In America, videogames aren't known for their ability to push a gamer's cognitive skills. Despite major advances in hardware and maturation of gamers over the years, games have not really evolved past twitch-based gameplay. The formula for a game to be successful these days will, for the most part, still mandate that it comes with lots of explosions, tons of weapons, and either a hulking hero overdosed on testosterone or a uniquely proportioned babe in tight clothes. This sort of gung-ho attitude severely limits the inroads for many role-playing games (RPGs), despite their extreme popularity in Asia. In fact, it was only through a steady stream of RPGs by enduring publishers (that culminated with Square's magnum opus, Final Fantasy VII) that the genre finally got the attention it deserved. But even with all this focus, the hybrid genre of strategy RPGs did not share in these gains. Their slower pace and emphasis on strategy seemed to cause gamers to pass them up without much of a thought. Unfortunately, Vandal Hearts II isn't the game to give strategy RPGs the boost it needs, but those who take a chance with it will find it to be very good.

In keeping with the genre, Vandal Hearts II relies heavily on its battles to grab gamers and, in fact, thats pretty much the entire game. The games story, while admittedly linear, is dealt with before and after the battles. As such, Vandal Hearts II can be compared to a series of chess matches more than anything else. Each member of my party gets one turn and their particular strengths and weaknesses determine their placement in the formation. I must admit that I get an abnormally high rush from all that plotting and arrangement. For example, after setting up my long-range attack guys on high ground to rain arrows down on the approaching enemy, I would follow it up with an advance of heavily armored soldiers that would proceed to wipe out the weakened enemy (with a sadistic song in my heart). It could be the chess bug reawakening in me or some latent desire to play with toy soldiers as I did back when I was a child. Still, despite my personal preference for this sort of thing, I can see where this sort of gameplay could easily get repetitive. Thankfully, Konami tries to keep things fresh by adding something new called a Dual Battle System. Instead of turns taking place one after the other, the players move occurs with the computers move simultaneously. Its a system that required that I be mentally focused because I had to constantly anticipate the computers next move and be prepared to counter it. While its not always an easy thing to do, requiring plenty of thought and concentration, but it was a welcome addition because it not only added more strategy to the game, it also sped the game up tremendously.

Outside of the strategy required in the tactical battles, Vandal Hearts II also offers a great deal of strategy in the customization of each party member before battles. Unlike most other RPGs that lock-down a characters class, Vandal Hearts II offers so much freedom that I could evolve each member into whatever class I deemed necessary. For instance, I could build a guy into a strongman heavy in armor and good with a sword, or I could have him become skilled with a bo-staff and good at casting spells. Or, of course, I could have any variation of the two. Each property comes with its own strengths and weaknesses and, depending on the combination, would affect each player differently. What is also interesting is the skill system set up for upgrading weapons and abilities. Each weapon comes with its own special skill or spell that can be learned during combat. Skills learned from previous weapons can then be traded (through an elaborate interface system) and accumulated onto new weapons of the same class. At the same time, each weapon can only possess a limited number of skills, so theres ongoing process of swapping old skills for new and more powerful ones. Again, theres a great deal of strategy involved in setting up each character with particular skills to fulfill specific roles during battle.

Unfortunately, just as I was beginning to be enthralled by the chess-like battles and in-depth customizations that the game offers, Vandal Hearts II began to show its flaws. One of my biggest gripes is with the games controls. Whether maneuvering to destinations on the world map or just plotting where I would place my party during confrontations, the D-pad felt too stiff. Commenting more on the actual gameplay, it took me a great deal of battles before I could discover my preferred combination of weapons and skills for each character. As such, I realized that certain characters would be better suited with a different type of weapon or more advantageous in a different role altogether. But in order for me to redefine that characters role, he or she would need to learn an entirely new set of skills. Being that skills and spells can only be awakened during battles, it was a laborious process to have to put my party through extra battles in order for those innate skills or spells to show themselves and then repeatedly trade them into new weapons in an assembly line fashion. Im also sorry to say that the presentation of spells werent very impressive either even when compared to games released just a few years ago. Although I am not longing for Final Fantasy VIII-type spells (and waiting time), there should be something that was at least half as impressive to look at. Here the spells are rather plain and more than a few will remind gamers of those found in the 16-Bit classics of old. Theres also a bit of strangeness to note in the story. While Vandal Hearts II has a deep story ripe with plot twists and surprises (making it one of the saving graces of the game), its also extremely linear throughout most of the game. While this is not a major problem, it was certainly noticeable after a couple of hours of playing.

Moving on in my list of negatives, theres also the graphics department. First, I took one look at Vandal Hearts II and saw how similar the graphics were to its predecessor without noticeable improvement. What also particularly bothered me were the character portraits shown during conversations that take place throughout the game. While the rest of the game is drawn in the usual anime-ish and super-deformed style, Konami chose to use more realistic depictions in the portraits. The problem is that the actual art for these portraits are some of the ugliest Ive seen in a long time. Maybe it was to give the game a more 'mature' look in keeping with the mature rating, but it certainly didn't come together for me. Secondly, those familiar with my reviews are aware that I am not always fond of the 2D sprite graphics on a 3D environment, but in this case, Vandal Hearts II is an exception. The overall look and style is very similar to the ones found years ago in the SNES classic, Ogre Battle. I am personally fond of that style of graphics and I still think they look ideal together even in this late stage of the PlayStations life span. But I mention this because many alert gamers may not share the same sentiment and feel the graphics are simply dated.

The current state of the industry still has game developers and publishers more concerned with testing gamers reflexes with action-oriented fare than they are with offering more cerebral experiences. Games like Final Fantasy VII helped change some of those perceptions by bringing the console RPG into the mainstream. Unfortunately, I cant say the same about Vandal Hearts II doing the same for more strategy-oriented games. Despite having some notable flaws, Vandal Hearts II does deliver some unique innovations in the gameplay, an amazing storyline, and a largely solid gaming experience. However, theres simply not enough here to have people doing double takes. So it may not be the game, but its certainly enjoyable and worth a look. Rating: 8.0 out of 10

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