Super Special Awesome Retro Review! – Vandal Hearts

Alright, this is the one I really wanted to write. It’s possibly the game from my childhood that means more to me than any other. Even Final Fantasy VII, a game which started a lifelong love tale between me and that series.

Vandal Hearts is a PS1 Turn Based Strategy game from the Before Times. It was a barren, mostly internet-less time. I hadn’t even heard of it when I played this with my dad. Well, I say with my dad. It was more me watching over his shoulder and offering up suggestions.

It tells the story of Ash Lambert, a policeman in the capital of a corrupted democracy that was built on the back of a meaningful revolution to depose the corrupt Empire that used to exist. Yeah, basically governments are shit in this game. Through a series of events, Ash and co. end up in a half political, half magical battle to help determine the fate of the land. Along the way you’ll conveniently recruit four swordsmen, four archers, two black mages and two white mages from whom to build your party.

See, unlike games of this ilk where you’re able to rotate your characters through a bunch of classes or equip them with a bunch of different things to give them different skills and such each of your characters has a class that they can start in, and then choose one of two wildly different classes to change into once they reach Level 10. The interplay of these different classes forms the strategic depth of the game. To quoth the game itself:

“Sword defeats Bow,

Bow defeats Air,

And Air defeats Sword.

Armour is strong but slow,

Mages are weak but wise,

And Monks use word and claw.”

 Thus, you have to choose which balance of classes to make a team that can handle all situations. At least, that’s the theory. See, as hefty as punch as the Armour Class packs, it’s way too slow to serve on the front lines, can’t scale high jumps and gets torn apart by mages, which are a huge late game threat. And while monks have no weaknesses, they’re also not good at anything either. Weaker than Swordsmen, who’re the average fighters, and worse mages than the mages, they’re completely pointless.

No, there’s really only one or two combos that “work”, but applying the rock-paper-scissors while also keeping note of other, standard tactical challenges of this type of game makes for an enjoyable experience. It’s also a lot better balanced, as the limited combinations for both you and the enemy, plus the narrative driven nature meaning you can never play the same map twice means that everything from the terrain to the enemy variety can be much better designed to offer up an interesting challenge.

The downside? There’s exactly one sidequest. The half a dozen challenge maps it opens up are the only battles available outside of the main story. The structure of the game means that all your characters should always be at just the right level, so nobody’s in danger of getting left behind. And the six fairly meaty chapters should keep you interested in the challenge if not the story (which is pretty damn decent for what it is). Then again, when you do finish it Ash becomes a unique class that may as well be known as the “You Win” class, though you’ll only be able to use it in the final few battles.

One thing I love about the story is you know how the political intrigue in a Japanese strategy and/or role-playing game inevitably gives way to world ending eldritch horrors? Not here. Though magic certainly has a role to play in the story, and some of the political stuff breaks down towards the end, they actually form quite a good interplay with magic being subservient.

So yeah, that’s Vandal Hearts. A fun little rare strategy title that’s still my favourite of the genre. What it lacks in quantity of content is makes up for in quality. It seems others agree, because it’s like £100 on eBay.
Of course, I do have a copy. Two, actually. My dad keeps the original (still kinda working) disc we played together safe at his (the original case and booklet long since lost and broken) while I have a working copy that I just can’t resist replaying from time to time.

This holds a honoured in both my memories and on my shelf. It’s an experience I’d love to share with more people. Someday maybe.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hokuto199x
    May 05, 2012 @ 23:10:07

    Ah… Vandal Hearts. This is a game very close to my heart. I would even go as far as to say it’s my favourite RPG of all time. There’s just something about this game that sets it apart from anything else I’ve played. A certain.. je ne sais quoi, if you will.

    I’ve just opened my new website with a review of this gem of a game. Feel free to check it out over at Beyond Final Apologies for the shameless plug.



  2. jackcalico
    May 05, 2012 @ 23:34:51

    It’s always good (if rare) to find another Vandal Hearts fan!


  3. Anonymous
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 04:37:12

    we should ban together to get them to do an official release for psp/ vita. That would be nice.


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