It wasn't long ago that the strategy RPG was on the verge of death, choking on its clichéd plots and stale gameplay mechanics and desperately trying to cling onto survival. Noticing that the genre was in danger, strategy specialists Nippon Ichi gave it a firm slap on the back, filling it with life and promise once more. The ensuing Disgaea series offered team customisation, stylish anime character designs and an absurd level of depth. More recently, SEGA has dragged the genre kicking and screaming into the next generation with the fantastic Valkyria Chronicles, which turned the mechanics of the genre on its head by ditching grid-based battlefields and replacing them with glorious cel-shaded environments. Not only this, the game implemented real-time movement and a cover system more commonly associated with a third-person shooter. The SRPG had not only survived, it had evolved.
For the first time in years the genre is looking fit and healthy, and there's little chance it'll disappear anytime soon. As it continues to grow and evolve, however, is there still room for the traditional SRPG; for isometric battlefields, coloured grids and clichéd plot-lines? Of course there is - and to prove it, Konami has resurrected the once genre-defining Vandal Hearts series.
The game first appeared some 13 years ago, initially on the SEGA Saturn, but quickly moved onto bigger and better things on the PlayStation. Just like Fire Emblem and Shining Force before it, Vandal Hearts helped popularise the console SRPG. With its tenacious characters, deep narrative and solid turn-based gameplay, the formula proved incredibly popular, and the game gained a small but loyal fan base. Much to their joy, Vandal Hearts 2 was released a few years later, but since then, the series has gone dark, enjoying some ten years in hibernation with the name only occasionally surfacing in core gaming circles.
Let us, then, give thanks (or hurl abuse, depending on your viewpoint) to Hijinx Studios, which has awakened the series from its decade long slumber by bringing Vandal Hearts to both PSN and XBLA. Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is a prequel set before the first game, taking place after the end of an epic war. Our banal hero comes in the form of Tobias, an orphan studying at the Church of Restoration; a school and orphanage of sorts. No sooner has a tutorial cleverly disguised as a school lesson explained the basics of combat, than a group of thugs attack the Church and the neighbouring town. Along with Calvin, a feeble urchin who excels at magic and looks a lot like a purple-haired version of Harry Potter, Tobias is ordered to find help. Disappearing off into the wilderness with nothing but a practice sword, bow and arrow, and a few weak spells, the boys quickly become involved in a plot of a much greater magnitude.
Vandal Hearts was once a dark and somewhat sombre affair, with detailed 2D sprites, gorgeous character art and a mature tone. With Flames of Justice Hijinx Studios has taken the Vandal Hearts art style, put it through its development blender, and churned out a hideously disfigured graphical mess that fails to compliment the atmosphere of the series in any way, shape or form. This might come off a tad harsh - the graphics aren't that bad, in fact they're fairly competent from a technical perspective - it's just that they're inappropriate, unsuitable, and just not Vandal Hearts.
Who the game is aimed at is anybody's guess. Fans of the original games will run a mile once they lay eyes upon the unsightly character designs and children's adventure book cutscenes. Conversely, the slow-paced tactical gameplay will do little to entice newcomers to the genre. Flames of Judgment finds itself sinking in a quagmire of demographical confusion. The worst thing is that it could have been avoided quite easily by retaining the mature tone and appearance of the original games. In all respects, the re-brand was completely unnecessary.