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.
The core mechanics of the series remain largely unchanged, however, and fans will be pleased to find that the strategy is as solid as ever. After preparing the troops and buying any vital weapons or items, players can choose a level from the map screen and jump straight into battle. Characters and enemies are organised into an order based on their speed, and commands can only be issued on their respective turns. Where more recent strategy games allow commands to be dished out to the whole team in one turn, Vandal Hearts mixes the order up between both allies and enemies, forcing players to adapt their tactics throughout the round.
Each character comes complete with two weapon slots, which can be filled with a sword, knife, axe or bow and arrow. As well as this, characters can equip spell books which allow the casting of magic. Once learnt, the book can be removed and the spell can be miraculously cast without it, although keeping it equipped will give the spell certain benefits in battle. Weapons can be changed mid-battle, too, allowing for on-the-fly changes of tactics based on the situation.
What's interesting about Flames of Judgment is that it completely abandons the class system, meaning that players can tailor their characters' strengths and skills as they progress. While the original Vandal Hearts games rewarded characters with experience points for defeating enemies, Flames of Judgment employs a more instantly rewarding mechanic. By using weapons and magic in battle, the corresponding skill level of that action will increase. So, each and every command you issue a character will affect his growth and development. For example, if you wanted to develop a warrior, place a sword or axe in his hands and set him upon the nearest enemy. Want a mage? Then learn as much magic as possible and spam spells at every given opportunity. It's simple and a genuinely refreshing take on the usual levelling up affair.
A streamlined command menu means that Flames of Judgment isn't as deep or complex as other games such as Disgaea or even Final Fantasy Tactics, although this is in no way to the game's detriment. There's more than enough on offer to allow for a wide range of strategic options; from the direction you leave your character facing after a turn, to the team attacks available through positioning your characters in the correct positions. If fans of the series are able to look past the garish visuals and uninspired plot, they'll find the same solid strategy that made the series such a success back in the 32-bit era.
Flames of Judgment is a solid, but somewhat disappointing addition to the selection of SRPGs XBLA and PSN currently have on offer. Although the game offers little in the way of innovation, Hijinx Studios has refined the traditional SRPG with great success. The fact that it has the words 'Vandal Hearts' in the title really doesn't do it any favours though; if this was a new IP, free from the shackles of the series and the scrutinising eyes of its fans, the game could have reached much greater heights. Instead, it will be remembered as little more than a missed opportunity, for which the new aesthetic is almost entirely liable for. Saying this, Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is still a robust and enjoyable experience; it just isn't quite what was expected.