Vagrant Story - Review

A Masterpiece and a Work of Art

By: Phillipe Richer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 10
   Interface 10
   Music/Sound 10
   Originality 10
   Plot 10
   Localization 10
   Replay Value 10
   Visuals 10
   Difficulty Hard
   Time to Complete

25-35 hours


Vagrant Story

   Vagrant Story is unlike anything you've ever seen before, and is without a doubt in my mind Squaresoft's greatest accomplishment. It's one of the very, very few games to receive a perfect 50/50 score from the most respected video games magazine in Japan, Weekly Famitsu. Sometimes described as a dungeon crawler, others as a medieval Metal Gear Solid, the only thing Vagrant Story deserves to be called is a masterpiece.

   Crafted by part of the team of developers who gave us Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story plunges you into a medieval world, in a deserted city called Leā Monde. Before doing anything, you must let the intro roll, for the dazzling music, but also for the awesome epilogue. Also, as soon as you can, you should take a peek at the excellent in-game quick manual which will give you answers to any question you may have about the game's mechanics. Conflict has erupted in the Graylands as Duke Bardorba's manor has been seized by the religious cult Müllenkamp, led by the mysterious Sydney Losstarot. Suspiciously enough, Duke Bardorba was not present at the time of the incident, and the Cardinal's Blades have already been dispatched without approval from the Valendia Knights of the Peace (VKP). As one of the best among the VKP's elite Riskbreaker squad, Ashley Riot is sent to investigate the disturbance, and from there does the adventure start in Leā Monde.

   As the proud Riskbreaker he is, Ashley will work alone against the forces of evil. You will have an amazing arsenal of skills, magic, weapons and deadly break arts at your disposal. You'll be thrown in abandoned wine cellars, dark underground passages and sunny town centres as you make your way through the city, acquiring keys and sigils (magic keys) along the way to unlock different doors. Ashley has an HP, MP, and Risk gauge to manage during his adventure. Every gauge will slowly fill-up (or down for Risk) when you are not in battle mode. When you get close to an enemy, you must press the O button to enter battle mode, and then press it again to make a sphere grid appear. You'll be able to target different body parts within that grid to damage your enemies. After a little exploration, you'll unlock special skills called chain abilities which allow you to attack a foe continually by pressing the O, square, or triangle button just before landing a hit. You'll also have defensive chain abilities to reduce the damage, absorb MP or even return part of the damage to your enemy. You'll acquire more chain abilities as you kill of your foe with big combos. You must be careful not to over exert yourself though, as each successful hit will fill-up your Risk gauge little by little. The higher the Risk, the harder it is to hit and the more damage you receive. Break arts are another attack method. You'll gain more break arts as you defeat enemies with each type of weapon, from swords to crossbows. Break arts use a portion of your HP and cannot be chained with anything else.

The start of everything. Prepare to be swept away.
The start of everything. Prepare to be swept away.  

   Of course, no good RPG would be complete without some type of magic system. In Vagrant Story, you'll learn different spells, ranging from attack magics to support effects by finding item called Grimoires. Once you use the Grimoire, you'll have learned the corresponding spell permanently. There are a lot of items, armors and weapons in Vagrant Story. You'll be able to outfit Ashley from head to toe as you which. You can also attach gems which grant extra powers to your weapons or shields. And of course, there's also the whole assortment of healing items at your disposal. However, it doesn't stop there. Aside from the attack, defense and intelligence rating of each piece of equipment, you also have to consider their monster class rating (6 types), elemental affinity (7 types) and attack type (blunt, edged, piercing). There are also workshops, which allow you to repair, combine and reattach blades and hilts to fully customize your weapons and armors. Although it might seem a daunting task at first trying to balance everything out, you'll quickly get the hang of it if you read the manuals well and heed my advice.

   Most people agree; Vagrant Story is an incredible experience all-around. However, those who dislike it or dismissed it in the past have all done so because they had a hard time beating enemies, inflicting only 1-2 points of damage per hit. Since Vagrant Story is in essence a dungeon crawler, it's pretty evident that you must enjoy all the fighting in order to enjoy the rest. Most people don't know how the game works. Of the 3 stats (monster, affinity, type) the most important is weapon type, as shown at the bottom when attacking, and NOT monster class, which shows up first in the menus and which everyone keeps referring to. Carrying a weapon for each monster class is the worst way to play. Actually, all you need is a strong weapon of each blunt, edged and piercing to get through the game. Since that stat boost is given out by the hilt, a good hilt is just as important as a strong blade.

