Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is easily one of the best turn-based strategy games available on the Xbox 360. A lengthy, well-balanced campaign and ample optional content should last most players 16-20 hours and represent better value than many retail offerings.
Billed as a prequel to the 1997 PlayStation original, Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement tells the somewhat cliché story of a group of youngsters that set out to save their kingdom from oppression and famine. After watching a fully-voiced opening movie, you will be introduced to the main cast of the game and begin a thorough training level. This level explains many of the basics of turn-based strategy and highlights specific traits that are relevant to this title. Read More…
In Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment, attacking an enemy from their flank or from behind will yield greater damage than attacking them head-on. This trait works both ways however, so you must think carefully about where to place your units in order to avoid being surrounded or overpowered.
Friendly fire is also a concern, as explosive attacks or those performed by hammer-wielding units cover multiple spaces on the grid-based maps. As with most turn-based strategy games, careful and thorough planning are keys to success.
Once you have the basics down you are thrust onto a world map and will be ready to start your adventure. As you progress through the story, more maps are unlocked and you can even replay maps as skirmishes after you complete them to level up your party or collect treasures you may have missed the first time through. You can also unlock a series of hidden battle maps unrelated to story progression, which usually contain a rare or high level item.
There are over 20 maps in all, some of which can take upwards of an hour to complete. Even doing the bare minimum to complete the story, you are looking at an investment of at least 12 hours. If you decide to try and obtain all of the items and extra maps in the game, your experience will be markedly longer.
Instead of moving all of your units in one turn then waiting for the enemy to do the same, turn order in Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is dictated by each party amd enemy unit’s speed attribute. This creates a dynamic sense of action and means that each move must be carefully executed to ensure your party’s survival. Should you lose a party member in action they will be revived and ready to fight in the next battle.
Each party member has two weapon slots available and you can swap between them at will without sacrificing a turn. Generally, I found it best to equip both a melee and ranged weapon on each member. Two item slots also allow you to carry health or magic potions or you can equip books that teach units spells. Once a spell is learned you can unequip the book, but if you leave it equipped, your character will receive a bonus when using the spell.
You can also equip two pieces of armour on each member, which along with weapon and item selection is done within a rather convoluted menu system in between levels or at hubs that contain shops.
I was able to complete Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment without “grinding” through the secondary levels or skirmish maps and it was a satisfying challenge to do so. Players with little turn-based strategy experience may find it tough and I would encourage them to play the secondary maps as they progress. Those with experience playing games like Fire Emblem or Disgaea shouldn’t have any trouble getting through this game.
The biggest fault that I found was the game’s character designs. Characters all have a disproportionate “chibi” appearance in cut scenes and in portraits during conversations. The look is, for lack of a better word, creepy. Thankfully, characters look fine in battle and are well-animated.
The maps themselves look great and feature bright colours and light cel-shading that makes objects like trees and treasure chests pop. Secrets and chests are highlighted on the maps with a sparkling effect, which is just one of many nice graphical flourishes. The various spells in the game all have a distinct look and the effects used are all very pleasing.
There is however one exception that I found completely unnecessary. Every time a unit is dispatched in battle, they gush a geyser of animated blood. Apparently this is a hold over from the first Vandal Hearts, but it looks out of place amid the bright and cartoonish visage of this game.
Sound effects are generally well-done, including the clash of weapons and blood curdling death screams. I was surprised at how well the music and ambient soundscapes sounded and they both did a good job of keeping me immersed in the game world.
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment represents an excellent value at 1200 Microsoft Points ($15 USD) and is quite literally the best game of its kind on the Xbox 360, outclassing other XBLA titles such as Band of Bugs and traditional retail offerings like Spectral Force 3. Turn-based strategy fans should pick it up without hesitation and those new to the genre will find a deep, yet accessible entry point.
+ Classic, Well-Balanced Gameplay
+ Best in Genre on Xbox 360
+ Great Value, Lots of Content
+ Online Leaderboards
- Ugly Character Design
- Party Menu is Cumbersome
Game Forward Score: 4/5
Brian J. Papineau > Game Forward
Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment (Xbox LIVE Arcade) Quick Facts:
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy / Role-Playing
Developer: Hijinx Studios, LLC
Release Date: January 20, 2010
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15 USD)
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)