Xenogears


Xenogears came to me unexpectedly when my gaming experiences weren’t nearly as robust as they needed to be.  RPGs were still a relatively new thing to me at the time and I was only just starting to understand what they were all about.  Looking back on it now, Xenogears is probably the last thing that I ever should’ve considered playing.  I seek out this type of alternative experience now but back then I was just looking for the closest thing to what I already knew, Final Fantasy.  What a blessing in disguise.

Truthfully, I never would’ve found it at all if it wasn’t for big Mike on the bus home from eighth grade.  One day he started poppin’ off about some crazy RPG he just had finished called “Zenno-gears”.  Other than the name and a stubborn proclamation that Zennogears was easily the Best RPG Ever Made he wasn’t providing a lot of meaty details.  Intrigued upon his attempt to lend me the game I optimistically obliged…which ended up as maybe the best decision ever.

I was immediately struck by the cool box.

Remember the old days of “Non Final Fantasy Squaresoft RPGs Made By Non Final Fantasy Designers That Don’t Get Hardly Enough Credit”?  They used to be pretty damn good.  Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross…things of that nature.  While you could always depend on Final Fantasy to provide a solid experience, these other games were less chained to convention.  Back then some serious designers took part in what could be described as obscure projects that were really anything but.  When you’re SquareSoft, though,  and you’ve already got your breadwinner it isn’t necessary to market anything else you’re doing.  We still get awkward off brand Square Enix RPGs (Drakengard, Nier) but they aren’t quite what they used to be during those Golden Years.

Xenogears was a product of this PS1 role playing renaissance.  Released in 1998 and riding the heels of the enormously successful Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Takahashi’s religiously saturated RPG was not exactly center stage in the popular sphere.  People found it, of course, like my friend on the bus did.  But I wouldn’t say that it was even near the forefront of an already massive catalog of PlayStation RPGs.  The last thing I want to do when I talk about this game is stubbornly proclaim that Xenogears should’ve been a huge hit, or even that a few more people had played it.  The game is just genuinely not made for the general gaming public.  Time to sound like an elitist asshole!  A lot of people don’t have the capacity to appreciate Xenogears.  Yeah, I don’t go there often but there’s no better way to phrase it.

Takahashi and crew were not making a Final Fantasy.  This simple fact allowed these developers to bend the boundaries of convention a bit.  It provided them an arena to express their creativity more freely, and it shows.  The battle system was innovative and complex.  The story was brutally mature in concept, not only in its imagery but in its references and emotional themes as well.  Both the music and art were beyond brilliant and the character sprites rendered over the fully 3d world were beautiful.  You know, there was a lot going on in this obscure RPG from 1998 that I would have loved to see again at some point but non of it really seemed to stick with anyone other than its fans.

|Xenogears’ Battle System|
I can honestly say that Xenogears’ battle system has remained pretty damn unique.  Nothing before it and certainly nothing that followed seemed to even acknowledge that someone had created a turn-based system in an RPG that was actually fun.  Not only were you expected to understand classic RPG mechanics to succeed but you had to wrap your brain around a borderline Street Fighter-esque button combo input.  God forbid one of those wacky JRPGs incorporate some sort of interaction for once.  While the standbys of ‘Magic’ (Arcane or Ether) and ‘Defend’ were ever present the ‘Attack’ option was where the real innovation came through.

The sprite animations are also really fluid and well done.

In essence Xenogears presented a system that recognized a series of button presses as combos that would eventually lead your character to perform a finishing move.  X, Square and Triangle were all assigned basic (but different) attacks that when pressed in certain orders would allow you to perform a special deathblow attack.  While, for example, seven triangles in a row wouldn’t perform a combo you’d still hit the enemy seven times.  Fun, but I always thought the real beauty of the system was actually learning the deathblows.

If you happened to perform a triangle, triangle, X enough times (provided that’s a recognized combo) your character learned that combination and from that point on performs a specific deathblow every time you enter it.  Once a deathblow for a combination is learned you can use it endlessly or move onto spamming the next unlearned combination.  What ends up happening is that you spend most of your random battles trying to learn new deathblows while using the ones you already have on bosses and/or tough fights.  This system performs miracles in terms of making the grind less boring and creating a level of immersion that is damn near impossible with most other RPGs.  It was completely unprecedented for a player to feel like they had that much control over their party member actions or development, even if it was just a fancy elaboration on a simple theme.

|The Story|
Perhaps right now you feel that what I just tried (in vain) to explain is a little complex.  It is…and I’ve found it extremely demoralizing trying to puzzle out even the simplest pieces of this madness for mass consumption.  To my sorrow I should also do my best to explain Xenogears’ STORY in a WAY THAT MAKES SENSE, maybe to a reader who HAS NEVER HEARD OF OR PLAYED THIS GAME.  Luckily, if you break down all of the complicated twists and turns you’ll find that behind all of the perceived insanity is a simple tale of love, or rather, lost love.  It’s a tragic narrative that boils down to a single moment when two men reacted differently to losing the same woman.

