Title :Vandal Hearts
Platforms :Sony PlayStation
Publisher :Konami
Game Rating :4 stars
Review by :Ken Gagne

Konami, makers of the popular Castlevania and Contra game series, are tryingto break the current RPG barrier on the Sony PlayStation platform. After a successful release of Suikoden, they now introduce the RPG/strategy title, Vandal Hearts. 

The premise is neither complex nor original: under an oppressive government, rebels fight for freedom. The main character, Ash Lambert, the son of a traitor, fights for the country's militia, but later receives globe-spanning assignments. As he travels, as many as ten other characters will join his party. Later, the plot grows more complex and hints of ancient evils wielded by two-faced despots, and situations where good and bad often fall into the gray area. 

While the premise is familiar, other elements of Vandal Hearts' gameplay are original. Many RPG elements have been stripped: there is no travelling from point A to point B, but merely selections on a world map list. Since battles only occur in predestined areas, there is a finite amount of experience and gold with which to earn strength and armaments. There is no exploration factor or tedious level-building. All statistics are restored between battles. 

The battle system itself is extremely intriguing, a strategic simulation with many components. Characters and enemies take turns in action, moving about in a 3D, isometric playing field reminiscent of Solstice or Super Mario RPG. The camera angle can be turned or heightened to 16 different points of view. The placement of characters, terrain, and elevation must all be considered when forming a proper attack. Much thinking and several attempts are required before a battle can be won. As the adventurers achieve victory, they can train into higher classes of the player's choosing, making for a customized fighting party. 

The graphics are a mixed bag, but overall satisfying. The town scenes are still life, but make for great paintings. Graphics during character interaction, be it in conversation or during wartime, are often grainy and pixelated. The closeups of people's faces often have several forms of expression. The automated camera during enemy turns doesn't always correctly pan to the action, but zooms in for some great special effects from magic spells. 

Music often consists of a simple beat, changing dependent on who's in charge but not usually on the turn of events. A rich digitized narration introduces each chapter into which the game is divided, but that's all there is for voices. 

Control, as always in an RPG, is simple. Everything is menu-driven, and the point-and-click interface for moving battle icons gets the fighters where they're going. Should a move not land where intended, it's easy to cancel and re-evaluate the scenario. 

Vandal Hearts has a "Mature" rating, recommended for players 17 and older. Since most player interaction occurs in battle, this is a fight-intensive game. There is rampant, superfluous use of blood at the death of any living icon. However, the subject matter and plotlines don't generally go so overboard. 

In the end, Vandal Hearts proves to be a fascinating title that's hard to put down. Though not the role-playing adventure most players will want, but the strategy elements will appeal to even the amateur chess player or aspiring war general. There's nothing else like it currently available on the PlayStation market!

This article is copyright (c) 1997, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 28-Apr-97