[Every Thursday is Retro Day at Gamer Limit, so kick back and enjoy the classics!]
Vandal Hearts has to be one of the goofiest experiences I’ve ever had with a video game. As a strategy RPG, it’s competent, but nothing really stands out about it.
The story, on the other hand, is ridiculous, filled with the most absurd dialogue you can imagine. It also might hold the world record for the most usage of Deus Ex Machina I’ve ever seen in a narrative.
…And for that, I absolutely adore it. You play as Ash Lambert, the squad leader of a security force for the kingdom of Ishtaria. Ash and his squad buddies uncover something which looks an awful lot like a government conspiracy (although a ridiculous one at that), and after telling their well-to-do commanding officer, they are intentionally given missions that would help them uncover the truth.
The dialogue really lets it rip from this point on, pulling no punches with absurdity or melodrama. One of the first battles you fight in the game pits you up against a group of thieves, who are looking for merchants to kill and plunder. They notice that Ash and co. aren’t merchants, but quickly decide that they can murder the gang and sell their equipment.
However, the first thing that the thieves do is use this awesome cannon that they have to blow up the back side of the bridge you’re on, causing it to slowly collapse. The leader of the thieves taunts the group, condemning them to fall into the water. But, at this point, I just thought, “How are they going to sell our stuff if our bodies are at bottom of the river? Did they change their minds in a flash? Or are they all experienced deep sea divers?”
Each main character (and even some not-so-important ones) has some sort of terrible traumatic event that happened in their past, and will recall them in the most lugubrious way they can. Even the ones that have slightly-less traumatic experiences will chew the scenery so much that you’ll be convinced otherwise. It’s kind of amazing that everyone in Ash’s crew has at least one huge skeleton in their closet, but even more so that they all turned out to be so well-adjusted in spite of that, taking care to never show the affects of said skeletons unless prompted to discuss them.
Best of all are the above-mentioned cases of Deus Ex Machina. For every two or three hours that you progress into the game, there will be at least one or two occurrences that will make you exclaim “Yeah, right!” at your TV screen (and will make your housemates come in and wonder who you’re talking to). The first big one comes only about three or four hours in, where your team confronts a huge group of enemies.
It looks certain that you guys are going to lose, when one of the main characters and one of the main villains start shooting some nondescript magic energy at each other. After a few seconds, somebody proclaims, “Oh no! The magic is creating a rift in space time!” The rift then sucks up some choice members of your party, including Ash. Convenient escape? Well, it gets better; you are taken to the town at the end of time, and there just happens to be a powerful mage there which knows a ceremony that will take you back to ‘normal time.
Although, this also strikes me as odd, too; never mind that there just happened to be a powerful mage just chillin’ at the end of time, but if he knew the ritual that could get him out of there, why on earth did he hang around? And, if the ritual is so easy, why is there a whole town of people just hanging out there?
In spite of how unattractive this all may sound at first, I think the over-the-top nature of Vandal Hearts is its greatest strength by far. If you don’t believe that it’s intentional yet, you need only look at the animations in battle; the good guys are always smiling in the heat of battle, which reminds me of Cary Elwes’s overconfident smirk during the swordfights in Robin Hood: Men In Tights. All attack animations are full of lavish flourishes; characters will twirl their swords, spin around several times, or do somersaults. One of the archers even gets an arrow-shooting chain gun-esque contraption!
I could talk about the gameplay, and look at the game like a normal review, but here’s the reality of the situation: the bottom line is that Vandal Hearts is a very old game. There isn’t much reason to go back and play it…that is, if you look at it in a conventional way. The gameplay is about as standard as you can get, the graphics are good for their time, but the 3D environments would probably be an eyesore to some. The music isn’t standout, but it fits the atmosphere. And, the story, from an objective standpoint, is flat-out awful.
If one was to sell the idea of playing Vandal Hearts to a gamer of today, there’d need to be a certain extra something, and the game’s deliberate over-the-top style is definitely that “extra something.” It makes the game an absolute laugh riot to play, and is non-stop entertaining. The game is short for an RPG (I beat it in about 16 hours), and the gameplay, while pretty plain, is very smooth and without any major annoyances. So, you’ll find yourself playing the game just to see what crazy things happen next.
Vandal Hearts is one of the most outrageous, ridiculous games I have ever played in my life. And, to be honest, I kind of wish there were more games like it.