Title :Vandal Hearts II
Platforms :Sony PlayStation
Publisher :Konami
ESRB Rating :Mature
Game Rating :9.3
Review by :Ken Gagne

I rolled up my sleeves, worried by the situation. Lira had fallen, though not before her Thunderslash had taken down the mage whose Requiem spell had so decimated my ranks. The hero Joshua was left alone to face the assassin Godeau the Grief and his blackguard; be it Joshua or Godeau, the first to die would lose. 

Godeau's magical Dervish attack prevented Josh from approaching, so I instead ordered the hero to race through the field, tiring the killer until his magic was depleted. I then lured Godeau into the thick brush, where the enemy warrior could not follow due to his heavy armor. Godeau lacked something I have: the ability to anticipate his next move. I ordered Joshua to strike an empty spot I thought Godeau may move to, then watched as the two fighters faced off. Godeau made to attack Joshua, but by then the hero had already relocated, striking a fatal blow to Godeau's unprotected back. Victory! 

As complicated as chess, yet more rewarding — it's Vandal Hearts II, a role-playing game (RPG) from Konami for the Sony PlayStation. 

VHII, like its predecessor, is a tactical RPG in which most player interaction occurs in combat. Battlefields are 3D isometric arenas of various heights and terrain. Characters move one-by-one with limited movement and attack ranges. New to the sequel is a unique turn sequence: instead of all allies moving at once, followed by the enemies' turn, moves now occur simultaneously. For every player move, one computer icon moves. As a result, an icon's attack may miss the target because it has moved since the attack was ordered. It is possible to anticipate enemy movements, but thinking ahead even further is necessary to minimize casualties. But nothing beats outsmarting the enemy, tactically outmaneuvering him when it counts most. Several factors must be considered for efficient strikes, including who has the higher ground, clearer terrain, support from local units, and which sides of the body are armored. 

There is also no longer a limit on the number of battles. Players may revisit old fields for as many battles as they like, earning experience and gold and looking for missed treasures. Clearing a field with no casualties doubles the booty earned, whereas deaths result in penalties. 

The story plays out between battles, and often requires the player to sit through long dialogues. Though these scenes are important to the story, they can occasionally frustrate gamers looking to pick a fight. 

The game's plot, a prequel to the first Vandal Hearts, is intriguing, spanning several years and nations. There are so many characters, a family tree would be helpful; fortunately, online synopses and histories are accessible at anytime, briefing the player on essential data. 

This game is rated "M" for mature. The story revolves around war and intrigue, with scenes that show murder and plunder and hint of rape. In battle, enemies die with a gush of blood, though not as superfluously as in the first Vandal Hearts. 

Also between battles, players may visit towns to accouter their characters. Any character may use any item, with various weapons and armors tailored with specific strengths, weaknesses, and special techniques. This freedom allows players to customize characters, but unlike Final Fantasy Tactics, does not provide an overwhelming and confusing number of options. 

The game has no online tutorial, so players unfamiliar with strategy RPGs should read the manual. The game starts off easily, but as more allies and enemies become involved, large-scale battles become the norm, and victory is not always ensured. 

Character portraits have become more realistic since VHI, but the new look doesn't jive with the almost cartoony look of the battlefields. The fields themselves have several neat effects, from light shafts in a dark forest to small cascades of water. Spell effects are especially welcome, creating a graphical stir when invoked. 

The music fails to enliven the situations, often resorting to simple, repetitive tunes. Not that these melodies are grating in any way, but they fail to live up to what is often the most impressive aspect of a good RPG. A similar lack of digitized voice, even just for reading each chapter's opening text, is disappointing. 

Vandal Hearts II is a game of several average qualities, and many outstanding ones. Though RPGs have finally gained acceptance in the American market, tactical RPGs are still rare, and good ones are rarer still. Vandal Hearts II provides players with a unique offering and a rewarding challenge with the stuff legends are made of.

This article is copyright (c) 1999, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 20-Dec-99