I can honestly say that Vagrant Story is and forever will be the best video game I have ever played, comfortably unchallenged until the internet comes crashing down in the Robot Wars of 2098. Vagrant Story is the reason I made this fucking blog in the first place. It is the exact definition of everything I wish video games were. I’m not personally setting it above the rest in some arbitrary listing, it did that itself. And not just a little bit. Vagrant Story is so far ahead of every other game that it’s not even a speck on the horizon for every single other game to wish it could see. My personal experience with it was nothing short of life-changing. When the credits rolled, I was different. You may scoff at these statements and wonder how a video game can change someone’s life. I assure you that the only reason you can’t grasp the gravity of what I’m saying is that you haven’t played Vagrant Story. Not completely your fault I guess…not many people played this masterpiece.
So what makes this game so spectacular? Did I mention that this is a Yasumi Matsuno game? That’s a good start…but this review needs some structure before I go on a stream of consciousness rant of adoration and embarrass myself. Most games can be adequately summed up by examining a standard list of criteria:
There are then, I feel, more subtle categories that aren’t game-breakers but can either elevate or subdue the experience in general:
Tightness of controls
It seems to me that most games can hit home runs in some of these areas whilst leaving the others to just get by. Gears of War: great graphics, stupid story. ICO and Shadow of the Colossus: great story and atmosphere, bad controls and camera. There are exceptions to the rule and these examples usually typify what we think of as ‘classics’. Half-life, for instance, excels in every category. Zelda would be another. The main basis for my argument on why Vagrant Story is just that damn good is not only does it drop a nuke on my little theory, it redefines many (if not all) of these categories in the process. Beyond that, it’s thematically many echelons above other games. The ideas are realized with such class that it refuses to degrade itself in a pathetic attempt to garner a wider audiences appeal. I figure the best way to get you to understand is to just go through each category and point shit out.
Vagrant Story is an action RPG, but please take any sort of conventional labeling lightly. As Ashley Riot you’re sent to explore the now crumbling (but once flourishing) city of Lea Monde. You wander around (fully rendered in 3D, fully rotating camera) and fight enemies that inhabit the environment. When you press the action button you pull out your weapon. Press it again and you’ll freeze time and project a green sphere out from your body. If there are any enemies within your attack sphere you have the ability to engage them. What’s interesting (and awesome) about this is that depending on what weapon type you are currently wielding the sphere will change in size. Pole arm? OK the sphere is twice as big as a regular sword’s. Crossbow? Bigger than the pole arm’s. Functionally…not 100% necessary, but nonetheless it’s a logical layer of detail. Now let’s say you’ve got your sphere out and a skeleton guy is inside it. At this point a little menu will pop up next to the skeleton allowing you to choose an area of his body to attack. If you have his full body in range you have the choice of attacking:
Attacking a specific area will yield damage and sometimes an area-specific result. If you attack his weapon arm, his ability to damage you will decrease. If you attack his legs his movement will decrease, etc. Alongside each available region is a hit percentage and damage estimate based on how far away you are and what type of armor he’s wearing compared to your aptitude with your current weapon (a very Matsuno thing…that I love). You will notice differences in soldiers if they are wearing a helmet compared to ones that are not, for instance. Their damage and hit percentage both will be higher if they aren’t wearing one, indicating more vulnerable areas. You’ll then immediately swing on your segment of choice when you confirm the attack. If you hit another button at the point of contact you’ll swing again. You can attach all sorts of status attacks to the face buttons and once you become more accustomed to the combo system you can achieve strings of up to thirty or more. I also want to point out that each of the weapon classes that Ashley can use have a different attack animation and timing. As far as a combat system goes, this one does amazing things in the ways of being accessible at first but growing into something monstrous as the game progresses. The tactics you will have to employ to best some of the game’s meaner bosses will have you sweating. Ashley also learns magic and Break Arts, which are more or less special weapon skills that you’ll acquire as you become more learned with a specific weapon type. Each weapon ends up having three or four total. The basic combat system in Vagrant Story works incredibly well and as a foundation for future games it would’ve been the beginning of something spectacular. Can you imagine what a system like this could achieve were it utilized in the current generation of gaming? Unfortunately this is one trend that didn’t catch on…probably because it’s smart and makes sense.
There is a weapon creation system in this game that is completely out of control. You can break every single weapon down into two pieces (blade and hilt) and combine any of them together to create a new weapon, which you can then name whatever the hell you want. There are endless possibilities that I don’t want to waste time discussing because it’s just too complex for most people to appreciate. If you play it you’ll understand…you’ll also experience the music that plays in the work shops, a thing that I promise will change who you are as a person.
