I’m not what you’d call a “retro gamer,” so it’s always a surprise when I can pick up a game from a decade or more past and immediately enjoy it. Especially when it’s not a game I’d ever played before. Though SquareSoft (now Square Enix) released Vagrant Story back in 2000, the PSone Classic re-release of the game plays about as well as many contemporary action RPGs. Even if Vagrant Story shows a few artifacts of its turn-of-the-century design, it still remains a dungeon crawler with enough complexity to make it addictive and fun to play eleven years later.
Vagrant Story was something of a departure from Square’s turn-based RPG roots at the time of its initial release. At its heart, Vagrant Story is a dungeon crawler with a robust system of weapon and armor crafting, couched in an ethereal story with an unreliable protagonist. All of this makes for a solid game from a holistic standpoint, and far more deserving of the title “PSOne Classic” than some of the other offerings on the platform. I’m looking at you, Jigsaw Madness. But that’s not to say that Vagrant Story is a perfect game. In fact, it suffers from many gameplay artifacts of the PSOne era: choppy graphics, less-than-ideal camera angles, and artifacts of an outdated save system. But quality still remains, and this game certainly deserves a place in the library of most fans of RPGs.
Vagrant Story is the tale of Ashley Riot, Riskbreaker, charged with maintaining order on the continent of Valendia through any means necessary. Riskbreakers are special agents, always working alone, skilled warriors on highly secret missions. Think CIA agents with crossbows. When Ashley is sent to investigate a Duke and his connection with the cult M¨llenkamp, he encounters the cult’s leader, the mysterious and powerful Sydney Losstarot. Sydney demonstrates powerful magic (something unheard of in Valendia) and escapes with the Duke’s son, leaving Ashley to follow him to the abandoned and cursed city of Leá Monde. Along with another agent of the VKP, a young woman named Merlose, Ashley enters the forbidding city through an underground passage. What he finds in Leá Monde is a conflict between the powerful church of Valendia and Sydney’s cult over the magical power that flows through the city and gives unlife to the dead.
Ashley Riot’s journey is as much internal as it is through the catacombs and streets of Leá Monde. Bits and pieces of his past come to light even as he gains in power and internalizes much of the magic of Leá Monde. While the narrative of the story can be a little confusing at times, with little in the way of solid fact and much in the way of hearsay from the many characters, overall the story is strong. Most importantly, the pace of the story fits very well with the pace of the game; there’s always a new scene to see that pushes the story forward, and the game never drags on.
The overall tone of the game is also quite unique, with the setting of Leá Monde almost acting as its own character within the game. As a dungeon-based game, there’s a lot of darkness and many torchlit halls to traverse, but there’s also water, forest, and cleverly-designed architecture. From a design standpoint, Leá Monde is as well designed as the game’s other characters. And though Ashley is certainly the focus of the story, the game’s other characters are distinct, each with their own motivation for being in Leá Monde and seeking out its dark powers. There’s plenty of dialogue in the game, and most of it comes across as believable despite the fantastic setting. Characters like Sydney, Rosencrantz, Hardin, and Guildenstern all have distinct personalities and desires that make Ashley question which of the parties in Leá Monde is a foe and which, if any, is a friend. Like many Square Enix RPGs, the narrative of Vagrant Story may not make perfect sense all the time, but it does provide a solid framework for the gameplay to rest in.
Leá Monde is filled with dark creatures and foes for Ashley to fight, and they provide much of the game’s conflict and combat. As a Riskbreaker, Ashley is a master of many weapons, and battle is his nature; the player should get used to lots and lots of fighting before the end of this game. Without getting too caught up in the mechanics of combat, Vagrant Story is an action RPG that relies on precise timing of button presses to chain multiple attacks on your foes. The mechanics are simple to learn, but complicated to master, as the art of timing your strikes and defensive moves takes practice to perfect. Ashley also develops skills in various magic spells that can assist in combat, as well as the token RPG items for healing and character improvement.
Though certainly an action RPG, Vagrant Story’s combat comes in fits and starts, by the nature of how battles are designed. At times, it feels like a turn-based RPG, due to the rest system and the pause to determine where to strike an enemy. When the player presses the circle button to initiate an attack, the flow of battle stops so that one can determine how (and where) best to attack the enemy. Different body parts can be targeted for different effects, and the player has all the time in the world to choose where they will strike. As such, the flow of battle is often interrupted by the short pauses preceding the player’s attacks. This isn’t meant to be a damning criticism of the battle system, because the system works, and it kept me engaged and interested right up until the final battle. (Though it must be mentioned the final boss battle was quite annoying – not difficult, but annoying – due to the camera during that particular fight.) Aside from these pauses, combat is certainly one of the game’s strengths. But today’s players, who may be more in tune with an on-the-fly battle system, may find that the stop-and-start battle system is not quite fast or free-flowing enough to hold their attention. In the end, I found the combat to be intuitive and paced comfortably for my speed of play.
