Ask most RPG fans what their favourite strategy / tactical RPG is, and 9 times out of 10 they’re going to say Final Fantasy Tactics. Granted, it’s a great choice. The game looks great, it has a ton of content to work through, and there’s a lot of opportunity to replay with different approaches. I’m that 1 in 10 however who will tell you my favourite is Vandal Hearts.
Released only a couple of months in the US after Final Fantasy VII in March 1997, the game was destined to be swept under the rug due to the tremors that FF7 had caused on release. It’s all everyone was talking about. The reason I found out about it, was because I had been eating up its spiritual partner Suikoden around about the same time as FF7 came out. Man that was a great few months for RPGs. The back of Suikoden’s manual featured a simple image of the cover of Vandal Hearts and I was immediately intrigued. I’d never heard of it, but immediately sought it out.
When I finally acquired it, I got it in the PS1, got it running, and on facing my first in-game battle, was truly confused. This was NOTHING like the RPGs I’d been used to. There was a grid-based level layout, I could choose which character could move or attack in any order, and I wasn’t being rushed either as there was no timer. It felt relaxed, but also more involved. I had to think not only about how I was going to attack, but where I would do it, and in what order I should choose my characters to act. It takes some getting used to for anyone who’s never played a tactical RPG before, but if you get past the initial concerns, a truly different breed of role-playing pleasure presents itself.
The game follows the plight of a band of soldiers, led by Ash Lambert, who grow discontented with the way their Government is abusing its power in ‘removing’ the last traces of a resistance movement against the powers that be. Throughout the course of the game, betrayal, conspiracy, and bloodshed join to weave a story of political intrigue which thankfully never manages to confuse the player despite the topics at hand. Your band of characters which continue to grow in numbers throught the course of the game, are truly endearing. Their relationships with one another are built up magnificently through the many developments and twists which transpire in the tale, and not a single character feels wasted. Not even the ones who feel like bit-part players due to their lesser involvement in the plot
Ash isn’t your usual brawn filled stereotypical hero, instead having a very clever head on his shoulders which he puts to good use when the situation presents itself. Clint, his right-hand man, is the muscle-head who is guilty of sometimes letting his heart rule his head. Diego, their 3rd leg, provides comedy relief with some great one-liners, as well as being a little stud when the ladies are around. There’s Eleni the mage, Grog the drunkard warrior, Zohar the mysterious dark wizard, and they all provide their own special moments in a game that is never short of them. The plot has some fantastic twists, some which you will not guess and can seriously surprise you, and like any good RPGs the bad guys are truly despicable. They never come across crazy like say for instance, Kefka (FF6), Mother (Wild Arms), or Luca Blight (Suikoden II). They just seem to be acting like bastards for the sheer sake of it thanks to the power they have over the people.
If you’ve played any tactical RPG before, you’ll know how the game plays, albeit with a few differences. The biggest gameplay feature would be its level advancement system. Every 10 levels, you’re given the opportunity to visit the nearest town’s ‘dojo’ and advance your character to the next class up. This presents with it boosts to your stats, but you get to go down two routes whilst doing it. If you want Kira, your archer to continue down that route, by all means she can do and will sport massively boosted range for attacks by becoming a sniper. However, you might want to make her an ‘airman’ instead, which sees her take to the skies for airborne attacks. Granted, it leaves her massively vulnerable to archery and sniper attacks, but the power she possess when attacking other classes is huge. Huxley the Bishop can continue down the peaceful route of helping others by becoming a ‘healer’, but you may want him to be a bit of a badass instead and take on the role of a ‘monk’, which allows him to take a pair of claws as his weapons whilst still being able to do some watered down healing. Every character you inherit can be customised to your liking, and further playthroughs mean you can try different styles of teams to tackle the quests.
If you read my Q&A article with Paul Schneider (found here), you’ll know I have a massive love for visual changes when changing gear for your character in-game. The class changes in Vandal Hearts incorporate this and so when you do advance your team, you get to see them update their looks, ultimately becoming bad-ass looking warriors and wizards. Sadly, equipment changes don’t allow for this, but the Vandal Hearts sequel did include this feature. It’s just not as good a game.
A lot of factors come in to play when making your next move on the battlefield. Different classes have advantages and weaknesses against other classes. Height and obstacles become issues when considering the placement of archers. Having more than one good guy surrounding one enemy boosts the power of the next attack, whilst mages need to consider which bad guy they’re going to throw a spell at as certain spells can affect more than one enemy. There’s ‘timed’ missions which only allow you so many moves to complete it in, missions which require you to save as many people as possible, even moments which see you start a level on a bridge which is falling apart move by move, and the only escape is through the other end which is swamped with enemies. There’s so much variety to be found here.
Graphically, the game doesn’t really stand up too well these days. The main issue I have is that the grid-based layout of the levels is achingly obvious, and it’s almost like you’re looking at a board game at times. However, the level design can be quite charming, with the inclusion of bridges, swamps, hell (if you play it, you’ll see), and structures ranging from churches to village houses. There is a huge amount of variety and it never feels like you’re playing anywhere near the same level twice. One particular level stands out which features your boat and an enemy pirate’s boat. The enemy are attempting to board your vessel in an attempt to slash your throats I guess, and the tactics really have to be handled sensibly here if you’re going to win the level; do you go in all swords swinging but restricting yourself to one character at a time on the gangplanks, or maybe you’ll invite the enemy to do it instead and hopefully see them walk into your ambush attempt. There are always other ways to win any given level and it’s a joy to work them out.
Characters are presented in a 2D fashion, being able to face 4 directions which heavily factor into how you and the enemy will square off against each other. They all look almost cutesy and have massive personality about them. It’s always very clear who’s who, who’s bad, who’s good, and that you’ve just killed someone because their death is accompanied by the biggest gushing of blood since the Black Knight suffered from that scratch all those years ago. Spells look good for the time period which the game was released with some 3D effects on show. The menus are simple and effective, almost to the point of being a little lazy, but hey, it’s not windows you’re looking to kick ass in.
Lastly, there’s not a lot to say about the audio. There’s a limited selection of tunes on offer here and you will definitely grow to tire of some, especially the exact same battle themes throughout the entire game. There are some tracks however which play outside of the battle, usually during the plot scenes which really hit the nail on the head. We’re not talking ‘Aeris’ Theme’ quality here, but still they set the tone for the mood well. Sound effects are fantastic in the game. The grunts of enemies are convincing while the metal clangs when sword meets shield sound perfectly jarring. The afore-mentioned blood-letting when someone is killed is definitely the stand-out sound as it’s so gloriously over the top. In fact, screw it, anyone dying in this game is probably the highlight of the game because of just how messy and ridiculous it looks!
It’s a fantastic game which I feel is sadly under-appreciated these days. Like the other games in my series of ‘Hidden Gems’ articles, I’ve never met anyone else who played this, and if you’re one of those people, you’ve seriously missed out. The game is worth it for the story alone because it’s one of the best plots I’ve ever experienced in video gaming. The gameplay has its issues for sure, sometimes being able to exploit it to your own MASSIVE advantage, or having to restart entire battles from scratch because one single move you attempted with one single character backfired miserably. But the enjoyment you get from the package as a whole is worth these minor annoyances, and they are minor. Restarting a level in Vandal Hearts is almost a blessing in disguise because it means you get to prolong the experience of playing one of the best RPGs to ever appear on any Sony console.
Final Note: This was released on Windows in 1998. In South Korea. And only South Korea. Man…
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