Square’s back catalogue of games, at least before their merger with Enix, represents the who’s-who of the turn-based, party-based RPG genre: the Chrono, Final Fantasy and even Super Mario RPG. Though the Parasite Eve games are much in the same niche of action RPG as Vagrant Story inhabits, these titles still represented a deviation from Square’s comfort zone of the time: a deviation that was incredibly well executed in the case of Parasite Eve. Vagrant Story is a more charming game than either of the entries in that series, but lacks some of their polish.
The first thing of note is the deviation of Vagrant Story from the storytelling mores of its genre: yes, there is, of course, magic, and those intent on its misuse become, predictably, the antagonists of the tale. As much as one cannot get away from that framing device in any game of this genre, either in Western or Eastern RPGs, the way in which Vagrant Story uses this framing to tell its own narrative is somewhat different. For a start, the narrative is more sword and sorcery than high fantasy: the story is more about Ashley himself, and his rediscovery of his own past. Some dialogue to this end is a little hammy: as occurs often in Square games, the tone often drops to pop-pseduo-philosophy when the first antagonist of the game asks “what is death?” when the game is dealing with exposition of the nature of its game city of Leá Monde’s links to the occult – a question that leads to the most mundane of conversations between two non-player characters about the ontological import of the end-point of the deceased.
The key element that makes Vagrant Story‘s Leá Monde unique is the way in which it is presented. Its setting is not the typical future of the genre, but rather a time that smacks of the medieval: the world mostly consists of the brown of stone, an admittedly limited palette, but one that allows for the depiction of fine detail quite well. The dialogue is, in spite of its aforementioned failings, presented in a way that sets the game apart: rather than the scrolling box of character dialogue in the bottom quarter of the screen, Vagrant Story uses comic book-style speech bubbles to articulate its speech, with the speech itself matching the medieval-style setting, with various nods to older English idioms in the English localisation. The way in which the world is presented serves to make the player care far more for the intricacies of Leá Monde than, say, the Elder Scrolls‘ Tamriel, with the later lacking an identity of its own either directly through the visual phenomena of the world or the way in which the story is told.
The city, unfortunately, the best characterised part of the game: the player character, Ashley, is incredibly unlikeable and prone to being provided with dialogue akin to a series of either disgruntled or confused grunts. He seems genuinely confused by anything that anyone has to say to him, in spite of him being a member of a supposedly elite group of soldiers. A degree of capacity to comprehend fairly basic information would be a necessary requirement to become a member of a supposedly elite group, one would think. The antagonists of the tale are also appallingly written: their dialogue reads like the rambling of a madman – the worst sort of “evil” characters, with only that dimension of a personality on show.
The actual gameplay of the title is of variable quality. The combat of the game taken on its own is fantastic: the cross between the real-time element of evading attacks and the paused “tactical” screen that allows for the targeting of particular body parts in order to maximise damage by targeting the weak spots of an enemy or weaken an enemy by attacking its limbs. Base attacks can be bolstered through the use of “Chain Abilities”, unlocked with increases in level (obtained by defeating enemies) and executed by pressing either Square, Triangle or Circle at the right point of the attack, as indicated by an exclamation mark appearing above Ashley. These extra attacks can be chained for as long as the player is able to execute the relevant command at the correct time. “Defence Abilities” are unlocked an executed in the same way, except when the enemy attacks Ashley. This inclusion of rhythm-based gameplay adds another dimension to the combat gameplay, preventing the many battles from becoming stale, and making the many multi-hundred HP boss battles pass more quickly.
All other aspects of the combat system, however, let this novelty down. A seemingly intuitive idea of having weapons and armour adapt to the foes Ashley faces seems to fall flat on execution: all weapons and armour have class and affinity ratings, with class being the efficacy against certain types of enemies (be these human, undead, phantom, beast or dragons) and affinity being the rating of a piece of equipment relative to some elemental power (earth, air, fire, water, light and dark). The theory of the game is that the use of weapons and armour against certain types of enemies will lead to bonuses in certain aspects of the class and affinity system: even with an incredibly anal-retentive attitude towards maintaining weapons for each class and within that, so far as possible, affinities, it appears difficult to get the desired results. There is nothing wrong with a statistic-heavy, deep and strategic item system, but one that appears to actively punish players that mistakenly use one weapon over another for a particular enemy – an enemy whose class or affinity is not that of the weapon’s speciality – by reducing the statistics that they built up for the weapon seems unfair. The use of magic in-game also seems a little incorrect: given that the game sets up the use of opposite affinities to cause greater damage to enemies, the fact that earth magic was ineffective against air enemies, and fire against water, seems ridiculous and against the game’s own rules.
Other elements of the gameplay also serve to let Vagrant Story down: the game has an over-reliance on incredibly simple box puzzles in an attempt to slow down player progress to extend the game; puzzles that are usually solved merely by putting one box on top of another, or breaking a box with a sword. The platform-style jumping parts of the game are horrific given the way in which Ashley reacts to movement input from the analog stick – incredibly excitedly – especially when contrasted with his reluctance to respond to input from the Square button to jump. While including multiple gameplay styles is generally to be congratulated in extending gameplay, it is something that suffers when done for the sake of it, as the puzzle and platform sections seem to be done here.
There is a lot to congratulate Square on in Vagrant Story: they were not afraid to take risks. Rare to RPGs, the game did not provide a shop for the player to purchase goods or weapons in, with it instead relying on an incredibly complex weapon crafting system. The risk in this, however, was not met by the effects that this crafting system had on gameplay, with these effects being either negative or virtually null. The departure from high fantasy is a welcome one, and added a lot of material to the genre at the time of its release. The game is ultimately, however, let down by what should be one of the strongest points of an RPG: its ability to keep track of the work done by the player. Tired though it may be, a traditional level and experience system does a far better, far more intuitive job than the weapon and armour system of Vagrant Story.