Review: Vagrant Story

This is it! The final review in my RPG Catch-Up Project! For those of you that are not in the loop, this means that I’ve finally played and reviewed every title on my shortlist of RPGs prior to the PS2/GameCube era. Yes, there’s still a handful of retro RPG titles that I haven’t touched yet. (And we’ll cover those at some point in the future). But, as far as my main list goes, I have now achieved parity between my chronological backlog and my list of RPG titles. The game that was last on that list is none other than Vagrant Story. This game is considered one of the most obscure and divisive RPGs from the original Playstation era. You may be wondering what makes this game so different from all of the other Squaresoft games from the same timeframe. Well, buckle up. Because I have a lot of thoughts on the topic.

Vagrant Story is an action/tactical RPG for the Sony Playstation. It was released in 2000 and aside from an emulated port via PSN for PS3, PSP, and Vita, it has not been released on any other consoles. For this reason, the game has fallen into obscurity and is fairly unknown outside of the hardcore JRPG fanbase. The game is a mixture of both an action RPG and a turn-based tactical RPG. What I mean by that is when it comes to combat, the battles are conducted in an odd mixture of both turn-based and real-time. Players are able to target specific parts of the enemy, while also trying to time combos and blocks. When not in combat,  players roam around a 3D environment that includes both platforming and puzzle elements. As you can see, there’s a lot going on here that bucks the standard RPG stereotype.

As you might expect from a Squaresoft game, the storyline simply amazing. The game takes place in the Kingdom of Valendia, in the world of Ivalice. If the name “Ivalice” sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same setting that was used for Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics –  or is it? There’s actually a lot of heavy debate about this online and SE has never really made a definitive statement on the matter. Either way, there’s a handful of various references that exist between the three titles. So even if the relationship between these games is nothing but spiritual, it’s still fun for fans. Vagrant Story follows the character of Ashley Riot, a member of the Riskbreaker Knighthood who is sent to track down an infamous cult leader, Sydney Losstarot. The game begins with Sydney setting fire to a nobleman’s mansion and escaping with hostages. Ashley tracks Sydney to the ruined city of Lea’ Monde. It is here that majority of the game takes place. As Ashley continues to explore the ruined city, he uncovers the motive behind Sydney’s actions and also reveals a number of secrets that cast doubt on the sanctity of his order and sheds light on the true intentions of the his leaders. There’s a lot more that could be said about the storyline to this game, but I think it’s best to let it unfold naturally through gameplay.

I want to be up front and acknowledge that this game isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s radically different from almost any mainstream RPG that was released up to this point. For starters, the visuals in the game don’t really conform to what most JRPG players have come to expect. The story elements are presented in a way similar to what is seen in graphic novels. Conversations appear in comic-style bubbles instead of captions at the bottom of the screen. Cutscenes are displayed with dramatic lighting and camera angles. It’s all very artistic and pretty to look at. The game is also fully 3D rendered. These days, that’s not unusual. But back in 2000 this was almost unheard of for an RPG. When exploring the mazes beneath Lea’ Monde, players are able to rotate the camera in a full 360-degree motion and navigate their characters accordingly. This includes climbing and jumping to overcome obstacles. As you might expect, this makes the game perfect for platforming puzzles. If you’ve ever played games like Soul Reaver or Tomb Raider, the puzzles are very similar in design.

Usually games from this era that include platform puzzles and 3D movement almost always feature action-based combat. Vagrant Story is the exception to this rule. In this game, when encountering an enemy, players must draw their weapon. The action will pause and a grid-like sphere appears around the character of Ashley. From here, players are able to target various parts of the enemy. The idea here is that different locations on the enemy’s body may be easier to hit or may cause more damage. Aside from targeting locations, some enemies are weak to certain types of weapons. A common tactic in this game is whenever you encounter a new type of monster, you can analyze the enemy to learn how to best exploit their weaknesses. The targeting system is not the only combat mechanic that’s unique in Vagrant Story. The game also features something called Chain Abilities and Break Arts. Chain Abilities and Break Arts are special skills that are learned as Ashley levels up. These abilities can then be assigned to various buttons on the controller. When engaged in combat, after striking an enemy (or before being struck), a exclamation point will appear above Ashley’s head. When this appears, if the player is able to press one of the assigned buttons fast enough, a special attack using that ability will occur. After the second attack, the same opportunity will open up again. Different weapons have different timings when it comes to the window of opportunity. Mastering these chains follows the same concept seen in rhythm-based games, except to me, it seems a little tougher to nail down. Break Arts are similar in concept, except that these attacks do not chain together. Learning to master these abilities is a big part of the gameplay.

There’s one other mechanic to the combat in Vagrant Story that I haven’t touched on yet; Risk. Risk is best explained as a measurement of danger. As the players continues to attack an enemy, the Risk Meter will slowly increase. Chain attacks and blocks cause this meter to build faster. Once the player has reached maximum risk, Ashley’s defense is reduced. Most of the time, this mechanics is not all that important to keep an eye on. However, some of the more difficult fights will require players to manage their risk to avoid tasking considerable damage.

