Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure [2000] ANALYSIS

Platform: PlayStation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 40%? 60%? –10 hours

By the time we got around to playing Rhapsody, Disgaea was out and making waves in the SRPG world. It focused attention on Nippon Ichi Software, the developer of both titles. We decided to play their SRPGs roughly in the order made. Rhapsody offered insight into future games by NIS.

Every SRPG aficionado has reason to be knowledgeable of Rhapsody. It was the first SPRG foray into North America for NIS. But “knowledgeable” does not mean one has to log hours playing, because the target audience of this game is 11-year-old Japanese girls.

While there is nothing wrong with that, we can hardly think of a less promising demographic in terms of North American sales forecasts. Before internet games and independent publishing fully bloomed to widen the spectrum of players, we have to wonder what was going through Atlus’ mind when they decided to translate and import this Japanese game.

Despite its incredible femininity, we still played in hopes of an enjoyable tactical experience irregardless of juvenile content. NIS has many devoted fans out there. Analyzing this game started us on a journey which eventually told us whether or not this fan base was fully justified.

Check out this impressive, professional looking sculpture.

Check out this impressive, professional looking sculpture.

The design of Rhapsody built atop standard RPG traditions more than many other SRPGs. Overall look and environments stand up well or better than most similar titles on the PlayStation. The camera looks down upon a 2-D painted world for most interactions but sometimes lowers to eye-level.

The Good:

There is some coplay out there regarding Rhapsody’s lead character, the Puppet Princess herself, Cornet.

  • Lead Character Cornet’s cornet Sound Byte: There is a lovely 10 second sound byte in which Cornet plays her horn. It has stayed with us as pleasant and memorable. A pleasing soft sound. A minor thing really, but it makes our list. Hear it below at TIME INDEX 3:16.
  • Soothing Background Sounds: The stylized background music, not the vocal singing numbers. The former were enjoyable if slightly puerile. The latter, we will leave to you in the “Good and Bad” section.
  • Quality, Lots of Quality: There is a decent amount of content in this game. Some of it you may like; some of it may make you gag. However almost all of it is high quality. They developers seemed to care greatly about this product and did not let junk pass muster.

Nice sprites. Microscopic, but nice.


Too Big for a Bullet Point: Awesome Art

Apparently girls play SRPGs in decent numbers in Japan. In other countries they watch the Kardashians… ugh.

Nippon Ichi set the bar very high in every visual category (but special effects). Artist Yoshiharu Nomura crafted a series of good-looking characters including humans, puppets, and animals. His designs, whether your taste or not were of excellent quality. His portraits take a backseat to none.

Every developer wants their game to inspire such devotion. This one, apparently, succeeded. *(For a very small group)

The backgrounds were one of the first things that caught our attention. Having experienced many games on the PlayStation, we were pleasantly shocked by the rich, verdant painted backgrounds. Lush forests, colorful buildings and an overall texture that seemed lifted from the pages of a painted storybook. We do not know where all those colors came from, and have to wonder why other PlayStation game environments did not quite match up.

The menus were and text boxes were well done and readable with subtle transparency. The colors chosen for highlighted grid squares worked well. Once again, all this under the constrictions of the PlayStation.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

“You know, just another day hanging out with my buds in the park.”

  • Puppets… are your Weapons: It is an interesting enacted concept. In this game a party of puppets are amassed instead of a crew of people. It fits the property, and the puppets have some personality, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Myao does not look much like a bad guy.

  • A Quick and Efficient Combat System: Button presses and combat decisions are quick and easy. However the combat system is shallow. As deep as an 11-year old Japanese girl might like.

“Yes, we actually give you the option for almost ZERO tactics. Enjoy.”

  • Musical Numbers: Broadway style singing and dancing is almost never in a video game thing. Rhapsody is the reason we have to have “almost” in that sentence. Many people who played this game recall these numbers fondly. Though we did not care much for them, they were well done and in some strange way fit this game. Review the clip below if you choose, and make your own determination.
  • Explore Your World: Like in many standard RPGs, towns are combat free zones to be explored. Rhapsody adopted this well and it was mechanically sound. However we would have preferred interaction with shops and townspeople to have  more substance and interest.

Look around and find deep, “scintillating” plots…


The Bad:

  • Failure of Message: A great pitfall in any video game when a player gets the point of saying, “I just don’t know what to do next.” Then they proceed to wander around aimlessly, draining there desire to play, and goodwill towards the game. In our opinion it went beyond the occasional missing of a clue.

Not only is Crowdia cosplayed well here, but also… Burdy?

