VANDAL HEARTS / Konami / PlayStation
Vandal Hearts was the first strategy-RPG for Konami, the first one released for the OG PlayStation, and the first ever with a fully 3D rotating playfield. Konami was rushing to get this one out as a near-launch title for the console, and the team that was working on it had never done anything like a strategy game or RPG before. That's a recipe for disaster right there. And while Vandal Hearts didn't come out a total train wreck, it's definitely a middling-at-best title on the whole with a lot of obvious amateurish qualities to it.
It actually makes a positive initial impression, in spite of the shovelware-caliber graphics at times. The 3D textures and 2D character sprites are very basic, and in the latter case sometimes downright awful-looking; in addition, the artist for some reason favored odd-looking characters with huge noses and weak chins. However, there are also some nice touches like a surprisingly elaborate level of animation to all the sprites. They have lots of little gestures and reactions with a surprisingly high frame count, and the character portraits have mouth motions and even different facial expressions for even the basic NPCs.
If the game is remembered for anything graphically, though, it's the ridiculous Samurai Shodown-like geysers of blood whenever a human enemy is killed in battle. Amusingly, this happens to your own characters when they get killed too ... though since there's no perma-death for anyone but the main character, they're just fine after the battle.
Konami was very proud of their 3D battlefields, having the camera floating about a little too much during enemy turns (sometimes winding up obstructing the view of the action) and possibly causing people who experience seasickness to become nauseous. It's generally handled quite well during your turns, however, and I loved that you can seamlessly zoom out and back in to a 2D representation of all the character and enemy positions on the battlefield.
Bad as they are at times, the graphics aren't the game's problem. It's the map design being shitty and amateurish to the point of almost being unplayable in some levels. The enemy AI has only one strategy throughout the entire game - ALL OUT CHAAAAAAAAAAARGE from the very first turn of every battle. It makes the original Shining Force and Fire Emblem look sophisticated by comparison. In a game that has no level-grinding and harsh EXP and money deprivation consequences for character death, you could maybe pull this off by having one or a few fussy little clever ways to handle each oncoming wave that the player has to suss out. But that's not really how it was handled here. You're usually thrown into an indefensible position and basically have to throw your meat shields in the front, make sure you go into battle fully stocked with healing items, and just tank through it and hope for the best. The second map already has ghost enemies that can just phase right through your defensive walls, for cripes sakes.
Later on, the enemies start packing shitty status effects with a very high rate of success with every hit they land. Which just makes the whole shit soup even worse. The only thing that keeps the game manageable is the fact that there are no consequences for any character deaths except for the main (which ends the game). Indeed, there are at least a couple maps I can't really see a way out of without one or two people dying.
The dynamic eventually changes a bit when you're given the ability to change character classes, in a branching upgrade system kinda similar to Seiken Densetsu 3 but with more flexibility. However, as it turns out the most effective strategy is always just to kite enemies with range units since their blind CHAAAAAARGE at the main character never changes. So you'll have a bunch of archers, mages and healers running around out of necessity doing the same thing every battle, maybe with a Birbman or two in the mix since you need their flying abilities for certain things in some levels.
All this is a shame as the game actually seems to have a more interesting story than most SRPGs, with a generally quite good localization to boot (putting FF Tactics to shame in that regard). The setup is that you're in this country that just overthrew a monarchy and set up the world's first democracy 15 years ago, but things have already degenerated into factionalism and rampant corruption and it all ain't working out real well for the average Joe. The game has you dealing with flare-ups of protests and terrorist attacks, which makes everything feel oddly modern.
I can see why some people look back on this fondly for the story, the weirdly-charming-at-times art style and the challenge (even though it's "challenge by sloppy rookie design" rather than "challenge by a master craftsman"). The game is really a mess in more ways than one, though, and I don't think a player that doesn't already have nostalgic feels for it from 20 years ago is going to want to bother butting their head against it now.
* Gameplay Video