After a decade of absence Konami has resurrected the cult-classic Vandal Hearts series for both Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. Instead of simply remaking the original game Konami has brought in one of their internal studios to deliver a brand new experience that pays homage to the PSOne original. Flames of Judgment brings the SRPG genre to the downloadable space and it works. A title that looks and feels much like the original game is easier to swallow when attached to a $15 price tag. If you are a fan of the series or the genre in general, there is plenty here to satisfy your purchase.
The story takes place before the events of the original game and has you following a protagonist named Tobias. In traditional RPG fashion you are quickly swept into a conflict that involves saving your town and obtaining a group of soldiers that will aid you on your quest. Amazingly there is quite a bit of dialogue during cut scenes and even some on-field chatter. The cut scenes themselves are a lot more interesting if you just listen instead of watching them as the animation is reminiscent of the still-motion action found in some low-budget games. The story is actually pretty good as long as you don’t take some of the more obvious clichés too seriously.
The most important part though is how everything translates into gameplay. Fans of the original will feel right at home the minute they start playing. SRPG games involve each level represented by a battlefield. Think of it like a different take on the game of chess. Characters can move a certain number of spaces per turn, and attack if they are within range. Everything is performed with just a couple button presses and gaining strategic positioning is key to winning battles. Once past the tutorial stage you are given an open world map that has you exploring various areas fighting random battles to move along the narrative.
While not highly original in its execution, the game does deliver some clever options that keep things moving along. The skill system is actually my favorite part of the game. Simply equipping an item or weapon and using it levels up that skill. For instance every time you cast a spell from an equipped book you earn more points towards leveling it up. However, if you unequip it you can still use the spells, they just won’t level up. This tailors the game to your style of play and your party members even mimic that by adapting to your style.
Battles also take place on a much larger scale than most in the genre. This gives you the ability to plan out your attacks more effectively. The leveling system is a little more generic as there are really no classes to choose from and most characters are pretty set from the get go. As you can imagine Tobias is a warrior, while your sidekick Calvin is a born and bred mage complete with a hesitancy to engage in melee combat. It is best to stick with these preset skills for each character, even though you can simply change their tendencies by using the skill you choose thanks to the progressive skill leveling.
Surprisingly what is here is pretty substantial. The campaign will last you between 6-8 hours depending on how thorough you are, and the story is interesting enough to keep you entertained. For a downloadable title the return on investment is actually pretty high. I think Konami was wise in releasing this title as a download only as the cult following of the original is likely to gobble up this incredible deal. I really had a good time leveling up the skills I wanted to level and the battles really are broken up so not a whole lot of devotion is required to enjoy them.
Visually the game is definitely reminiscent of the original, only now in full HD display. If you have seen one grid-based SRPG you have seen them all. The hand-drawn visuals are certainly not going to win any awards, but they get the job done. The menu system also feels a bit clunky due to poor organization, and the animated cut scenes do feel a bit cheap and rushed. The voice work is the highlight of the package and actually comes across somewhat professional. The on-field chatter is laughable at times, but at least it gives the characters more personality. I liked the music for what it was, but again it isn’t going to have you humming it for months on end.
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is a solid edition to the downloadable libraries of both the PSN and XBLA. The SRPG genre is not overly represented on either service and this addition is comprised of both quality and substance. Fans of the original will likely appreciate it more than anyone, but anyone who enjoys the genre should certainly give it a look. The price tag may seem a bit steep, but I assure you there is more than enough content here to make it worthwhile.
Review copy provided by publisher.