  • Static Experience:  We have no need to pull punches and deliver our analyses as we see them. You can play this game for two hours or twenty hours, but aside from some inane story elements and characters your experience will change very little.

  • Get a Compass: One reason people play SRPGs as opposed to RPGs is they enjoy streamlined navigation. There is a world map and there are locations of interest. There is not a lot of wasted time or movement. Rhapsody got us lost in senseless mazes like caves. Save it for RPGs please.

These caves were so much fun! *This statement not approved by the Truth Squad.

  • That was Random: Abuse of the random encounter can destroy the enjoyment of a game. Final Fantasy Tactics limited them to stops on the world map. It was tough, but fair. It seems Rhapsody can lapse into a random (and meaningless) time-sinking encounter every time we sideways scroll to another screen. Ugh.

Yup. Stuffed sidekick cosplay. Burdy.

  • The (lack of) Tactics: This is a strategy role-playing game. Sometimes called a tactical role-playing game. Note the words “strategy” and “tactical”. We know the combat system was simplified for the target audience, but we saw little progression and got tired of mashing. An 11-year old Japanese girl might too.

Pretty, but also pretty flat. There were no elevation decisions.

  • Pies…: Sure, it is funny picking a certain spell to deal vicious damage to your enemies. You can choose candy, or flan, or pies. Yes, it sort-of makes sense for the property, however huge out-of-scale pie slices flying past the scree break the game reality. It reinforced a sentiment like, “Oh, we are playing a silly video game.”

Oh look, isn’t it funny?


Final Thoughts:

Maybe you can explain to us what is fun about wandering around, lost in a maze, and subjected to random encounters? You have to keep exploring to find your way through, but every bit of exploration done opens up another random encounter. That was not fun. That was the opposite of fun.

More fourth wall breaking.

If judged solely on art and overall quality, Rhapsody is an excellent game and portends good things for NIS. However once you factor in design and content choices, the future becomes more muddled. We learned just about all we were going to after ten hours, and without the enjoyment factor there was no reason to play on.

Okay, so we like happy endings. We would recommend Grandia (PSOne). It has more well rounded appeal and is a better game overall.

It is a 99.9% certainty that 11-year-old Japanese girls, or even an 11-year-old American girls are not reading this analysis. But one were, we might, might recommend this game to them. But to everyone else who enjoys this genre, you can do better than this shallow experience. That is of course unless you are looking for Broadway style numbers.

If you say so.

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Vandal Hearts II [1999] ANALYSIS

Platform: Playstation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns-Simultaneous?

Completion Level: Campaign Completed 100 Hours

We are not pleased to have spent this amount of time playing VH2. The game is not worth that investment. We do not doubt much time was spent staring at the screen trying to determine who the AI was going to move next and what we should do about it. You will understand that more when you read the “Dual Turn System” entry under “Good”.

This game does not engender the passion of  its predecessor Vandal Hearts. From some games, not much is expected. If they are good it is a pleasant surprise. However from VH2 something was expected. It was the sequel to a stylish well known forerunner, it had a decent budget, and it came during those heady days of Playstation SRPGs. Final Fantasy Tactics widened the appeal of this genre, exposing many through its famous IP.

What? Vandal Hearts II begins with a village burning? Shocking!

VH2 did not stay true to its roots. There is little connection to VH1. Some key mechanics were changed, the art direction was different, the story and characters were unrelated. Most of the things one may have liked about VH1 were not reflected in its sequel. How does the sequel stand up on its own? For a big budget, mainline game, not terribly, but not exactly well either.

The slightly faded environments are rendered in 3D and the camera can rotate its view upon them. Vandal Hearts as a franchise allows you to bring a large party to battle. Between battles there is opportunity to shop and talk to townsfolk for mostly unnecessary information.

The Good:

Lira and Agress were kick-butt female warriors. Since we could find no Vandal Hearts cosplay, we have decided to use pictures of other cosplayed female warriors.

  • Many Story In-Game Cut Scenes: No one can fault this game for lack of conversations overheard, and human dramas played out, sometimes interactively, right before our eyes.
  • Fighting Uphill: Elevation played a role, but not in the classic sense of putting an archer on the high ground. It was more about having to traverse huge steps in order to complete a battle. however we do recall having more fun fighting uphill. Assaulting the enemy on a slope was an interesting change up.

Fighting uphill in VH2 was a challenging but fun experience.

  • A Humorous Quote: This game is not going to overflow the “Good” category. So we will include a point about a line that made us laugh: “That’s a load of crock!” Uh, is that not a mixed colloquial metaphor?
  • Bosses: You do not see many SRPGs tackle large boss encounters. So we definitely give props to VH2 for attempting it and mostly succeeding.

