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Vandal Hearts
Review By: Shane Sacobie
Developer:   Konami
Publisher:   Konami
# of Players:   1
Genre:   RPG
ESRB:   Mature

Picture if you will a land in turmoil and on the brink of destruction. At the moment of the land's greatest peril, an unlikely hero steps forward to take on any and all evil forces that threaten the existence of the land. The aforementioned hero is uncertain of the truth that has been enshrouded upon by his past, never really fits into the expected mold of those around him, will one day wield a sword that is the greatest weapon forged by and known to mankind, and is known to play an ocarina. Sound familiar? It should to those of you who have played (or at least heard of, and how could you have avoided it without all the hype?) Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Granted, much of the setup is similar to Nintendo's Zelda 64, but with the exception of what I've stated thus far and the fact that both games are RPG's (of course, despite being classified within the same genre, the difference between the styles of the two games are like night and day), the similarities basically end there (and rather abruptly at that).

First and foremost, when it comes to graphics, you'll notice the unique and well done battle sequences. Since you'll be spending most of your time (at least 80%) fighting battles, it was imperative that the battles were well designed. This is one of those rare instances when a company actually managed to make full use of the PlayStation controller, which fits the landscapes well, as the 3D design of the fighting lends itself well to the extra L and R buttons. With the design, the player can easily rotate and zoom around the battlefield as needed.

There is, unfortunately, a (barely) noticeable flaw that results in the tactic of having fully 3D battlegrounds. At times, it results in the player being unable to see some things within the field. This is especially bad when you're trying to strategically plan a magic spell that has a large range and need to see if it will hit/help the desired enemy/ally. However, everything is pulled off so smoothly that you probably won't notice this problem too often.

Next on the list of graphical treats is the magic spells. While they may not be as flashy as some games, these spells deliver some excellent eye candy, and by the time you get toward the end of the game, you'll get some great full (and I do mean full) screen spells, some of which span not only the area of the screen that you are currently on, but also go through other areas of the battlefield on the path to hit multiple enemies.

Unlike games that have come out since it (:::Final Fantasy VII:::) that probably would've bombed without a heavy reliance FMV's, Vandal Hearts would manage to stand on its own as being graphically impressive with or without FMV's. However, the FMV's displayed between chapters are quite good and add to the overall dramatic effect of the game as a whole.

Perhaps the one fault with the graphics (other than the problem that arises occasionally with battles) is the character deaths, though some people may consider the manner in which deaths occur to be an enhancement rather than a fault. Whenever someone dies, buckets of blood spray everywhere. However, despite the fact that it detracts from realism somewhat, it doesn't really detract that much from the game overall. My guess is that Konami figured that the ESRB was going to give the game a Mature rating anyway due to the subject matter (granted, I feel that the game is appropriate for teens, but who knows what and when the ratings board is thinking), so they decided to add in the blood to contribute to the overall feel of the game and its storyline. Another thing you might notice is that Vandal Hearts is a rather dark game graphically much of the time, but this is also done in order to add to the mystique.

While sound is not as important to this game as the graphics are (due to the fact that the 3D battles are what were intended to make or break it), it is still done well. Most noticeably, the narrator stands out, which is important because the game is essentially a storybook (no, not like Yoshi's Story--more along the lines of "The Never Ending Story"). It's refreshing to find a game that doesn't have terrible voice acting, and despite the fact that the narrator is pretty much the only one in the game who talks (well, everyone else talks, but it's all through text), it is a nice addition, and his voice and what he says contribute highly to the overall feel of the game (not to mention the fact that the background sound effects he's been given help to move along the FMV's between chapters).

Going back to the spells, they all have a unique sound to them, and when you get towards the higher levels (and thus more powerful spells), some of them become quite impressive. There also almost always seems to be some sort of sound occurring. Admittedly, many of the sound effects that the characters (friend and foe) make are somewhat strange. However, it helps to give them a personality (and if they're a really annoying enemy, it gives you incentive to wipe them out quickly). Music always seems to appropriately fit the scenes, resulting in a variety of tunes, from fast-paced to sad, which are of good quality.

