Vandal Hearts II Review (PSX)

After playing through and enjoying the original Vandal Hearts, I was anxious to try its sequel. In doing a little background research beforehand, I found out that Konami expanded the game to be somewhere around 30 hours for a normal playthrough, which is roughly twice that of the first game. I wasted no time getting into it, and the prologue chapter seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. It was beautiful in some areas, ugly in others. Unfortunately, I found that many things that didn’t bother me at first became extremely tedious into the 20th hour of gameplay such that I was no longer enjoying the game at all. I decided to give up and move on since my time could be better spent on other games.

Vandal Hearts II begins with a scene of four children playing together. Through the course of the story, you will come to find that all of them will play pivotal roles in future events, but right now they are just children. The main character of the game is Joshua, and he and his friends alter the course of history when they save a man who becomes extremely important. The game follows the main characters into adulthood as we see the consequences of those initial events and they try to unify a nation being divided by outside forces.

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The game is rife with social commentary on class stratification, political unrest, and civil war, clearly getting much of its inspiration from Final Fantasy Tactics. But while that game at least made attempts at keeping its story simple enough for the player to follow, this one doesn’t seem to care. I will have to give it credit, the script is much sharper than most games from the era, but the plot is so complex with its different factions and who is doing what and where that I completely lost track of what was going on past Chapter 2. It certainly doesn’t help that barely any of the characters have a discernible personality or backstory.

While the story isn’t particularly unique in the TRPG genre, the gameplay aims to make up for it. One of the issues I had with the first Vandal Hearts was that every character and enemy had a turn and the camera would focus on them, whether they moved or not, and this tended to bog down a lot of battles. It appears Konami tried to remedy that issue with the Dual Turn System, in which an enemy moves at the same time the player moves a character. The result of this is that battles actually take longer because the player has to figure out where the enemy can attack in order to figure out how to avoid them. The button sequence for figuring this out is not intuitive. Also, many times I would move a character to strike without thinking and ended up attacking an empty square, thus wasting a turn.

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Another system that I liked in the beginning was how skills, abilities, and spells were allocated to characters. Instead of assigning jobs to characters like most other TRPGs, this one simply has weapons with abilities attached to them. Basically the player can change jobs on the fly by changing weapon types. After abilities are learned from one, they can be moved onto other weapons of the same class.

This is a neat idea which is similar to the system used in Final Fantasy IX. However, what makes this system irritating is the amount of menu management that goes into moving said abilities. The prologue was okay because there are only 3 characters and a couple weapons, but upon progressing further into the game, managing 7 characters with at least 5 weapons each gets to be an arduous chore.

Besides the aforementioned issues, there are many other small gripes that just continued to annoy me while I was trying to enjoy myself. You can’t save mid-battle like you could in the first Vandal Hearts. I ended up leaving my PS3 running overnight a few times because I wanted to go to bed. Even doing something as simple as equipping new weapons on characters take more time than it should because Konami didn’t see fit to let the player switch between characters using the L and R buttons. Menus also take about 5 seconds to load, which really adds up when trying to figure out which characters will have which weapons and skills, accessed from two different menus.

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The final straw for me was with chests and buried items that are found on the battlefield. In order to access these things, you need to have the necessary skills equipped on a dagger. That is the only weapon that has those skills and you will spend the entire length of a battle trying to get to everything, which will make them last even longer. As if that wasn’t irritating enough, another weapon class has the ability to make and break blocks, which you will also always want on a character. There are a few battlefields that only come up once and if you miss a chest with a unique weapon because you didn’t have one of these skills equipped, you will ostensibly miss out on the best ending for the game.

Upon realizing I was tired of jumping through the hoops Vandal Hearts II expected of me, I gave up. I can’t play a game I’m not having fun playing (I’m not getting paid for these reviews after all). There were a lot of great ideas in this game, and the prologue definitely had me interested in seeing where the story would go. However, everything after that became so complex that I lost all interest. Maybe one day I’ll come back to beat this game, but it won’t be anytime soon.

Score: 2 out of 5

“A Star Is Born” Review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: ordinary woman is discovered by man to have extraordinary talent, man elevates woman so she can be seen by others, man and woman fall in love, woman surpasses man, man fades into obscurity. If it sounds familiar, it might be because this is the third remake this movie has seen and that the story has become cliched since. While it might seem like I’m making a dig at Hollywood for being unoriginal, I’m really not. I’m completely in favor of taking classic stories and reinterpreting them for the modern times, as long as it stays relevant and on point. Though I haven’t seen any of the prior versions, I am aware that each one has its quirks. The version released in 2018 is, just like the others, a take on the familiar that is still very much of its time with its own missteps.

The story begins with Jackson “Jack” Maine (Bradley Cooper) finishing up a performance and wandering into a drag bar, already drunk. Of course, he is recognized by a few of the patrons and, after being captivated by her performance, is introduced to the mononymous Ally (Lady Gaga). The two hit it off immediately and before long, she is backstage at his next concert being coaxed on-stage to sing a song she wrote. The moment she does was probably the most powerful in the movie. The song the two co-stars sing is exactly Gaga’s style and shows off her vocal and songwriting prowess. Unfortunately, after that, the movie degrades into a series of montages and telling the audience what is happening or has happened in the past.

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This is really a let down because Cooper and Gaga have great on-screen chemistry. Cooper sells it as a drunk Americana vocalist, and Gaga shines as a girl who is trying to pave her own way. It’s the attempt to do both of these stories justice that makes it fall apart. In fact, I couldn’t believe that she stayed in a relationship with him after everything that she knew about him. They lean in hard on Jack’s substance abuse and auditory problems at the expense of showing how Ally has lost creative control of her music and is frustrated by how controlling her manager can be. It seems the director (Bradley Cooper) only wanted to show the destructive side of Jack that was there before he met Ally, as opposed to the destruction he might have wrought on Ally because of his intervention. The ending left me feeling like a lot of important things were unresolved.

Though the story may have faltered, there is a lot this movie does that works. I loved how the drag scene was used in a positive light and as a place where Ally could perfect her craft. The cinematography was great, giving us close-ups in dramatic moments so we could catch each emotional twitch and panning out to show high energy scenes like concerts. The soundtrack, though comprised of various genres, was also strong. I’m sure writing those songs gave Gaga plenty of inspiration for the direction of her next album. The bits of modern culture thrown in like Saturday Night Live and becoming famous via YouTube also help make the story more relatable.

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The music industry is just as fickle as Hollywood. Sometimes the people with the most talent in either don’t get the credit or notoriety they deserve. One day a star can be on top of the world, the next, in the gutter. Cooper’s A Star Is Born made an attempt at exploring this premise, but got bogged down in the overall message it was trying to convey. However, the cautionary tale unintentionally became about people who destroy themselves, the ones who enable them, and how fame can exacerbate issues instead of solve them. Or something. The result here is a movie that starts very strong with competent star power but eventually just fizzles out.

Score: 3 out of 5