It Came From Japan #5 – Vagrant Story
Just like Xenogears from last week’s column, Square’s Vagrant Story bucks numerous staple JRPG trends, this time, however, in completely different areas.
One of only eleven games to receive a perfect 40/40 score from Famitsu, and the only PlayStation 1 title to feature in the list, Vagrant Story wowed fans across the globe upon its release back in 2000 and went on to become one of the most loved, if somewhat forgotten, of the many illustrious Square RPGs.
Essentially a dungeon-crawling role-playing quest with puzzle elements and a sprinkling of platforming for good measure, Vagrant Story also presents one of the most complex customisation systems of any game ever created. With this level of choice and strategy, Yasumi Matsuno-san’s homage to French romanticism and chivalry has gone down as one of the deepest and most intricate games ever to come out of Japan.
Legend told of a great warrior from the east …
Players take on the role of Ashley Riot, an impressionable yet talented Riskbreaker and member of the Valendia Knights of the Peace (VKP). Taking place in (and below) the city of Leá Monde, Ashley and his fellow knights become involved in a plot surrounding the Müllenkamp cult and its religious connections in the region. The story is very much flavoured by the realm from which the game garners its inspiration from; namely a fictitious rendition of south-western France. The dominant themes are religion and the occult, the scourge of political corruption and how a soldier’s duty to an ideal can sometimes be in direct conflict with his or her own personal beliefs. There is also some fantastic nemeses in the form of cult-leader Sydney Losstarot and the misguided Rosencrantz. With a backdrop of beautiful French architecture and lush detailed visuals, it’s little surprise Vagrant Story sold 100,000 in its first twenty days of release and went on to feature in numerous Greatest Hits series.
Your technique is magnificent
Matsuno-san’s team took a risk with Vagrant Story, not only by bending to market pressure and making a RPG with 3D graphics, but by introducing a complex gameplay system and numerous themes some less hardcore of gamers had difficulty grasping. Drawing on the team’s previous work on such games like Final Fantasy Tactics and the Orge series, Vagrant Story is very much a collection of genres, with numerous qualities from various game types evident. The obvious choice of genre would be the RPG considering its convoluted story, strong character progression and a customisation system that can be both intuitive and yet dazzlingly arcane at times. But there are also physical elements with Ashley navigating various levels or pushing cubes to solve some truly ingenious puzzles. Then there is the combat which, casting aside the purer form of turn-based interaction, is something critics of the norm will find both different and rewarding.
Combat in Vagrant Story is heavily influenced by risk and choosing the right combination of elements for the job at hand. With hundreds of weapon and armour combinations available through configuring various items with other attributes, Ashley chains his specifically chosen attacks against enemies in something akin to a rhythm game. Throw in the added aspect of Risk Points, and the system quickly becomes a complex and challenging balancing act with the longer Ashley spends attacking a foe, the less accurate he becomes. Such tactical nuances can frustrate the average player, and it’s a system, despite many players mastering, that left a significant section of the gaming community somewhat frustrated.
The game’s visuals and art direction are a triumph, however, with very few games holding up as well as Vagrant Story does now almost a decade after its release. The influence of 17th and 18th French design permeates the game to such an extent that it almost feels like an historic jaunt through France’s ornate and striking landscape. To see a fantasy game capture such a zeitgeist from our own world so well is truly an amazing feat. Add in a rousing story of honour and mysticism, and Vagrant Story is one of the best RPGs ever made. Period.
You must choose the sword or the ball … I can not make this choice for you …
Chances of a Vagrant Story sequel on the PS3 are exceptionally slim. Despite selling outstandingly well in both Japan and around the world, Matsuno-san went on to other things including becoming a strong voice in the design of Final Fantasy XII before stepping down due to ill health. In fact, there are more than a few similarities between the games’ two worlds with FFXII fans noting familiar tones and names stemming from Vagrant Story into the more popular franchise. But Vagrant Story itself remains an isolated gem in time and is unlikely to be replicated for consoles of this next-generation.
The most we can hope for is a re-release on the PSN which, strangely enough, Japanese gamers have just been treated to. If (when) Vagrant Story does come to other regional PSN stores, we can not recommend it enough. Its story is compelling, offers gameplay that is both dense and challenging (albeit frustrating at times) and was definitely well before its time in terms of introducing unparalleled weapon customisation and a fresh and inventive real-time battle system. Trust us when we say Vagrant Story is worth both your time – and your money.
It Came From Japan is a weekly column discussing past games from Japan that have enjoyed a release in the west on the PS1, PS2, PSN or PSP but have yet to see a PS3 outing. We discuss the title from three separate perspectives: its pedigree and how it performed upon its original release, the game in general with a view towards game-play and plot and, finally, the probability of the game finally making a PS3 appearance outside of Japan. The column covers all genres with games of varying quality and popularity given equal standing.