+ Terrific 3D rendered graphics for use in-game and the cinematic cutscenes
+ Ahead of its time gameplay mechanics
- The Risk Meter can be frustrating, deemphasizing long chain attacks
- Infrequent save points for a difficult game
Vagrant Story Information
Release Date: May 16th, 2000
Vagrant Story was a different kind of RPG at the time of release, especially for Square, who at the time dominated the RPG landscape with Final Fantasy. Vagrant Story brought something different in terms of gameplay and story but several tropes of the era bring down the experience preventing it from true greatness. Vagrant Story excelled with storytelling and a new, deep innovative combat system.The great gameplay traits combined with some of the best presentation of the time, may have been unmatched in the land of RPGs.
Story - Vagrant Story Review
Unlike most RPGs, the conflict in Vagrant Story is minimal. The hero you play as, Ashley Riot, isn't saving the world as is the case in 90% of RPGS (nod to Suikoden). Rather, the story focuses on a political conflict in the land of Leá Monde. This helps to flesh out the world, because it's smaller in scope; it is a narrow but deeper pool.
The story builds out two characters specifically; the aforementioned Ashley Riot, and the primary antagonist, Sydney Losstarot. Ashley is sent by the Valendia Knights of Peace to investigate the Cardinal's interest in Sydney. Ashley infiltrates the manor where there has been a kidnapping of the Duke's son and encounters Sydney, witnessing the previously only rumored magical powers for himself. This essentially sparks a chase through the underbelly of the city with Sydney knowing much more about Ashley, than Ashley knows of himself.
Differentiating itself again from many other RPGs of the time, Vagrant Story dispenses with much of melodramatics and focuses on rather straightforward and conventional, yet poignant story elements. Manipulation through grief plays a large role in the story. It's this grief and guilt that shapes Ashley's motivation and is one of the most interesting twists in the game. All of this ties into how Ashley progresses as a character from a gameplay perspective as well. The memories that Ashley recalls and internally reconciles with help him to recall skills that were unbeknownst to him. It's an additional reason for the flashbacks and help to create growth for Ashley in character but also in practical gameplay. Essentially, as the game progresses and memories are recalled, Ashley levels up. The plot, story and characters are also all brought to life by the presentation of dialog, camera angles and writing. Even without the aid of voice acting, Vagrant Story manages to give each character a unique voice because the writing is so sublime.
Vagrant Story also has links to the Final Fantasy universe, specifically that it's set in the world of Ivalice where both Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII take place. However, Vagrant Story does not technically mention Ivalice, but fans noticed that the art style and some of the trappings of Lea Monde are similar. Game Director Yasumi Matsuno did admit that the games were connected, eventually, but only in passing and the stories and most of the specificities of world are completely independent of each other. Nevertheless, the influence and style similarities are undeniable.
Technical - Vagrant Story Review
Vagrant Story is built out entirely in 3D models, background and all (another rarity for the time). Because of the limited individual areas to explore, and that the rooms are relatively small, it allows for each section to be beautifully detailed. Cutscenes use the in-game engine as well, with comic book-like text clouds instead of voice acting. Voice acting would've have been nice considering Vagrant Story doesn't have a lot of text, but the text clouds do a nice job of infusing style into the proceedings as opposed to traditional text boxes, and moreso, the close ups of the character and their mannerisms accent and enhance the dialog. Another noticeable aspect of the cutscenes compared to other games of the time are the cinematic qualities added. Similar to what seems to be a major influence to Vagrant Story, Metal Gear Solid, camera angles, quick zooms and slow-motion effects all lend to the game's cinematic feel.
There are the ever-present jagged edges that plagued so many of the PlayStation's games, and in Vagrant Story this is most evident on the character models, especially during movement and during cutscenes. The character models are still excellent, and their design can be seen in the PlayStation 2's Final Fantasy XII, albeit with a higher polygon count. Both Ashley's and Sydney's looks are iconic and memorable with Ashley's chaps and antenna hairstyle and Sydney's metal arm and claw hand. In short, Vagrant Story has some of the most technically impressive graphics on the PlayStation. Even with the lack of anti-aliasing, Vagrant Story's art style and art direction can still be admired today.