The other aspect of the gameplay would be the exploration. It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to wander this vacant magical city filled with secrets, branching pathways and mystical enemies. The size of the game itself is mind-blowing, all things considered, and exploring it is a delight. Chests are in areas that make sense, like backrooms and storage areas. You’ll never find a fucking chest sitting out in a street somewhere. On the contrary, you’ll find stat boosting wines in cellars filled with wood barrels and armor/weapons next to metal workshops. You’d think that a passing observation but when you look at other games that attempt this level of immersion you can really notice how a small detail like item placement can pull you in or knock you out of said world. Being that Lea Monde is your typical medieval city you wouldn’t think there would be a huge variety of places to go either, but there is. You wander down into (previously mentioned) wine cellars and mines dug beneath the city. You find a city underground that’s moody and filled with ghastly things. There’s a forest, a cathedral and an endless variety of city streets. It’s all very real feeling, like it was an actual city at some point in history. You never stumble into a place that feels like it doesn’t belong, which all goes back to attention to detail and intelligent design. The layout of the city itself was crafted in such a subtle way that it encourages your mindful wandering but somehow always points you in the right direction. You’re literally chasing someone through an open city who’s locking doors as they go, and that mechanic is perfectly implemented as an interesting way to progress through the game…never letting you get completely lost or too far off track. When you meet a door that’s locked with a sigil you don’t have, it’s common sense that you must find another route.
On the technical side, both the controls and the camera work beautifully considering the limitations. The timing required to continue a combo is a precise science that would just simply not work if the controls weren’t exact. You will always know that if you missed the timing it’s because you fucked up, not the game. Vagrant Story just won’t cheat you in that way ever. How you do and whether or not you succeed is entirely dependent on your skill as a player and your ability to figure out the system presented to you (your success on the final boss is absolutely reliant on you mastering this timing mechanic). The camera can be rotated 360 degrees with the shoulder buttons and is pulled out just enough so you can see your character and everything you need to see in the environment. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning but seeing as how this was an original PlayStation game, it’s a big fucking deal. The next notable Square game to implement anything close to this was Kingdom Hearts (to much less success) on the next generation console. Hey guys…they had this 3D camera shit figured out in the year 2000.
Ah, yes. The Music. There are songs from this game that if they came up on random while I was typing this out, I would probably come close to tearing up. In an instant I would be transported back to Lea Monde, the scenes from Ashley’s past replaying in clarity. It’s impossible to write a convincing argument about how good certain music is because people are moved in different ways by it. The most important thing in video game music, however, is how well it’s sewn into the game itself. The application of the music in Vagrant Story alone shows the flaw in that statement itself. It isn’t applied at all. It’s just there. It would seem like an insult to say that you don’t even notice the music, but that’s kind of how I feel about it. Do you notice every blade of grass that’s rendered…or every structural detail carved into the stone walls? Of course not. It just exists as a natural piece of the whole. That is not to say that the music is not exceptionally beautiful or complex…because it is. So is every rendered blade of grass and stone wall detail. It is as much or as little as everything else at any given time and supplements every other aspect of the game magically. Just like certain pieces of dialogue or a beautiful vista, the music will move you in different ways at different times. The OST is a great listen for this exact reason. Songs from this game will not only inspire emotion but the feeling of the game in general. It’ll cause you to remember what the graphics looked like and what characters were saying, because all of these things are related in Vagrant Story. You won’t just remember a song for being a song, and that’s important to me. All said and done, Hitoshi Sakimoto created a masterpiece with this score and I would have a hard time naming anything else that was as beautifully implemented or evoked as much emotion as this one does.
I guess I would have to say that Vagrant Story has possibly the most impressive graphics on the PlayStation. A lot of it has to do with the art direction of but the sheer quality and quantity of the presentation as a whole is stifling. I don’t know half a shit about polygon counts and disc data storage but I usually know what I’m looking at. Vagrant Story released when 3D gaming was still largely in it’s infancy, and it was doing things that games hadn’t yet accepted as possible. Of course Mario 64 had blown the fucking lid off the whole damn world with it’s incredible 3D prowess, but in 2000 an entirely 3D game that looked great with a fully functioning camera on the PlayStation just wasn’t commonplace. Vagrant Story is widely known among people who know as the game that more or less took the PS to it’s limit. Hell, they’re hesitant today to even try to remake it for the PSP under the Ivalice Alliance tag because of how technically hard it would be. Are you joking? They are porting PS2 games to the PSP and doing a damn fine job of it, too. This game is so fucking enormous and complex that Square has been hesitant to remake a PlayStation game to the PSP, ten years and countless technological advances later. They instead smartly opted to release it as a PSN title that can be saved onto your PSP directly, and the game is honestly no better for it. Anyone seen that quote from David Lynch talking about watching films on your cell phone? Excuse me, on your FUCKING telephone? I feel somewhat similar about Vagrant Story on the PSP. GET REAL!
