Watching a beloved series re-emerge after years of lying dormant is always disconcerting. On the one hand, it’s nice to see developers expand on a world already well-fleshed out and attempt to recapture something that was thought lost forever. On the other hand, it may be worse to have a crappy sequel than to have no sequel at all. Worst of all would be a sequel that’s good enough to look promising and manages to recreate many of the best elements of the series, but ends up being mediocre and only dulls the series in the fans’ eyes. The last, unfortunately, is the case with Vandal Hearts: Flame of Judgment, a western-developed entry in Konami’s strategy RPG series.
It’s not that the game doesn’t have good elements. On the contrary, it’s brimming with promise: there’s an impressively deep skill system that makes leveling transparent and continual; variety in the missions ultimately makes several scenarios better than many in the original Vandal Hearts games; bonus “treasure” maps allow for hidden stages, and skirmish maps let the grind-lovers do their thing. The story is dark, but not too complicated and the characters are fun if a little standard. There’s a lot here to like, and in the end I enjoyed the majority of what I played.
A few significant flaws bring VH: FoJ down from the pedestal I just set it up on. First off, the game is incredibly easy throughout. Only a couple of missions have the potential to be difficult, even without significant grinding. It seems like the developers realized this was going to be a problem, but instead of making enemies stronger (god forbid they survive a single back-stab), they bring in more enemies over the course of the mid-game battles. By the end of the game, enemies no longer appear mid-battle, but the normal enemies aren’t significantly harder. I only lost a battle once near the end, and that was due to a combination of my stupidity and Calvin’s utter uselessness.
FoJ’s worst flaw, arguably, is that the end of the game comes all too quickly. It’s not quick just in the sense of “did I just spend $25 on a 10-hour tactical RPG?”, it’s also quick in the sense that you go straight from finding out what’s really going on to putting an end to it. You confront minor villains and immediately put them to the sword; it feels neither satisfying nor realistic, and given how many early battles feel inconsequential plot-wise, FoJ is sort like a bad roller-coaster ride: about two minutes of listening to the awful clack-clack-clack sound as the cars are pulled to the top, and then 30 seconds of excitement.
The depth of the skill system is a double-edged sword. There’s a lot to explore in there – several skills are interesting and unusual (such as dealing extra damage after moving four or more squares), but the only way to progress in skills is to execute them (or watch them be executed, to a lesser extent). In the end, your mage will always be squishy and a terrible fighter, because you’d have to put him in the front lines to improve either. Your fighters can improve in magic fairly easily though, which makes all the front-line characters powerhouses by the end – not that magic really even matters. The worst part of the system is that since the end of the game comes so quickly, no grinding or skill management is required. This makes the game’s mechanics something along the lines of getting SCUBA gear and then only being able to dive in a kiddie pool.
Although it’s nothing amazing, FoJ manages to keep some of the darker elements of the Vandal Hearts games despite its art style. I won’t dwell on the art style aside from saying that everyone looks like a hobbit, and it’s weird to see bearded hobbits stabbing each other. If you can suspend your disbelief, the art shouldn’t bug you. The story itself is dark and political, but not nearly as much of the latter as the earlier games. None of the elements are really complex – no deep villains or brooding heroes, so you may find its simplicity appealing – but neither are the primary characters more than two-dimensional. Only the main character receives any development, and it’s mostly the standard “congrats, you are a hero, save us all now” stuff. I was pretty disappointed in the conclusion of the game, since it seemed to go against the main theme of the original game.
Regardless of my complaints about its plot and ending, I see Vandal Hearts FoJ as merely too expensive for what you get. It has significant load times despite simple graphics, the voice acting is disappointing, and it’s shorter than you’d expect – but in the end it’s not really bad, only mediocre. Hopefully FoJ will convince other developers to try making smaller RPGs and strategy games for the various console delivery platforms, but FoJ itself was a disappointment.