If there is one thing I pride myself on, it is my lack of belief in superstition. I own a black cat which enjoys walking across my path on a daily basis, I am not particularly inclined to make a detour around a ladder, and with a face like mine, breaking mirrors is just something you learn to live with. However, there are some things that just seem creepy to me, such as when I beat a particularly dark and evil game just in time to hear my ancient grandfather clock ring out midnight. Of course, I’m surprised I noticed the ominous bells tolling as I was seemingly too busy watching the ending roll by for one of the most interesting games I’ve played in recent memory, Vagrant Story. Here’s my review.
Early one morning in Valendia kingdom, marauding cultists from the group known as Mullenkamp captured the manor of Duke Bardorba. Led by self-proclaimed apocalyptic prophet Sydney Losstarot, the group’s intentions for the crime are unknown. Fortunately, the Duke was away during the attack, yet one week later, an unknown assassin took his life. The only suspect was one Ashley Riot (surprisingly, Ashley is a guy), Riskbreaker in the service of the Valendia Knights of the Peace. This man disappeared shortly after the accusation.
Something strange occurred during that intermediary week. The suspect Ashley had been off on a mission to Lea Monde, a deserted city known only for evil and misfortune. What was once a prospering land was reduced to rubble in a terrible earthquake followed by devastating floods. Very few survived and most of its treasures remain hidden to this day. While there, Ashley stumbled upon something, a power, evil and utterly perverse to the affairs of man. What happened during this week? What connection is there between Ashley and this power, known only as “the Dark”?
Vagrant Story is one of those games that will devour your time. Everything about it, from gameplay to story to graphics, all produce such a gripping effect that as soon as you get into it, you won’t stop until you’ve beaten it and gotten a good deal of the way into the replay mode.
For the most part, it seems like your usual dungeon crawler, but that’s just your first impression. As you wander through Lea Monde, you must bash, slash, shoot, or poke your enemies to death using one of the many weapon types such as daggers, clubs, or crossbows. The battle system is reminiscent of Parasite Eve. Whenever you enter certain rooms, pre-set enemies charge at you across the rather uneven battlefield. Once they are close enough to you, you can hit them, so long as they are within a certain distance to you that varies by weapon and there is nothing in between.
Once you attack, an exclamation point appears over your head and you are given the chance to continue your assault with a Chain attack. By pressing X, Square, or Triangle, you can use one of the countless Chain attacks you’ve learned, but you can only set three of them at a time. More Chain attacks are acquired by performing Chain attacks, so the more you use them, the more you get. These attacks often have peculiar effects that are only useful in certain situations, and unless you take advantage of them, victory is hard to come by.
As you perform your Chain attack, your Risk meter increases. Higher Risk means that you’ll do and take more damage, your accuracy will drop, and the chances of you or the enemy getting a critical hit increases. In small amounts, this can be helpful, but once your Risk reaches the point where every attack of yours has a 1% chance of hitting, you’re in trouble. As time goes by, your HP, MP, and Risk slowly regenerate, but in combat, that often takes too long. You and the enemy can attack as often as they want, so should you need a quick boost, just use one of the many items you collect. They are almost necessary in this game.
Along with merely beating your enemies bloody with normal attacks, you can also perform Break attacks or use magic. Break attacks are earned by killing large numbers of enemies with a certain weapon type and can be used at any time in exchange for a certain number of HP. For example, say you killed 100 foes with a Spork-type weapon. After that 100th kill, you’d learn the Eye Gouger technique. Although that’s not a real move, (it should be) it’s a good example as to how you gain the many Break Arts for each weapon type.
Magic is acquired by slaying bosses and large enemies and taking the Grimoires they drop. Once used, you know the spell permanently and can use it at any time for some MP. Some spells (like Heal) cost little and can be used repeatedly while others cost in the 30s and 40s of MP. Considering that you start the game with 50 and hardly ever improve it, sorcery wielding is a problem for your first and second times through.
Instead of gaining levels, stats are improved through elixirs. These are dropped when bosses are defeated and can be found in treasure chests from time to time. Along with getting the three or four point bonuses that they provide, every boss you topple gives you a random bonus as well. However, weapons and armor are far more important than your strength and defense and this game has a mind-boggling amount of equipment to deal with.
