Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment Impression

While poking around Konami and hoping the psych profile thing for the Silent Hill remake isn’t as gimmicky as it sounds, I got a quick taste of Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment for the 360, a prequel to the original for the PlayStation. It’s been a while since I got a taste of a good, turn-based strategy RPG, such that I probably would’ve gotten creamed by the giant enemy worm if it hadn’t been half dead when I started playing.

I picked up the controller smack in the middle of a battle and sort of had to learn the controls on the fly. The heroes were fighting some ugly flying parasites, backed by a giant worm that appeared to be spawning them somehow. The good guys were stacked with a healthy amount of muscle, magic, and potions, and the boss monster was crippled, but the fight was by no means a pushover considering how much damage the things were dishing out.

Fortunately, house rules still apply: red team over here, blue team over there, units go one at a time across a grid-based battlefield and whack each other with weapons and spells until one side’s had enough. Anyone familiar with games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea should have no trouble with the basics. In a change from the series, units are sequenced individually according to their stats, and a scrolling bar at the top helpfully indicates which unit, friend or foe, will get to move next.

One interesting new twist is that units now have both melee and ranged weapons, and can switch between them on the fly. A fighter that can’t quite get to an enemy in one turn, for instance, can switch to a bow and launch an attack at a distance. The trade-off is that one can’t counterattack with a ranged weapon, so if a melee unit gets in close they can strike without fear of reprisal. While I can’t speak to its balance in general gameplay, given that my units were scattered when I started playing this proved a useful, if risky tactic.

I only saw part of one mission, and can’t comment much on the visuals – the fight took place in some colorful but dreary-looking swampland – save to say the style felt odd at first. Characters were well animated, but they didn’t quite gel with what was going on. In contrast to the relatively competent semi-adults from the first game, it looked and felt like I was controlling a pack of kids. It may take some getting used to, but I didn’t see a speck of writing so a decent script could make this a non-issue. Giant fountains of blood pouring from defeated enemies, an odd but endearing series staple, remain intact here.

All that said, the original Vandal Hearts is an old favorite of mine, so I’ll be checking this out as soon as it’s available. I couldn’t get word on a release date beyond September of this year, though it will be available as a downloadable title on Xbox Live Arcade. The developer stated it should run about fifteen to twenty hours of playtime. Time will tell if that means fifteen quality hours, or five hours stretched out due to frequent death by giant worm. Maybe walking without rhythm will help.

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