Sunday, September 4, 2016

PS1 Look - Vagrant Story

Note: Fair warning, this was written back before I started editing my own work.

When talking about re-released games I can’t help but show my nostalgic side. I’m aware that this isn’t the greatest aspect to take with me into a review and I must judge every game as if it came out just recently instead of many years ago. Still I do the best I can by giving these games a fresh play-through, and looking out for flaws I may have glossed over. This goes both ways as at times I’ll find an appreciation for aspects of the game that I never noticed before or that I was going about them the wrong way and considered them to be issues. With all of that said I still can’t help but think “What in the world happened to Squaresoft?” when I play absolutely brilliant games like Vagrant Story. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about the same thing at one time or another, whether it’s the most recent Final Fantasy games, the lack of flawed yet ambitious projects like Xenogears, and the complete disappearance of the Mana franchise. I imagine for at least some of you out there it doesn’t look like a promising future for what was your favorite RPG publisher. There have been inklings of the Squaresoft I remember thanks to games such as The World Ends With You but for the most part I think they’re becoming something I no longer want to be a part of.

The entirety of Vagrant Story revolves around the enigmatic Leá Monde, a once thriving city that has been reduced to ruins and is now the home of the Müllenkamp cultists and the denizens of the dark. A power beyond understanding also makes its home here and Ashley Riot has been given the mission to insure it doesn’t fall in the wrong hands. The storyline is exceptionally focused, relying only on a handful of characters and minimal dialogue to keep the pacing strong. The story is bolstered ever further due to well-directed cut-scenes done entirely in the game’s engine. It’s seamless as well as stylish and somehow the graphics have aged quite well despite being late generation 3D on the Playstation. What ties everything together is the city itself, a city that haunts as well as it enamors, and does everything in its power to produce an atmosphere unlike any game out there. With the limitations of the console in mind the game relies on simple things like giving every room its own name, using and withholding music when necessary, and implementing just the right touches to breathe life into everything. Even after a decade this game is still quite an experience. On the other hand while fans of this game might agree wholeheartedly those who are new to Vagrant Story might be taken aback by these words. It’s completely understandable because time has nicked and weathered this game away quite a bit. There are times when everything doesn’t look as polished as it should, the game has that early 3D feel where even the most static of objects seems to be in motion, and in short there are a few things that one has to look past to appreciate this game.

The game itself denies my meager attempts at summation. Sometimes I’m not even sure if I can call it an RPG. There is a lot of fighting as well as a number of block-pushing and jumping puzzles, but that description sounds as enticing as a spoiled eggplant sandwich. What will eke away at this game’s classic status more than anything is its usage of puzzles. This game isn’t anything like Landstalker, an adventure game that understood the perfect balance between combat and puzzles. Vagrant Story’s greatest strength is in the battle-system and it’s so far above almost every other aspect of the game so any deviation sticks out like something analogous to a blemish on a work of art. The most grating example involves the Snowfly forest, a confusing area that is best solved by looking up a map on gamefaqs. Still there is something to be said about the times the game gets it right when they throw a puzzle the player’s way in lieu of a fight. It certainly helps that this game is a very lean affair as the first playthrough will likely take less than twenty hours, with subsequent play-throughs going as low as the one hour mark.

Now that I’ve mentioned it, twenty hours to one hour is a heck of a disparity isn’t it? This is simply because it can take a long time to develop the weapon-set and abilities the player will focus on until they’re done playing Vagrant Story. This game’s depth is in its options and it is designed in such a way that unless the player extends a certain amount of effort their game is going to be play out differently than everyone else’s. To start with while there are set equipment pieces awarded through certain battles or by opening chests many encounters can award the player with other weapons or armor. It is their discretion as to what to focus on but the most important guideline is that they carry at least one weapon of each type. This is where much of the time in the first play-through is spent as it takes quite a while to develop one’s arsenal properly. Even with these three weapon types one has to account the class of foe they’re facing as well as elemental affinities.

While there’s a phonebook’s worth of help available in the option menu there’s not much of anything resembling a tutorial in the game. Along with all of the weapons the player is liable to acquire they will also be buried in spell-books. Magick is a difficult beast to tame as the player’s MP is very limited and most of the time it’s probably more effective to stick to healing as well as spells that raise and lower stats. Veterans of the game will likely find magic to be more useful as they have a greater understanding of the mechanics and the knowledge of how to make their MP last. Early on however it can become frustrating when a spell that takes away over half the player’s MP completely misses the enemy they target.

