Vandal Hearts

   In the early days of PlayStation RPGs, developers were just beginning to work with the new graphical possibilities the system offered. None particularly distinguished themselves for some time, and so the only games remembered now are the ones that offered other things besides those then-newfangled polygons. Those such as Suikoden, which offered interesting or innovative fare, apart from the now-universally dated graphics, are still remembered fondly. Those such as Beyond the Beyond, whose wretched gameplay brought its seamy textures and pixilated sprites into even sharper focus, are remembered less well. And those such as Vandal Hearts, which tried valiantly to break new ground in strategy RPGs but ultimately failed, are often remembered not at all.

Yes, that's a board with nails in it.
The nail bat: a freedom fighter's best friend

   However, Vandal Hearts' good points have been forgotten along with its bad. It was the major first strategy RPG released in the U.S. to take advantage of polygonal worlds, which it used not just for its own sake, but rather to help gameplay along. The game allows you to view the field from one of three angles, ranging from total overhead view to a perspective just above the ground. Furthermore, you can rotate the map between 90-degree angles to get just the right view of the action. Though previous strategy RPGs had serviceable perspectives, Vandal Hearts was the first to put you in control of the camera.

   It also has one of the most unique gameplay mechanics ever in a strategy RPG. Doing away with exploration or random battles, Vandal Hearts takes a different approach to winning battles. Since the game only contains "story" battles (of which there are quite a few, about five in each of the six chapters), your characters have limited resources as far as gold and experience. You'll have to choose carefully who to build up and at what time, as well as who should get the latest equipment. The decision-making is complicated by the party members' ability to change job classes at level 10 and 20, which results in a new set of skills to factor into your strategy.

 How postmodern.
Next, she'll think she's in a video game

   The linear, set nature of the game makes the battles almost like solving a puzzle. Rather allowing the player to customize characters and fit them into his or her own style of play, Vandal Hearts gives the player certain pieces, which must then be played correctly to advance. This is not to say that there's only one way of winning every battle, but playing by the game's rules is essential to success.

   There are also a variety of mission objectives on the way to success; not every scenario is won by simply defeating the enemies. Sometimes you've got to shepherd an NPC to a certain location, sometimes you'll need to make sure no enemies reach the perimeter of the map, and sometimes you must disarm traps within a set number of turns.

Lemmings! by KCEJ
The hardest mission in the game

   The specialized missions are also where the game begins to break down. Sometimes the conditions are so stacked against you that the game loses all entertainment value and just starts to grate on your nerves. A case in point is the jailbreak level, where you start off with only four party members. These four are surrounded by high walls, atop which are archers and mages who can hit you without being damaged themselves. Your objective is to keep one specific member of the party alive until the rest of your party arrives, but you have no healers and--if you're lucky--two healing items per person. Furthermore, the enemy AI knows full well which party member must survive, and so brings the full brunt of its attacks to bear on that member.

   This sort of mission would be tolerable once in a while if the game's story were particularly compelling, but Vandal Hearts' characterization and plot ranks with the most simplistic storytelling ever seen in a video game. It does have its moments, such as Ash forsaking his allies early on to save his reputation, or some of the more complicated political manuvers that power-hungry Hel Spites pulls off. More often, though, you get bits of exposition such as the one wherein Diego's father is revealed to be a money-hungry, amoral businessman before the battle, you fight the battle, and the crisis resolves itself. There's only the barest suggestion of foreshadowing present, frequently major plot events will pop up at the most suspiciously convenient times.

Ash vs. the Stuck Pig Empire

   And speaking of popup, the presentation isn't much to look at, three years after its release. Developers hadn't quite figured out the PlayStation hardware this early, and it shows. All party members are composed of sprites, which pixilate painfully as the camera zooms in and out. The textures are frequently warped and bent, and the background wanders in and out of sight. The character art, while not actively bad, isn't especially pretty either, and the FMV is typical of the blocky, artifacted video plaguing the first wave of PSX titles. Furthermore, someone at KCET decided that a great selling point would be having howlingly exaggerated fountains of blood spurt from each kill--including ostensibly bloodless monsters like skeletons and fire demons.

   As with the other initial PlayStation RPGs, Vandal Hearts was ultimately replaced by better, more polished entries in the genre, like Kartia or Final Fantasy Tactics. Still, with the obvious exception of its own sequel, there's not been a strategy RPG quite like it. Fans of the genre are advised to at least give it a try, even if it probably won't end up holding a hallowed spot in their library.

Retrospective by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Vandal Hearts
Developer KCET
Publisher Konami
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Released  10.25.96
250 screenshots
Character designs
Strategy guide cover, box art