Music - Vagrant Story Review
Matching the cinematic visuals the musical score goes right in stride. Several memorable themes litter the game, but how it's used within these cutscenes that adds a subtext of meaning. One particular theme, for Sydney, is hauntingly beautiful, so much so that when heard you immediately are on guard expecting a fight. This is exactly the sense music should convey, but it's rare when a game actually accomplishes it. Vagrant Story excels with these musical queues like few games do. The game's composer, Hitoshi Sakamoto, did well to score the game as if it was a film, rather than purely composing themes that would repeat like so many other RPGs. There are of course reoccurring themes, but each piece of music is tied to a particular scene or character, rather than the place.
There are some moments where there is a lack of music, or its just a simple, subdued theme at low volume, but this effective too. The clanging of swords, or an enemy lurking is not drowned out by necessary music, but combat is rightly backed by some thrilling themes.
While overall the music is effective, not all the music is at the same level as Sydney's theme. In fact, Sydney's theme easily stands out among all the others. Some are good, some are generic, so taken as a whole Vagrant Story's score doesn't make the best of all-time, espeically when compared to Squresoft's other RPGs on the PS1, but it is solid nonetheless.
Gameplay - Vagrant Story Review
Gameplay is where Vagrant Story really makes its mark. The basic gameplay, when not engaged with an enemy has Ashley running and jumping while solving simple puzzles. Most of these puzzles revolve around pushing, pulling, stacking and destroying boxes in attempts to scale a high wall. The meat of the game is spent fighting enemies. While the combat is not entirely a real-time battle system, it is decidedly not turn based. First, there is no party to be controlled, Ashley Riot is the only concern. There are no specific battle screens either, enemies are seen and engaged in real-time. Once an enemy is in sight however, Ashley is able to click to open up a sphere which represents the range of his attacks. This range is dependent upon the weapon that is equipped. For example a crossbow has a larger sphere grid and thus range, than a sword, it's fairly common sense. Once the battle sphere is initiated you have a choice of targets such as either arm, leg, torso or head which each have a different success rate based on equipped weapons, the armor of the foe and even positioning in relation to the enemy. Once the target is chosen, you immediately attack. When the attack is complete you can reopen the battle sphere and do it again as fast as your fingers will let you. Sometimes, and obviously the enemy will beat you to the punch and get an attack in themselves. Besides attacking, magic and items such as healing can be used too. It's all very fluid.
Attacks can also be strung together using timed button presses, called chains, but never can the same button in a row be used, and all attacks bring different timing. This keeps the player completely engaged in each fight. While defending, these button presses can limit damage or counter spells, which are all very useful and based on the user's skill at reading the attacks and timing the button press. The caveat to being successful with chains is raising your Risk Meter. The higher the Risk Meter, the harder it becomes to land attacks. The Risk Meter rises when enemies are engaged over a long period of time or when there are too many chain actions in a row, especially when they don't result in defeating said enemy. This can be one of the most frustrating parts of the game because as the Risk Meter rises the less successful each attack becomes. However there are items that decrease the Risk Meter, but they aren't as prevalent as maybe they need to be.
Vagrant Story is also fairly difficult, which makes the infrequent save points even more frustrating. There are many cases when you'll encounter an enemy that is just too powerful for you with no escape, meaning death and playing a long stretch over again. It's the type of death that makes you want to turn the game off instead of playing the same part. It's not a game killer, but it is frustrating.
Vagrant Story also introduced a crafting system for weapons. It's an interesting system but there is hardly any tutorials in the game to help you build out weapons. In many instances weapons can be disassembled but they do not provide the correct parts for a new weapon to be made. It's a system that the player will need to learn themselves or prepare to have a few setbacks. This feature was ahead of its time and became an essential part to many games in the future, it just isn't perfected here.
Vagrant Story Review Roundup
Vagrant Story is an excellent action RPG that is a highly original game for the PlayStation towards the end of its lifetime. Bringing several new features and gameplay traits that became standard in years to come, Vagrant Story weaves its story, music and combat system together wonderfully. Several flaws with infrequent save points and the frustrating Risk Meter bring down the experience, but not enough to prevent Vagrant Story from being one of the best games on the PlayStation and perhaps the best RPG, too.