Giant bugs. Starship Troopers go!

  • A Character of Few-ah, One Word: “Agress” spoke in single word answers, or with no words at all. Exclamation points were sometimes all she needed. It was humorous. Is it surprising she had some quirks with a name like Agress?

Too Big for a Bullet Point: The Dual Turn System

Imagine getting together with a couple buds to try out your new game, Vandal Hearts II. One of those guys, like you, was a fan of the original. All of you are a little curious and filled with anticipation about what you shall see.

Yes, this screen is split right down the middle!

We skipped hurriedly through the opening cut scenes (which went from stereotypical to mildly interesting to dippy). Although curious, this game was going to be carefully played later. This session was all about getting to the meat of the game, the combat.

So here was, our first encounter versus gigaslugs. Okay, not the most fearsome or powerful enemy, but we were armed with a wooden stick. We selected our warrior and selected our target and pressed go. But instead of going the game focused on one of the enemies and what it wanted to do. And then out of nowhere the screen split. One side showed our warrior moving to the position we selected and striking while the other side similarly showed the enemy gigaslug.

This unexpected, astounding and unique game experience caught us by jaw-dropping surprise. Eyes bulging, we exclaimed, “What the heck,” to each other. After calming down we realized that our targeted gigaslug moved at the same time as our warrior. So yes, we swung at empty air. Thus was the nature of combat for the entire game.

We found ourselves staring at battle setups for long minutes throughout the game, trying to figure which unit the AI would move next, and who they would target. There were many attacks on empty spaces, accidental interceptions (which stop an attack), and just general hijinks associated with this mechanic. Sometimes it had the strange effect of making battles feel like one continuous turn.

The Dual Turn System was unique and daring, and not un-fun. It kept us playing this game longer both for its unique challenge and by the sheer fact that it required extra brain time. If legitimate challenge is fun, this mechanic qualifies. We understand that putting this in the “Good” section may be considered controversial by some. However there is no doubt in our mind that it was the most memorable and clever aspect of this game.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

Uh, R2D2?

  • Level Layout Roulette: For whatever reason, a few level layout misses were sprinkled into the mix. In some cases it was difficult to see where a unit could step. This game did not need that kind of additional challenge.
  • Art ‘Direction?’ It’s aiming sideways: The special effects varied. Some were eye catching. Others were what we considered ugly. This game needed consistent art direction.

Some visually interesting visual effects. We especially are fond of ice magic.

Also some hallucinogen inspired effects from 1974 and another style we thought ugly.

  • Open Sesame… or Not: To open a treasure chest a party member with a dagger and the unlock skill was necessary. Those are valuable weapon and skill slots. It became an unnecessary challenge. They do want us to get the prize, don’t they?
  • Unusual Environments: VH2 took us through many varied environments. We fought battles not only on open land, but on a train, a ship, and even a giant plane. However the actual affect on the battle these environments could have offered were not realized. These were not the train yard battle of Shining Force III.

The Bad:

  • Story: You want us to care, right?  It can be argued that there was not enough deep story to keep players engaged. It started off okay in our mind but quickly went downhill. Less arguable is that it was somber, slow, depressing and most critically, boring.
  • Characters: Bags of Dry Bones. The characters were dry. We felt no real sympathy for them, nor their slides to doom.

There was something a little “off” about the environments in regards to the scale. It was a little like “Land of the Giants.”

  • Tactical Change Up, or Lack Thereof: Interest is often maintained by creating new situations for your existing characters. Outside of bosses, the Dual Turn system and a few select situations, the game lacked.
  • Perhaps the Ugliest Portraits-Ever: Vandal Hearts one did not wow us with its character art direction. This game made us long for it. We were not thrilled by the digitized and modified photo likenesses.

Ugh. Can it not be done better? Who are those last two? Bono and Chuck Norris?

However, some good art was painted for various backgrounds.

  • Move Fest: The number in your party could reach the double digits, likewise the opposing force. That is a lot of units. Between sometimes distant starting positions and the Dual Turn System, it became a cavalcade of moves.
  • Boring Items: This is a more complicated issue considering items were used to delineate and empower the character roles. That issue aside, we found them to be snoozers. Remember the days when items were special?

  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want: You thought you could reach that treasure chest? You were wrong. Some sort of deformation spell is required. And honestly, even if retrieved, the contents are not going to be so great.
  • Serious Plot Point Multiple Endings: Not just the little stuff like romances or wrapping up the story of Fred the Blacksmith from level 17. No, life and death for major characters. 6 endings. We appreciated the customization, but branching was based on answers in seemingly casual conversations. At least the overall “war” was won and there is no total loser ending.

