To me, the first Vandal Hearts was an excellent strategy RPG with a great story, music, and pretty amazing 3D battles, but the linear nature of the gameplay made it a bit on the short side. As good as the story was, the player was forced to go through the game unable to do anything but fight- no exploration, and all the plot points were spelled out in non-interactive sequences. The game wasn't perfect, but at least Konami went for a more mature audience than usual, and the game sold well enough to warrant a sequel called (ready for this?) Vandal Hearts II. VH2 adds a few new touches to the mix, and is a whole lot longer but, the story ends up taking a big backseat to the battle engine yet again- which isn't so bad at all, if long, strategic battles are what you want. Sure, there's lots of religious and political intrigue, loads of characters, plot twists, betrayals, and the like, but the battles in VH2 are so complex, that you'll sometimes forget why the heck you're trying to defeat so-and-so, and instead, are thinking about how the heck are you gonna defeat so-and-so!
Don't get me wrong I love this game, but after playing Shining Force III (all 3 parts!) and Final Fantasy Tactics, two games where the story keeps you playing just to see what happens next, everything else seems so...canned, so to speak. The real innovation in Vandal Hearts 2 comes from the real-time battles, and the real-time thinking involved in sucessfully completing them! Rather than the usual turn-based battles in other games of this type, enemies in VH2 move when you do, which means that they're not going to be standing around staring at their shoes as you sneak up on them! At first it's a bit frustrating, especially if you've played lots of turn- based strategy RPGs, but after a few maps, you really get into the chess-like thinking in the battles. The fights start out tough and get maddening by the midpoint, but by then, you should have enough of a grasp of the tactics required to make it through relatively unscathed. Save often, are the words of the day. Elevation is key, as well, and there's nothing worse than to think out a cool battle plan only to see it fall to ruin, as archers or wizards rain death from above, or worse, spending time setting up your archers, only to have them cut down by faster moving enemies!
The character classes are back from the last game, and there are some neat improvements here, but I'll leave them for you to discover, as well as the wide assortment of weapons and items you'll find throughout. I will say that graphically, the game borrows a LOT from Final Fantasy Tactics, and with the exception of the character art, you'd think it was the sequel to that particular game. The spell effects and lighting are absolutely gorgeous, and a few of the effects may have you thinking it IS a FFT game. Although I don't think Squaresoft would approve of all the bloody corpses lying about, or some of the language used here...Anyway, the environments are generally huge and well-detailed, with fires raging, some weather effects, and such, all animated wonderfully. The characters in VH2 are expressive as well, and you'll get attached to a few of them, no doubt- just don't get too attached, as some of them won't be around at the end, depending on the end you reach! Yes, that's right- Konami has seen fit to include multiple endings, that latest of RPG trends, and while in most cases I'd be wailing the blues over playing the same game over and over- in this case, I'll welcome another chance to play through VH2 to view all the endings (and to get much better at the battles!). Even though the story isn't all that...
As I said earlier, the story this time out is full of stuff, but it seems so telegraphed, that you can get an idea of what's coming as you go through the game- not a good sign. A couple of times, I finished a really long and exhausting battle, only to be interrupted by some anticlimactic story point, or a "big" event, but, it was like "oh yeah, meanwhile, back at the ranch..." to me! But I guess that in some cases, the events surrounding war are sometimes a lot more trivial than the war itself. Even still, more time should have been spent on producing a much more solid tale, rather than a lot of what's here. There's also the occasional weird translation as far as some of the dialogue goes (like in every RPG, it seems!). This ends up being the smallest gripe, as the gameplay is so good as to blot out all the errors, except for the really odd character art in the text windows- maybe I'm used to anime-style art, but most everyone looks just plain ugly, as if the designers tried a bit too hard to be different! There's also no real exploration this time out either, but in a way, this would bog things down way too much, with all the battling going on!
In any event, Vandal Hearts II is a great strategy RPG that promises, and delivers hours of harder than usual battles and brain-numbing decisions to be made, along with a story that is passable, but needs to be a lot deeper in the next installment. The split-screen battles are just fantastic, and this feature would make for a great 2-player game on the Playstation 2 (note to Konami: hint, hint, hint!) This year, RPG fans have been truly blessed on the Playstation, and this is as good a game as any to end the year on.
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