To start off, I want to say that Vagrant Story is my favorite game of all time (and I've been playing games for quite some time).
Vagrant Story is the first of the many games released during Squaresoft's so called "Summer of Adventure". Though it may not have been the big hit that Chrono Cross was, it is still one of the company's greatest games.
The story is probably the strongest aspect of the game. What's the reason for the one point off? It's not long enough. VS is set in a mildly gothic medieval world. It begins with Ashley Riot starting a mission for the Valendia Knights of Peace (VKP). Ashley is a Riskbreaker, the most dangerous position in the VKP. With only a 30 percent survival rate, the Riskbreaker's missions are the most deadly. Nonetheless, Ashley has survived all of his.
Ashley's mission is to sneak into the presently-under-attack manor of Duke Bordoba and find the leader of the Mullenkamp cult (the people attacking the manor) Sydney Lassarot, and capture him. Sydney is a strange man who people say can read peoples' pasts. He controls a mysterious power known as "the Dark".
Sydney is attacking the manor in order to kidnap the Duke's son. Things go smoothly for Sydney until Ashley comes and gives him a surprise package, a crossbow bolt through the chest. But what's this? Sydney rises as if unhurt! Sydney escapes through a window after calling his wyvern D'Tok to take care of Ashley, but Ashley's a Riskbreaker, and Riskbreakers are quite sturdy.
The story and the real gameplay begin when Ashley chases Sydney to the abandoned city of Lea Monde. Lea Monde was destroyed many years ago by an earthquake. Legends say that the city's many underground areas are filled with the living dead.
The player can tell through dialogue that the world of Vagrant Story doesn't accept things such as magic, dragons, and undead. Many things of this nature are revealed to Ashley as the story progresses. He even begins to control the "dark powers". The nature of magic is integral to the many plot twists of the game's storyline.
Yes there are many plot twist. Just the sheer number of characters (and alliances between these characters) shows the depth of VS's story. Unlike Xenogears, however, VS is much more gamer friendly (as in you don't have to strain you're brain and play over and over again to get what's going on).
The oddest and the most wonderful aspects of the game are the graphics. The odd thing about the game's graphics is that the game isn't full of the CG movies that are common among Squaresoft games. Although lacking these CG movies, VS is a graphical masterpiece. The graphics aren't really comparable to other games, so it may be hard to explain. The only way I can explain the greatness of the graphics is to explain how fluid the character movements are.
The movements of the characters in VS are probably the best I've ever seen. The actions of every character besides the enemies (thus the 5 points off) are VERY lifelike. I was amazed at how real Ashley's movements were. The best example of these amazingly real movements is when Ashley comes to a stop after running. This action follows the laws of physics (unlike most other games when the character stops like a statue). When he stops, Ashley's entire body moves forward with inertia (including his hair) and his legs bend as if to brake. This description is far less remarkable than actually seeing it.
Spell graphics are impressive as well. Ashley's many special (and hard to obtain) Break Arts are probably the most impressive spell effects of any Squaresoft game besides FFVII, VIII, and IX. Great beams of white light and eerie green streams of color add to the awesome effects of these Break Arts.
The world of VS is quite dark and, as stated earlier, mildly gothic. The graphics in VS's 3-D world are not just dark though; from the pleasant light-filled areas of the town centers to the creepy blue shade of the under city, VS's backgrounds and settings are many and varied.
The music of VS fits well with the many different areas of the game. Soft, melodious songs give the perfect atmosphere to the city's workshops. I found the themes of the underground mines especially frightening (making the music in Lea Monde's town centers quite welcome). The best way to describe VS's music is that it sounds very familiar to Final Fantasy Tactics' music.
The sound effects in the game are as solid as one would expect from a Squaresoft game. The sounds enemies make when being hit and dying aren't too gruesome, but they give the effect that they are in pain.
