Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Vagrant Story is the second game from Square that utilizes the action RPG/traditional RPG hybrid battle engine first introduced in the horror-themed Parasite Eve. Featuring the developmental partnership of Yasumi Matsuno and Akihiko Yoshida, both integral members of the Final Fantasy Tactics development team, Vagrant Story has been eagerly anticipated ever since it was nothing more than a rumor reported on numerous RPG websites, and for good reason. The finished product proves to be another strong showing by the world’s most popular RPG publisher.
Vagrant Story’s plot revolves around Ashley Riot, an agent of a secret group called Riskbreaker. As the game opens, Ashley is wanted for the murder of Duke Bardorba, a senior statesman in the kingdom of Valendia, and he has been missing since a week before the actual murder took place.
One week before, a religious cult group known as Mellencamp had successfully taken over the Duke’s mansion. Although the large-scale intentions of Sydney Losstarot, Mellencamp’s leader, were unclear at this point, he was unable to capture the Duke, who was in hiding at a second residence. In an attempt to stop Sydney, Ashley had entered the mansion as well. After a series of struggles, Ashley succeeded in liberating the mansion from Mellencamp. However, no one has seen him since then.
A week later, the Duke was found murdered. Back in the present, the government has declared Ashley a suspect because of his involvement in the occupation of the Duke’s manor. But the only clues of Ashley’s whereabouts lie in Lea Monde, a sealed ancient city that Ashley traveled to between the Mellencamp occupation of the Duke’s manor and the actual murder of the Duke.
The tale told in Vagrant Story is that of the events experienced by Ashley during the week in which he was first found to be missing. As the player, you’ll get to discover both the secrets of Lea Monde and whether the government is justified in naming Ashley a murder suspect.
Vagrant Story’s plot is generally quite strong, featuring a plethora of devious political maneuvers. Although character development is minimal, the event-based portions of the plot do a good job keeping the player engrossed. The storyline does progress somewhat slowly, however, particularly in the beginning of the game after the prologue.
Another one of Vagrant Story’s strengths is its complex gameplay. Outside of battle, Vagrant Story is an overhead action RPG that plays somewhat similarly to Konami’s Metal Gear Solid. Ashley moves through the maze of polygonal environments, solving puzzles and finding new paths to allow him to progress through Lea Monde. You can see your enemies before they attack, and you can have Ashley enter combat mode by drawing his weapon and shield when they threaten him.
Once you enter combat, Vagrant Story’s gameplay is best described as a more complex version of the battle engine used in the aforementioned Parasite Eve. When you command Ashley to attack, a wireframe surrounds him; all enemies within this wireframe are within his range of attack. You then select the enemy you want to attack by moving the cursor, and hit the confirm button to execute the assault. When enemies attack, you can attempt to have Ashley dodge the assault by moving him with the directional pad out of their range just before they attack.
Although the basic foundation of Vagrant Story’s gameplay sounds simple enough, the game offers plenty of depth through additional combat options. Magic can be learned by reading grimoires, which are items generally obtained through opening key chests and defeating bosses. There are 4 basic types of magic, and all are easily and immediately accessible once they are learned.
Ashley can also use chain abilities, which allow him to chain attacks together for various benefits such as additional damage to enemies and recovery of his own hit points. On the other side of the coin, Ashley can use defense abilities, too. Pressing the attack button at the right time during an enemy attack can yield benefits such as return damage to the enemy. Chain abilities and defense abilities are learned after a certain amount of fighting, and the player has the freedom to choose which specific abilities are learned first.
Another type of attack that Ashley can use is the break art. Break arts are powerful attacks that allow Ashley to do additional damage at the cost of his own hit points. These attacks are weapon specific, and they are learned through repeated use of a particular weapon type.
Vagrant Story also employs a new damage system more complex and realistic than most. The amount of damage Ashley takes to particular parts of his body is tracked, and sectional damage results in appropriate penalties. For example, if Ashley’s legs are heavily damaged, he’ll incur movement penalties. If he takes a lot of damage to one of his arms, he can’t use it as effectively. And if he takes a lot of head damage, he’ll be unable to use magic until he recovers. Hit points and magic points are recovered over time; they come back a lot faster, though, when Ashley is out of combat mode.
Like many action RPGs, Vagrant Story doesn’t have a conventional experience point system. Attribute bonuses are minimal, and they are gained solely through defeating major bosses. As mentioned before, however, repeated fighting allows Ashley to increase his combat abilities by learning chain abilities, defense abilities, and break arts.
In addition, Vagrant Story features a complex equipment system that “remembers” the combat experience of each weapon and piece of armor. Using a certain weapon against a certain type of monster will increase its effectiveness against that type of monster, while decreasing its efficacy against certain other types of monsters. Wearing a piece of armor while under a certain type of attack increases its strength against that type of attack.
