This is the eighth part in a series with Caffeine
, you can view his part on Arcanum here
Everybody knows all of the big RPGs Ė the Final Fantasies, the Chrono series, the Dragon Warriors. Today Caf and I will be discussing some lesser known games that many of you may not have played. In particular, weíre going to be debating which of the two games weíve chosen is the best RPG game that was overlooked by a large number of gamers.
The year 2000 was a big one for the original Playstation. A lot of major games came out that year, including Final Fantasy IX and Chrono Cross. Vagrant Story was released during this time as well, and from my experience itís a game that many people have heard of, but not actually played. In this edition of Point Counterpoint, Iím going to try to explain why Vagrant Story was a fantastic game that was unfortunately overshadowed by other big name releases that came out around the same time.
After the creation of Final Fantasy Tactics (one of my favorite games) in í98, many members of the FFT team turned their creative efforts to a new game Ė Vagrant Story. Dramatically different from usual Square games, Vagrant Story was an action RPG and a pure dungeon crawler. Vagrant Story was met with critical acclaim, introduced a number of innovative and well-designed systems, and was overall a very strong game, yet it still managed to go relatively ignored upon its release. While I donít know why this happened, I can tell you why I think itís such a good, yet underrated, game.
Vagrant Story follows badass Ashley Riot, a member of the Riskbreakers, a group that seems to be Ivaliceís version of the secret police. Ashley is investigating the ruined city of Leŗ Monde, a place riddled with underground labyrinths and lost magic. His rival is the incredibly campy (Jim, you forgot another one!) Sydney Losstarot, a man who seems to think the best way to fight is shirtless. Like any good RPG in the last 15 years, the storyline revolves around ancient evils, corrupt political institutions, unexpected murders, and shocking revelations about the protagonist.
Most of the game takes place in Leŗ Monde, and I think that Square did an excellent job with the location/background design. Whether youíre in a dusty wine cellar, an abandoned mine, or even topside on the streets of Leŗ Monde, you can really see the thought and effort that Square put into the game. Most dungeon crawlers suffer from stale, repeated backgrounds that never really change, but Vagrant Story manages to mix it up fairly regularly so that you always feel like youíre exploring a new part of the city.
While the story and the setting are nice, the gameplay is the area where I think Vagrant Story really shines. Too many dungeon crawlers solely involve mashing the A button as fast as possible, but Vagrant Story makes combat much more strategic, which is rare in this particular genre. In particular, the Risk System, the weapon crafting/affinity system, and the chain attacks make Vagrant Story much more than a generic action-RPG.
To prevent Vagrant Story from becoming a button mashing fiesta, Square introduced the Risk system. Every time you attack, your risk level increases. As your risk gets higher, your accuracy decreases but your chance of critical hits rises. Instead of just wailing away at an enemy until it dies, combat becomes a game of figuring out how to defeat the enemies in the least amount of attacks, less your risk become so high that you become almost useless in combat. If you charge in and button mash, you will lose. Period. In order to successfully beat Vagrant Story you have to play intelligently, and you have to spend time learning and understanding the complex battle system.
However, the game is still a dungeon crawler, and combat is still more than picking choices from a menu. To ensure that there is still actual gaming skill required beyond careful planning and strategizing, there are chain attacks and defense abilities. Itís nothing groundbreaking or innovative Ė time your button presses right and you can either perform combos against your opponents or block their attacks. You can assign up to three different skills for both your attack combos and your defense abilities, and each corresponds to a particular button on the controller. The abilities range from status effects to increased attack to HP/MP recovery, and selecting the right skills for the right situations is critical.
However, thereís still more to combat than just button pressing, even if itís strategic button pressing. Vagrant Story also features an affinity system, where each monster belongs to one of six classes: Human, Beast, Undead, Phantom, Dragon, or Evil. Additionally, many monsters also have the typical elemental strengths/weaknesses that are common to most RPGs. Finally, each weapon falls into one of three categories: blunt, edged, or piercing. As you can probably figure out, there are a large combination of those three factors, and because of that combat can get really tactical, especially if you find yourself in a room with multiple enemies who are all weak to different things.
This is where weapon crafting comes in. Because there are no shops in the game, you have to find/craft all of your own items yourself. As you use a weapon against various monsters, the damage it does to monsters of that affinity rises. For example, if you attack human-type monsters with your sword, your sword will do more damage against humans. However, as one affinity rises, another one drops, so it becomes important to have multiple weapons available that youíve worked on for various situations. Additionally, you can add gems into shields and armor that provide them with additional properties, such as elemental damage or resistance. For those who love to micromanage, you can spend hours and hours in the weapon crafting system alone, building up an arsenal of kickass weapons. If youíre not a micromanager, Vagrant story is certainly still playable without having to sink hours into picking weapons, youíll just find you have a slightly tougher time with the game if you run into an enemy type youíre not prepared for.
So, I totally dug the combat system, and the story isnít too shabby either (I purposely left story details vague so as not to spoil things). The final thing I really enjoyed about Vagrant Story though was the localization. The writing in the game was really superb, especially for a game that came out in 1998. Apparently thereís agreement that the English version of the game is actually much better than the Japanese in terms of writing, as the localization team took what was originally fairly bland writing and made it much, much better. The writing is incredibly mature and there are few (if any) errors. The whole game is done in Old English, but never once does it sound corny or forced Ė the dialogue is dramatic yet believable, which is a real rarity whenever Old English is involved. Also, all the rooms have really cool names. Iím hard pressed to think of any other recent instances where a translation has been done so well (barring perhaps Lost Odyssey); Vagrant Story is a shining example of how to translate a game.
(BONUS EDIT: It turns out the guy who did the localization for Vagrant Story, Alexander Smith, also did the translation for Phoenix Wright. He is amazing.)
Known by many, played by few, Vagrant Story was one of the best games on the PS1. It was the ONLY game for the system to receive a 40 from Famitsu, and while I personally donít think it was THE best game, it certainly ranks high. Square really took a chance and made something drastically different from the Final Fantasy type games they were known for, and it was a very successful move. As many of you may know, itís recently been revealed that Vagrant Story is set in the same world as FFXII (As well as Final Fantasy Tactics), and thereís a bit of overlap between all the Ivalice games. Square definitely knows they had something cool on their hands with the world of Vagrant Story and FFT, and hopefully with the Ivalice Alliance we finally see a sequel somewhere down the line to Vagrant Story. Maybe then, if a sequel comes out, will people be inspired to go back and see what they missed by not playing the original.