Final Thoughts:

We had too many Silvanus Windrunner cosplay pictures left over to not add this montage.

Despite the unusual Dual Turn System, this game was the first to dull our desire to play SRPGs. Quite a sad indictment coming from Play What You Like. It is not that the game was horrible, just that it got stale and let falter our will to stay engaged. A mediocre game that we knew was so right from the start would not be given that benefit of the doubt.

The Dual Turn System created tactical conundrums that enamored us for far too long. Eventually and thankfully the novelty wore off. After that, what was left proved insufficient to leave this game sitting well in our memories. Quality? Yes. Bold? Yes. A satisfying SRPG experience we would heartily recommend? Sadly, no.

When your game is part of a franchise, it is wise to build upon the previous entry. We felt no connection to the memorable first entry in this series. It is fine to go your own way as they did with the Dual Turn System, but in other ways either draw upon the connection to the previous game or start a new franchise.

Uh, are those giant, strange-looking rats? We need a cat.

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The Vandal Hearts Games:

Vandal Hearts [1997]

Vandal Hearts II [1999]

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment [2010]


Vandal Hearts [1997] ANALYSIS

Platform: Playstation

Turn-Based Strategy RPG: Turns by Team

Completion Level: Campaign Completed 50 Hrs

In 1997 SRPG developers were learning the ways of fully interactive 3D terrain.  The Final Fantasy Tactics school lead by Matsuno chose to use the 3D terrain as just another element to be crafted into the whole system.  They did it well. The topography and structures they incorporated added and enhanced the existing mechanics.

"Are you talkin' to me? I can't understand a word your sayin'."

“Are you talkin’ to me? I can’t understand a word your sayin’.”

Vandal Hearts operated in this latter approach as did Shining Force III and Kartia.  In many ways Final Fantasy Tactics’ success propelled their way of thinking about 3D terrain to the forefront.

Final Fantasy Tactics was a great game; the gold standard really.  However part of commercial success beyond what an SRPG might expect to sell was because it carried the Final Fantasy name.  In the wake of the Final Fantasy VII craze, that was no small thing. Fortunately the copious extra exposure was on a quality game that widened overall appreciation for the genre.

Appreciation that in some ways helped establish a taste for SRPG’s in America.  With that set up, Vandal Hearts had quality production values, a solid system of mechanics and interesting environmental interactions.  It uses the conventional grid and angled down camera while teams move as a whole in turn based fashion.

What? An RPG starts with a town being burned? Unheard of!

The Good:

  • VH had a smooth and smart active camera system. They also incorporated some interesting and effective focal length tricks.  Camera is an important non-gameplay feature in terms of game annoyance factor.  The best may make you smile, the good are not noticed, and the bad make you grit your teeth.
  • Archers were not treated as unwanted guests: They were a solid member of your team dealing out damage at range.  They had their weaknesses to offset this of course.  But all in all it balanced out.  There are too many other games that do not handle such ranged attackers well.
  • No Heimlich Maneuver Needed: Choke points were well conceived and executed. When combined with this game’s own brand of mechanics, they have rarely meant more in an SRPG.  Their common use added greatly to this game’s challenging tactical fun.  Developing them properly was time well spent.

It is just these kinds of choke scenarios that thrusts the player into a battle for every grid square. Note to those new to the genre: Chances are a bridge in an SRPG is more than just a way across something.

  • Flexible tactics: There was often two ways of dealing with a battle.  Even when the key was set around a central choke, they often left a circuitous route available for those who really did not want to take the brute force approach.  Supporting multiple play styles is a sign of system strength.
  • The interface was intuitive and easy to pick up. (Unfortunately, this common sense occurrence cannot be taken for granted.)
  • No grinding. There was a set path and story to play through.  Each battle meant something and gave enough experience for you to build your team.
  • That sign up ahead? Chapters were introduced with nice looking animated title cards. Little touches like this can go a long way.

  • Visual Effects Marching to Their Own Drum: Nicely done and a little different like many of the elements of this game.  The buff VFX were pleasing, and the super magic attacks with swirling animated sprites emulating the forms of serpents and more were fun.

Left: “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

  • Predetermined characters allow the story to be dramatically tailored around them.  If  a game employs predetermined rather than recruited characters, it needs to take full advantage.  VH used them to move the story, dramatize the battles and provide cause to care.  Character relationships evolved amongst the party members.
  • Overall, excellent balance and challenge. Especially for those who play it like I do, trying to see that “everyone goes home”.
  • The learning curve was not steep. In a genre where some games embrace unnecessary complication, VH kept it intuitive.
  • In game storytelling: Like Shining Force III, Vandal Hearts made sure you felt a reason to fight every battle.  Each was set up with plenty of game engine cut scenes.  Additionally there was dialogue interspersed during battles.  In fact, one of your team members proposes to another in battle!  How …romantic?  Overall, a very good story telling experience.