Another really neat aspect of Vagrant Story is the crafting system. Throughout the course of the game, players will uncover a number of crafting rooms. These locations will allow players to break down their equipment into scraps and reassemble them into different items. Crafting can be used to create some of the best gear in the game. But a lot of it is trial and error. These days, players are likely to turn to the internet to look up combinations. But if you can think back to what it would have been like to experiment with this mechanic as it was originally intended, it’s really impressive to consider. When looking at the crafting and weapon-type system as a whole, the full picture of the what the developers were striving for really starts to become clear. With this in mind, it’s really quite amazing what the dev team was able to pack into this game.

For all of the really neat aspects this game has to offer, there are few annoyances as well. For starters, the button-mapping and playcontrol just don’t really vibe with me. It’s just not very intuitive. When I first started playing, I would find myself drawing my sword by accident or shifting the camera into the first-person view when what I really wanted to do was rotate the screen. These annoyances got better as I spent more time with the game. But it just didn’t feel natural to me from the start. On top of that, the UI is just overly cumbersome. Everything is very menu driven, which I typically don’t mind in a game. But in this case, again, it’s just not very intuitive.

When you step back and look at everything this game has to offer, what you’re left with is an odd combination of a classic dungeon crawler with a number of strategy elements. These days, it seems like game developers prefer to follow tried-and-true formulas for success. But games like Vagrant Story took risks and in many ways they really paid off. I think the thing that stopped this game from reaching a bigger audience was the fact that it just didn’t fit nicely into one specific genre. But I also think that’s what I really appreciate about the game. It’s a shame too, because the storyline is one of the best I’ve seen from the Playstation era. I doubt it will ever happen, but I’d really like to see a modern remake of this title.

If you love turn-of the-century RPGs, or if you’re a fan of early Squaresoft titles, this is a game you should consider checking out. These days, it can be a little tough to get your hands on a copy. So, like I mentioned above, I’m keeping my fingers crosses for a remake/re-release.

 

Version Reviewed: PS

Difficulty: Medium – The biggest challenge in this game probably comes from its steep learning curve. Second to that, I’d say mastering the timing of the chain attacks is a close second. Players who take their time and really pay attention to will be able to master the analyze/weakness system and use that to their advantage. That being said, some boss battles are still pretty tough. But that’s also part of the appeal.

Multiplayer: No.

Story: Excellent script writing and worldbuilding here, even if the content is a little artsy and highbrow. For me, the story is what kept me playing even when the gameplay itself got a little irritating. Fantastic stuff.

Originality: This game is nothing if it’s not original. Everything from the combat system to the crafting system is unique and interesting. The elements of the gameplay that had been seen before still managed to feel new thanks to the way it was all presented. Great marks here.

Soundtrack: The music is well composed and appropriate for this type of game. But nothing in the soundtrack particularly stood out to me. Still, it’s all very fitting and complements this type of game perfectly.

Fun: You’re either going to love this game or hate it. The buzz killers for me are the sluggish UI and frustrating playcontrol. But I did enjoy the intricate combat system and all of the combinations and possibilities that come along with it. Also, the story is just riveting and really adds to the enjoyment.

Graphics: As usual with games from this era, the graphics don’t hold a candle to today’s games. But still, this might very well be one of the best looking games ever released on the original Playstation. Despite the limitations of software-rendered 3D models, the developers worked magic with lighting and atmospheric effects. Real visual wizardry here.

Playcontrol: As I mentioned in the body of my review, this is where I have the most issues with the game. The button mapping isn’t very natural and intuitive. Combine this with the weird UI and everything just feels sluggish and weird. It is something that you get used to, but it takes a while. I really feel like this could have been implemented better.

Downloadable Content: N/A

Mature Content: Some violence and adult themes

Value:  If you’re trying to get your hands on a physical copy of this game, be prepared to pay a lot. Used copies can run anywhere from $80-$150 on average. Unopened copies are almost unheard of. Despite being a great game, I can’t recommend paying anywhere near that for a game this old. If you still have a PS3, PSP, or Vita, you can get a digital copy on PSN for only $6.00. At that price, it’s a no-brainer.

Overall score (1-100): 85 – Despite the issues I have with certain elements of the game, I cannot deny how good it actually is. The characters, the plot, and the intricacy of the gameplay all make for a really amazing experience. The dungeon crawling aspects really appealed to me and the atmosphere of the game is just amazing. It’s like the perfect mix between a JRPG, CRPG, and a pulp fantasy novel. I hate it that this was a one-off title. This game had everything needed to make it into a thriving series. Sadly, I feel like we will never see the name “Vagrant Story” again. Hopefully, I’m wrong about that.

Original System: PS

Available today on:  Currently Unavailable   – (Updated as of Spring 2024)

Best Experience: PS3 (PSN)   – (Updated as of Spring 2024)

Old Game Hermit

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1 Response

  1. An excellent and unique game. I played it on PSX in 2000 or 2001, and have fond memories of it. This is the second best jRPG on PSX – after “Suikodem 2”, obviously. 🙂 There are not many forgotten gems that I have played back then – but at least I played this one.

    Also, I really liked the idea of “James Bond in fantasy setting”. After all, Ashley Riot is a secret superagent, right? Too bad that this idea was never developed further, neither in games nor in movies nor in books.

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