So first of all, this is a hugely misleading cover. You fight like, one dragon, and he's a little fella. You break into his home and run a clinic on him, it's totally unprovoked and it made me feel bad. But that shouldn't deter you from picking up Vandal Hearts. If you're looking for a solid entry point into tactical RPGs or are a veteran who would like to play one that's a bit less involved and more relaxing, then you can't go wrong here.
Vandal Hearts doesn't have the same level of narrative or mechanical complexity as Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre, but lacking multiple convoluted systems and poorly localized intrigue allows it to comfortably occupy a more casual spot on the Tactical RPG spectrum. Not having to fret about equipment or even what units to take into battle is weirdly to its advantage, as Vandal Hearts shapes each battle around a specific problem. Maybe your ship is being boarded by another boat, creating two distinct bottlenecks for you and the enemy, or perhaps you're on a bridge that is being destroyed one rung at a time, creating a sense of urgency to cross while engaging with the enemy. Levels feature more interactivity, allowing you to spring traps to take out whole platoons of soldiers or create ambushes by closing off your opponent's route. The tactical element of Vandal Hearts isn't in how you manage the growth of your army, but in how you deploy the same set of constants amid numerous variables.
This does mean you have a distinct lack of control over party composition. Every character is named, there is no means of recruiting anyone that the story doesn't already provide you. Because of this, units do not die after being incapacitated for a set amount of turns, because that just wouldn't work narratively. Instead, they beat a hasty retreat when their HP is depleted, immediately taking them out of battle. Except for Ash, the protagonist. That dude just dies, it's an automatic game over, meaning you do have a "king" in play, a valuable piece that must be moved around more judiciously, forcing you to make cost vs. reward determinations given how effective he can be in combat. However, knowing I would not permanently lose other units afforded me the freedom to play more recklessly, setting up dangerous assaults that I believed would pay off significantly even if it cost me a unit. Any resulting stat deficits from a unit no longer generating exp is easily overcome, as attacking a more powerful unit rewards a hefty experience bonus that can help a lagging troop rapidly catch up to the rest of the pack. Conversely, attacking a unit weaker than you reduces the amount of experience your unit earns. In this way, I think Vandal Hearts is better about regulating your party's overall level than Tactics Ogre with its hard cap.
Although there are no random battles like in Final Fantasy Tactics or long, winding side quests like Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts does have the Trial of Torah for anyone who really wants to stretch the experience out, or for those who might like to unlock Ash's Vandelier class for the whopping four battles you'll actually get to use it in. To access the six trial maps, you'll need to uncover key items hidden on specific tiles of specific maps in the main game. Since these items are invisible, you'll either need to carefully comb every map or - being of sound mind as you are - refer to a guide. Since you cannot replay battles, if you miss a single item you'll permanently screw yourself out of completing the trials. Even when you do access the trials themselves, you'll need to open a chest containing a prism before clearing the map of enemies. Fail to do that and you'll also screw yourself. Also, the trials don't let you earn experience, so the only tangible benefit to doing them is unlocking the Vandlier class and getting a slightly different ending. It is a little wild to me that in a game so naked about how it operates there's this one facet that is seemingly designed by a manic for maniacs.
Anyway, I completed all the trials and am now checking myself into a mental health clinic.
Narratively, Vandal Hearts isn't anything special. The plot is very one dimensional and many of its twists can be seen from a mile away. Even some of its bigger reveals are handled in a way that makes them feel like a bit of an ass-pull despite putting in the work to earn it ("Oh, I just remembered I'm able to use ancient magic and am the last of my kind" is almost word-for-word something that's said near the end of the game.) It's an ugly game, too. I'm not sure who designed the character portraits. Probably like, an alien that only knows what humans look like because someone described them once. Somehow it ends up looking better than Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment, which looks like a fake mobile game from a YouTube ad. Hero Wars-ass looking video game.
There's not a whole lot of meat on this one, and it's going to be a matter of opinion whether that makes it good or bad. Personally, I'm into it, and I think it's a great starting point for anyone looking to get into Tactical RPGs but who may also find themselves a bit overwhelmed with genre darlings like Tactics Ogre. There's a low barrier of entry here, but it does a great job at highlighting some of the elements that make this TRPGs so appealing.
Reviewed on Jun 02, 2023