Vandal Hearts was first released on the Playstation in the mid 90s, and was well received. A sequel was made and enjoyed by many, but the series has been quiet until a prequel was just recently released on XBLA and the PSN. Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is a competent and traditional strategy RPG that should appease fans of the genre who aren't expecting anything more than a typical gameplay experience.
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment (VH: FoJ)casts players as Tobias, a young male who's world get turns upside down one day. During a training session which doubles as the game's tutorial, a series of bandits raids Tobias village and chaos ensues. The story unfolds via text based conversations between characters and through cutscenes, both of which are nicely done. In between story advancement, players will engage CPU controlled enemies in a series of battles as they move from one part of the game world to the next, completing objectives, gaining party members, leveling up, and so forth.
The actual gameplay of Vandal Hearts is straight-forward and familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the genre. Actions are turn based, meaning that only one character at a time can make their move. Each map is broken down into a grid, with colors representing what actions are available to your character depending on what items they have equipped and what their skill level is. As the player, you will control Tobias and his young friends that he meets along the way. You can read the biographies of characters in between battles at the Camp.
All characters can be upgraded and each has Core skills, along with Combat, Magic, and Special skills. Core skills include Melee, Range, Magic, and Reaction, as well as defense against Melee, Range, and Magic. Combat Skills include First Strike, Flank Attack, Rear Attack, Charge, Deflection, and Elevated. Magic skills include a variety of defensive and offensive spells, while Special skills are just that, special abilities. Furthermore, each character has an upgradeable amount of HP and MP, along with basics like Strength, Agility, Movement, and Mentality. How you use your characters in combat determines what Skill Upgrades they get. In that way, Vandal Hearts does not utilize a typical XP based leveling system.
Each battle sequence starts with a clear outline of the objectives and what conditions would mean failure (if a certain NPC dies, or you loose too many team members for example). Sometimes your team is split up at the start of a mission with CPU enemies all around. In those cases I found it best to get my team together to help even the odds, and by doing that, victory isn't too hard to come by. Attacking enemies from behind, from above, and while near teammates helps ensure you do maximum damage, too. It's also vital to use the appropriate weapon for the job. Each character has both melee and ranged weapons they can switch to during their turn. Players can counterattack CPU attacks if they are equipped with the right type of weapon, so you'll find yourself regularly switching between your types. Applying these, and other obvious strategies like putting your higher HP characters out in front of your more fragile ones usually equals a victory on your first or second attempt.
Battles can last a while though, as often there are well over a dozen characters that each have a turn. As far as I could tell you can't zip through CPU turns, but this isn't something a fan of the genre will mind. Having some way to speed up CPU turns would have been appreciated, as would the ability to save at anytime during a battle.
As far as presentation goes, VH: FoJ is a very colorful and decent looking game. The childish, cartoon like art style will displease some, but I was okay with it. In terms of audio, I didn't detect anything outstanding, but what is offered in terms of voice acting, effects, and soundtrack aren't bad.
For those who have played the original titles and for anyone who likes a straight-forward tactical RPG, VH: FoJ is worth a look.