Truly words of wisdom. So then tell us wise guy, how do you see out of that helmet?

Too big for a bullet point: Active Environment

As mentioned in the introduction, few SRPG’s use dynamic environments during battles.  Vandal Hearts does on occasion, like Shining Force III.  The latter game put you into a battle in the middle of a train yard.  The trains moved each turn changing the battle field and forcing you to continually reevaluate how to achieve your objectives.

Vandal hearts also uses trains, but they put you on one.  Your job is to fight your way up to the engine as the cars you move across get cut loose one by one.  Another was set on a bridge as sections dropped away behind your party one by one.  It forced you forward.

There were boulders on a couple maps that could be pushed across the board onto enemies.  One battle was set up with two ships maneuvering next to each other.  They should have continued to use ship movements to add to the battle variables.

They even included a boss that actually controlled the topography around him.  He would raise it every turn making for different tactical decisions.  A fun challenge.

The sluiceway, the ships, and the train. (They left dirigibles for the Final Fantasy games.)

Too big for a bullet point: Interesting battle set ups and objectives:

You were not just plopped down on a chunk of varying terrain and told to beat all the enemies.  Some battle had  more complex objectives backed up by environmental elements.  For example you had to fight your way to a sluice-way switch.  Activating that switch washed away all the enemies still within the channel.

Other battles were set up as “ambushes”.  Your team was secreted behind cover and you had to wait for the enemy to move within optimum range.  Your lead hero gives you clues each turn, but you must make the decision.  Too early and they will form up for an extremely tough battle.   Too late and you will not be able to stop them from passing through.  It was surprisingly dramatic.  A pleasant surprise.

Too big for a bullet point: Epilogue

After all the time spent with the characters, you are treated to a great narrative during the credit roll.  Using additional artwork it depicts the character’s future.  It is from the perspective of the main love interest girl, who is a little sad after the last battle.  But thankfully, the story did not end there.

I really like this “few years later” technique.  It was also used well in Grandia.  It is a great way of giving the player emotional catharsis.

We like to find matching cosplay pics for our analyses. However none could be found for Vandal Hearts. So instead here is a picture of the cutest Link ever.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

There was no going back once that bridge started falling away in sections.


  • They made a very nifty top-down map mode for the battles. The camera flew high overhead and markers denoted the positions of both enemies and allies upon request.  However, there was not really much call or need for it.  We rarely used it and wonder where those development hours could have been better spent.
  • There were a few very catchy music tracks, the rest were just okay.  However, while there was plenty of music it felt as a player that there needed to be more.
  • Limited character flexibility: Characters were stuck in their class with only a small number of specific exceptions.  A few of the characters had a single branching level-up point.   It was a little like Fire Emblem in this way.  It was the price paid for a closely tailored story and ramping scheme.  But it worked.
  • Your party members could not be killed permanently. That is understandable within a system of this type.  However we could have done with some more consequence to losing someone in battle.  More than than just, “I have to pull out.  I will see you later.”

The Bad:

"Take off that RED cloak. Haven't you ever watched Star Trek?"

“Take off that RED cloak. Haven’t you ever watched Star Trek?”

  • The in-game portraits were, …well… some were a little ugly.
  • The Art direction in general was less than pleasing to the eye.  The colors were sometimes garish, clashing and/or hard to distinguish.  The character sprites were stylized but in a slightly misshapen way.
  • Useless class: I had an archer I enjoyed using a lot.  She fit my battle style.  She had a branching promotion option.  One of the two choices (unfortunately the one I picked) was a useless class that more or less turned her into a paper thin target.  A real surprise demotion.  Grrr.

Another game world where enemies are actually composed of 120% pressurized blood!

Too big for a bullet point: Annoying AI

One of the drawbacks to “Turns by Team” is that the enemy can do an awful lot before you can respond.  It is usually manageable with proper spacing and formation.  In Vandal Hearts some enemy units had very long range.  Occasionally a battle started with your placement in the middle of a mess, and it was hard to shield your weaker units from concentrated enemy fire.

We understand why the AI is programmed with such behavior, and it made for a good challenge normally.  However that behavior in the above circumstances only led to frustration as there was sometimes little or nothing you could do but watch the carnage on your party member(s).

Final Thoughts:

“What? ‘Sword of Destruction’? NOW you tell me old lady!”

