Version tested: PSOne
A stunningly cinematic ten minute opening sequence introduces you to the complex plot. This quest is set in Medieval times and centres around your character, the Riskbreaker Ashley Riot one of the Valendia Knights of the Peace. Ashley is on a mission from his masters to infiltrate a local Duke's manor that's been seized by a cult of religious fanatics, while the Duke was abroad. Ashley must seek out the cultists leader Sydney Lossatrot and uncover a dark and sinister plot with more unexpected turns than four snakes playing twister. The storytelling throughout the game is fantastic, after the opening sequence is over and the games begun, the rest of the story is unfolded for you using cut-scenes rendered in the game engine, including overheard conversations and chilling flashbacks to Ashley's past. Conversations are represented with an interesting system of jagged speech bubbles, making the unfolding dialog look like a kind of stylish interactive comic strip. An unexpected delight is the quality of the translation. Like many Japanese developers, Squaresoft's western releases have often been slightly marred by rushed or low quality translations into English, with games like Final Fantasy VII occasionally spelling out an almost indecipherable plot change, or a badly translated Japanese joke that just didn't make any sense after it's transition to English. Much of Vagrant Story's dialog is written in Medieval type "the's and thou's", yet despite this added complexity the translations far more coherent than anything I've played before. Finally here we have a Squaresoft title that's clearly received loving care and attention by the translators, these guys deserve a medal for their efforts! The action is played in a removed third person perspective similar to Metal Gear Solid, and like Konami's classic sneak em up, you can have a scout around your environments with a selectable first person view while stationary. Your character leaps about the creepy isometric dungeons completing basic jumping and block solving puzzles, making the game seem quite simple and action oriented at first. Don't be fooled though, behind this almost innocent front end is a deep and complex RPG engine that'll bend the brain of even the most accomplished adventurer.
By far the most involved part of the game is the combat system. Hit the assigned button and the game switches into 'Battle Mode', and a range globe (that'll be instantly familiar to veterans of Parasites Eve) extends out from Ashley's position depending on the range of his currently selected weapon. Ashley will then automatically target any enemy that falls inside the sphere in turn, giving you a quick choice on what body part to hack at depending on the creature your fighting. The amount of damage you deal and the beating you receive is calculated automatically using a number of factors such as your characters statistics and current weapon and armour. The developers have included a few additional goodies into the battle system to make it a bit more action oriented. Special moves known as Chain Abilities and Defence Abilities can be assigned to keys, and can be executed with careful timing during the fights for some extra damage or better defence. Using these special moves raises Ashley's Risk Points, essentially a record of his fatigue levels. A high Risk Point value from lots of special moves will make Ashley's attacks less efficient and he'll take more damage, requiring careful use of the special moves if your to survive and fight effectively. Each weapon has an assigned attribute based on Class, Type and Affinity with the choice of weapon having a huge difference in combat. Certain enemies will be destroyed far faster using a particular class or type of weapon, so some attacks must be meticulously planned out in advance to be successful. Thankfully an Analyse spell makes this choice a lot more informed, although getting the combination wrong can lead to some very long and frustrating battles. Another tool in Ashely's arsenal is Break Arts, conceptually similar to Limit Breaks in Final Fantasy VII, this allows Ashely to sacrifice heath in a tight corner in return for some extra damage on the enemies. Additionally there's options for progressing your skills and statistics, a whole system for combining and upgrading weapons and armour and an in-depth spell system making the whole combat system a fantastic combination of strategy, action and role-playing elements that's far, far deeper than is evident from the first few hours of play. This complexity is probably the only fault that can be leveled at Vagrant Story. If you get the weapon selection wrong on one of the huge boss characters then you'll almost certainly fail, and be forced back to one of the fairly infrequent save points.
It's a tiny flaw in a magnificent package however. Vagrant Story is a groundbreaking mix of action, strategy, adventure, platform and roleplaying all rolled up together with a gripping and mature plot all represented on screen with breathtaking visuals in a highly distinctive and atmospheric style. If this masterful work of art is what Vagrant Stories accomplished director Yasumi Matsuno can push out of a five year old console, just imagine what how his Playstation 2 titles are going to play? Awesome stuff!
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