I can't say for sure since Im not privy to the full scope of games released in Japan, but it has seemed to me for a long time that Konami promotes a particular aesthetic in their RPGs. Their two most prominent RPG series in the U.S., Vandal Hearts and Suikoden, have always been similar in theme and tone. Both series focus on stories of war, and although they do glorify battle and military conflict to some extent, they are striking in that they invariably emphasizewith no ambiguitythe absurdity, contradiction, and pain of war in a moral and social sense. While I enjoy plenty of other RPGs for their elements of fantasy and escapism, I always know that when I come back to Konami I will not be let off so easily. There is a palpable sadness in these games, a sense of hurt and moral outrage that visibly sets them apart from other RPGs that have come to the U.S.
Even though Suikoden came out first the original Vandal Hearts was my initial exposure to this mentality, and it left a lasting impression. Its tale of flawed individuals struggling against a corrupt government is memorable if not moving. I agree only passingly with Sigmund that the over-arching tone of the game is a nihilistic one. Although nihilism is arguably a reoccurring theme, I feel Vandal Hearts ultimate intention is to illustrate how hope and ethical vigilance is the best defense against the nihilism of an imperfect and painful world. In one of the games more thought-provoking scenes there is a debate as to whether or not to defy a tyrant, since that could simply result in more people suffering. In one of the games final moments, a character defends his dedication to improving society while at the same time freely admitting the futility of such a goal. This kind of sentimentexhibited throughout the gamepositions Vandal Hearts in a complex moral dialectic. It is prepared to offer neither convenient solutions nor aimless pessimism. In the end, this duality is what makes it a very authentic, human experience.
Its gameplay, in my opinion, is still largely overlooked for what are arguably some of the better incorporations of the "strategy" element into the Strategy-RPG genre. Unlike SRPGs such as Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Front Mission, Vandal Hearts shows a measure of creativity in its mission objectives. Whereas SRPGs have traditionally focused on the goal of each conflict to simply be the defeat of all opponents, Vandal Hearts mixes up the formula with objectives including stealth, ambush, defense, and escape. While you could argue that, while quite satisfying, the strategy Vandal Hearts demands for these situations is light, it is disappointing that virtually no other game in the genre has made a real effort to follow this lead. This makes Vandal Hearts still somewhat of a novelty, a game quite worth checking out even if youve played the more popular games of the genre.
Its a shame that Vandal Hearts wasnt more popular, although it did do well enough to land us a sequel. When considered among the games it bares ethical and emotional similarities to it probably comes out as the most modestand happiestof the bunch. By comparison Vandal Hearts 2 is chillingly dark and ugly, and Suikoden 1 and 2 are far more tragic. However, this is precisely why Vandal Hearts is such an excellent introduction to this style. While it may feel lesser in some ways, it doesnt feel any less well-done, and the sentiments it expresses about war and social conflict are challenging especially in comparison to the vast majority of RPGs. In addition it has a very smooth narrative compared to other more ambitious games of the genre, lending a very comfortable sense of flow to the experience that encourages playability. Between this, the sophisticate story, and the unique gameplay lies and experience that is rewarding and whole, and one that I'd recommend to both casual and serious gamer alike.