Vagrant Story review
A vagrant sense of tedium
Not their finest hour.
Vagrant Story is a game made by Square back when they were really on a roll with great games. Chrono Trigger, Brave Fencer Musachi, Parasite Eve, Xenogears and the Final Fantasy games ranged from pretty good to pretty damn good and basically told everyone that they need to up their game in order to survive... basically, the PS1 era was Square's finest moment. But not everything they've done was great, and this was one of them. Vagrant Story wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it's pretty easy to tell that this wasn't on par with a lot of other games they've done in this era. A lot of what Square did especially well is present and some of it, I consider to be Square's finest effort on the PS1, but there were a few mistakes and some tedium that caused the game to suffer because of it all.
Story is certainly right.
The story is definitely this game's strongest suit. Ashley Riot has to stop Sydney, the leader of a cult known as Mullenkamp, because his cult has kidnapped a nobleman's son. What seems like a simple rescue mission ends up becoming a deep, dark tale with many themes to really aid in the development of our character, Ashley. It goes into why he became a Riskbreaker (which is a division of Valendia Knights of the Peace that has to uphold the state security and law... so a cop, basically), and a whole host of other things that I do not wish to spoil. Besides character development, it also has a great villain in Sydney. To make this as spoiler free as possible, this guy makes a hell of a first impression and you'll really want to know what's up with this dude.
But it's not just about the characters. The story itself has many twists and turns that keeps things engaging, and keeping things engaging it certainly does. It begins with an excuse plot shrouded in mystery, and proceeds to clear things up, and once that happens, holy shit, it gets really good. The writers really had a field day with this one, I can definitely tell.
Square tries Diablo.
Unlike a lot of what Square's done, Vagrant Story is more of a dungeon crawler than a typical JRPG. It takes place within this huge dungeon, and there are no shops and bugger all NPCs. In their place are block pushing and stacking puzzles, which are pretty hit and miss. Some of them aren't bad and can be somewhat tricky sometimes, but others feel like they were just put in there for the sake of it. I don't really care for block pushing puzzles in general and this game doesn't help that. Hell, Tomb Raider couldn't, and it had the best block pushing puzzles I've ever encountered - what chance does this have when it's clear that they're only put there for the sake of "variety"?
Silly bitching aside, I really wasn't that impressed by the gameplay. The battle system has an interesting idea. When you get into battle mode, you press circle and you have to choose a limb to hit that's within a wireframe (unless you're fighting like bats, wolves and such - you just attack them), and the idea is that you're meant to disable that limb if you deplete its HP down to 0, but it seems to only work with the legs. If you kill the legs, you'll decrease their mobility by 50%, and that rule applies to you too. But killing their arms does... jack shit, except help them die. But seriously, wouldn't killing their arms disable them so they can't use their weapons against you? I get that you're meant to kill them anyway, but with an idea like this, you'd expect them to go through with it, and maybe they did at one point, but then they thought "NAH, it'd make it too easy". What it does allow you to do is chain attacks. When an exclamation points appears, you press either square, triangle or circle, and you have to chain hits in a rhythm. By doing that, you'll deal a lot of damage, but it isn't a skill you can easily develop, because the timing has to be precise. But if you can get it right, you can get some positive benefits out of it, like dealing even more damage or even healing your HP, so... I'd say it's worth your time to hone your rhythm.
Actually, while we're on about the more detailed aspects of the combat, you can also perform defensive abilities, which allow you to take less damage, reflect the damage and resist status problems like poison and shit. You'll eventually learn Break Arts, which strengthen your attacks, but require you to lose some HP. You'll also be able to use magic by collecting Grimoires from downed enemies and using them to learn spells that attack, heal, defend and influence your elemental affinity. But the big one is Risk... you are a Riskbreaker, after all, and Risk is what makes you what you are. Anyway, while in battle mode, the longer you hack at enemies, the more Risk you'll gain, and eventually, combat will get riskier. Your defense and accuracy will drop, but your chance at critical hits and regaining some HP will rise. Definitely lives up to its name as there's definitely a high risk/reward thing going on there. It may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but after a while, it really starts to click and becomes a lot of fun.
