Imagine a game that combines the best parts of Final Fantasy Tactics and Metal Gear Solid; a game that combines deep, rewarding tactical gameplay with adventure exploration through fully realized environments and unparalleled presentation. Vagrant Story is that game, and it is a masterpiece.
Producer Yasumi Matsuno (Final Fantasy Tactics) is again partnered with character designer Akihiko Yoshida (Tactics and Ogre Battle). The combination is still a winner. While the game has the seemingly de facto medieval setting, the execution is anything but cliché. The character designs are original and attractive, and the world itself is impeccably designed. The game starts out as a relatively straightforward dungeon crawl, but eventually expands into a non-linear world with both indoor and outdoor environments. Exploration is most akin to a three-dimensional version of Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Set in Europe during the Middle Ages, Vagrant Story concerns special agent Ashley Riot, a Riskbreaker in the Valendia Knights of the Peace. A few years ago, Ashley's family was tragically killed in front of his own eyes; since then, he has dedicated himself completely to his work. An incident at Duke Bardorba's manor has led Ashley to investigate the city of Leá Monde. The enigmatic Sydney Losstarot has also traveled to the city. Fiercely charismatic, this religious cult leader is charming and deadly (albeit rather effeminate). The Cardinal has sent his own Knights of the Blades into the city for reasons unknown. Ashley is told to stop Sydney from gaining the power of the evil city--but is there anyone he can really trust beside himself?
The characters of Vagrant Story are well developed and very believable. Each has a history and well-developed backstory, well-defined personal motivations, and a web of networked and intertwined relationships. The plot of Vagrant Story is filled with twists and turns, and the player who stops to consider the characters' past and current actions in light of newly revealed information will be richly rewarded.
You are also the badass.
Special note must be made of Vagrant Story's localization. It is undoubtedly the best localization ever to hit U.S. shores. Not only is it eminently readable and packed to the brim with great, quotable one liners, it is written in an authentic medieval dialect and uses much vocabulary specific to the era. Lines as bland in the original Japanese as
It is because you acknowledge things like freedom of belief. There can be only one God. This sort of incident occurs because you let heretics like them out of your control. That, and our parliament is impotent...
All because of this religious freedom! Too much freedom, too many gods. Let those cultist cur-dogs run loose, and they will bite you. Gods! While our Parliament cowers...
"Escutcheon"? "Dovecote"? "Ensanguined Rood"? The room names alone could spur an English thesis. The level of writing in Vagrant Story is universally intelligent and literate, and Square's localizer (Alexander O. Smith) should be commended for his unparalleled--and unprecedented--work.
Vagrant Story's gameplay is a nice mix of real-time adventure exploration and a quasi-turn based battle system. While exploring, Ashley can zoom the camera in and out, rotate it freely, and even enter a first-person "free look" mode. In his "exploration mode," Ashley can jump, as well as pick up and push the omipresent crates that litter the environments. In his "battle mode," Ashley loses these skills, but is able to attack. Ashley can wield a variety of one- or two-handed weapons throughout his journey, including daggers, pikes, staves, swords, axes, great swords, great axes, and crossbows. Vagrant Story also features a ranged magic system of four types: Warlock (attack), Shaman (recovery), Sorcerer (status), and Enchanter (affinity).
Ashley attacks the enemy by selecting a target area (Head, Body, L. Arm, R. Arm, etc.) and letting loose. Enemies will also take turns taking swipes at Ashley. But simple back-and-forth exchanges get old quickly, so the producers introduced Chain Abilities and Defense Abilities. The player can assign a special skill to each of three buttons (Square, Triangle, and Circle); pressing that button just as your weapon strikes (or right as the enemy strikes you) allows for additional chained attacks or a split-second defensive manuever. The only limit to the size of attacking chains is your timing skill.
Attack too often, though, and your Risk points will rise to unstable levels. Risk points determine your chances of hitting and critical hits. Every attack will cause the gauge to rise; at high levels Ashley will become angry and unstable, causing him to perform poorly in battle (but increasing the chance of a special attack). Fortunately, the passage of time refills Ashley's HP and MP and lowers his Risk.
So how does it play out? Very well, but with great complexity. Each weapon has three major attributes: Class (Human, Beast, Undead, Phantom, Dragon, or Evil), Type (Blunt, Edged, or Piercing), and Affinity (Physical, Air, Fire, Earth, Water, Light, and Dark). Each enemy has a particular weakness in each of those three categories. Players who carry a variety of weapons, cast the Analyze spell frequently, and learn their opponent's weaknesses will find the game challenging, but straightforward. Gamers who charge into battle determined to beat the enemy into submission with whatever weapon they happen to have equipped will lose. Badly. Careful balancing of affinities, status effectors, and weapon choice (weapons can be customized to your liking in workshops) is necessary to succeed. But master its systems and its timings and Vagrant Story will reward you deeply.
This is in-game. Wow.
Graphically, Vagrant Story is without peer. The game engine is breathtaking; not only does it support the gameplay without a hitch, but the extra "first-person" view brings out otherwise unnoticeable details in the textures and environments. The character models are detailed and feature expressive facial animations. The story sequences feature camera work and environments that easily best Metal Gear Solid. Motion blur, dynamic lighting, dramatic pans and zooms; Vagrant Story handles it all with aplomb.
The title doesn't disappoint in the sound department, either. The music is Redbook quality and features fantastic composition. It never jumps into the foreground to draw attention to itself, but is content to set the stage perfectly like a good piece of movie music. Sound effects are high quality and match the environments. The only thing "missing" is voice acting. While the comic-book style voice bubbles and quality writing deliver the plot nicely, a title this cinematic cries out for equally high-quality voice acting.
Ashley sees the future...
Players looking for replay value won't be disappointed. Only about 80% of the map is available your first time through the game. Once the game is completed, gamers can choose a "New Game Plus," begin with all the weapons, spells, and skills of the previous game, and earn access to the remaining 20% of the map. New weapons, armor, spells, and enemies await in the second quest. The first run-through will take most players twenty to thirty hours, while subsequent attempts will probably take around ten hours.
Is Vagrant Story perfect? No. The battle system sometimes seems overly complex, and failure to exploit your opponents' weaknesses can lead to interminable (and boring) encounters. Some of the block puzzles seem needlessly difficult. A bit more variety in environments and a slightly longer quest would always appreciated. And the aforementioned voice acting would be a nice finishing touch. But Vagrant Story does so many things right in concert that it would be remiss to merely call it a "great game." It is a work of art, and an amazing indicator of the possibility that interactive entertainment offers.
Review by Andrew Vestal, GIA.
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|Vagrant Story |
|Release Date|| 02.10.00|| 05.00|
|Vagrant Story set for January |
|1250 screenshots |
|6 new desktop backgrounds |
|North American box art |