Vagrant Story - Retroview

The Plot That Binds

By: Epochkun

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 8
   Interface 6
   Music/Sound 9
   Originality 6
   Plot 10
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 8
   Visuals 9
   Difficulty Hard
   Time to Complete

10 - 20 Hours


Vagrant Story

     Hot off the heels of the wildly successful Final Fantasy VIII, Square could do no wrong in the eyes of gamers worldwide.  The large amounts of money amassed through the successful retail sales of Final Fantasy VIII enabled the company to explore new and innovative game ideas, adding their own contributions to existing genres, and pioneering some of their own simultaneously.  Vagrant Story, the tale of a mysterious VKP Riskbreaker named Ashley Riot, is a fresh take on the old "hack and slash" formula, translated into a sprawling and massive dungeon crawler, with puzzles, monsters, weapons, and a definitely enthralling storyline to boot.  

     The most dominant area of a dungeon crawling RPG such as Vagrant Story is undeniably the battle system, and a fresh spin has certainly been put on the classic method of turn-based combat.  Instead of the tried and true "you hit me, I'll hit you" method of warfare, Vagrant Story tries to be fairly innovative, taking a nod from the sphere-based targeting system employed by Square's earlier "cinematic RPG," Parasite Eve.  When the attack button is pressed, Ashley is given a certain attack radius, the size of which is dictated by Ashley's current level, as well as his current weapon.  A wooden bow and arrow, for instance, will have a much larger range of attack than say, a two-handed iron mace.  Once the attack sphere is visible, you may proceed to target any of the in-range enemy's available appendages -- left arm, right arm, chest, head, you name it -- and hack away at the body part to your content.  The aforementioned hacking isn't as easy as simply mashing the X button like your little brother, however.  Once the first attack is en route to the victim's targeted area, you can press any of the attack buttons again, at the proper time, to trigger one of the special commands you've "chain mapped."  But before you begin to think of chain-attacking any enemy for thirty minutes straight, realize this: there are definite consequences to such behavior.  Knowing full well that timing experts everywhere would undoubtedly try to exploit the chain combinations, Square cleverly added another feature to the already bursting at the seams battle system -- the aptly named "risk" system.  Think you can chain that dungeon guard for hundreds of damage points?  Maybe you can, but with each successive attack, your risk meter increases, to a maximum of one hundred points.  Risk is Ashley's stamina of sorts.  As the risk increases, Ashley's hit rate decreases, leading to missed attack attempts and weak hits when one does connect.  The player must, consequently, use chaining sparingly, if he or she hopes to have enough coordination to pull off that damaging "Break Art" and finish off a particularly difficult enemy.  Break Arts are the magic spells of Vagrant Story, so to speak, in that the attacks can be learned and executed as Ashley has the MP available.  This makes for a balanced gaming experience, where no attack can be used repeatedly, and coupled with the very scarce availability of herbs granting MP refills, the player will certainly make sure not to overdo it.

     A game touting such a complex battle system had better have the solid support of good gameplay behind it, and Vagrant Story delivers a mixed bag.  The majority of the game will be spent battling, granted, but the rest of the game consists of running through various dungeons to acquire keys of sorts that allow you to open the next door, and so on.  You'll also need to solve various "box" puzzles, that is, the manipulation of various crates and such in order to progress through a room.  It's a tried and true method of dungeon crawl gameplay, and Vagrant Story follows the popular consensus in this regard. Along the way, you'll have to pause with the box pushing occasionally, because you'll need to pick up weapons in addition to your keys.  And there are many, many weapons.  Maces, spears, bows, daggers, axes -- a medieval adventurer's tools of the trade, and all readily available.  And it's not just with the types of weapon that the battle system stops.  During the course of the game, numerous hilts, blades, and gems can be acquired through different means, and then combined in one of a few blacksmithing rooms to be encountered across the vast expanses of Lea Monde.  

     With such emphasis on weapon combination, Vagrant Story has a mildly confusing interface.  The menus, although clever once figured out, are initially awkward, and many players will undoubtedly stumble when trying to determine which screens hold hilts, which ones hold gems, and how they're sorted.  Aside from the initially confusing menus, the game has a very comfortable control system.  Special commands can be mapped to the R and L buttons, and all of the face buttons have real worth in the heat of battle.  The analog control is also helpful when maneuvering around large groups of enemies.

