I’ve been trying to get into another retro role-playing game (RPG) for a few months. It seems like I pick one up, play for a few hours, and then forget about it as I move on to another project. Vandal Hearts is the game I finally settled on.
I remember playing this game in the 90s, but I’m unsure if I rented or bought it. I don’t think I made it very far, as I don’t remember much about the game beyond the genre. Vandal Hearts is a Tactical RPG, and at first glance, it seemed simplistic.
The story felt like the French Revolution inspired it, but it could’ve been from another historical event I’m unfamiliar with. There is a grittiness to the graphics that many PS1/PSX games have. However, it does have problems. I would prefer to play Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics instead of Vandal Hearts.
TLDR: Generic at first, But Has a Surprising amount of depth to it.
When I started the game, I thought the story would resemble the French Revolution. I thought this because of the history that the game drops on the player at the beginning of the game. It could’ve been its own game!
The intro explains that the government was overthrown, and a council of rebels had taken over. Not much had changed for the common people as the revolution only traded one corrupt group for another.
You play as Ash, who is the son of a traitor. He leads a group of the Defense Forces, a militia/police force. The first mission you take on is defeating a group of bandits. It is revealed that the bandits’ leader had been arrested before but was released for some reason.
This is the first indication of how corrupt the government is, as it is alluded to that someone is protecting the bandit leaders. Then, a riot takes place in the Royal District of the capital city. This is when we find out that there is tension between the Anti-Terrorism division of the regular army and the Defense Force.
As someone who has followed several coup attempts in various African countries, I can say this is a pretty standard situation in most corrupt countries. The government gives the best training and equipment to the “elite” soldiers loyal to the leader and not the Defense Minister. It is a way for the dictator to guard against a military coup.
In the case of Vandal Hearts, our soon-to-be dictator is Hel, and he has installed his son Kane as the leader of the Anti-Terrorism squad. Again, this reminds me of a bunch of other historical events. Too many to get into here.
Ash gets set up by the politician Dolf. He is sent to an island to investigate what happened. This is where we find our first artifact, the Magic Stone/Flames of Judgement. The stone corrupts General Magus, and Ash has to defeat him to break the spell.
As it turns out, Ash is set up by Dolf and Hel. The two bad guys use the Magic Stone’s curse to slander Magus and claim political power. Ash and some of his party are sucked into a time portal, and Hel crowns himself emperor.
Ash eventually escapes the time portal with the help of Zohar and returns home three years later. Ash hasn’t aged, but three years have passed, and Hel has consolidated power by using the military and secret police. There is also a rebellion going on, which Ash joins.
Dolf and his lackey, Xeno, want to use the power of the Magic Stone/Flames of Judgement to take over the world. Dolf also wants to kill off Hel. To use the Magic Stone, they need to find the Royal Ring. These two items are mentioned in a few conversations, especially after they were introduced to the player.
As part of the rebellion, Ash turns the tide against Hel and Dolf. He is able to find a legendary sword, Vandal Heart. One by one, the significant enemies start to die off. Hel is killed, and Dolf takes power. Kane is turned into a soulless killing machine by Xeno and is then killed by Ash.
Dolf unlocks the power of the Flames of Judgement and starts to summon demons and monsters to defeat the rebellion and take revenge for his father’s death. Xeno shows up and is killed by Ash. Your party defeats Dolf, who the Flames of Judgement consume. Ash uses the Vandal Heart to seal the flames and gets warped away.
This ends the game, and we get an epilogue to tell us what the party members are doing. It is nice to see this, and it wraps the story up nicely.
Overall, it is an excellent story that helped to elevate the game above being an average Tactical RPG. Time travel is intriguing, even if not much is done with it. The game probably didn’t need it, but it was an interesting plot point.
This Tactical RPG uses an isometric angle to show the player the battlefield. You can change the camera angle with the L and R buttons, which helps to see every part of the map. What you’re doing in Vandal Hearts is moving your units around a map and trying to complete the goal of the mission you’re on.
There is no permanent death in this game. Unlike Tactics Ogre and Fire Emblem, when a party member is defeated in battle, they retreat and return in the next battle. It does take away some of the apprehension that exists over losing a character, but I like it more than losing your favorite character for the rest of the game because you made one mistake in battle.
The mission goal or objective changes on every map. Here is a rundown of the different missions you’ll have to complete:
- Kill the Leader
- Survive a number of turns
- Win in a number of turns
- Reach a specific location
- Prevent enemies from reaching a location
- Destroy specific artifacts
- Protect specific artifacts
- Kill all enemies
The game has a lot of variety compared to other Tactical RPGs from this time. It is like they took every scenario and worked them into the game. There is a little Shining Force and Fire Emblem in the game, except for the combat system.
Terrain plays a big role in the combat. It can block your attacks and movement. It is more of a pain in the butt than it needs to be.
The archers are seriously hamstrung in this game. Melee and magic users are the same as in other Tactical RPGs. They have areas of attack that make sense for melee weapons and magical attacks.
Archers can only attack in straight lines. In most Tactical RPGs, archers and magic users have a similar attack radius. You’re given a range that is 360 degrees, but with Vandal Heats, you can only attack in one of four directions. If there is anything in the way or the enemy is at a higher elevation, your archer won’t be able to target an enemy unit.
The terrain is a major pain in the butt! It is an interesting idea to have it severely limit where you can attack. However, it doesn’t make much sense when an enemy stands on a ledge, and you can’t target them because they’re too high. It takes a while to adjust to it.