Within Lea Monde are about half a dozen workshops. The simplest function of these is to simply repair your gear, as constant use slowly depletes the DP of your items. Once the DP is gone, the equipment drops to half of its original power. However, there is more to these than just fixing stuff. Weapons can be disassembled into the blade and the hilt and then reassembled into new and better weapons. Of course, if that’s not enough, you can take blades, shields, and armor and combine them into new items, sometimes better, sometimes worse. Usually, the only change you get is one or two points of offense or defense, but chances are that you’ll spend hours in here, working out just how you can get the best stuff.
Of course, the insane perfectionist gets still more weapon tinkering to play with. Each weapon and piece of armor has an affinity to each element and enemy type. For instance, you might find a Rapier that works well against the undead, but is terrible against phantoms. By fighting with that weapon against any type of enemy, you improve its affinity to that enemy type. However, it also lowers affinity against other enemy types.
Getting perfect gear is possible, but insanely hard. If you play this game, I suggest that you make sure that you have lots of spare time, as it will keep you busy for a long time. Even after beating it multiple times, there are various titles you can acquire by reaching certain goals. Beating the game sound too easy? Try beating it without spells. Then try it without Break Arts. Then try it without Chain attacks. You have to do these annoying tests and several more to truly master Lea Monde.
Vagrant Story also has quite a pretty face, in an ugly, rotting-flesh sort of way. The entire game is done in polygons, but Square did go out of their way to give us something new. Most of the game is above par when it comes to 3D games for the PlayStation, and character and enemy design is brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many zombie variations before, and whoever thought up the harpy design must have been smoking something.
However, the real praise goes to the cut scenes. There is one FMV used for the opening movie. After that, every cut scene uses the blurry in-game graphics. Now, blurry may seem like a bad thing, but my, you have to admit that it lets them do quite a bit! Characters display more emotions and facial expressions than any other game on this system ever has. Who cares if it’s overly pixilated? Lighting and shadow effects are impressive as well, especially for some of the spells. My only complaint would be Ashley’s pants. I don’t know who designed them, but I see far too much man-butt when looking at him from behind.
The game’s music is somewhat less incredible. Although it does manage to get that creepy, demon-infested feeling in the air, most of the time you have to settle for ambient sounds like dogs barking and water dripping. I’m not saying that that’s bad or anything. In fact, I think the sound effects are wonderful. Most enemies have their own death yelp, spells are often accompanied by strange ethereal noises, and VS has some of the best sword slashes and club thuds I’ve heard for the system. There were several interesting songs in it, but none of them are really classics. If you like eeriness, you’ll be satisfied.
Despite the rest of its strengths, the story of VS is its crowning achievement. The constant flow of cut scenes and the countless plot twists easily envelop you in the tale of Ashley Riot. Admittedly, they did use some clichéd ideas like an amnesiac hero who slowly recovers his past, but they are small flaws. This is really a high quality, yet short, game that reminds me of what the early Square titles were like, give or take the dark theme to it. Sadly, the Replay mode doesn’t contain any clarifying background or anything like that, but the plot is macabre enough as it is.
Every game has its weaknesses, and control is the biggest problem in this one. When in battle or merely searching around, everything is fine, but beneath that seemingly satisfying cover lurks one of the most annoying item management systems I’ve ever seen. You can only carry so many items at any one time, and although you do have a container that you can put stuff in, it only contains so much of your junk and takes forever to clean out. Even worse, every use of it forces you to save, wasting time and basically just irritating you further.
Another thorn in your paw is the existence of the block puzzles. These brain twisters are usually simple, but near the end you may wind up trying to figure things out again and again and again before you finish. Also, whenever you enter a room with a puzzle you completed, the game stops for a second to inform you that the Evolve or Die mini-game has begun. After taking up some valuable seconds of your time, you are then put against a clock to see how quickly you can push, shove, and lug your way past the obstacle. The controls are somewhat unresponsive and it’s easy to accidentally push a block into the wrong spot, and failure to beat the clock results in various insults such as Baboon, Pregnant Yak, or the infamous Game Designer. It seems that more work could have been put into these tests (or they could at least give you some sort of treat for beating it).
As one of the final games for the PlayStation, Vagrant Story excelled. It took an aging system and pushed it to its limits, doing stuff that no other game had done before. Not only was it visually appealing, but it had an expertly written story and managed to be (dare I say it?) fun at the same time. Unless you happen to utterly hate dungeon crawlers of any kind, I guarantee* that you’ll find something to enjoy about this game.
* – Not a guarantee.