Silly Little Comment on Screen
Oh Ashley, You Little Casanova You  

     While you're fooling around with your items and fiddling with your weapons, it's imperative to have a musical background that won't drive you to insanity, and Vagrant Story, thankfully, has quite fitting and soothing music to accompany the gameplay.  Many classical styles of music can be heard throughout, with very decently synthed notes sounding very close to their real life counterparts.  The sound effects, from the unsheathing of a sword, to the tap of a foot, are also very identical to actual sounds, and are always appropriate and classy.

     Even though Vagrant Story gets big originality points for the innovative weapon creation functions and the intuitive chain-based battle system, it loses a great deal due to the face that it does, often, boil down to little more than a dungeon crawl in three dimensions.  Many fans will become frustrated with the block puzzles, which were designed to be a main part of the game, even having a menu devoted entirely to times and completion stats about each block puzzle Ashley's encountered.

     The plot of Vagrant Story is widely regarded as its strongest suit.  A perfectly and meticulously detailed tale of political upheaval and the quest for power fits the dreary medieval European parliamentary design perfectly, and the intricacies the plot unravels as the game progresses serve only to draw the player in even more.  The game has been called a cinematic RPG, and the plot certainly assures that the story is always exciting, even if getting caught up on that last box puzzle isn't.  

     It's important for any plot to be given to the reader in an interesting manner, and the localization of Vagrant Story is a testament to the quality gaming experience that can be had when a title is properly localized.  A comic book style of text window is used, instead of a boring blue box common to other RPG's of the past, and the script has been re-written flawlessly to fit in perfectly with the style and speech methods that would have been used during this type of historical period.  It makes sense, and lines aren't awkward or out of place at any time.  There's a great style present in Vagrant Story.

You forgot to turn the lights on, sir.
Sir, It's Rather Dark In Here  

     Many people will replay the game in order to grab the nuances of the plot again, or just to make new weapons and experience the great style again.  There are added incentives to finishing multiple times, however.  Previously non-accessible are now able to be reached, through the use of different methods or different block puzzles.  Square intended the game to be played more than one time, and due to the enjoyable atmosphere of the game, there is a good chance many people will replay it.

     Speaking of the atmosphere, the visuals in Vagrant Story are unrivaled by most Playstation ventures.  Character models retain an edgy comic book style to them, while retaining good looking texture maps and very clean lines.  The levels you traverse are also gorgeous, from each stone on the ground, to the dank areas of the castle you'll sneak through.  Windows shine, candles glow, and large, Victorian architecture is visible.  This all adds up to an absolutely stunning visual experience, even though the beautiful opening FMV is a rarity in the game. 

  Let's not question the difficulty level of the game, however -- Vagrant Story is TOUGH.  It's a harkening back to the days of RPG's where bosses required multiple efforts to fell, and even regular enemies made you rethink your decision to enter the room.  Hours will be spent conditioning certain weapons to have a better efficiency against a certain type of monster, and you're probably going to die.  A lot.  The sense of accomplishment that does come with completion is more than worth the trouble, however, and the game is able to be worked through, even if you're only going for the revelations the plot will provide.

Meesa thinkin' that'sa big snake.
This Is Not A Jar-Jar Reference  

     When Vagrant Story was first released, rumor flew that the game would only last a meager seven hours or so -- about the length of then action game king Metal Gear Solid.  These rumors are so terribly inaccurate that it's rather flattering to even the most experienced player.  On the first playthrough, assuming no guides and no cheating, the average player can expect a 20-hour gaming experience, and possibly more if he or she gets hung up on any box puzzles, becomes lost in exploration, or decides to build weapon strength.  On successive playthroughs the game becomes easier, but if the player has the determination to complete the game multiple times, there's a good chance that they're used to the difficulty level of the game.

     A complex battle system, spot-on visuals, and perfect musical score aren't enough to warrant picking up Vagrant Story -- on those merits alone, the game would be a basic enough dungeon crawl -- but the style with which everything is executed and the plot that ties it all together certainly justify the purchase.  Vagrant Story is an immensely satisfying gaming experience that's still just as impacting today as it was the day of its release, and any RPG fan should be proud to make it a worthy addition to their gaming library.

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