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• Vagrant Story

developed & published by Squaresoft/2000.05.16
1 Player/1 CD-ROM (3+ memory blocks)/Sony PlayStation, PSN

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Much to the surprise of his fans, Yasumi Matsuno‘s follow-up to the massively popular Strategy-RPG masterpiece Final Fantasy Tactics was Vagrant Story, the third game in history to receive a perfect score in the long-running weekly Famitsu magazine.  Mixing together elements of both strategy and action RPGs, Vagrant Story emphasizes weapon customization and exploration.  The strategy lies in using the right weapon for each of the different enemy types, along with traditional RPG elemental trade-offs.  Since the game was ultimately not the commercial success it was surely meant to be, the question is: did it deserve that coveted 40/40 score?  It’s now available in Europe on the PlayStation Network.

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Story & Presentation

The story follows Ashley Riot, a Riskbreaker working for the Valendia Knights of the Peace.  Riskbreakers are essentially spies in the medieval land of Valendia.  The religious cult Mullenkamp is involved in shady dealings with the powerful Duke Bardoba and both Parliament and the clergy want to get to the bottom of it.  Suspiciously the cult leader and prophet, Sydney Losstarot, has scampered off to the city of Lea Monde – abandoned because of nasty earthquakes which all but buried the inhabitants alive – and Ashley must follow him.  To reveal anything more would ruin one of Square’s finest story lines, populated by a cast of memorable characters, and arguably their best PlayStation effort.

The dialog in some spots has a mock Olde English feel to it, and for the most part is very well written.  There’s a subtle interplay between characters, who launch verbal witticisms instead of dopey one-liners at each other.  Cinemas play out using the in-game models and are beautifully directed, with comic book-style word bubbles taking the place of proper voice acting.  The lack of voice acting certainly hurts the presentation and is probably the one flaw in Vagrant Story worth noting (assuming the voice work was the quality of say, a Metal Gear Solid, this game would’ve been legendary).
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Gameplay

In true AD&D fashion, Vagrant Story takes place in all manner of dark and unfriendly places, often with cool names like “The Bread Peddler’s Way”, or “Tears from Empty Sockets”.  The developers visited various European cities and the game is overflowing with their observations.  These areas have unfairly led to its reputation as a “dungeon crawler” but there’s plenty of outdoor areas as well.  Lea Monde was a city after all, and you’ll explore a spiderweb of streets and back alleys, misty forests, and the twilight under city (as well as a hell of a lot of dungeons!).

A decidedly futuristic 3D auto-map feature helps when exploring these snarled labyrinths, which are peppered with perplexing block puzzles and a dash of platforming.  Enemies fall into a wide spectrum of fantasy archetypes, and besting them will require some equally fantastic gear.

Weapon & Armor Customization

Unlike typical RPGs where you simply buy and equip stronger weapons at each new town you visit, Vagrant Story requires much more planning.  You can fight empty-handed or using 1-handed swords, 2-handed swords, daggers, 1-handed axes/hammers, 2-handed axes/hammers/pole-arms, staves and crossbows.  Whips or chain weapons are missing, which would’ve been cool.  Empty hands can be equipped with a shield.  You’ll find plenty of equipment throughout your quest, mostly complete weapons but also parts (a blade or a grip).  These can be retooled in the sporadic workshops to create entirely new weapons and armor. Further complicating things, they are made out of grades of material: bronze, iron, silver, hagane (steel), & legendary damascus.

vagrantstory-004In combat, weapon suitability is based on its affinity to the enemy: humans, beasts, undead, phantoms, dragons and evil creatures.  The more you use a weapon against a specific type, the more it becomes attuned to killing that type.  However, weapons that are especially suited to some enemies will naturally become less effective against others – therefore you will require a handful of specialty weapons.

Additionally, there are magical gems which can be slotted into a weapon’s grip, often with significant elemental/affinity bonuses.  Likewise, all armor in the game has similar affinities and will determine how much damage is absorbed when Ashley is attacked.  This tricky statistics exercise can be extremely challenging and rewarding, but it’s one of those “love it or hate it” things.  Careful combinations can lead to ultimate weapons which are equally powerful against all enemies and never wear down with use.

