Vandal Hearts from Konami is a very long running series, dating back to the days of the original PlayStation, one that hasn't been heard from in a number of years. For Flames of Judgment, the story is set in the early history of Vandal Hearts, and begins with Tobias and his friend as new recruits enduring basic training. This doesn't last long as bandits begin to overrun the village Tolby, resulting in Tobias and crew being sent to get help to defeat them. This first act of the game sets the scene and tone for the rest of the story; one of betrayal and revenge – an almost unexpected turn of events, and lays way to the mainstay of the title: turn-based battles, laid out in a typical grid fashion.
The tutorial, which plays out the first half hour of the game, is rather laborious and cannot be skipped. Unless you're a total noob to this type of game, it's a real drag. There's nothing taught here that couldn't be very quickly picked up simply by playing the game properly. A word of warning too; if you play through the trial, unlocking the full game does not allow you to continue from that point, meaning that you have to play through the entire tutorial and subsequent battles again - a good amount of wasted time.
The story plays out within the game engine, using a lot of text and sound-effects to convey the situation, occasionally falling back on an animated cut-scenes; these only appear at the end of one of the game's acts, as it's something that would otherwise bloat the already substantial 600 MB download. This works fine, though involves a fair chunk of reading - it's all too easy just to skip quickly with repeated button presses, thereby missing out on the story and ultimately why it is the player is on his quest.
Vandal Hearts doesn't stray far from the SRPG formula - once on the battle map, individuals act in turn, with a bar along the top of the screen showing which character gets to go next. A typical turn involves moving a team member and making them perform an action, whether this is magic, attack with a ranged or melee weapon, defending their position or using an item from inventory. Elevations and positioning make a difference to damage infliction, and AI controlled people tend to manoeuvre for a rear entry, so to speak.
Should party members be appropriately placed on the grid, a team attack can occur, causing extra damage to an enemy. Making this work though involves thinking about when friend and foe units can move, timing and positioning of this can be pretty tough as there are often a seemingly overwhelming number of enemies on each map. All too often in this genre, it's possible to get away with having a tank character to take all the damage, along with a few powerful ranged attackers. Not so much in Vandal Hearts as there is some strategy to the proceedings. Proper use of magic users to slow down enemies and buff allies is often required to beat the AI; certainly making a big difference earlier on in the game.
At the start of each battle, the terms for victory and defeat are explained – this usually consists of beating all the enemies on the map, but also occasionally ensuring that certain main characters or NPCs survive the ordeal. Failure to do so means playing the level again from scratch, and given these can play out over a good twenty to thirty minutes, it's well worth buckling down and getting it right first time.
For each enemy defeated in battle, a number of gold pieces are awarded; typically for an RPG, these can be spent on items to aid party members in battle. Each skill used in battle has its own upgrade path, gained from experience earned from defeating enemies. In this way, characters develop based on the style of play the gamer prefers; use a lot of melee attacks and skills in this area will increase. Use a lot of magic attacks and the character will tread a mage-like career.
At the end of some battles, the party will return to camp allowing progress to be saved, items to be bought and sold in the shops, or the status of the team to be checked. Here the player has access to Tobias's journal, which broadens the universe with information about people met, places discovered and events encountered or learnt about.
Leaving camp places the player in control in the world map; from here our heroes travel to their next destination. It's possible to have a free look around the gaming world; only places already visited or that will progress the story are available to travel to, but it's at this point you realise the scale of the journey – the world map is huge.
Where Vandal Hearts gets a little irritating is in the menu, movement and action selections. A good example of this is ranged and magic attacks. Rather than being able to jump to a target selection from a menu after choosing a skill or spell, the cursor has to be moved to the intended victim. This slows down the game a little bit too much - there are even spare buttons on the joypad (that is the shoulder buttons) which would have been ideal to quickly switch between viable targets. Alas, there is much cursor movement to endure.
For a Strategy RPG game, and an XBLA title for that matter, Vandal Hearts is reasonably pleasing to the eye. There's none of that low-resolution sprite nonsense that you get with the Alpha-Male of the genre, Disgaea, instead there are high-res environments and well animated characters which adjourn the screen. The characters perhaps aren't the most beautiful of creations though, with somewhat distorted heads that don't completely match the attached bodies. It's certainly far from unpleasant though.
Vandal Hearts represents a good thirty hours of gaming, though much of it remains quite repetitive, the story really isn't particularly interesting and is also quite slowly paced. That aside, for those who have an interest in strategy RPGs, Vandal Hearts will engage those looking for a challenging encounter, albeit lacking the depth of a number of retail releases. At 1200 MSP, it is one of the more expensive XBLA titles, though its polished presentation and lack of competition makes it worth checking out for fans of the genre, however, it's not one for the casual gamer.