Vagrant Story - Review  

The Rules of the Game
by LordoftheFleas

20-25 hours


Rating definitions 

   Vagrant Story is one of those games that was destined for only a certain segment of the population to 'get'. Released to widespread hype and critical acclaim in 1999, it was realized to be a commercial failure. Especially in the light of Chrono Cross, a much more successful game released concurrently, Square received the message. Apparently, no one wanted to play games with in-depth character studies, tremendous atmosphere development, or even a (slightly) unconventional narrative structure. But for those of us who 'get' it, we wouldn't have Vagrant Story any other way.

   This brooding game set a benchmark for PS1 games graphically which few, if any at all, exceeded. Granted, the backgrounds are pre-rendered (a la Resident Evil), but overwhelming attention was paid to bringing them alive. The presentation wholly depicts the fractured essence of a once-great city waylaid by years of seclusion and erosion. As for the character models themselves, they have an alarming propensity for long and awkward arms--this is nitpicking though. They are incredible otherwise.

   Complimenting the crisp visuals is an eerily ambient score that accents the protagonist's footsteps as he traverses the many stark corridors of the game. Taking a step back from his Final Fantasy Tactics glory days, Hitoshi Sakimoto (one half of that game's illustrious composing guo) instead opts here for a score that is as harrowing as it is silent. This move is very appropriate, as Vagrant Story is a much more dark and probing game than even Final Fantasy Tactics was.

Requiem for a Vanquished Foe. Requiem for a Vanquished Foe.

   Surely the graphics and music couldn't have turned people off to this game. Was it the story then? The player controls Ashley Riot, a member of an elite medieval police force (dubbed the 'Riskbreakers') sent to investigate the purported murder of a government official. He's quickly catapaulted into a cat-and-mouse chase involving a mysterious cult leader through the deserted city of Lea Monde (which in turn acts as the setting of the gameplay). Compounding this debacle is the presence of government knights in the city, headed by the charismatic Romeo Guildenstern. What evolves is, by game's end, one of the most well executed plots ever dictated in this medium. And to top it all off, it is punctuated by a simply flawless localization!

   Maybe it was the unconventional battle system that turned the masses away in droves, then. Its true--the system does take some serious getting used to and is highly unlike most before or since. But those familar with Parasite EVe should be somewhat acclamated to it, as it features the same movement and specific targeting utilized in that title. Where Vagrant Story differs drastically is in its breadth of options during battle, which is indeed overwhelming. Fortunately, after a few hours' familarity the system reveals itself to be remarkably functional and efficient--even if it never moves very fast.

Epic confrontations await. Epic confrontations await.

   Largely due to its battle system, Vagrant Story is an incredibly difficult game. Since it utilizes the New Game+ feature (which retains stats and equipment) the game becomes progressively easier pending subsequent replays. Given the first playthrough the game will take 20~25 hrs.--although it is only upon replay that the entirety of the game's world can be explored.

   In the end, Vagrant Story is seriously one of those games that should be studied; if for nothing else than to show developers how to promote a cohesive atmosphere within a game. When people refer to videogames as a form of art comparable to literature and film, it's games like this that lend those claims creedence. It is a clear and utter shame that Vagrant Story suffered the fate it has, because in my opinion it remains the finest example of 'gamemaking' the PS1 has to offer.

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