But I feel that the combat is a bit too complicated. When dealing with weapons, it's not just about how strong they are, but also what they're strong against. You have different edges to deal with (edged, piercing and blunt) and what they're better against, but then there's also the affinity or element, and the big one – class, which basically determines what enemy class it's especially strong against. Not a big problem, right? Well, go ahead and strike an enemy with that weapon. It's now a weapon that's best used for slaying beasts, and if you dare touch an undead enemy with that, it'll not only increase its undead class stat, but decrease the beast class stat. Basically, you can *bleep* yourself over if you have a weapon that's “balanced”, simply because you won't be doing enough damage and they'll kick your ass, all because you don't want to keep pausing to change weapons to one that's best suited against a different class.
Because you need to constantly make sure your weapons don't turn out shit, you'll find yourself needing to constantly pause and switch weapons anytime you fight an enemy of a different class. But then it gets more complicated – some enemies are weak against different edges. It basically means have like a hundred swords with you, but unfortunately, you can only carry 8 weapons. But it's not even that – it's just how it goes that ends up becoming really tedious, and that's the game's biggest flaw. While it may seem small, it's a huge deal when you are CONSTANTLY pausing, which breaks the flow of the game, and breaking the flow just breaks your flow, which just makes you have less fun with it.
Now, when it comes to weapons and armor, you're left to find workshops so that you can make them. The idea is to combine weapons with materials like bronze and silver, which you'll find inside treasure chests or by killing enemies. In fact, everything you find in the game is through those methods, but most things are just a matter of hoping the enemy drops it. As for equipment, you'll need to upgrade them with various materials in order to get the best and hopefully survive. But equipment... I have to say, it's not handled all that well. Excess equipment has to be stored in a magic container, which makes sense, but then you'll be required to save every single time you want to access it, and that's okay if you're just getting out a piece of equipment or two, but if you're experimenting to get the best collection of eight sets of weapons and shields and sixteen bits of armor, oh my god, this takes forever. Curse you hardware limitations!
Square's gritty little game.
The graphics by PS1 standards are pretty damn good. I mean, the character models haven't quite aged that well due to their blockiness, but overlooking that, it does look quite fantastic. The city you go through – the dungeons in particular - look really detailed, often looking like something out of an FMV scene, and you can definitely tell what's what due to this. What really gets me is the mood the visuals set. I mean outside is outside, with a clear sky and whatnot, but the interiors are what impress me. They're dark, but the lighting sells them as they really give you the feeling that you're within dank dungeons, fighting for your life. In fact, the lighting in general is what really makes everything shine – it's all appropriately used to give everything depth. Instead of some plain static 2D background, it's all living and breathing! If I'm being honest, very few games utilize lighting as well as this does, and it's a bloody PS1 game...
The soundtrack is what really gets me. It can range from dark and ambient in the dungeons, to epic and involving during boss fights, and just plain beautiful altogether. It's an emotionally involving soundtrack – from keeping up the suspense in dungeons to really letting itself go during scenes and important fights, but most importantly, it draws you in because of that. There isn't a single bad or even mediocre song. All of them are great for the right reasons. The sound effects also manage to work out pretty damn well, which is what surprises me. Each sound effect just... sounds right, like you expect to hear that at that precise moment. I won't get into detail, but suffice to say, no sound effect is out of place and it actually draws you in more than anything. Sound effects that help immerse you into a game are a plus in my book. There's no voice acting, but given that this was the PS1 era... thank god.
A story worth reading or burning?
Vagrant Story is a game that could've been *bleep*ing perfect! It had a great story, fantastic graphics and an excellent soundtrack. Unfortunately, the gameplay just doesn't work as well as it could've. It had some great ideas, but the execution wasn't as good as it could've been, and having to work with weapons that have many different combinations and attributes alongside enemies with weaknesses and strengths to certain properties ensures that you'll spend half of your time pausing and switching weapons, which really breaks the flow and just gets you out of it. I'm really disappointed because it gets everything else just right. I loved the story, I loved the presentation, and I just loved the hell out of the ambiance!
It's a story full of intrigue. From the first minute onwards, it's easy to get lost in its world, its characters and the story itself, and its genuinely well written. Excellent stuff.
It has an interesting idea for a battle system, but too many intricacies mixed with constant pausing and the need for five hundred weapons just makes it feel tedious.
Each of the buttons respond and it controls well overall.
For a PS1 game, it looks bloody brilliant! The lighting is especially impressive.
Definitely has a good ear for mood. Not just in the music but the sound effects as well. Nice, and all without some god awful voice acting!
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