As in the case of spell graphics, sound effects in VS are also most impressive in the Break Arts. One particular Art performed by Ashley has a sound that makes you feel the ground being torn from its place.
Control is yet another strong aspect of Vagrant Story; Ashley is extremely responsive. The combo system takes a bit of work to master.
The reason I took ten points off is because I found it extremely difficult to use the combo system after switching from a type of weapon that you have been using for a while. For example: a dagger swings much faster than a double-handed axe (I found myself pushing the buttons way too fast when switching to the axe after using a dagger for a long time). Another problem I found was that the menu's response to the buttons was too fast (or maybe I just pushed the buttons to hard).
Yes, here it is folks. The moment you've all been waiting for. THE GAMEPLAY. VS is one of the most innovative games I've seen in a long time. VS is basically a dungeon crawl, but you feel as if it is more despite the lack of a sort of currency or world map.
The gameplay is also the best aspect of VS. The best way to discuss the gameplay is to break it down into two sections: the fighting and the forging.
In a dungeon crawl one would expect fighting. VS is a dungeon crawl that delivers. VS is similar to Parasite Eve in that it is sort of an action RPG/standard RPG hybrid (they both utilize a very similar targeting system). VS delivers more than Parasite Eve's basic point-and-shoot style of fighting though.
Before I explain all the complicated stuff, it's important to know the basics of weapons and armor. There are ten different types of weapons: daggers, swords, great swords, axes/hammers, great axes, great hammers, polearms, staves, crossbows, and bare fists. Great swords, great axes, great hammers, crossbows and polearms require two hands.
There are seven parts of the body that can be armored: the left hand, the right hand, the head, the torso, the legs, and an accessory can be worn around the neck. Shields can be used but they require one hand to use, so shields can only be worn while using daggers, swords, axes/hammers, staves, and bare fists. Yes you do fight with both hands, but a shield can be equipped at the same time anyway (I'm not sure if that affects the damage done with the fists).
One of the many unique things about VS is Ashley's innate defense. There are two types of forces that determine damage: the enemy and the element. There are six types of enemies: humans, beasts, dragon, undead, evil, and phantom. There are seven types of elements: physical, fire, water, air, earth, light and dark. When Ashley is hit by a certain enemy or element, his defense to that enemy or element is raised (although the defense to that enemy or element's opposite is lowered). Ashley's defense to these enemies and elements is determined by positive and negative numbers.
Another unique aspect about VS is that the numbers for defense don't just cover Ashley's body as a whole but rather each areas: the head, left arm, right arm, body and legs all have their own defense numbers. Ashley's body parts can also "die". A small diagram showing the status of all of Ashley's body parts is on the lower-left of the screen. When a body part dies a certain penalty is given to Ashley. If the head dies, Ashley's intelligence goes down 50%; if his left arm dies, his evade goes down 50%; if his right arm dies, his attack goes down 50%, if his legs die, his agility goes down fifty percent; and if his body dies, his Risk goes up 50% (Risk will be explained later).
A body part can be brought back to life by simply healing Ashley (on a side note; when a body part dies it doesn't mean Ashley dies as well, he can have all five parts dead and still be alive).
VS incorporates a very entertaining and useful combo system. First a player assigns three of Ashley's combo skills to the circle, square and triangle buttons. These combo attacks range from doing 70% of the damage done by the first strike or replenishing Ashley's HP with 40% of the damage dealt. Then the player attacks an enemy with the X button.
Depending on what type of weapon the player decides to use, he or she presses one of the combo buttons (circle, square, or triangle) at the exact time the weapon strikes the opponent. These chains can continue on forever (in theory) but the type of combo and weapon depends on how Ashley swings, thusly making it somewhat tricky to continue for more than 20 chains. There is a great optional feature that shows an exclamation above Ashley's head to help time buttons presses.
