The Vandal Hearts series was never particularly amazing to begin with. Nevermind that the title of the game is seriously misleading (it refers to a legendary sword, as in “only one Vandal Heart exists”), the storylines were never all that great, and the gameplay of the first two games were mediocre and terrible, respectively. Sure, I enjoyed the original game immensely, but it was mostly because of how over-the-top the game was, with crazy blood geysers and liberal use of Deus-Ex Machina.
It makes me wonder why there was such an effort to bring the series back in the first place, especially if the comeback game is going to wind up as nothing particularly special. Such is the nature of Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment, the first game in the series in a decade.
Flames of Judgment plays a lot like a standard tactics RPG: players control a squadron of characters and pit them against an overwhelming amount of other guys that are angry at the player’s characters. Since the player’s group is always outnumbered, they need to use strategy to overcome the sheer magnitude of the enemy force.
The game uses a turn system where each ally and enemy gets one opportunity to move and attack/cast a spell. After that, they can’t take any action until the next turn. Movement, as is typical in tactics RPGs, is confined to square grids. Any attack is subject to immediate counterattack if the victim has the right weapon type; for example, a character with a short range weapon needs to be attacked with a short range weapon to counterattack, and vice versa for long range weapons.
There are a few other neat touches; any time a treasure is found on the battlefield, you’re given the option to equip it immediately if it’s a weapon or armor, or use it immediately if it’s a consumable item. I didn’t use this much, but I imagine more meticulous types will really enjoy this. Characters can use their turn to swap places with an adjacent ally, usually to save them from certain death (I also didn’t find much use for this). Characters can also equip two weapons and switch them on the fly, which I found to be very useful; one can equip a character with a short range and long range weapon to be ready for any situation.
For the most part, the basics are nothing we haven’t seen before, but the main selling point of Flames of Judgment‘s gameplay is the character customization system. In Flames of Judgment, characters don’t level up as they would in a typical RPG. Instead, they have levels for everything. And when I say everything, I seriously mean every single thing: characters can level up their core skills, such as melee proficiency, ranged proficiency, magic proficiency, etc. They can also level up their proficiencies in specific weapon types, specific magic types, and even specific spells. Everything levels up in this game as you use it more frequently. As such, any character can be built in any way they like. Every character can use any weapon they want, and every character can also use any spell they want.
This is, without a doubt, a serious detriment to the game. Is customization such a valued aspect of gameplay these days that we’re willing to infuse it into games where it’s inappropriate? The beauty of tactics RPGs in the first place is that your characters have limits. Being able to seriously do anything with anyone removes a huge element of the “tactics” in such a game. No longer do you have mages with low HP that can’t equip heavy armors, or powerful-yet-slow fighters. Instead, everyone can equip light armor, heavy armor, swords, daggers, axes, bows, hammers, and any magic spell – and move the same distance as all their allies, regardless of what they’re holding.
I will admit that it’s silly to assert that every character can become extremely proficient in every weapon type and spell. However, it’s not even necessary to do; one can use the customization system to break the game easily without grinding. If your character specializes in a close range weapon, give them a long range weapon as their second. Now, if they can’t reach an opponent, they can shoot them, and it’ll still do decent damage as long as their equipment is up to date, whether proficient or not. Give everyone the basic healing spell and marvel at how hard it is to die. Give each character your favorite buff and debuff spell to boot (I preferred movement buffs/debuffs personally), and they can still be used effectively, regardless of proficiency.
It would be another matter entirely – maybe – if low proficiency severely hindered a character’s ability to use a weapon or spell type. As it is, though, specializing in one primary method of attack is all a character needs; the rest of the customization can be done in broad strokes. It goes without saying that Flames of Judgment is very easy as a result.
There isn’t much to say about the game’s story. A war erupts between the nations of Balastrade and Urdu, ending in disaster when a huge meteor falls on the battlefield, wiping out the majority of both forces. Years later, Tobias, a war orphan, and his war orphan friends are suddenly and unrealistically thrown into a conflict. The high general of Balastrade intends to start a war by fabricating an Urdain attack on Balastrade soil, and Tobias and co. need to be eliminated after stumbling upon the plot. As with any such story, Tobias intends to do whatever he can to prevent Urda from being wiped out.
This might sound pretty cool, but thanks to the game’s extreme brevity, very little is fleshed out. The above paragraph describes the first quarter of the entire narrative, and some of the facts had to be filled in by the game’s built-in story chronicle. No character gets a very in-depth look. Too bad, because many of the characters hint at having interesting backstories; why can’t we learn more about how Tobias and Connor used to be thieves? What exactly were the details of Calvin and Menicks’s falling out? In particular, Gren’s backstory is hinted in a way that teases and tantalizes but fails to follow up with anything substantial. Thus, it’s hard to give a damn about what happens.
Ultimately, Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment isn’t a terrible game, but there’s really nothing to it. The gameplay doesn’t offer anything new, except for a way to customize your characters into an unbeatable super-team. The story has a neat premise, but it doesn’t hold up as anything more than an interesting look into the series’ lore. And the game is over in a flash, to boot – there’s no in-game timer, but I would predict it took me 8-10 hours. If you are a huge fan of the series, and want to play this prequel to know how it all began, it’s probably worth the purchase. However, for someone who actually plays tactics RPGs for a challenge (and who doesn’t, I wonder?), I humbly suggest looking elsewhere.
Contrary to popular opinion, I think the art style is really cool. However, the children's storybook look, coupled with the bright color tones, feels really inappropriate for a game whose story takes itself so seriously.
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Textbook strategy RPG gameplay with a customization system that removes much of the strategy from the game.
There are very few outstanding pieces of music; however, it fits the atmosphere very well.
The game will take you 8-10 hours to beat. There are optional maps that can be found, and there are two endings to witness.
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment isn't bad, but it's far from good, as well. An underwhelming comeback for an underwhelming RPG series.