Battle System

Once the right weapon is in hand, combat begins.  Players open the combat sphere, which temporarily freezes the action to gauge Ashley’s distance to the target (akin to Parasite Eve or, excuse me while I puke, Quest 64).  Naturally, the combat sphere is much larger when using crossbows or pole-arms than when using a dagger.  If an enemy’s body is inside the sphere, Ashley may attack.  Sometimes you’ll hit just an arm or a leg, but if the enemy is standing right next to him, Ashley may choose which part of the body to attack: each area has its own hit percentage, adding an extra layer of strategy.

Hitting an arm will lower an enemy’s attack or defensive power (depending on whether its the weapon arm of shield arm).  Hitting the head will lower intelligence – and therefore the enemy’s ability to cast magical spells.  Hitting the legs can cut an enemy’s movement in half.  Targeting the correct body part can be vital to success.

vagrantstory-005Once an attack begins, Players can time sequential blows to string together a combo.  Specific attacks are assigned to the controller and so long as they are not repeated twice in a row, they can be linked together into massive chains.  This requires expert timing, and to make matters more interesting each class of weapon has its own distinctive rhythms.  However, unlimited or infinite combo chains (while not exactly easy to pull off) are limited by the RISK factor.  Ashley’s RISK increases with each successful combo attack, decreasing his accuracy significantly (apparently he is still human).

When his RISK is running high, Ashley will suffer more critical blows from his enemies.  Luckily, he has some defensive maneuvers that (like the combo system) require split-second timing.  Specific defense abilities can be assigned to reflect back part of the damage incurred, heal a percentage of the damage, or nullify spells.  And speaking of spells, Vagrant Story has quite an extensive list.

Magick Grimoires

vagrantstory-006There are four categories of magic in Vagrant Story (Warlock, Shaman, Sorcerer, Enchanter).  Accessing these categories is a breeze with the quick select menu, allowing Ashley to heal himself using standard white magic spells, attack with a laundry list of black magic spells, temper his chosen weapon or armor with elemental power, or simply buff / debuff his or the enemy’s stats (agility, intelligence, strength, etc.).

Last but not least are the Break Arts (weapon-based special attacks), which Ashley learns after using a weapon a set number of times.  They cost valuable HP to use but can decimate a foe who would otherwise absorb standard combo attacks.

Graphics & Music

Vagrant Story puts the PlayStation to the test with full 3d environments and characters.  While most of the environments are fairly blocky, they’re filled with great details – Lea Monde has been abandoned for some time, and the onset of decay can be seen everywhere.  The settings are mostly limited to dungeons, but each one has its own mood.

The character artists clearly put their heart into the models and textures.  Even duplicate enemies have been dramatically remodeled and textured.  The same degree of love and care was lavished on the many weapons and shields you can forge – almost all of which are exceedingly cool.  Unfortunately Ashley’s armor, such as his helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, greeves, and necklaces are not visually represented in the game (a pity, but with all the possible combinations this could go on and on!).  The main characters are designed in a manga-esque style and even change facial expressions (which was uncommon for PlayStation games at the time).

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The game’s musical score is by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who worked previously on Final Fantasy Tactics.  Sakimoto-san considers his work on Vagrant Story his best contribution to the medium, and I agree.   The many battle themes which accompany the intense bosses add variety and suspense to the fighting, while his creepy ballads fit perfectly with the dark and unwelcoming catacombs.  At times the music drifts away, allowing the ambient noises to establish mood.  The game’s credit roll features the only real symphonic piece, beautifully recapping Ashley’s main theme (an unexpected gift for all that hard work!).

Final Thoughts

vagrantstory-002As Matsuno-san predicted in an interview prior to its release, gamers were split as to whether they loved it or hated it.  Why?  Because Vagrant Story is a perfectly executed, uncompromising vision that does not pander to the mainstream RPG base.  This is not your typical connect-the-dots, paint-by-numbers RPG, despite retaining so many traditional RPG elements.  Its worst crime in this day and age is that it is genuinely deep and challenging.

It deserves its critical acclaim and insanely devoted cult followers because it succeeds above and beyond what it sets out to do.  The storyline is easily one of the best ever in a videogame.  This is one of the all-time greats for the few, the proud, the Vagrants.

Quick Run-Down

PROS:

  • Unique, challenging game system
  • Excellent story, characters, & production values
  • Extras & New Game + options increase replay value

CONS:

  • Complex game system requires dedication
  • Successful weapon / armor forging requires FAQ

One Sentence Review: One of the best games ever made, if you can handle the insane game system.

One Word Review: Exceptional.

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