During the 90s, character driven stories were just really starting to take hold in console video games. Sure, you had characters like Mega Man and Super Mario in the late 80’s who were both recognizable and loved, but they didn’t really display any character in game. What character they did have was written about them in the instruction manual. After games like Final Fantasy IV and Breath of Fire (two games I just thought of off the top of my head), gamers started to get a taste of character driven narratives, and by the time the 90s were coming to a close, it was damn near a requirement that your game had somewhat interesting characters and a plot beyond “Save the princess, save the world”.
Ash Lambert was one of those characters introduced during that time in the late 90s where game companies were pretty used to putting forth much more effort into their storytelling. Konami released Vandal Hearts in October of 1996 in North America. The main protagonist was, as you guessed it, Ash Lambert. He’s the leader of a small platoon of soldiers for the Ishtarian Security Force. As the main character of a fantasy game in the late 90s, he’s about what you’d expect. He’s a natural leader, intelligent, skilled, compassionate, is mostly level headed, and has a sense of duty and justice. Despite these desirable qualities in a leader, he is haunted by the fact that his father was labeled a traitor and the guilt he’s built up throughout the years due to his father’s actions.
Ash displays his compassion and leadership very early on in the game. After the first battle, his platoon mate Diego wants to kill the bandit leader they have just defeated. The bandit leader, Zoot, had somehow escaped prison and was on the loose, most likely due to some inside help. Ash decides instead to take him through the proper channels and arrests him again. Ash continues to display these qualities throughout the game, such as when he motivates Grog, a drunken sailor who had lost the will to sail, to help the party reach their destination. His friends are quick to follow him wherever he may take them, even if it means putting themselves in danger. Ash returns the favor by putting himself into harms way to protect his team. The best example of this is a giant spoiler at the very end that I really don’t want to give away, so you’ll have to play through the game to find out.
Unfortunately, Ash is prone to let the guilt of his past catch up to him on various occasions. His father was labelled a traitor and killed when Ash was still a child, and he and his mother were cast out of society. Ash grew up hating his father because of the hardships he had to go through. This gets in the way of Ash’s mission at several critical points throughout the story. Early on, Ash lets Kane, the corrupt leader of the Crimson Guard, kill several rioters who had laid down their arms and surrendered, all because Kane brought up Ash’s traitorous blood. Later on, Ash strikes out at Eleni, the resident female mage and Ash’s potential romantic interest, when the legendary Vandal Heart sword vies for his soul and brings out Ash’s worst qualities. Ash then goes on to critically wound his mentor, Clive. After he is talked down, he has lost the will to fight due to his guilt until Eleni convinces him to remain strong. This is Ash’s main character arc, where he finally beats his guilt learns to accept his past and move on.
When I first decided to analyze Ash and break him down, I thought he may be a pretty interesting character from a game with a pretty good story. He’s a well rounded, complex, and dynamic character that goes through changes during the duration of the game. Ash is as well written as a Japanese game translated for a North American release in the late 1990s can be. As I was taking notes on the gameplay footage I put together, I realized that while Ash is not, by any means, a weak character, he is not a very original character. He fails to really do anything new in terms of gaming heroes. Ash is very similar to another very famous video game protagonist who you are likely already familiar with, Cecil Harvey.
Ash’s character class follows the line of the Paragon, a noble and heroic knight class with some minor magical ability. Sounds a lot like a Paladin to me, Cecil’s main character class throughout most of Final Fantasy IV. Cecil also goes through a transformation involving a sword, where he has to fight the darkness in his soul before he is able to become a Paladin and wield the holy Mythgraven Blade. Ash’s short battle with the darkness within himself to be able to fully handle the Vandal Heart’s power is very similar to Cecil’s struggle.
I really like Ash, but he doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There are countless other similar characters that have to overcome feelings of guilt or darkness before they can control their power and save the day. What makes the story in this game work is the great ensemble of characters that you meet and Ash is only a small part in what makes the story interesting. Again, he’s not a weak character, but because there were so many to tread that ground before him, Ash isn’t as interesting as he could have been.