I never thought I would get into a style of gaming as I did with strategy turn-based RPGs. It gets you thinking more and I praise how it changes up how you would normally play an RPG. Many people will say Fire Emblem was their first type of game in this style and I couldn’t blame them for that answer. It was very popular in Japan and once it reached here in the West in 2003, players were hooked. It wasn’t like that though during the late 90s. Sony and Nintendo were deadlocked in competition with the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. The typical games being released were platformers such as Mario 64, multiplayer shooters such as Goldeneye, and RPGs such as Final Fantasy VII. One company, however, decided to change the way gameplay was in the 3D realm that required a little more thinking.
Konami published a little gem on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn called Vandal Hearts in 1996 first released in Japan late in the year. It saw a North American release on March 27th, 1997 just a little over a month after Final Fantasy VII released. I don’t think people really gave much thought over what kind of style of game they were going to get into, but because it was published by a very well known company they had to give it a shot right? I didn’t get to first experience it until much later. I was about 12 years old at the time and I was watching my stepdad play it. Granted he only made it to the beginning of the second chapter I was intrigued. I got a chance to try it and of course, I too was not able to make it through all the way. I got frustrated with the game and gave up on it. It wasn’t until I got ahold of Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones that I gave this genre of gameplay another chance, and when I found Vandal Hearts again I made sure to play it all the way through to see what I missed all these years.
Vandal Hearts story starts with the explanation of the Holy Messiah known as Toroah, whose teachings throughout the land created a massive empire throughout the years known as the Holy Ashah Dynasty. Kings and Queens came and went, however, some of them did not rule fairly and just. Unrest would create a civil war in an attempt to dismantle the holy rule. As uneasy as it sounded one person rose to the top to lead the restless civilians in a rebellion. Known as Arris the Sage he led the charge to successfully overthrow the empire to create a new democracy which became the new Republic of Ishtaria. The people were overjoyed and wanted to have him lead the new democracy but suddenly vanished without a trace. As the new democracy is still shaping, many of the nobles and aristocrats that had taken advantage of the Ashah Dynasty rule began to rebel on their own. The story begins with the main hero known as Ash Lambert, a soldier of the 3rd Security Forces. Along with his companions Diego and Clint, the story begins with the player on their first map to eliminate some bandits that have been running wild.
I don’t want to delve too much into the story itself just give an idea of how things begin. The game focused playing on a 3D playing field where players move their units on a turn-based system to attack and defend positions. Simple as it sounds the level of difficulty would climb as the player advanced in chapters. Once you hit level 10 and 20 respectively units could be upgraded into something more powerful. No special items were required, with the exception of one class but I’ll get to that in a little bit. One thing I really noticed is that when I talk about this game with others they give me the look and ask, “What is that?” I’m surprised for how well known Konami is this game didn’t take off too well. Reviews were pretty mixed as critics gave the game above average scores but pointed out many of the games flaws such as the elimination of town exploration, map exploration and the like.
The style of the genre didn’t really take off until the release of Final Fantasy: Tactics one year later. With the popularity of Final Fantasy VII exploding the markets it was no surprise that Vandal Hearts would find itself victim to being buried in the dust. It was a little disappointing to hear but Konami fired back in 1999 with a sequel release of Vandal Hearts II. I can’t say much about this game only because I have never gotten an opportunity to play it (it is that hard to find) but from what I have gathered the game used different mechanics that followed Tactics strategy. Units could be customized with different sets of gear that essentially allowed them to change what kind of class they played without any sort of penalty. For example, a Warrior could become a Healer mid-battle with no issue. That sounds pretty bizarre, but players and critics alike praised it. Another mechanic was the Active Time Battle system. Players could move their unit while an A.I unit moved at the exact same time. That led to complicated moves and some frustrating plays. Unfortunately, it couldn’t compete with the growing popularity of Final Fantasy so once again it fell into obscurity.
Konami kept the series dormant for some time afterward. With the growing demand of Tactics and the new growing fandom of Fire Emblem players in the west, it was just too much to handle. In 2013 Konami decided to release a prequel known as Vandal Hearts: Flame of Judgement for the PlayStation Store on PlayStation 3. While it went back to the roots of the original, it didn’t receive the reception that Vandal Hearts reached. A Nintendo DS game was slated to be released but was ultimately scrapped. Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics would go on to dominate the markets in the turn-based strategy genre. I’m a bit upset that this was the case, but to be fair the other games did what Vandal Hearts couldn’t do and that’s why no one really remembers this game.
I implore those that have never seen or played the game to give it a chance, or even look up a full video walkthrough to see what truly could have been a competitor in the market. They even hid not only a completion bonus for those that like to complete games, but they hid a little ‘cheat’ for players to breeze through the later game with very little difficulty, and I want to explain how. For the completionists, there is a special class that only the main character can obtain known as Vandalier. The Vandalier is a hero swordsman that knows every spell in the game. Yes, that is correct every single spell in the game the Vandalier could use. To obtain this unique class, players must collect a special key in each of the 6 chapters and use them respectively. Chapter One’s key had to be used before the end of Chapter One or it would no longer work. The key would be taken to the temple where your items were stored, as well as where characters were class promoted. By selecting the Trial option players would be ported into a special map where they must complete the required objective in order to obtain a prism. Once all six prisms are collected the main character could then be promoted to Vandalier which also, in turn, gave them the Armor, Sword, and Helm of the Vandal. These items allow you to block ALL physical damage. As challenging the maps were this was a great incentive for those that completed the trials.
Maybe you don’t want to complete the game in full but rather just want to breeze your way through it. Well, this is the read for you! In Chapter Two Map Four the objective is to get all allies to the other side of the map. Monsters could be cleared out and the map would still continue. There are two healing circles on the middle of the map that healed both HP and MP to full each turn. To power level take your healer Sara or Huxley to one of these circles (or both) and begin having them cast ‘Mystic Shield’ on themselves. After six casts they would increase their level. Continue to do this to your desired level. The max is 49 so if you plan on getting that high in level expect to do this for about three hours. Once the level is reached take another character next to Sara/Huxley and have them use a Mage Oil item on them. This will give the character enough XP to level up 3 levels lower than the healer (up to level 46 with one item). Then just beat everything up!
My ultimate goal is to show people how this gem of a game got buried in the dirt thanks to rising popularity so please leave a comment if you have played this game and your thoughts. If you never played the game try to locate it and give it a chance. You will be pleasantly surprised on just how much the gameplay, characters, and story will grow on you.