*I want to premise this whole section of my review by saying that you can more or less read what I wrote in my FFXII review to understand the sort of subtle storytelling Vagrant Story employs. It utilizes the same mature style of presentation that doesn’t hold your hand or explain everything to you. It’s a game made for adults by adults that requires you to have the ability to interpret concepts and emotion on your own. So yeah, no point in going over all that again.*
Vagrant Story shines brightly in all four titles of this category and today should stand as shining examples of how to tell a story in a game. The dialogue itself was translated from Japanese into Old English thanks to Alexander O. Smith. His work on Vagrant Story was described as “unparalleled“ and “unprecedented” by his peers and it’s true. At a time where other much higher budget SquareSoft games were committing atrocious translation errors like “this guy are sick”, Vagrant Story weaved beautiful language together with emotion to flesh out characters the like of which had rarely been seen before or again after.
Commander Grissom: Where did he go?
Jan Rosencrantz: Through the wood, he says. You will follow him?
Commander Grissom: I must avenge the foul murder of my brother, Duane.
Jan Rosencrantz: Of course you must. But be wary, your foe is strong.
Commander Grissom: God is stronger.
The story itself covers themes of history, magic, religion, politics, family, war, memories and redemption, but somehow manages to entwine them together so thoughtfully that the lines that separate them are blurred. I would absolutely love to simply describe what this game is about. It’s a journey that takes you many places but stays realistically within the boundaries of itself. It never preaches at you, it’s not some sort of contrived commentary on the real world like it so easily could have been based on the subject matter. It poses real philosophical questions and puts the characters into dark situations that invoke deeper personal inquiry. Our antagonists aren’t ‘evil’ and our heroes certainly are not saints. Our man Ashley is on a revealing road of discovery that has a purpose…a true purpose, and when and how he gets there is the entrancing tale us players take with him. I will absolutely never forget the moments leading up to and the ending of this game. Because of the excellent pacing and storytelling you could just feel yourself getting closer to the end. The events were increasing in potency, as were the boss fights. When you find Sydney lying bloody in the candle-lit room at the top of the cathedral, you just know. You know everything, and you can feel it. This story was coming to and end and you knew it. The two-stage final boss fight is separated by one of the most effective cutscenes in a video game. Top it off with a superb ending and credit sequence that embodies everything about the game, music…characters, story and you are left pondering the bomb that just went off in your life.
In concept and execution Vagrant Story is unmatched. It should have been the pillar with which to build a new day for gaming. We look at Gears of War and Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto as games are ‘hardcore’ and ‘mature’ but in reality these games are just simply made to cater to what the fourteen year-olds that comprise the majority of Xbox Live think is ‘cool‘. In one magical moment sometime in the year 2000 a little known, somewhat obscure team from the RPG powerhouse of the world were able to create their dream project without the shackles of popular ideas. Long before Bioshock “invented” atmosphere and plot in video games and years before every single fucking game in every single genre adopted RPG elements, there stood Vagrant Story. Before the concept of DLC and trilogies destroyed ‘complete’ games on the day of release (why put it in there NOW when we can just release it later FOR MORE MONEY) Vagrant Story was an encapsulated experience that offered what now would be ten games worth of content…and an ending that didn’t leave shamelessly leave itself open to a sequel. It was released and then almost immediately lost forever into obscurity. Sure it was critically acclaimed. Sure it eventually became a greatest hits, but so does every fucking Square game. Thinking on what it could have taught us about how to make games is almost a depressing idea. Most of the progressive ideas about it were not really shunned, but not credited as the advances they really were. We can only dream of what ’mature’ today would’ve meant had the lessons shown to us by Vagrant Story were accepted as ideal. Imagine a video game world where adult themes meant real philosophical dilemma and not naked girls, mindless murder or reiterating junior high sociology class. Sadly, its greatest achievements are also its biggest downfall, there was no real way to market it and the weaker-willed player would just accept it as some harsh, cold and distant concept which wasn’t worth the pain of enduring. Too obscure…or too hard. Vagrant Story is the exact definition of what the term ‘ahead of its time’ means.
Ashley spends his entire journey traveling through Lea Monde only to find that at the middle stands a beautiful cathedral towering above the rest. It was the centerpiece, the spirit of the city. Its purpose and luster was now lost to time and wear, but deep within it still held the secrets and the splendor of the past. Under a coat of dust lay something more stunning, more radiant than all that surrounds it. Sad and old, cold and dark. Forgotten, but full of mystery and magic. He must explore this place and he must explore himself. At the top of the cathedral he would find the end of his story… but more importantly, answers.
Click here to see where Vagrant Story placed in my Master List!