Then it gets complicated…Krelian and Lacan begin to weave a history for Fei and company when they react to the tragic sacrifice Sophia makes in order to save many lives during a war, including Lacan’s.  His bitterness towards himself for being too weak save her (or himself) drove him nearly mad and he adopted the persona of Grahf, the Seeker of Power.  He then sought to destroy God himself and the two entities involved in the conflict that took his true love’s life.  Fei’s encounters with Grahf slowly unfurl the twisted tale of that singular tragic event while simultaneously revealing pieces of Fei’s past in the process.  How these two characters relate in the end is absurd, intense and beautiful.

As interesting and deep a character as I’ve ever seen.

Krelian on the other hand, a dear friend of Sophia, took the loss differently.  Devastated by her sacrifice, Krelian declared that were there truly a God watching over them Sophia would never have been put in a position to sacrifice herself.  That someone as kind and good as her would be protected.  From that moment on Krelian set out to fill the vacancy in heaven he knew existed, to create God with his own hands.  Sadly, ‘creating God’ required vile acts that split Krelian’s soul asunder.  What remains of this extremely complex character by the climax of our story is difficult to describe.

On top of that there are wonderful character elaborations here that most game creators don’t even have the capacity or nuance to understand.  For instance, Lacan was a painter whose feelings grew for Sophia while he worked on her portrait.  As time went on and the painting neared completion he slowed down fearing the day he would complete it, that sad day he would no longer be able to spend hours examining her beauty and relaying it to canvas.  He ends up not actually finishing because the war comes and steals her away…an even worse fate.

This is about as simple as it gets with Xenogears, because almost everything else is layered upon that concept…that relationship between these characters.  I’ve found that my interpretation of the story is at its most powerful when I begin to relate every event to that core idea.  Yeah there’s crazy shit about religion, lost civilizations, giant robots, Id (most ridiculous and amazing character storyline ever), reincarnation even…but the entire game is anchored by the tragedy of Sophia’s sacrifice and the destruction it wrought on two important characters.  And it is powerful.  When you can finally get to a place with Xenogears where you understand all of the moving parts the depth of the themes really start to shine brilliantly.  In fact, it’s only through two complete playthroughs and a shit ton of reading Perfect Works translations that I can even give a base account of what the hell is even going on.

Xenogears’ story requires an investment and dedication.  Things are not explained to you in any sort of digestible manner, you’re expected to put the time in.  Were the personal rewards not as robust as they are for doing so it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.  But it is.  Never have I encountered in any medium a saga so affecting, so worth it.  As devoted as I am to my Shepard and the reaper invasion or as nostalgic as I am about the Final Fantasy series, none of them carry nearly as much weight or hit me as hard as Xenogears does.  It’s both emotionally and physically devastating to play the whole way through but in the end you feel as though you’ve done more than just played a simple video game.  This is also the reason I find myself slow to recommend Xenogears to any but the most sincere and understanding people.

And the people that do find the courage to commit to this game?  They discover a story filled with maturity that could really only resonate with an adult, a person who has actually experienced shit in their life.  I think Xenogears is the only video game I have ever seen that actually depicts the serious love interests laying in a bed naked having just slept together (and not in that very BioWare overt fan service way).  Or that an extremely manipulative relationship between two other characters would take them to the same place with a much different tone.  Silly, that a game with a love story might actually relay that intensely personal ‘thing’ that every single human being on the face of the earth can identify with: physical attraction, sexual intimacy and taking a relationship to the next level.  I would call it ballsy in any other game but these sequences fit the tone perfectly, implemented in a way not to shock the player (but it is kind of shocking anyway), but to make the characters and situation seem all the more realistic or identifiable.

|The Music|
Yasunori Mitsuda is Xenogears’ composer and it is some of the finest work I’ve ever heard.  In fact, I would have a hard time describing Xenogears as ‘realistic’ and ‘identifiable’ were it not for its soundtrack.  If only songs like these were playing somewhere in the distance in our real lives when epic things happened.  Finding anything that compares to this OST is really hard for me, and I’ve tried.  It’s true that I believe Chrono Cross to have the best music in video games and I will stand by that statement, but Xenogears is special.  I’m hesitant to even list it by comparison because it’s difficult for me to qualify just exactly what it does.  There are honest to god moments in my daily life where a song like “The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen” will play on random and I will stop what I’m doing because I have to concentrate on not shedding tears in front of my computer screen.  There is a beauty in this soundtrack that very few other things in this world have achieved, a very pure and emotional sentiment that makes you feel as though Mitsuda himself was moved during its creation.

