of each character still comes through assuredly. There’s even one guy who appears to be inspired by Cid from Final Fantasy IV (oddly, he is the least developed character). I’m glad I finally played Vandal Hearts. If you like TRPGs and still have the hardware to play a physical Playstation game, I recommend you give it a try.