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Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment
Score: 74%
ESRB: Not Rated
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Hijinx Studios, LLC
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is a great example of the importance of unity between game visuals and theme. The game's plot and gameplay both trend towards the more serious side, while the visuals look like they came right out of a game aimed at kids. For whatever reason, Hijinx/Konami opted for an art style that looks like it came from Cartoon Network's Marvel Superhero Squad. Big heads, squat bodies... the whole thing. The difference is the style works for Superhero Squad's childish tone. Here we've got a fairly complex battle system, older story tone and lots of blood gushing during battle.

The visual style gets more ridiculous during cut scenes. On the plus side, they're fully voiced and the story is engaging. Additionally, the voicework is pretty good and gives characters some personality. But then you see the poorly animated bobbled-headed soldiers and things take a turn for the worse. The wheels don't completely fall off, but an axel or two is definitely dragging on the ground.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment isn't a remake of the original Strategy RPG (SRPG), but instead a prequel. The story is pretty typical for the genre; an unlikely hero (Tobias) and a ragtag bad of soldiers become heroes in a war they have no business taking part in. Without giving too much away, the story is actually pretty good with lots of little twists and other hooks. Too bad the awkward visual style throws everything off.

Gameplay is also typical for the genre, but the usually complex systems that make SRPGs so insurmountable have been pared down to something that's still reasonably complex, but not intimidating. One major improvement to Vandal Heart's combat system is the ability to dual wield weapons. It's a simple change, but it opens up a number of neat changes and strategies. Since you can carry both a melee and ranged weapon, there are fewer "wasted" moves early in matches. It's possible to get in an extra ranged attack early on instead of just using an entire turn to move a character into position.

Even with a simplified system, Vandal Hearts is still a SRPG at its core. If you've never found games like Final Fantasy Tactics of much interest, there's nothing here to sway you into magically liking the genre. Matches are faster, but still slow.

One the surface Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is a simpler SRPG, but under the hood it's still somewhat complex. You still have to think through movement and make sure enemies don't outflank you while still making sure you can outflank them. Swapping weapons changes the dance in a few key ways (for instance, counterattacks are only possible if two soldiers are equipped with the same weapon), but you still have to go through with the motions.

Actually, and this may be a by-product of playing way too many SRPGs, I didn't find Vandal Hearts particularly challenging. It's complex and there's some thought involved, but it's more like playing checkers than chess. It's enough of a change that some SRPG first-timers might be able to get into the game (though I doubt it), but will also turn off vets who want something more challenging.

Game Mechanics:
One really neat aspect of Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is the skill system. Rather than arbitrarily add points to a list of named stats, every action your soldiers make improves their stats and abilities. It tends to pigeonhole characters into certain roles, but you would already do that with the menu-based leveling system. In the long haul, it's a better system because you can still specialize units, but also shores up their weaknesses without hurting another stat. The only downside to the system is characters are well defined the second you recruit them. All characters have an affinity to a certain role. You can use the system to mold them into something else, but you'll lose out on a big bonus and make things harder on yourself.

Vandal Hearts is what is it - a downloadable SRPG that should appeal to less battle-hardened SRPG fans. If you're a seasoned vet of games like Disgaea (or really anything from Atlus/ NIS), you'll blow through Vandal Hearts in a few short hours. Less experience will add a few more hours, but if the genre has never appealed to you, this isn't enough of a shift to suddenly grab your attention.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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