11 years is a long time to wait for a sequel, but a decent if not innovative, installment to the Vandal Hearts name.

User Rating: 7.5 | Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment PS3
Strategy RPG's are somewhat of a niche genre, even many avid RPG players don't play them and if they do it tends to be only those that have big names or are lucky enough to have burst through. The Vandal Hearts series are fairly unknown games even in that genre. When this game first came out I posted a thread about it in TheRPGTemple union here on gamespot to a surprising amount of "and this is...?" reactions.

To those people reading this equally in the dark let me fill you in. Vandal Hearts was originally released in 1996 on the Sony Playstation. It was one of the earliest RPG's out on the system and gained quite a cult following for those who played it largely due to it's over the top blood explosions when enemies died. A sequel followed it a couple of years later seeing what was thought to be the last of the series, that was, until Vandal Hearts Flames of Judgement was released 11 years later.

Flames of Judgement is a prequel story wise to the original game. The game starts a couple of years after a devastating war between two nations Urdu and Balastrade, a war that ended in a cataclysmic event all but destroying the armies of both countries. The main protagonist is a young man called Tobias, one of the many orphans from the afore mentioned war who is in the care of the church of restoration. His whole life changes however when what appears to be a simple bandit attack on the church sets off a set of events which sees Tobias and his friends having to step in the middle to try and prevent another war. The story line to Vandal Hearts is nothing epic but is surprisingly engaging and does more then a good enough job of pushing the group to various battlefields often with different objectives that nearly all result in the blood spray of vanquished enemies.

The gameplay is pretty much a standard SRPG affair. The group moves around on a static world map with each new location generally being a battlefield to fight or a small town to buy items, new weapons and armour or talk to a small handful of villagers that have no impact on the stories progression. Each battlefield Tobias and co get drawn into plays out in a similar fashion to a game of chess. Each map is separated into invisible grids that become visible whenever a character goes to move or attack, all of which is dependent on their move stat or what weapon / spell they are casting as to the range. Each battle is turn based on the speed stat of both enemies and allies alike, the higher their reaction, the sooner they will have a turn in the battle que. The battle maps themselves are reasonably sized for the most part and also quite diverse including forts, swamps, caves and villages and include the standard enemy types like wolves, mages and bandits.

Vandal Hearts does do one semi unique thing though, however it comes across as a bit hit and miss. Much like the original Final Fantasy II, Flames of Judgement doesn't use level ups to progress the characters stats. In place of that every action the character takes increases a skill somewhere. For example attacking with a bow increases the skill with that weapon as well as long range attack, where as taking damage may increase hp or defense. Nearly everything has a skill level and an experience bar for it meaning each character can essentially be developed however you want depending on playing style. However it doesn't quite work that way as many characters are given starting weapons / skills that are already above the others and it's easier to just develop those specific skills and weapons. Tobias for example starts off with a sword at a decent level, why would anyone then want to give him an axe at level 0? It didn't bother me as the 6 characters in the party are well balanced from the start and i like the level system there could have just been a bit more give.

The visuals are also a bit of a mixed bag. Technically they are decent for a PSN game, sharp, colourful with some great battlefield designs. The character models however leave a lot to be desired especially their portraits which are garishly ugly at best and look like they had their clothes and make up drawn on by their baby sister at worst. The audio fairs much better thankfully with some decent music especially at the title screen and some equally solid voice acting, where there is any anyway, most of the games dialogue is through simple text boxes.

Flames of judgement is not humongously long for an RPG, however for a PSN game it's value is surprisingly good at about 10 hours. There are also about 8 secret side battle maps to be found as well as 2 endings for all the trophies though the difference between them is merely a minute change in the final cutscene of little real note.

With Vandal Hearts, you really get what you expect. A nostalgia trip into an old series with solid gameplay mechanics and good value worth the purchase, especially to those who played the original games. A great idea to release an update on PSN and something i wish would be done to other series from much older game franchises.

+ Solid if retro SRPG gameplay
+ Decent value
+ Nice variety of maps
+ Great skill system

- Character art is horrible
- Skill system could have been more open