History chose the Final Fantasy Tactics school as the prominent one in regards to how SRPG’s handle 3D terrain.  So when you have an opportunity to play a rare gem from the other school like Vandal Hearts, it should be embraced and enjoyed as a fun change up.

Vandal Hearts had a lot of passion, especially when compared to its more sterile and intellectual contemporaries.  It also had a decidedly better ending.  Its unusual flavor included a narrator with a strange “German-ish” accent that was hard to pinpoint.  He said the craziest game words like, “Sostigaria!” in a different but entertaining way.

Vandal Hearts is an accessible SRPG made with a decent budget.  It is not that hard to find and is worth the effort to do so.  See for yourself how the flute playing hero gets thrust through time, and how he and his companions struggle against overwhelming odds.  Oh, and see if his star crossed romance has a chance against impossible odds.

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The Vandal Hearts Games:

Vandal Hearts [1997]

Vandal Hearts II [1999]

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment [2010]

In 1997 SRPG developers were wresting with what to do with fully interactive 3D terrain. One side chose to use the 3D terrain as just another element to be crafted into the whole system. They did it well, and the topography and structures they incorporated into their existing mechanics added to their games.

The other camp embraced the world of 3D more whole heartedly, putting less emphasis on some aspects of the deeper mechanics. Their vision of 3D terrain was to interact with it in gameplay significant ways using dynamic changes.

Vandal Hearts falls into the latter category as will Shining Force III and Kartia amongst others after it in 1998. Also debuting in 1998 was Final Fantasy Tactics which falls in the first category. In many ways Final Fantasy Tactics’ success will propel their way of thinking about 3D terrain to the forefront.

Final Fantasy Tactics is a great game; the gold standard really. However part of the reason why was that it carried the Final Fantasy name in the wake of the Final Fantasy VII craze. This is not to take away from the game’s awesome quality. It is just saying that their way got much, much more exposure than the others.

With that set up I will say that Vandal hearts has quality production values, a solid system of mechanics, and interesting environmental interactions. It uses the conventional grid and angled down camera while teams move as a whole in turn based fashion.

Final Fantasy Tactics [1998] ANALYSIS

Platform: PlayStation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: Finished @ ~120 Hours

Final_fantasy_tactics_playstation_cover

Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT), 1998 for the Playstation, was my first foray into Strategy Role Playing Games. It was a very pleasant surprise for multiple reasons. It showed a level of quality, depth, and attention to detail I would later find uncommon. This game is often cited as the leading exponent of the SRPG genre. It has become a standard by which other SRPG’s are measured, and with good reason.

In terms of balanced gameplay systems, map design aesthetics, and music FFT deserves a spot in the top SRPG’s up through the Playstation era. (No small feat considering this genre was one in which many studios took a stab.) This game is good at making fans of the genre, if they are a little patient. To some extent, even sometimes unknowingly, every SRPG that has come after must fight to get out of its shadow.

Final_fantasy_tactics_all_classes

It took 120 hours to finish FFT on my terms. How does someone take that long to play this game? My preferred style is about recruiting troops and and raising them into effective and diverse fighters. I generally prefer not to use the story characters given you. However raising multiple teams of recruits and protecting newbies takes careful planning and may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Sure, you are just a level one squire with a funny name, but now it is time to roll with the big boys.

Also, if you play like me your characters matter and you do not want to lose any of your team. I as a general rule refuse to replay a level, so each battle is for keeps. (This is barring an unintentional move, or an outrageous cheese by the AI.) If I lose a fighter nobly in battle, then so be it. I remember their bravery. Thankfully FFT supports that kind of gaming.

The format for FFT is about as classic as it gets.  You have a variety of fantasy themed characters, both ranged and melee. You move them upon 3D battle maps that can be rotated. Movement and ranges are organized by grid.


The Good:

  • Sakimoto kicked some butt with engaging music. There is a good number of tunes. They are amazingly resistant to driving you over the edge when listening for long stretches or through tough decisions. I even enjoy these songs for listening outside of the game.
  • The job system was very diverse. You could engage in most any style of combat you like. High hit-point sword wielders, ranged attackers, and status altering specialty characters were all possibilities. Some of course were easier to achieve than others.