The entire score is extremely heavy, or powerful.  It’s a tone that compliments Xenogears perfectly, a game that is itself very serious and thought provoking.  Tracks like “The One who is Torn Apart” (Id’s theme) express something through subtlety that is hard to find anywhere but here, and it’s something I struggle to describe…so I won’t waste my time.

These songs are two examples from a score that honestly doesn’t have a sour track in it.  While you may find the quantity to be somewhat lacking considering the size of the game, each song has an important quality that does nothing but elevate Xenogears every moment a tune can be heard.

I should be honest, this has been my most difficult game review to write on this blog.  Xenogears really means a lot to me, not only for the way it introduced me to the idea of mature themes in an entertainment medium before I had really developed a taste for it, but kinda just for being what it is.  Not even Takahashi’s own works after Xenogears come anywhere near it.  Every time I play the game I learn something new and my adoration grows, the experience and memory becomes more potent.  This, to me, is the definition of a masterpiece.  A vision.  Something that words simply just cannot describe.  Truly one of the best games ever made…Mike was right, even if he couldn’t tell me why.

Reading back over this I’ve found, not surprisingly, that I haven’t written much at all about the game itself.  Usually when I do these things it’s more of a stream of consciousness effort than a structured outline of points.  I knew Xenogears was going to put me in a weird place for that reason.  When I think about the game the things that come to mind aren’t the menus or the pacing…I don’t even really consider the wonky delivery of the narrative.  Playing this game isn’t always fun, it’s just not.  There are obvious imperfections, I’m not trying to hide that.  In fact, many aspects of this game could be called less than average.  The gear battling is not nearly as robust, fun or interesting as the regular.  The second disc is enough to make a gamer who’s used to Final Fantasy polish throw his copy out the window.  All I have to do, though, to remind myself that this game is special is remember how hard I fought back the tears when I heard the music box version of “Small Two of Pieces” play in Citan’s backyard hut near the beginning of the game.

Or think of the phrase Fei’s Kim.

Or ponder the tragedy that is Ramsus.

Or to know that I’ve experienced something not meant to simply sell the most copies or spawn the most sequels.  That I walked down a path that was someone’s vision and not just a yearly corporate creation advertised in GameStop’s window.  Not only is Xenogears one of a kind, it very well could be described as the last of it.


Click here to see where Xenogears placed in my Master List!

List Reflection: Final Fantasy XIII Edition

It was pretty hard for me to write about Final Fantasy XIII.  My dislike for the game is accurately depicted by its placing pretty low in my list.

The hard reality that I think I might be running into here is that Square Enix just doesn’t make stuff I like anymore.  And why is that?  Many if not all of my favorite games come from this developer, or rather the long lost SquareSoft that once was.  Is it the exodus of my favorite developers?  Probably.  XIII most definitely has a feel that is entirely new and not in the sense that “new” can sometimes mean “good”.  Much of what once made Final Fantasy great wasn’t evolved or progressed but mostly ignored or made unrecognizable.

Remember in, like, every single FF ever you could find a room somewhere near the beginning of the game where a bunch of tutorial NPCs just sat around waiting to teach you every basic thing you’d need to know to succeed in the coming adventure?  You could argue that this idea, much like world maps, is an artifact of an earlier time that’s no longer necessary.  I would disagree.  I think something like that is exactly what Final Fantasy XIII needs.  All I wanted was someone to just sit down and explain to me the inner workings of every weird system in this game.  Instead, I found myself seeking answers on FAQs or from people I’d known who might’ve played the game…things of that nature.  Are we past a point in video games where tutorials are worthwhile?  Was this brought on by the ease of internet use?  I certainly wouldn’t have been insulted had there been some room in some town (oops) somewhere where I could chat up some wise NPCs or even get into a tutorial battle of some kind.  They did a half-assed job explaining things and that left me frequently frustrated, attempting to discover the quirks, nuances and subtleties of almost everything in the game.

Although it’s not like explanations of any kind would’ve made me feel better about it all.  There’s no reasoning or tutorial in the world that can excuse all of Final Fantasy XIII’s shortcomings, it would’ve just been slightly less agonizing to get through.

As far as I’m concerned the only game currently worse on my list is DOAX2 and that’s really only because it’s not much of a game at all.  I’d also like to take a second here to say on a greater scale that FFXIII is easily the worst Final Fantasy game in the series.  Yes, X-2 is better…much better.

Now Playing: Final Fantasy VI, Yakuza
Just Finished: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Next Review: Xenogears

Vagrant Story

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:

Gameplay
Music
Story/Script/Dialogue/Translation
Graphics/Presentation

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
Camera
Pacing
Atmosphere/Art Direction
Complexity

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.

|Gameplay|
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:

How do I shot web?

Head
Body
R. Arm
L. Arm
Legs

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.

Music

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.

Graphics/Presentation

PS1

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!

Story/Script/Dialogue/Translation

*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.

FUCKING BOOM.


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!