I first experienced this game on the Playstation in the late 90s as a teenager. Nowadays people likely look back on the PSX similar to how early-Millennials like me look back on the Atari or Amiga — antiquated relics of a history long since past.
The original Playstation (sometimes called the PS1) influenced my upbringing considerably. It’s easy to point at the big titles — Resident Evil, Tekken, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metal Gear Solid, all standing in the shadow of the magnanimous Final Fantasy 7. Whether FF7 was your favorite (I often hear that 9 is awesome), it’s hard to deny it’s popularity, especially with the confirmation of a remake, the hype of which seems to have died away..
But I’m not talking about the heavyweights today, though the spotlight of this post can be easily relateable to a super effective Squaresoft title: Final Fantasy Tactics. Today we’re talking about Konami’s Vandal Hearts, a turn-based tactical RPG set in a world that I’ve always found most endearing.
For the gamers reading this, one could describe Vandal Hearts as “if Final Fantasy Tactics had a baby with Pokemon,” without the whole “catching creatures” thing. Rather, there’s a set cast of characters of whom you have limited control in terms of class delegation, but the system in place offers what I simply think of as Simplified Final Fantasy Tactics. There’s a grid-based map and a variety of abilities to employ.
For non-gamers (and everyone else for that matter) reading this, think of it this way: rock, paper, scissors, with a few extra features.
Swordsmen kill archers, archers kill hawknights (more on them later), and hawknights kill swordsmen. Then of course you’ve got healers and mages, as well as “heavy armor” (stronger-yet-slower warriors who’re susceptible to magic attacks) and monks, who later become ninja. All in all, there aren’t really any new and innovative concepts happening here; the enemy in each turn-based battle is comprised of similar classes and it falls to you as the player to exploit any weaknesses opened. You know, tactical fighting. It’s rather good stuff. But the objectives are quite varied — not all of the levels have the requirement “Destroy all enemies,” and in some cases, attempting to do so would bring about your downfall.
The story of this game, despite being pretty good (seeing as it’s a Japanese translation) at the time, exhibits a few predictable tropes by today’s standards, and having played it to completion twice, the dramatic reveals naturally lose their power. Yet, there are a few interesting concepts explored in this game, some of which I realize my teenager-mind had found attractive, though at the time I lacked the mental vocabulary to describe and verbalize my fascination.
First off, Vandal Hearts attempts to draw you in by pitting your heroic characters against familiar types of foes: starting off with random bandits on the first level, later uncovering nefarious schemes on part of malicious politicians in an increasingly decadent and corrupt society. Ishtaria, the country in which the majority of this game takes place, stands about one and a half decades after a brutal civil war, and to maintain order there are a lot of references to “anti-terrorism forces.”
In fact, the hero — Ash — and his companions Diego and Clint (your starting party) are members of Ishtaria’s Security Forces. This game came out in 1997, a few years after the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing in New York, and a few years before the infamous 9/11 attacks. As a barely-sentient teenager, I don’t recall feeling any awareness or sensitivity about the use of the word “terrorism” at the time, but nowadays, at an age that supposedly passes for adult, I can see how this game might have been perceived as “too soon,” or otherwise “too real.”
Yet there is a light-heartedness to the narrative that doesn’t really make you feel overly invested. Vandal Hearts isn’t all that popular (there were several lackluster sequels), yet to me there were some very interesting things that influenced my ideas on gaming, storytelling, and more recently, on magic.
We’ve talked already about the gaming experience; it’s simple and fairly straightforward, yet a well-executed strategy leaves you satisfied, like you’re actually a good commander or something. The most interesting aspect of the story is directly connected to a sort of flavor they’ve got with the magic system — and no, it isn’t a gameplay mechanic (mages/priests utilize MP just like any other RPG), but more of the running theme.
Within Vandal Hearts, they toy a little with temporal shifts and time loops — something that often is something best left untoyed. Not only do characters in various media always suffer as a result of trying to mess with space-time, but the writers about such situations tend to not really have a strong grasp on what time travel actually is, let alone its paradoxical implications.
A good example of bad time-travel logic would be Back to the Future. Great movies (some of the best) sure, but flawed. Terminator did a decent job of executing an effective time loop, and Vandal Hearts pulls off something quite similar — except it’s not backwards in time, but forwards.
So Ash, the hero protagonist, gets sucked into a warp along with some other friends about 33% into the game, and soon find themselves stranded in some extra-temporal island, populated by various people from different eras. Architecture found there is both ancient and modern, and folks living in this “town at the end of world” seem pretty resigned to their fate as forever-lost.
Your characters encounter a mysterious figure, who turns out to be a powerful mage that had disappeared from history hundreds of years prior, and who helps Ash and the handful of friends that got sucked in there with him back to their own time. The process takes a day, but when they return, three years have passed.
On top of that, one character named Eleni encounters a young child, who in the endgame falls into a similar wormhole/temporal shift doorway whatever you want to call it. Eleni realizes that that child was indeed herself, and she (her younger self) would re-appear eighteen years in the past as a lost, wandering orphan. The circumstances surrounding this …
“Oh no, the little girl was our only hope, what are we gonna do now?”
“Don’t worry,” says Eleni, “that little girl was me…so I can totally do what THAT ONE THING only the little girl could do and thus carry the plot forward!”
…aren’t all that awe-inspiring, but the concept is quite interesting to me.
Lastly, mages in this game sport a number of spells that seem to fall into the category of “magic that fucks with space-time.” Contrast this with most games where schools of magic fall into strict elemental schools, often organized in symmetrical categories and familiar archetypes.
The level 1 spell that mages in Vandal Hearts possess is called Dark Star, and whether it was the intentional artistic direction of the creators to have this spell look a bit polygonal and jagged, I am unsure, but the sharding effect is rather interesting, considering the limitations of the Playstation console. Rather than hardware constraints, though, I prefer to view it as the mage temporarily ripping a hole in space-time, and that’s gotta be painful as well as visually hard to digest.
Later, mages gain access to something called Phase Shift, that really fucks with the landscape and the minds of those assaulted. Taking into account concepts such as relativity and very objective facts (being exposed to outer space is lame, and best avoided, but if someone opens a window to the stars next to you, you’re going to feel it), a spell like Phase Shift feels like hacking reality and breaking some rules — temporarily — in order to cause some serious pain.
I may not even necessarily be affecting the physical realm, just the enemy’s perception of it, which could be enough to deal crippling damage all on its own.
So we’ve got space-time magic happening, how about the setting? Ishtaria apparently sports elements of steampunk as well, making it dear to my heart. Though air travel (by dirigible, the signature steampunk vehicle, it would seem) is unknown, there is a battle that takes place atop a speeding train. There are ships propelled by both steam engines and wind sails, and the aforementioned hawknights — fighters gifted with the ability to fly, using mechanical apparatuses that give them lift – some with primitive jet propulsion, others with Davincian wings not unlike our old pal Icarus.
Hawknights fascinate me on a conceptual level, but in-game I found little use for them.
The last thing worth mentioning is the soundtrack — I remember reading a review of Vandal Hearts many years ago describing the OST of this game as “nothing remarkable.” You won’t hear a beautifully conducted orchestral score booming from your speakers if you play this one — the synthesized melodies get recycled a few times and a few battle-themes are downright repetitive, but some of the songs actually carry an interesting tune.
I played this as a kid and dug it. I played it again as an adult, and despite knowing what was going to happen (storywise), I found myself focused and invested. Perhaps this does not come as a surprise, coming from an experience glowing with the nostalgia effect, yet the levels are actually varied and interesting enough to keep the game fun.