Squaresoft has impressed Playstation gamers many times in the past. The breathtaking Final Fantasyís, Xenogears and many others have created fanboys who worship Squaresoftís skill in creating complex stories and breathtaking worlds. Unfortunately, gameplay has always taken a backseat to the epic stories and dazzling graphics. Vagrant Story is more gameplay oriented than the usual Squaresoft games, but does that necessarily make it better? Sadly, the results are mixed for this action-RPG.
Being a Square game, Vagrant Story features a complex narrative. You play the role of Ashley Riot. Despite the feminine moniker Mr. Riot has, he is a lethal member of the Valendia Knights of Peace who also suffers from *gasp* amnesia. He is sent out to put a stop to the Mullenkamp cultists who have retreated to the ancient city of Lea Monde. On his quest to through the depths of Lea Monde, Ashley encounters members of the church who are also seeking the cultists, a mysterious man with mechanical arms, and many others.
The main problem with the plot is that the characters are never fully developed and the overall storyline never reaches its full potential. The political intrigues of the churchís intervention in Lea Monde and the motives of the Mullenkamp cultists are deep and interesting, but it is too hard to actually care since all the characters are so shallow. The darker tone of the storyline is refreshing at first, but in the end the plot just ends up being boring.
The gameplay of Vagrant Story is essentially a dungeon crawler, meaning you just move Ashley from room to room slowly advancing the plot, fighting monsters and gaining new weapons. In order for a dungeon crawler to be decent, the combat has to be enjoyable. Fortunately, this is one part where Vagrant Story mostly succeeds.
The combat is a strange mix of turn-based and real-time. You simply choose to attack, and then you are given the option of what body part to attack. While you are picking what portion to attack, time stops. This gets rid of the urgency that most PC gamers are using in dungeon crawlers, but should be familiar to fans of past Squaresoft games.
Combat and defense skills are what make the fighting more exciting. Timing and dexterity are required because after each attack if you manage to time a button tap right; your character executes another attack. This is not only fun, but occasionally intense. Sometimes the difference between life and death is nothing more then a well-timed button tap.
Each time you attack or execute a skill, the ìriskî meter goes up. The higher it is, the more susceptible you are to critical hits and missing an attack. This adds more strategy and planning, but it also can be an annoyance if you donít have certain items in your inventory to negate the ìrisk.î
But not all of the game is fighting. Crate moving puzzles are scattered through Lea Monde. Crate pushing puzzles have become a bit of a joke ever since the Resident Evil series debuted, but they can occasionally be fun in Vagrant Story. Theyíre sometimes timed, so the pace is frantic, but usually it manages to be entertaining. One problem though is that some of the puzzles in the later levels are incredibly challenging and can grind the game to a screeching halt. It also seems like the developers may have been somewhat lazy since the only puzzles in the game are the many crate pushing ones. Why wasnít the game more varied with other kinds puzzles?
The unique equipment system fares better than the crate puzzles, thankfully. Ashley wouldnít be anything without his weapons, and thankfully there is an original and totally customizable weapon creation system. The more you use a weapon against certain types of enemies, the stronger it becomes against those types. In addition to that, you can combine the weapons to balance out their weaknesses. Some weapons can end up being totally ineffective against some enemies and this leads to one of Vagrant Storyís problems.
Since Ashley goes up against many varied enemies, he must often change his weapon to take advantage of their certain weaknesses. Constantly going into the menu to equip the best weapon is a hassle. There should have been some sort of ìquick equipî option to cut down on time and tedium.
Speaking of tedium, there are some serious pacing issues in the game. Some parts of the game are chockfull of bosses and cutscenes, but there is one particularly long stretch of the game that contains nothing but aimless wandering in hope of finding the sigils (keys) to advance to the next area. I practically gave up on the game out of sheer boredom at times, but at least there is plenty of replay value. Nearly 25% of the game is only available after multiple playthroughs. Most people will be bored with the game and not want to play through all this, but it is a nice addition none the less.
The gameplay isnít close to being perfect, and the same thing can be said about the graphics. I initially had high hopes after viewing the opening sequence. This opening scene is one of the most technically amazing sequences down with a games actual engine I have ever scene. The lighting, pyrotechnics and character models all look incredible and create a truly cinematic feast for the eyes. Too bad the rest of the game does not fare as well. Most of the areas of Lea Monde are boring catacombs and crypts that feel claustrophobic and limiting. There are a few outdoor areas but even these are lacking in size. The enemies and characters manage to look incredible and realistic, but whatís the point if the areas they inhabit are so boring and bland?
You remember the incredible soundtrack in Final Fantasy Tactics? Well, this game is composed by the same guy. While the tunes arenít as memorable as they were in Tactics, they suit Vagrant Storyís dark mood perfectly. The intense battle themes and mischievous, almost dream-like background tunes are all incredible. There is no voice acting in this game and it is totally accessible to the hearing impaired.
I enjoyed playing Vagrant Story at times, but I definitely was glad when it was finally over. If the plot was expanded upon and pacing improved this could have been a real winner. It is a decent rental at the least, but donít be prepared to be blown away. Even the most hardcore Squaresoft fanboys will feel there was a lot of wasted potential here.