Review: Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment
Genre: RPG
Developer: Hijinx Studios, LLC
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 01/20/2010

RPGs and I have a secret love affair. I can tolerate more time spent with a good RPG and a bottle of rum than I can with most of my relationships. That either says I love video games too much or am an alcoholic. I personally think it shows my love for rum. The one genre of game that is lacking on the Xbox Arcade is quality RPGs. Think about it though. Most RPGs are long and are very story heavy, and that kind of takes away from the whole concept of an Arcade. Not only that, they usually end up having a lot time involved in their development, so that adds to the cost. Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is here to prove that RPGs make great arcade games too, and with a cost of $15(1200 MSP) to boot. So will this hold up as another memorable RPG or just get lost amongst all the other arcade titles on Xbox LIVE?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes

Story is an important element when dealing with an RPG title. Vandals Hearts: Flames of Judgment is a prequel to two previous tactical turn based RPGs on the Playstation One. Basically you begin by finding out there was this cataclysmic war that was ended by the wrath of god. God basically destroyed nearly all of the adult population in the world. Now whether this is the god we know of or not is hard to say, but that is pretty irrelevant. So the story begins a few years after this judgment, and your main character Tobias is a teenager just getting done with class. And what did we learn in class today? Oh, just how to stab things. Yes, combat training, what every kid needs and, of course, what any good game needs to teach you how to play. Early in the game you will be in introduced to five other characters that will join your party on your quest to… ah… um… fight stuff.

The story starts with the love interest of one of your party members being killed, and he goes into roid rage mode and kills people. You have to attempt to keep him alive and find who is responsible for his lover’s death. Of course, along the way you realize that the baddie you are going after isn’t the baddie in charge, and some characters who you thought were good turn out to be baddies too. Most of the story is provided to you in the form of cut scenes that are 90% text dialog. There are some voiced one liners occasionally, but they are just for dramatic effect. The story overall is okay, but it is more or less there to drive gameplay from one stage to the next.

Story Rating: Above Average

Graphics

Vandal Hearts is pretty decent looking when you consider it is an arcade title. It plays as a top down tactical RPG. Each of the stages is laid out as a square with grid markers for movement. The stages are beautifully rendered 3D forests, caves, and castles. Each level is full of details, from the trees to the civilians being slaughtered on the sidelines. The stages have a limited zoom, which allows you to get up close and personal with the battles or pull back to see more of the stage. When zoomed in, you can really see the level of detail on your characters as well as your enemies. The detailing isn’t amazing but is great and with this type of game isn’t really important. One thing that was kind of disappointing is that my characters never took on the graphics of the armor I would buy them, but at the same time most of my characters were wearing the same armor so I guess that would have been pretty dull. It is still kind of funny when you have your main character suited up in full armor but in gameplay he is only wearing a robe. The weapons are pretty much the same way, with exceptions for different types. There were also some pretty cool looking spell effects as well.

The cut scenes were pretty boring for me. I guess I have been pretty spoiled by full retail RPGs with fully animated dialog sequences. These were just cartoon looking pictures of your characters next to some text dialog. The only time there were any animations were at the beginning of acts and they were pretty limited. Keep in mind I am of the belief that graphics are not the most important feature in a game like this so I don’t think it is necessary to have fully animated cut scenes. After all, it is an arcade title.

Graphics Rating: Enjoyable

Sound

Given that dialog isn’t fully voiced out in Vandal Hearts, I won’t have too much to say about it. I will say that what little dialog there is reminds me of Saturday morning cartoons – very campy. While the music is not very memorable, it suits the game. Most of the music during the stages is pretty repetitive, but I barely noticed. There is no point in this game where I thought to myself, “This music is really good”. This is an arcade game, so I was not expecting an epic score like Dragon Age.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

Gameplay

For me, playing RPGs is not just limited to the video game realm. I also play a weekly game of Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing. Vandal Hearts reminded me immediately of my weekly sessions of D&D. I compared each stage to encounters in my tabletop role-playing experience in my head. So you will have to excuse me if I start comparing this game to tabletop role-playing. Every stage begins with a goal, like who in your party has to live and which enemies need to be destroyed. You and your enemies start out in set locations. Then your characters take turns casting spells and attacking enemies. Of course, the enemies get their turns intermingled with yours. On the grid you can only move a certain amount of squares unless you boost movement range with a movement spell. You can also use items like potions for healing. It is pretty simple to learn, and combat is pretty cool visually. The thing that reminds so much of D&D is that you can only move six squares on this grid-like map similar to the dungeons of my weekly game.

