Out of all the Konami franchises to resurrect, Vandal Hearts feels like a somewhat random and inexplicable choice. The first two games, released in the late ’90s for the original PlayStation, weren’t met with much fanfare upon release, even at a time when RPG fans would play anything and everything from Japan for the sake of novelty value alone. In fact, most only know this strategy-RPG series for the fountains of arterial spray that would gush forth from its little warriors after the slightest nick of a dagger.

And now, more than a decade since the last Vandal Hearts installment, things haven’t changed a bit in the downloadable-only title Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment; the characters’ penchant for emitting torrents of fire hose-pressure blood marks one of the few memorable elements of a mostly unremarkable game.

Click the image above to check out all Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment screens.

If you’ve played any of the Tactics Ogre-inspired Japanese strategy RPGs of the past decade, nothing in Flames of Judgment should surprise you. All the fundamental trappings are here: turn-based progression, tile-by-tile movement, area of effect spells — all in all, pretty standard. Though it’s important to note that developer Hijinx Studios excised the expected RPG character levels and classes in favor of a SaGa-inspired growth system where party members become stronger in regards to the weapons and magic they equip and use. Since every character can equip almost ever weapon, Flames of Judgment initially seems to provide a lot of options for character customization.

But in the end, your individual choices don’t matter much; while the game gives you an abundance of character statistics to build, it’s easy to go on auto-pilot and choose the most obvious and practical set of equipment upgrades for your party. Sure, you could attempt to make your wimpy mage a hammer-wielding force of nature on the front lines, but why do this when the enemy will inevitably cut through him like tissue paper at their first chance?

Thankfully, the battles themselves don’t suffer from this same level of simplicity; like the first Vandal Hearts, your missions involve a bit more than simply slaying everything in your path. Most battles feature some sort of puzzle element to make things more interesting, and you’ll usually find yourself pondering how to shove boulders, throw switches, escort the weak, and/or chase down enemy leaders, all while taking on the hordes of goons swarming your party. Ultimately, Vandal Hearts’ battles aren’t very difficult, though they are varied and, at times, unpredictable. And since most levels are littered with treasures and maps to secret areas, it’s often necessary to break up your party in the midst of added enemy reinforcements and changing objectives. Strategizing in Flames of Judgment doesn’t require nearly as much anal-retentive precision as something like Fire Emblem, but the game succeeds in throwing a few curveballs into a thoroughly bland battle system.

While strategy RPG veterans will inevitably sleepwalk through most of Flames of Judgment, it isn’t hard to see how someone new to the genre could find a lot more to like. Still, with a little searching, it’s not hard to find a far better take on turn-based strategy for far less than fifteen dollars — and one that isn’t so nightmarishly ugly. Vandal Hearts may be competent at what it does, but its derivative throwback nature doesn’t do much for a genre that’s in desperate need of innovation.

By Bob Mackey