Beyond the typical action RPG combat, there are puzzles that need to be solved in order for Ashley to proceed through Leá Monde. These puzzles typically involve moving boxes through a room in a way that will allow Ashley to climb to a higher ledge. The puzzles do fit in comfortably with the rest of the gameplay, and they provide a slightly different challenge. While some of the puzzles are a bit more time-consuming to solve, I imagine most players can muster through without the help of a walkthrough or guide.
However, when it comes to Vagrant Story’s signature weapon customization system, a guide may be in order. Ashley Rio can take apart, combine, and put back together weapons, armor, and shields in order to give him a decided advantage against the denizens of the dungeons. To be successful in Vagrant Story, the player must find the right weapon with which to smack enemies around. Different enemies have different weaknesses, and different types of weapons are more effective against certain breeds of foe. A single weapon is unlikely to be enough to carry the player all the way through Leá Monde; Ashley may need a weapon tuned to the undead, another one with elemental property of air, and a third that provides blunt damage instead of slashing or piercing. A player is likely to spend a fair amount of time messing around with weapon combinations and trying to power up Ashley’s weapons and armor. I found this part of the game enjoyable, as I tried to find the right combination to produce an upgraded weapon or a higher level of a given attribute. It provided a nice break from the combat, and posed a different sort of challenge from the simple skull-cleaving and phantom-smiting of the regular game.
Since Ashley has a limited amount of inventory space on his person, much of his loot may have to be saved in item containers found throughout Leá Monde. The unfortunate side effect of this is a built-in save function that is tied to the containers’ menu screen, one that requires the player to save whenever Ashley takes something out of a container or puts something in. Saving in Vagrant Story is one of the few areas where the game shows its weakness, as the save process takes a fair bit of time to complete. Also, on the subject of time drains, the process to equip Ashley with his weapons and armor is a bit slow due to the way the menus are laid out. There are many instances in which Ashley has to change weapons on the fly, so the player may often find himself in menu screens, trying to get to the next point where he can go back to playing the game. These two time-wasting actions are minor annoyances, items easily fixed in more modern games but still present in Vagrant Story.
Obviously, Vagrant Story isn’t the graphical wonder that most modern games are. Edges are choppy, the level of detail is lower than one might like, and the light levels can be a little uneven. Still, the signature design elements of the game are strong, and that gives the game an above-average graphical presentation, despite its age. Human (or humanoid) characters are detailed, and care was obviously taken in their design. Backgrounds are detailed enough, without distracting too much attention from the actions at hand. And the cutscenes, while not Square’s signature FMV style, are rendered well given the game’s outdated engine. Enemies seem carefully crafted, especially the huge and imposing boss characters, and the whole presentation feels true to the game’s tone and tenor.
Audio in Vagrant Story never detracts from the overall feel of the game, but it also never truly stands out on its own. Battle tracks are urgent, and background catacomb tracks are dank, somber, and vaguely menacing. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to remember any particular tunes that stood out, even during the game’s climactic moments. Sound effects play an important role in combat, as they are a useful clue in determining the timing for the character’s combination attacks. Otherwise, they feel natural: the footsteps of an enemy guard are a nerve-wracking, important clue to an incoming attack even before the enemy appears on the screen. In today’s world, the game would certainly have full voice acting, especially given its focus on character. Alas, the cutscenes lose a little resonance without voice work that could have added to the characters really coming alive. On the other hand, given how poorly some voice work has been received on JRPGs, perhaps it is a good thing that the characters are not voiced.
Vagrant Story’s reputation precedes it. Even before I fired up the game for the first time, I had long heard that it was an excellent title from the PSOne glory days. Given the number of years since its initial release, I was justifiably skeptical about the title keeping its quality over time. Fortunately, this remains a game that is fun to play, even if it does bear some of the technological hang-ups of systems past. If you like action RPGs with an emphasis on customization, or if you just like a good dungeon crawl, I have no doubt that Leá Monde is a place you’d enjoy spending time in.