The above attributes can also be transferred between weapons. Each weapon can be broken down into a grip component and a blade component, and players can make combinations that give a certain weapon a specific set of attributes.
Like Ashley, weapons and armor can take damage in combat, which is tracked through their DP. When their DP reaches 0, they operate at half strength, though they can be repaired in factories scattered throughout Lea Monde. Conversely, they also have PP values, which increase as they are used more. When the PP of a weapon is maxed out, the weapon functions at a higher efficacy. Proper management of weapons and armor is the key to success in Vagrant Story.
Vagrant Story’s deep gameplay is generally executed very well, but it does run into a few serious problems. Because using weapons against certain kinds of enemies decreases their efficacy against other kinds of enemies, players will find themselves forced to use specific weapons for specific enemies. It quickly becomes tediously annoying to have to switch weapons for every enemy you fight, especially since the game has a tendency to put many different types of enemies together throughout the entire game, rather than emphasizing a particular enemy type in each section of the game.
In addition, weapon and armor development is crucial to success in the game, so players are forced to do quite a bit of that. Because this development is fairly complex and time-consuming, it can somewhat bog down the game, making it feel at times more like an exercise in weapon-building than an actual adventure.
Vagrant Story’s layout also leaves a bit to be desired. The absence of civilian towns, combined with the maze-like mapping of its rooms, makes the game feel more like a giant dungeon crawl than most action RPGs do. The relative lack of variety in background visuals contributes to this problem, too. And because there are no towns, there’s almost no non-combat interaction in Vagrant Story, other than some puzzles that need to be solved in order to progress in the game. On the positive side, though, RPG fans who were turned off by early rumors of Vagrant Story’s short (4-6 hour) length need not worry; the finished product is a full-length action RPG.
Vagrant Story’s control is overall very strong. Ashley can move in 8 directions, and, outside of combat, he moves at a good pace. Commands are generally very responsive, and the jump control is solid, too. The camera can be manually rotated in 45-degree increments, and it has 2 levels of zoom. The menus are brilliantly organized, particularly the one combat menu (brought up by the L2 button) that allows instant and immediate access to all of Ashley’s special attacks.
Control does carry some minor flaws, though. In combat, Ashley moves quite sluggishly compared to his enemies, making it prohibitively difficult to voluntarily stay out of enemies’ attack ranges. In addition, he sometimes gets stuck on objects in the background, including enemies themselves when he tries to go around them to attack a weak point. He latches on to climbable objects too easily, too, wasting time for gamers over the long run and confounding attempts at precise positioning. Also, the camera manipulation isn’t quite as flexible as it could be. There are a few locations in the game where players will be unable to get an adequate view of the surroundings no matter which available camera angle they choose.
Graphically, Vagrant Story is solid, but unspectacular. The overhead maps are constructed entirely of polygons, and from far away, they hold a good level of detail. Ditto the in-game characters and enemies; from a distance, they look pretty good. Close up, however, backgrounds and characters alike are fairly blocky. In addition, the color palette fits the somber mood of the game well, but the colors used are still a bit excessively dark and drab.
The in-game animation is well done, though. Although it doesn’t carry the realism of that of Dew Prism, Square’s most recent action RPG, it’s smooth throughout the game. The spell effects in Vagrant Story are impressive, too, using lighting effects and transparencies to their full advantage.
Other than a beautiful CG opening movie featuring perhaps the sexiest female character I’ve ever seen in a video game, nearly all of Vagrant Story’s cut scenes are generated by its in-game polygon engine. Unfortunately, these cut scenes are plagued by blockiness, especially during close-up views of the characters in them. To their credit, however, the characters hold a satisfactory level of detail in their faces and costumes, and the animation, while not completely fluid, is pretty smooth.
One of Vagrant Story’s key strengths is its sound department. Voice acting is not prominent in the game, but the sound effects are done excellently. Nearly all of the various sound effects are aurally substantial, helping players get into the game a bit more. Some of the explosions even border on thundering.
The soundtrack is also impressive. Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Vagrant Story’s score features soaring melodies performed in a frantic symphonic style, and nearly all of it fits the game perfectly, enhancing its dark mood. The sound programming is excellent, too; nearly everything here sounds almost as if it was played with real instruments. However, there is a weakness here. Like Sakimoto’s best work, the best tracks on the Vagrant Story soundtrack are among the best that video game music has to offer. However, the most droning, atonal pieces in the score are the ones that seem to be played the most in the game, which grated on my nerves quite a bit.
Although few aspects of it are overwhelmingly brilliant, Vagrant Story is another strong entry by the world’s most popular and prolific RPG publisher. This one’s solidly recommended.
A US version is scheduled for a May 2000 release.