After you have completed a stage, it moves to a cut scene, then you go to a large map and proceed to the next stage. Then you are treated to another cut scene before starting the stage. The only thing that really annoyed about this was the load times. Loading the simple cut scenes would sometimes take about a minute. Sometimes you will get multiple cut scenes to watch with their own load times. It sometimes seems like forever until you get to the next battle. This is the only really major downside to the game. Most of the battles are fun that they are worth the wait.

One nice thing is that you won’t be spending a lot of time on inventory management. You pretty much sell what you don’t use, as there is not a lot of variety in weapons in armor. While this isn’t a very deep game in terms of cool items to quest for, it was nice not spending a lot of time managing this. The leveling is pretty simple as well. All of your attack skills and spells go up from use. So this means whatever ability you use the most for a certain character in your party will end up the most powerful one. Once again simplicity is sometimes a beautiful thing.

There are a few things on the maps besides just enemies to kill. There are chests that you can open for items. However, these items are nothing that you can’t buy at the local towns. On some of the stages you will have to interact with items like switches and mine carts. They are just to progress the story. I was hoping for some more puzzles. There are also hidden objects that link to other stages to be unlocked in the world map. If you interact with these objects, the stage is unlocked at the end of the battle. Overall I really enjoyed the battles and variety of enemies you encounter.

Gameplay Rating: Great

Replayability

Vandal Hearts has a fair amount of replayability. For starters, the main story has two different ending depending on how you interact with one of your party members with achievements for both. There isn’t a whole lot of variety as you either trust this party member or you don’t. The main story will take you about ten hours to complete, so doing it twice would take twenty. I know, I am amazing at basic math. Finding all the bonus stages is a pretty daunting task as they are hidden in the main stages. They will definitely give you some added gameplay as well. After beating this I can’t see how there will be a lot of reason for me to come back.

Replayability Rating: Above Average

Balance

Vandal Hearts is disappointingly easy. It is a breeze to get through. This makes for enjoyable casual gameplay, but it doesn’t challenge the player enough. I only lost a stage a couple of times, and once I developed a good combination of my characters abilities I was pretty unstoppable. With ten hours of gameplay in the main story, I am sure you get your value from this $15 purchase.

Balance Rating: Good

Originality

Because there are not many RPGs on XBox LIVE Arcade, Vandal Hearts earns some points for that. It is refreshing to see this kind of gameplay as a XBox release. Most RPGs I have played as of late have been epic 40+ hour adventures. So it is nice to see something that you can just pick up and play for a half hour and get through a level. This is what makes this perfect for an arcade release. Even though this is a prequel of game from a couple generations ago, this feels new and different.

Originality Rating: Great

Addictiveness

I wouldn’t say Vandal Hearts is addicting, but it is fun to play. It was one of those games that when you complete a stage you will find it easy to say, “Just one more”. That is only because each stage will only take you about a half hour to complete. Sure I can stay up another half hour. Even though the levels had me saying “Just one more”, the load times had me saying “Not again!” Other than that, I would prefer full retail RPGs for my fix. Don’t get me wrong, I love arcade games, but I get bored with them easily and move on to something more fulfilling.

Addictiveness Rating: Above Average

Appeal Factor

Vandal Hearts having ten hours of gameplay makes it definitely worth $15 (1200 MSP). If you are looking for an RPG that gives you small doses of adventure, this game is for you. It could be classified as an all ages games as the violence is not overly gory and characters are cartoony in appearance. If you are a budget conscience gamer, $15 is not a bad price. However, there are many other quality titles available on XBLA with the same length in gameplay for less than that. You may just want to wait until it becomes a deal of the week. Whatever your choice, it is worth checking out as it a pretty good casual RPG.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

Miscellaneous

Overall I think Hijinx and Konami did a great job with Vandal Hearts. This game proves that an RPG can make a pretty good arcade game. They achieved quick pick up and play with the ability to not have to invest as much time as a full retail RPG. Now I must go back to my rum and try and unlock some more secret levels.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Score
Story: Above Average
Graphics: Enjoyable
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Good
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: Enjoyable Game!

Short Attention Span Summary:
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is a great addition to the XBox Live Arcade. It is really easy to pick up this game and play in short bursts. Despite the low quality cut scenes and long load times, the turn based tactical gameplay makes this game stand out. This game achieves a true arcade RPG experience. The levels are colorful and full of hidden things to find. The 10 hours or more of gameplay is definitely worth $15 (1200 MSP), but there are better games at lower prices on the XBLA. If you are fan of the original PS1 games, then this is probably a most buy. However, if you are only slightly interested wait until this becomes the deal of the week.

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