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SummaryLo, play this game, lest it be forgotten by naysayers
The GoodOnce in a while, established developers release games that take their fans completely by surprise. In some cases, such games are so good yet so dissimilar to the company's previous works that fans who expect them to be similar get confused and disappointed. Vagrant Story is such a game. Only those who are ready to appreciate it for what it is can form an unbiased judgment and enjoy what it has to offer.
Square got us all used to overblown melodramas and gimmicky gameplay in their most famous series. The first thing to bear in mind is that Vagrant Story is not at all similar to Final Fantasy. In fact, it is not similar to any other Japanese RPG, to the point of not belonging to the genre any more. It is a dungeon-crawling RPG relying on predominantly Western templates and its own original system; all that is left from its roots are some unfortunate pseudo-gay implications in character design and not much else.
Vagrant Story is one game that polarizes opinions. It has zealous admirers and merciless critics alike; I myself walked the thorny path from the second to the first. It is hard to criticize this game objectively, however; it is simply so different from anything Square made before it that many people who hate the game fail to see it was never supposed to be a Final Fantasy variant. Common complaint includes lack of NPCs, money, and shops, as well as over-abundance of dungeons; but the game was conceived with the idea of removing these features to emphasize its grim atmosphere of solitude and focus on careful exploration and combat. Naturally, the descent into dark, twisted passages was hard to accept for those who expected any RPG made in Japan to follow one established formula. This hardly diminishes the game's value in my eyes. On the contrary, I applaud Square for daringly going against conventions and popular taste.
The game throws you right into action, and forces you to deal with its outstandingly complicated mechanics. The real-time combat offers a compromise between drawn-out turn-based ordeals and hack-and-slash, much like Baldur's Gate. I normally don't like party-less combat that uses this system (Neverwinter Nights), but the selling point here is that Ashley, the game's only protagonist, can do so many things. He is not subjected to class restrictions and can wield any weapon, cast a variety of spells, and perform special attacks. Unlike so many other games, Vagrant Story requires you to study its gameplay system to overpower your foes. As far as combat systems go, Vagrant Story rises head and shoulders above anything else I have seen in a Japanese RPG.
There is a myriad of features, variables, and attributes in the game. Nearly everything it does is unlike any other game, with unique ideas overwhelming you until you are able to find your path through. I don't think I have seen a heavier weapon management anywhere else. There are weapon types, materials, properties, and affinities for different types of enemies. Words like "piercing" and "edged" are not just descriptions; they impact the gameplay in a drastic way. You can disassemble weapons and combine blades and grips with imbued gems for maximum effect. Equipment management is meticulous and very in-depth.
And then you have the chain abilities, which is another separate realm to master, requiring precision and practice. You can equip Ashley with different abilities, choosing from a wide variety of available ones; often the choice spells the difference between life and death. There is magic learned from grimoires. Plenty of different items. Risk system, which adds a whole layer of complexity to tactical planning. Powerful attacks you gradually learn by using the same type of weapon. And so on, and so on. It is nearly intimidating, but also extremely addictive. Lack of hand-holding, so uncommon for Japanese games, is actually very Western in nature; Vagrant Story is grim and dry, and doesn't agree to be your best friend right away. It is imperative that you take your time and patiently learn. But what immense satisfaction awaits you when you finally overcome these hurdles and master the game's system!
Outside of combat, there is plenty of exploration. Yes, the game is set almost entirely in dungeon-like areas, but they are large, complex, and varied. There are optional rooms, treasure-hunting, and everything you'd expect from a first-rate dungeon crawler. And there are also elegant crate puzzles and some light quasi-platforming that further enhance and deepen the gameplay of Vagrant Story. There is always something to do in the game; whether fumbling through the menu and thinking how to make that ultimate bow for dragon enemies, hacking away at tricky ghosts, stacking boxes to reach a temptingly-looking ledge, or simply bathing in the game's foreboding atmosphere - Vagrant Story keeps you busy.
There is more. Vagrant Story is not only about gameplay; it is also an intensely cinematic, story-driven game. The entire game is made with very impressive 3D graphics, and that also includes all the cutscenes (except the intro). Transition between gameplay and cutscenes is seamless, in a Metal Gear Solid" fashion, only without badly written dialogues and talking heads on radio. The game is set in a somewhat believable, dark medieval fantasy world with more integrity and coherence than in most other RPGs I have played, and cutscenes complement its exploration and drive you forward rather than simply providing a few moments of relief.
An enigmatic story unfolds in this world, almost Shakespeare-like in its sharpness, dramatic presentation, and strong characters. The plot of Vagrant Story has some of the familiar Square trappings, complete with memory loss, confusing agendas, and ambivalent antagonists; but all this is served to you with more care and better taste than you would expect. One of the reasons for that is the excellent translation, which stands in stark contrast to the unfortunate mess we've received in many Final Fantasy localizations.
There is an astounding homogeneity in Vagrant Story. The game alternates between long, challenging exploration and combat segments and fairly short, but frequent and ever-poignant cutscenes, and they come together in one tight package bursting with quality. Clearly every designer responsible for every aspect of the game did everything to make it excel. No matter its flaws and idiosyncrasies, Vagrant Story oozes originality, intelligence, and noble disregard of established routines in everything it does.
The BadThe difficulty level and the complexity of Vagrant Story was one of the reasons this game never became as mainstream as so many other Japanese RPGs that copied each other's gameplay systems over and over again. Vagrant Story has a very steep learning curve; you can complete large parts of the game and still be clueless about how some of its gameplay aspects really work. The game is not generous with providing good explanations for that, so intense manual-reading or forum-hopping are not uncommon.
If there is anything that can be said against Vagrant Story, it's that it doesn't always put fun above everything else. While I love and respect this game, I think that perhaps it could have been somewhat more relenting. The lack of feedback can become frustrating as you repeatedly try different combinations against a tough boss; there is also lack of reward when you get a measly +2 HP increase after having completed a whole dangerous dungeon with deadly foes. Also, save points are few and far between, and it is very annoying to start over again just because you got decimated by an unknown enemy just in front of the next one.
There are thousands of features that add to the game's extreme complexity, and maybe they went a bit overboard with that. There are simply too many variables in combat, and removing one of them (say, decreasing damage points of weapons) wouldn't really harm the game. Yes, when you master all the tricks you feel you are playing the perfect thing; but until then, prepare to fight this unfriendly game until either you or it gives up.
And then there are Ashley and Sydney. How I wished that this brave, independently-thinking game would throw out the last remnants of absurd anime aesthetics. Ridiculous hair and effeminate men do not half-bother me in a Final Fantasy game as they do in Vagrant Story. Melodramas in colorful fantasy worlds can absorb such characters, but not a dark Shakespearean tale in a believable medieval fantasy environment. I wonder if there is a patch that changes whatever Ashley is wearing to proper men's clothes.