Flames of Judgment is the first game to be released in the Vandal Hearts turn-based strategy role-playing game series for a full decade. Hijinx Studios has done a reasonably good job with this resurrection job for the Xbox Live Arcade (1,200 points) and PlayStation Network ($14.99), too, although there is only so much that the developer could do with such a dated concept. The end result here is a game that looks and feels a little creaky but still provides enough formulaic tactical RPG fun to satisfy the more undemanding fans of the genre.
Just like the first Vandal Hearts that came out way back in the late 1990s, this new entry is a stock Japanese turn-based RPG. If you've played anything in the genre before--from Ogre Tactics to Disgaea--you'll find few innovations here. The story serves as a prequel to the old Vandal Hearts saga, with events picking up in the years immediately following the cataclysmic ending to the war between the nations of Urdu and Balastrade. You take on the role of Tobias, one of the many orphans of the conflict, and step into his pointy adventurer boots when his Church of Restoration training academy is attacked by unknown enemies. As usual in role-playing yarns like this, Tobias's world comes crashing down right after the tutorial. A horde of evil goons attack the church, as well as its neighboring village, forcing Tobias and his kiddie pals to run off into the wilderness. From there, quests ensue, which generally involve killing a whole lot of bad guys in order to figure out what's going on and save the world. The writers didn't burn too much midnight oil coming up with this turgid tale, although they did a credible job on the characterization and well-voiced dialogue. Little touches in the game help you identify with the heroes, such as your timid mage friend Calvin expressing his shock at having to kill people immediately after the first combat sequence. Unfortunately, the story is undermined by characters that resemble hobbits seen in funhouse mirrors, and the visuals mesh anime into Saturday-morning cartoon art styles with predictably garish results.
Game mechanics are generic in every way. You guide your party of adventurers around a world map in real time, stopping regularly to fight turn-based battles against typical fantasy monsters that range from wolves and bandits to ghosts and giant creepy worms. The grid-based battlefields are larger and more diverse than what you find in most tactical RPGs, though. So, at least you're fighting these Monster Manual expatriates in varied terrain like swamps, valleys, open fields, and even sacked villages. Controls are also smooth and effortless. You progress through the ranks of your party in each turn, beginning with basic movement and then choosing an action or defending. A couple of button presses accomplish everything here whether you're swapping a sword for a bow or cueing up a spell. Character development is based on a classless system where heroes improve skills with use instead of leveling up with experience points. So if you want a character to become a warrior, give him a sword. If you want to crank out a mage, have him cast spells. Or so the theory goes. In reality, there isn't any point messing with characters because they begin with big ability boosts that establish their jobs for the entire game. Calvin, for instance, is pretty much a born mage. He even looks a little like a prepubescent Harry Potter. So there isn't any point in moving away from the default skill settings unless you want to provide yourself with more of a challenge. Otherwise, you can just push forward with combat and not think too much about managing party development.
Actually, there isn't a whole lot in any part of Flames of Judgment that requires you to think too much. The battles don't pose much of a challenge until the later stages of the six-to-seven-hour campaign. Much of the time you can sail through by just clicking on each character's strong points in combat. Every now and again, you have to do something to deal with terrain or handle the rather annoying way that the game sometimes splits your party into random groupings before a scrap. But other than that, it's full-steam ahead without much pause for tactical thought. You may run into a tough fight occasionally, although you never really get stuck because you can always retreat to improve your party by grinding an easier battle. With that said, the game moves along quickly and provides enough of a story to keep you hooked despite the lack of serious challenge on the battlefield. It's easy to fall into that "just one more turn" headspace, even though you know that you're probably not going to encounter anything that your heroes can't slice and dice in short order.
You get exactly what you expect in Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment. This stereotypical tactical RPG might not offer anything pioneering, but it does provide a solid retro experience for anyone who wants to enjoy a fresh entry in a genre that isn't seen very often these days on current-gen consoles.