This week for the retro we cover a classic action RPG game for the PlayStation, and what I personally consider to be a masterpiece, Vagrant Story. The game was developed in 2000 by the team responsible for Final Fantasy Tactics, with Yasumi Matsuno as producer, writer and director. it was an ambitious project and showcased what Square was capable of when it came to this genre. Vagrant Story was considered to be ground breaking at the time by many, but unfortunately was overshadowed by other games released around the same time such as Final Fantasy IX.
From the intro to the final scene, Vagrant Story is a game that grabs you and sucks you in to it’s deep and compelling story. The game is set in the fictional medieval land of Valendia and the city of Leá Monde. You play a member of the member of the Valendia Knights of the Peace, Ashley Riot. Ashley is an elite agent known as a Riskbreaker who has been sent to the city to investigate the link between Duke Bardorba and a cult leader named Sydney Losstarot.. The opening scenes of the game show the events that unfold as Ashley is blamed for the murder of the Duke. Once you’ve played through the prologue the game begins one week after this. You can check out the intro to the game below.
Vagrant Story’s graphics at the time were very impressive. Square made a change in the way they approached graphics with the game being fully 3D using no static backgrounds. At first glance the palette looks dull. I’ll admit, there’s a lot of brown. But it really worked and it suited the medieval setting and tone of the game. The lighting was also something that was quite special and visually this was really stunning, and although I am sure many people don’t agree with me, but I feel it’s aged quite well. I am probably showing my own age by saying that, but I care not. The setting itself is fantastic and the city of Leá Monde creates a haunting atmosphere that stays with you throughout.
The gameplay was also something quite unique at the time and still stands out today. The game is played in a third person view, although you are able to get a 360 degree view of a room using the start button. There are some puzzle and platforming elements to the game. Players are able to make Ashley jump and push and pull cubes. You can also repeat puzzle rooms in a mode called “Evolve or Die” where you had a certain amount of time to complete the room, afterwards you receive a ranking for doing so. This can be turned off in the menu.
Although the game is quite linear in how you progress there is a huge amount of depth to it. There are so many options in the game that one playthrough could be entirely different to another. Equipment pieces are often found in chests, after certain battles or encounters but how the player builds Ashley is entirely up to them. You have to think carefully about what kind of enemy you are facing quite often and what the enemy’s weaknesses were. There is no tutorial to hold your hand so the weapon system was the first hurdle first time players had to pass. There is also a huge amount of spellbooks to find. Magick is also difficult as MP management is important due to the limited amount of it.
Then there’s the chaining system and risk management. By chaining attacks you can do a large amount of damage. An excessive amount of chaining will bring accuracy down and also increase risk greatly. Too much risk could spell the end for you.
There is yet more to battling. 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. Because of the turn based element to the battles there are advantages to be gained by strategic positioning and movement. This all sounds very complex, and it is, but you are helped by the fact that nearly everything about your setup can be changed mid battle. If a certain weapon isn’t effective you can try something else. You can equip accessories and gems that help when you are caught unprepared. This might be familiar to people who played Final Fantasy XII as it was also used for that. The main complaint about doing this is the need to trawl through menus which can get tedious. Overall Battle Mode and it’s varying components was something some people loved for its complexity and others weren’t so fond of for the same reason.
The sound effects and musical score were also praised. The music was composed composed, arranged, and produced by Hitoshi Sakimoto who also worked on games such as Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics. Originally Sakimoto thought to make the game music cheerful, but changed direction and went for a more deep and heavy score. He listened to shows such as the X-files for ideas and points to James Horner and Hans Zimmer as some of the composers that influenced the soundtrack. The music is beautiful and that along with the sound effects really added to the atmosphere that the graphics and location gave the game.
Vagrant story can be picked up on PSN and if you have one of the systems that you can play it on, I really can’t recommend it enough. As I said, it’s a masterpiece in my eyes and criminally underrated.