Is 32-bit gameplay better than that of the 16 or 8-bit eras? While the graphics are beyond anything fathomable five years ago, most gamers are still unsure of whether the games they are playing today are actually more fun than those of a few years ago. Konami's Vandal Hearts is a prime example of the industry's lopsided development. It's a solid, terrific looking game - yet it lacks the features that made RPGs like Shining Force instant classics.
The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the youth are getting restless. So goes the story of Vandal Hearts (and if it sounds familiar, that's because it basically the same as Konami's last game, Suikoden). Government corruption and a growing unrest among the common folk are steadily coming to a head, leaving the player as the only one to prevent "anarchy in the RPG" from breaking out.
Vandal Hearts builds on the Shining Force motif and sticks to RPG basics. Players lead a sizable team of warriors, mages, clerics, and other role-playing types against a variety of enemy monsters and bosses. Combat is strategically driven, requiring players to prepare in town and carefully map out strategies for each battle. Between fights, the plot unfolds and players are given time to prepare for the next conflict.
One unique addition to the game's combat system is the tactical interplay among the seven character classes. For instance, knights have the advantage against bowmen, who have an advantage over flying characters, and the flying characters in -turn have an advantage against knights. Keeping track of all of this, as well as factoring in the advantage offered by boulders and similar useful items strewn throughout polygonal battlefields, can be pretty mind-boggling, and players will need to remain sharp in order to succeed in this unique mix of chess, rock-paper-scissors, and Dungeon & Dragons.
Had Final Fantasy VII never existed, Vandal Hearts' combination of sprites and polygons would be rather impressive. The various battlefields, which appear to hover, lack polygonal detail giving objects a peculiar "squared-off" look with a high level of pop-up. Even so, the game's textures are colorful and detailed, and give the game a look reminiscent of Pandemonium. The battles start off unimpressively, but as your spells build, the visual effects rival those of the ultra-impressive Suikoden. Between chapter cinematics are also a nice touch, if somewhat compressed. Game sound is a mixed bag, offering effects that vary wildly in quality and music that can only be described as nondescript.
In the end, Vandal Hearts' fatal flaw is its lack of the explorative aspect that made games like Shining Force so great. Instead the game's progression is perfectly linear and completely lacking in replay value (don't bother looking for hidden characters and other special items you won't find either). Players should expect roughly fifteen hours of gameplay, mostly spent in battle.
Considering how much it borrows from classic strategy/role-playing games, it's a shame to see that Vandal Hearts does not live up to its potential.