You don’t explore in this game. For a Tactical RPG, this isn’t all that bad. You move from one location to the next, where you’ll fight battles and have a cutscene play out. These cutscenes will usually use in-game graphics, but in between the chapters, you’ll get a short cinema scene.
When you get to a town, you’ll have a few options from the menu. You can move about the town, save or load the game, and view the status of your characters. The big thing is moving around the town.
If you want to buy new equipment or items or upgrade your characters, you must go into a town. Here is a brief rundown of where you need to go in a town:
- Dojo – This is where you can upgrade your characters and learn some of the lore in Vandal Hearts. I’ll talk more about this when I go over character classes.
- Tavern – This is where you can learn more about what is happening or what you should do.
- Shop – This is where you buy weapons, armor, and items.
- Special Locations – These can be houses, military bases, or other important locations that advance the game’s plot.
You get money by beating the missions. However, this is where the game penalized you for losing one of your characters during the battles. Each enemy you defeat gives you a little money. Each party member that is defeated costs you money. It is a nice workaround for not having permanent in the game.
At two points in the game, you can change the class of your characters. This takes place at level 10 and level 20, and you must go to a Dojo to do this. Here is a list of the character upgrades:
There is a simple weapons triangle. Instead of relying on weapon types like Fire Emblem, the combat in Vandal Hearts is determined by character class. It doesn’t seem to matter much, but it is explained in the game.
The basic setup is Melee beats Bow, Bow beats Air, and Air Beats Melee. What does any of that mean? Well, as far as I can tell, it has to do with how a character attacks, moves, and what their class is. The odd thing in this combat triangle is magic.
One of the more disappointing parts of the gameplay would have to be the magic. It ignores the weapons triangle, and there seem to be two types of magic. Healing and attack magic. I wish there were more variety to it.
The combat triangle doesn’t appear to play much of a role in the gameplay. Terrain and direction of attack play more of a role in dealing damage. However, it feels like damage is always high, no matter what. Your characters have a lot of hit points, but those hit points get drained quickly when attacked 2-3 times in one turn.
There is armor in the game, but that doesn’t feel as impactful as terrain differences. I didn’t want to see how squishy my characters would be without armor. The leveling system isn’t as big of a deal when compared to the class upgrade system.
Before I realized there was a class upgrade system, I ran into a bottleneck where I was getting killed repeatedly on a mission. So, I figured I needed to grind for levels at the Dojo. As it turned out, there is no way to grind. I found the class change system, which leveled the playfield.
Overall, I like the gameplay quite a bit. There are no glaring flaws to complain about. It does take some time to learn the combat system, but it isn’t as hard as some of the other Tactical RPGs that I’ve played.
There is a grittiness to the graphics in Vandal Hearts. Even for a PS1/PSX game, the graphics seem more pixilated. I wouldn’t say I liked it initially, but it grew on me throughout the game. The FMV cutscenes look good for the mid-90s.
When I compare this game to the look of Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, Vandal Hearts looks rougher. It is not unfinished, but it is like it was an art-style decision to make things look muddy or grimy. It grew on me over the course of the game.
The in-game character sprites look good at times. Each of your units looks unique, even when they go through a class upgrade. However, looking closely at the sprites, it seems like they all have the same head. It looks a little off at times.
The enemies look very good. Most of them are humans, but they still look good. The closer you get to the end of the game, the more monsters you fight. This is where things get a little more creative.
The monsters look very good, and I wish they made up more of the enemies in the game. You still fight a bunch of human enemies, but the monsters stand out more as they look unique.
Probably the best part of the graphics has to do with character death scenes. When a character is defeated, there is an eruption of blood, rock, or some other substance. It looks crude, but it indicates that a character has been defeated. However, when a character is defeated with magic, they disappear. I have several issues with the magic in this game.
The graphics for the magic is odd. Some use fire, ice, and lightning animations, but they tried something different with a few spells. It is like they are trying to show reality warping or time-dilation attacks. I think that is what they were going for, but it is a little confusing as I’m not sure how it hurts enemies.
It is hard for me to pinpoint what I dislike about this. Some spells look fantastic, while others look like they were created last minute. The camera will spin around the battlefield, which hurts the bad guys. I have no idea what is happening at times.
When you move from one chapter to the next, a short cutscene plays. These are a combination of computer graphics and pictures. They’re pretty good and provide the player with a lot of information about what is going on in the game’s world outside of the main story.
Overall, I liked the graphics. The maps look good, the character sprites look good, and the art style grew on me as the game went on. The only issue I had was with the spells, which weren’t all that important.
8.5/10. This is an excellent game! The story is good, the characters are great, and I like the graphics. The only issues I have are with the magic system in the game.
- Good Story
- Good Controls
- Interesting Characters
- Good Graphics
- Archery Range of Attack
- Strange Magical Attacks
Vandal Hearts is one of the games that I wish I had given more of a chance when I was younger. It is similar enough to Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics that I would’ve enjoyed it. It has a good story, and I like the gameplay of these 90s Tactical RPGs.
It isn’t as good as either Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, but it is better than Saiyuki: The Journey West. For the most part, Vandal Hearts gives the play a good conclusion to the story. It does fall into the end-of-the-world trope that I’m a little tired of, but it is done rather well.
It is better than some of the early Tactical RPGs. It does try some things with the gameplay and offers a lot of mission objectives. However, it doesn’t look as good as the best games in the genre, so while I recommend the game, I would rather play Tactics Ogre.