There is also a defense system similar to that of the combo system. Aside from the innate evasion of attacks, Ashley can defend himself with defense abilities. These abilities allow Ashley to do things such as reflect damage or reduce damage. The defense abilities are assigned to the circle, square, and triangle buttons and are used when an enemy attacks. Much like the combo system, the defense system also has an optional exclamation point for timing.
Other than the combos and defense abilities, Ashley wields two powerful kinds of highly devastating attacks. Magic and Break Arts are what can really make a difference in whether Ashley loses a boss battle. Magic is probably the more versatile of the two, as it can be used for attack and defense.
There are four types of magic: shaman, warlock, enchanter, and sorcerer. Shaman spells include the spells that heal Ashley. Warlock spells are all spells that are used for offense. Sorcerer spells allow Ashley to raise his stats and even lower the stats of his enemies. Enchanter spells are used to raise resistance to elements (fire, water, air, earth, light, and dark). Shaman and sorcerer spells are usually used the most (raising your statistics and lowering the statistics of a boss can really make the difference in important battles). All the spells use a large amount of MP, and Ashley doesn't have a whole lot of MP.
Usually the boss battles in VS flow in this way: first, raise Ashley's statistics; second, lower the enemies' statistics (when possible); and third, whoop the mess out of them with Break Arts. Break arts are special skills that Ashley gains by using certain weapons over and over again. There are four Arts for each weapon. Each one gets harder to obtain as you go along, but they also get stronger. Instead of taking away MP, Break Arts drain Ashley's HP (some of you may think this is bad, but HP is much easier to replenish than MP). The weakest one costs 25 HP and the strongest costs 75 HP, but the costs are all the same no matter what weapon you use.
Now you may be thinking, "Okay, the magic takes up MP, Break Arts take up HP, but what regulates chains and defense abilities". Risk (i.e. Riskbreaker) is the answer my friends. Risk is a very interesting aspect of VS and is what makes it truly unique. Depending on what chain, defense ability, or even weapon you use, Risk goes up as you use it. Yes, it goes up. The higher the Risk the worse the situation gets. When Risk is raised Ashley's chance to hit goes down and chance to be hit goes up.
Risk goes up slowly at first, but once it reaches around forty or so, it really starts to take effect. For some reason, when you get around sixty Risk, the Risk is no longer determined by the weapon or chain, it just goes up a whole lot for some reason. So instead of going from 30 Risk to 34 Risk by using a chain, Risk will go from 70 to the maximum of 100 (even if you use the same chain you used when you had 30 Risk).
When using a chain you are guaranteed to hit the enemy as long as you press the button at the right time (to-hit% has nothing to do with chains), but if the chain is broken, you'll notice that you won't have a good chance hitting your enemy again if your Risk is high. Risk can go down by using items or by just standing around (HP and MP are also replenished by time). Risk isn't completely bad though. Damage dealt and critical hits are raised when your Risk goes up.
As stated earlier, Ashley can use many different types of armor and weapons. He finds many throughout the game (either by treasure chests or enemies dropping them), but can also make them, since Ashley is not only a Riskbreaker but a skilled blacksmith as well.
There are many "shops" throughout the game where Ashley can forge both weapons and armor. Options in the setup menu (where forging takes place) include repairing weapons and armor, attaching gems to weapons and shields, disassembling and assembling weapons, and naming weapons (I named one of mine Fat Jack). All of these commands are used through the entire game because forging is very important if you wish to have a strong weapon(s) at the end of the game. This explanation is actually quite short, which really doesn't let you, the reader, know how much fun it is (because it is VERY fun).
So ends this long review of Vagrant Story. Like I said earlier, this is my favorite game of all the time (that's why this review is so long). I believe that you shouldn't completely trust reviews, they should just be used to spark interest or inform the reader. I've seen many different views of the same game. So please, always rent before you buy, even if every review you read is in favor of that game (please take this advice if you thought my review was biased or opinionated). Even if you don't buy it, though, Vagrant Story's a game you just gotta' try!