   Once you have the right weapon type to face a foe, simply supplement the hilt with appropriate affinity and PERHAPS monster class gems to inflict even more damage. But how can I know the enemies weaknesses you say? Easy; simply cast Analyze (you get it automatically at the end of the Sanctuary level). Once that's successfully done, open the menu, go to status, and press L1. You'll then see a detailed chart of your enemy, allowing you to fully exploit its weaknesses. If you want more juice, you can also cast support spells and use break arts. Do so, and I guarantee that you'll never inflict less than 25-30 HP per attack to ANY foe. I strongly urge everyone who tossed Vagrant Story aside on account of the difficulty to try and go through the game one more time.

   As complex as it could've been, the menus are all very well organized and displayed for a game with so many stats. It's easy to find what you want, sort things the way you like it, and equip what you need. You'll see a portrait of Ashley on the side of the screen, and equipping new shields and weapons will net him to immediately pick the right stuff up. Pressing L2 during battle will also prompt a quick menu, allowing you to cast spells, use items etc. with the use of only 2 buttons. Bravo. You can also press the start button to switch to first-person view mode and appreciate the detail of every location close-up. Vagrant Story also has the most useful maps I have ever seen. You'll locate locked doors, save points and workshops in a breeze with the simple, yet elegant maps. And when you talk about detail, every (and I do mean EVERY) room has a name. I'm not talking "wine cellar room #4", but great names such as "Sinner's Corner", or "The Pendulum". The attention to detail is something that just can't be overlooked. You'll also have to make a lot of jumps and solve many block puzzles, some of which can truly challenge your mind.

Very well organized menus, in English of course.
Very well organized menus, in English of course.  

   Hitoshi Sakimoto, who also composed the music for FFT, returns with his whole assortment of synthesized and orchestrated sound. Not knowing much about musical instruments, I can't really tell you what specific sounds he creates, but one thing's for sure, it's good. While the dungeons' ambient sound and low tone music don't try to steal the show, once you get to a cut-scene, you can expect some magnificent compositions. Sakimoto-san has a very distinct style and he uses his imagination fully on this soundtrack. It's very soothing and pleasing to listen to his amazing tracks and his ending credit composition could amaze even Mozart himself. As if this wasn't enough, the sounds themselves are the most amazing this side of Shenmue. Every spell, every weapon, every bird chirping, river flowing, people walking sound is masterfully recreated for your listening pleasure. When you combine the battle system, the fresh music, the ability to fully customize your weapons and a heart-striking incredibly well-written plot, you're definitely playing another kind of RPG. While some things have already been done before, Vagrant Story incorporates everything so well that it's hard not to be struck by awe. What I described at the beginning of this review is only the prelude of the game's rich and mesmerizing plot.

You'll encounter a spectacular cast of characters and uncover some amazing truths behind the whole operation. The story is told by Alazlam Durai, a fictional record keeper who also told the Zodiac Brave Story (FFT). You sadly only hear him narrate at the beginning and end of the game, but it's enough to understand. Ashley will also discover himself and his full potential with some really nice and deep pieces of philosophy and psychology told by the supporting cast. It's hard for me to express how much the story moved me, but all and all, one of the best and most well-written stories ever, in anything. It's food for the mind.

You'll have to play the game more than once to fully appreciate and understand the events. Playing the game a second time is just as enjoyable, if not more, than the first thanks to the New Game + feature, which allow you to transfer all your stats, weapons and armors in the new game. Playing a second time is also the only way you'll be able to access 100% of the map, since only 82% is open for exploration the first time around. Added to that is a list of titles you acquire, which serve as nothing more than bragging rights and self gratification, by completing special requirements such as finding every treasure chests, beating special bosses of completing the game without using chain abilities. The game is also a nice 25-35 hours long of gameplay, so you shouldn't get bored along the way. If you play the game intelligently, exploiting everyone's weakness and going into battle prepared, you shouldn't have that much problem completing the game, although laziness may lead to death rather quickly.

Superb cut-scenes are your reward after those long dungeon treks.
Superb cut-scenes are your reward after those long dungeon treks.  

The localization is a delight. It's a triumph over the Japanese language. It's art. Those pretentious boring novel writers can go back to bed, the guy who handled Vagrant Story, Alexander O. Smith, is a genius and his dialogues eclipse everything that has been done in the past. For its time, Vagrant Story is a visual triumph. While characters may seem a pit pixilated, considering the limited power of the PSX and the fluent movement of every body part, including eyelids and mouths, Vagrant Story is artistically very impressive. Add to that full 3D environments with a pivoting camera and you got total immersion. If you have a PS2, the texture smoothing will do wonders, pushing the graphics to early PS2 game quality.

Vagrant Story is all that. It's the least appreciated masterpiece of all time and the development team deserves all the admiration in the world. If someone asked me to prove them that RPGs really are works of art, I'd show them Vagrant Story. Along with MGS2, there is no doubt in my mind that Vagrant Story is the greatest game ever made.

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