Obviously I can’t review Vagrant Story without mentioning the chaining system as well as risk management. While it’s perfectly acceptable to stick to attacks that hit the enemy once at times or to suit differing play-styles one can focus on chaining to bring their foes down. Excessive chaining is balanced by the fact that as the chain increases the timing differs ever so slightly in an attempt to throw the player off as well as a dramatic drop in accuracy. Furthermore this leads to a massive bump in risk, which leaves the player at the mercy of their opponent. This system should not be considered a punishment though, it’s something that can be worked around and catered to the player’s way of getting through the game. For example I tend to focus on Crimson Pain and Raging Ache, chaining skills that require me to be at low health to maximize their effect. At high risk I take more damage so that my offensive skills can be even more effective. Another factor to consider is that the healing spell is more effective at high risk, which balances everything nicely.

There are many other factors that go into each encounter. The position of both the player and enemy can affect which attacks are viable as well as the move the enemy is most likely to perform. If for example the player is carrying a spear and the enemy has a short-sword then the player can keep their distance and stab the enemy as they won’t be able to get close enough to attack. At its core Vagrant Story is a turn-based game so every advantage the player can get through positioning and movement is worth considering. It should also be pointed out that encounters never last very long. Even the bosses tend to have a small amount of hit-points so even when it seems hopeless the player can win a battle of attrition if need be. This will require a better understanding of defensive abilities which all hinge on the player’s ability to time button-presses.

Considering all of the variables that go into each encounter it seems fitting that the player can change almost everything about their setup even in the middle of battle. If the player uses two-handed weapons they can still jump into the menu to throw on a shield just before the enemy attacks. The player is also free to equip whatever accessories and gems that’ll give them an advantage even when they are caught unprepared. This system was also used in Final Fantasy XII. It’s a very useful system and the only real limits are inventory space and the player’s patience, as going through menus gets old before long.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some play-throughs of Vagrant Story are done in such a way as to spend as little time in menus as possible. This isn’t limited to inventory management and item usage either as there’s an entire forging system to account for. With every attack the player gives or receives various stats can rise and fall. Unlike what some may say this aspect isn’t completely necessary to winning the game as it’s just a bonus. The three weapons the player focuses on can also be used towards the six classes of monsters. Unfortunately this isn’t properly documented and it would be a good idea to consult a guide as to what types of weapons are most effective with each class. Other variances like elemental affinity can be mitigated through the use of accessories and gems. In any case through the use of a forge the player can carry these bonuses to stronger weapons. The game helpfully points out the result of each forge before the player finishes the job but until that perfect combination is found it can be a long time spent in menus or worse, seeking out foes to defeat again and again before they drop the much-needed blade to strengthen their weapon further.

Despite my best attempts there is no easy way to summarize the battle-system in Vagrant Story. It is really the most involving factor of the game and the player must grasp at least a basic understanding of it to complete their initial play-through. The second time around will be much easier as the player has access to New Game +. This feature allows the player to start a new game with all of their acquired equipment and stats, giving them the opportunity to pursue a different route and try new abilities, come up with ways to challenge themselves further, explore the optional dungeon for a chance at some game-destroying equipment, or continue to build their stats up until they’re bored of being an unstoppable behemoth. Some will even opt to start a fresh new game as the additional stats and equipment might be too much of an advantage. The most brilliant aspect of Vagrant Story is how well it handles all of these options. More importantly the game is of an appropriate length and isn’t involving to the point where it takes dozens of hours to get wherever the player wants to be. It’s all about manipulating the system to make everything go the player’s way and when it all clicks it becomes a remarkable experience.

The completionists are a strange breed I’ll admit. They’re the types that open every chest, explore every room, and do just about everything in their power to find every last item in the game no matter how useless it probably is. Vagrant Story is well aware of the existence of completionists and offers a set of titles that can be acquired for mastering every aspect of the game. As if Vagrant Story wasn’t daunting enough it offers several ways of playing through the game with the only reward being a mere title. Frankly I couldn’t care less if a game says I’m the best box-pusher around so let the completionists have fun with that sort of fluff.

As I said my experience with Vagrant Story is colored because I’ve spent a lot of time with it in the past as well as the present. It becomes especially apparent when I compare the game to similar titles released more recently. I have to say I’m really disappointed not that these newer games don’t have any depth, it’s that they require so much time spent on them to get to that depth it becomes exhausting. In less than twenty hours Vagrant Story can provide an entirely rich experience with both its depth and story, and the door is left wide open for the player to pursue further if they feel if they haven’t gotten enough out of the game. All of its faults lie in a cumbersome interface and the handful of puzzles that simply don’t work, which in light of everything feels like mere nitpicks. Still do not be alarmed by the walls of text I used to describe the various systems of the game, I’ve done the same for Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and that is one of my other all-time favorite games. All of this is said as a fair warning as dedication and perseverance is what makes both of these games work and I would not have them any other way. Still don’t be the type of person who feels that their manhood is going to be questioned if they look up strategies. If nothing else at least get a map for the Snowfly Forest, that place is awful.

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