  • The story was serious and deep. It was not one of those stupid, shallow affairs where a character trashes an entire platoon of enemies because of a perceived insult about their hair. Life and death situations call for serious stories of equal weight. Save a world, save a country, something. Not “let’s get those guys back for sticking you in the locker last week.”
  • The in-game cut scenes using the regular game engine were well made and detailed. They made you believe that the little people running around on this terrain have lives and live them in these playable environments.
Final_fantasy_tactics_chocobo

Chocobos. Honestly, I just do not get the appeal…

  • Polish. Everything was polished to some state of acceptable luster. The PSX graphics did not blow me away, but they were more importantly clear. The respective terrain types were clearly visualized. The interface was solid and readable.
  • Archer’s arrows flew farther when launched from higher ground. A detail yes, but archers sometimes get hosed in these games and I like the class. This kind of extra depth was evident in various character attack types and adds real value to the gameplay.

Final_fantasy_tactics_archer

  • “Facing” mattered. That is the direction you left your character facing mattered when it came to their ability to dodge and limit attack damage. Attacking from the rear is the most effective way – for both your team and the enemy, so beware. This is an important element for the genre and it is left out of any SRPG at its own peril.
  • The art direction and character portraits are very pleasing to the eye. While there is a bit too much similarity amongst them, none are displeasing. The costume takes on the different classes are great.
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“Why don’t any of us have noses?” “Huh?  Have you looked at the purple guy?”

  • If you lose someone in battle they are gone forever. This is unfortunately a rare mechanic. It is important in making every encounter significant. Nothing makes a game boring faster than taking out all consequences. Trust me, I worked on a Superman game and know how hard it is to work with invulnerability.
  • Death is not the end… sort of: A character fallen in battle has three turns to be revived by a “Phoenix Down” item.  If not revived they are truly gone forever.  This system adds tactical drama in a big way.  Something like it should be more widespread in the genre.
Too big for a bullet point: 3D Map Design

3D done right. Where most SRPG’s built up to 1998 were 2D, this game powered by the Playstation embraced 3D environments. They were not just 3D versions of 2D maps either. Each was crafted extremely well. They were 3D for strategic reasons, often using the third dimension to define the challenge. Much fun was had rotating around 3D geometry planning strategy and controlling separated characters. It is a level of 3D map creation prowess that is rarely equaled.

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It is a whole new dimension of strategy -literally, when you have to rotate around structures like this maneuvering your crew.

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There is a lot of gameplay potential built into this environment.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

  • The information is there, but… While I mentioned that the interface was visually clear, that does not mean it was the easiest to use. Oh you can get used to it, but for example finding out who goes next was a step removed. Finding out when a long charging spell would take affect was two steps removed.
  • The amount of equipment options was quite plentiful. Judged by the amount designated for specific class use, it was an appropriate amount. However multiplied by over a dozen classes it became too many, especially considering the interface used to manage it was not perfect. The multi-class usability of accessories eased somewhat the burden of filling a character’s four equipment slots.
  • You want to feel as though you are using the best equipment you can. The pricing for good equipment was equitable, and the game avoided being all about equipping –an easy pitfall. However the best equipment needed to be stolen and the ultra-rare required guidance from a FAQ. I disdain FAQ reliance. It is a cop out. Such tasks could be made into fun optional mini-quests instead.

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  • While you are enjoying creating your own custom crew, the game starts adding story characters to it. No problem, there is a narrative to be supported after all, and you do not HAVE to use them most battles. However some can throw the balance of the game off. One in particular is universally noted for having been way overpowered and destroying the challenge for those inclined to use him. Let me earn my victories.

Too big for a bullet point: Skill System Options

The skill system was very flexible when it came to choosing and gaining skills, and new class upgrades. It was a smart system that rightly allowed you to retain some old class skills in your new class. This was a real boon to concocting your own characters with truly unique or even strange skill set mixes.

However this flexibility sometimes allowed one so inclined to (with effort) make real class bending characters like fully armored magic-using knights. Depending on how “pure” a fantasy experience you want, this may be troubling. It is not an issue if you do not mind bipolar white mages who now prefer to hack enemies in twain. I prefer my characters to stay true to the spirit of their classes.

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These white mages are more interested in picking flowers than hacking enemies in twain.

Too big for a bullet point: Job Choices

The diverse job system was a font of fun gameplay options. It appealed to me, someone who likes to compose teams from the most obscure classes. It is a different challenge battling in the field with “mediators”, “oracles”, and “dancers”.

However, while nobody expects these classes to be the most powerful, they should not be useless either. Some classes seemed little more than a stop to qualify for one which was higher, or to get a particularly handy skill. The practical value across all the classes played too many favorites.

Additionally, even some advanced combat classes you expected to kick more butt than a dancer required too much effort and experience to do so. Others were just disappointing no matter what skills you earned. A dragoon has an awesome jump skill, but sadly little else to make you want to stay in that class.