At first glance, Vandal Hearts appears to be somewhat similar to Shining Force (those of you who have played SF know that's definitely not a bad thing), but after you play the game for a while, you realize that it actually is basically an enhanced version of SF. What separates VH from being classified as a Shining Force clone is the battle system. Gone are the days of flat 2D battlefields, as Vandal Hearts steps in with an excellent 3D battle system implemented in a heretofore unseen manner. Additionally, the storyline deals with some very serious issues and in itself helps to create something unique.

When you first being playing, you realize that (unlike traditional RPG's), you are not actually allowed to walk (in towns, you choose move and then select the location where you want to go, and in battles, you move a cursor to where you want to go and then he/she will go there). This appears to be a hindrance at first because it's most likely something that the RPG gamer is not used to, but after a while, it just becomes second nature and doesn't wind up presenting any problem eventually.

Essentially, because the game revolves around the battles, the most important aspect of the gameplay is the ability to be able to strategically plan a confrontation to get the desired result (victory). If you don't like RPG's/strategy games, this probably won't appeal to you. Of course, if you don't like those types of games, you probably already own (read: should get if not) a Nintendo 64, as the RPG genre is the only one that the PlayStation has a sizable dominance in. For those of you who like this type of game, VH is a blast and something that you probably won't be able to stop playing for quite some time once you get into it.

Even when you're not fighting a battle, you still need to think strategically. Whether you're considering what weapons/armor/items to buy or which class to advance your characters to (each character has the ability to advance twice, and most of them have more than one path to take in advancement the first time and more than one path the next tmie), you always need to be thinking about what your next move will be and what is most important to make sure the party is ready for the next battle, which is always just around the corner.

What clinches Vandal Hearts as a great game is the story. There is always some sort of unexpected twist or turn occurring, and Konami managed to create an atmosphere of suspense that keeps you guessing what's going to happen next (and some of the plot twists seemingly come from nowhere, resulting in some intriguing surprises for those who stick with it through the end).

After playing Chrono Trigger, I felt as though it would be tough for a game to cover such serious issues in the manner that it did, but VH manages to not only do that, but does it better. It takes you on a journey through such issues as civil unrest, overthrowing a tyrannical and corrupt government, betrayal, being orphaned, revenge, armageddon, the list goes on. You truly get to know and care for the characters, which is something that most RPG's since the Super NES days have been unable to accomplish.

When it comes to endings, this game definitely has one of the best. While I don't want to give too much away, let's just say that if you're into sappy endings where everyone comes out of it with no problems, people gather around and cheer and throw ceremonies for the heroes, and the world continues to turn and is better than ever before (i.e. "Armageddon"), you won't appreciate the ending that much. However, if you would rather see an ending that is more realistic in which you win without everything turning out to be "peachy" (i.e. "Deep Impact"), you'll see the true genius of it. Everything is not wrapped up in one neat little package, and despite being somewhat sad and not clearly revealing everything (leaving you to use your imagination), it does present a glimmer of hope for the characters (as long as you keep watching it until the very end) without going the "yippy, yippy" route. There's also an excellent vocal number, which, despite not being in English, does help to convey the mood. (See? Singing isn't all that bad in games, as long it's done right.)

Replay mainly stems from the fact that almost all characters (with the exception of the main hero) have multiple paths to follow for advancement. Though the actual path you take (in terms of the story and the game's progression) is linear, your characters can follow different patterns of going through higher classes, which means that you will need to rethink the strategies that you established previously during battle, and fighting strategies are the key to the game, thus changing a key element. Additionally, you can decide to go through the same path as you originally took and see if your newfound strategies are quicker and more effective when you battle your way past evil the next time around.

Overall, Vandal Hearts is a great game, and anyone who owns a PlayStation and likes RPG's should check it out. Somehow, this gem got overlooked quite a bit, which means you'll probably be able to find it for a good price. If you can come across this for $20 (like I did), you have no excuse not to get it because it's a great example of why the PlayStation is on top of the gaming world (and a prime reason why Nintendo should smarten up and make a more RPG-developer-friendly system next time around).

Overall: 9.0
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