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Actually, when you got a dancer leveled up sufficiently, she really did kick butt with status attacks. Plus you know you have made it as a class when you get cosplayed (and in smoking fashion).

The Bad:

  • The tutorial was complete (and completely dull). It was dry as a bone, or something even drier than a bone. Those familiar with SRPGs could take a chance and skip it, as could those allergic to boredom. Additionally, if huge amounts of adequately but not perfectly translated text make you cringe, you should also go straight to the game. The opening scenario allowed you to gain your wits before risking any of your permanent team.
  • FAQ reliance. The advanced classes required a certain amount of leveling up in other initial classes. However for example, there was no way to tell short of a FAQ how many levels of knight, archer, and thief were needed to open up the ninja job. That really is scandalous. You could spend hour after hour leveling various combinations in vain.
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“So how DO you become a ninja?” “Pmph! Wouldn’t YOU like to know!”

  • Archers could have hit harder. They were sadly less useful as compared with other classes which managed to keep up as the game advanced. Another less than optimized class, and one I dislike to see get shafted. Get it, “shafted?”
  • “What’s the story?” I said I liked a serious story to match the serious action, however this one was seriously dry, convoluted, and sometimes unintelligible. Its not the strength of FFT. Too many characters, political factions, and questionable translations. Motivation plays a key role in SRPG’s. If it is lacking or the player has lost his cause, the whole game suffers.
Final_fantasy_tactics_translation

I give the localization team credit for trying to give FFT that olde English feel. However strange one-off statements like these were, it got more unhelpful when trying to convey the convoluted plot.

  • Forking paths: They make me feel like I am missing out on a fun battle no matter which path I take. I am not talking here about world map routes. I am talking about chained combat map scenarios which force a choice and do not allow you to play both. We are not talking about missing random encounters or AI generated content, these were real hand crafted scenarios that would never see the light of someone’s TV.
Too big for a bullet point: The “Ending”

Remember Star Wars: A New Hope? Yeah the one with the great ending where the Death Star blows up? That was fun. (Spoilers ahead.)

  • Let us see, in this Prozac sponsored ending the historian/narrator is burned at the stake (although maybe it served him right for that dull tutorial).
  • The foolish princess is killed ridiculously for unfathomable reasons.
  • Your whole carefully wrought team is never seen again. (So much for making an impact.)
  • The hero and his sister ride off alone past a grave site, disappearing from history.

The ending was unworthy of the game. Matsuno, the amazing developer behind this and other amazing SRPG’s has never been known for his good endings. This will be seen and noted in future reviews of some of his other games.

Total prozac ending. Here in one of its more “upbeat parts” one of the more likable characters laments at the gravestone of your main character. Right after this somebody gets burned at the stake. Sheesh.

Suggestions:

Some of the very well crafted campaign story battle environments could have been reused for “random encounters”. The finite amount of random encounter maps were great, but why not add to their ranks with additional carefully crafted 3D gems?

I had quite the battle at this well laid out waterfall. It was against a particularly hard random group of mind flayers. I plotted my return grudge match for quite some time. Heh.

Final Thoughts:

Many advances have occurred within the SRPG genre from 1998 when this game was released to the mid 2000′s when it was played. However quality does not go out of style. While resolution and processing power have brought advances that make adoption of such games easier, few have had the same impact. VFX have greatly improved, but I still remember with awe the time mage’s colossal “Meteor” spell.

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There was a lot of world to explore, plus the special unlabled story maps. Hmm, this world map needs a “You are here.”

Meteor was hard to get and took (very) long to cast, but it was terrific and memorable coming down. (It was even more so if you actually managed to catch a group of enemies under it.) This was one of the few spells the time mage had that was a tide changer. It almost made this class worthwhile and not niche. Almost.

In the twist of one encounter you find your main character separated from the rest of the party. There he must alone face the main early game boss Gafgarion. If you manage to bring the boss to the point of defeat the old grizzled veteran looks up and says, “Is this the end?” It is poignant and a little sad. Your hero says to his once mentor, “Goodbye Gafgarion”. Then the boss dies in a puff of VFX.


Depending on your mindset, you can really get into these kinds of games. During the difficult gallows rescue mission my female ninja fought above and beyond the call of duty. They eventually with great effort felled her and she was too far away for me to revive though I tried. She bought the time to win that battle with her life. Those kinds of game memories are all too rare.

If you appreciate SRPG’s at all, you need to play FFT. It stands out in its time and beyond as one of the finest examples in the genre. It has minor flaws (barring the ending), but the core mechanisms, well crafted maps, diverse classes, and great music are a hard act to beat. History acknowledges this to be the case. All the SRPG’s I have played since have showed me that this is the case.

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