Saturday, June 21, 2014

Impressions #7: Vagrant Story

Since nothing of note has come out this week, I decided to look over my backlog for something to do in my spare time. Turning on my PlayStation 3, I remembered that I still had Vagrant Story installed and ready to play. Having never finished my original playthrough of the game, I figured I would give it a second chance to win me over. Although it took a New Game Plus save stolen from GameFAQs, I have finally finished. Combining the experiences of both playthroughs leaves me with a very mixed opinion on what many people consider to be a classic game from the era of the original PlayStation.

Let us begin by discussing the plot of Vagrant Story. The game takes place in Ivalice, which is coincidentally the setting for Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics (although the events of Vagrant Story happen way after those games). Our protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent working for the Knights of the Peace and candidate for the silliest hair in video game history. Agent Riot is accused of murdering a duke. In order to find out if he really did it, players go through the week of Ashley's life leading up to the murder. During this mysterious week, he was hunting down the leader of a mysterious cult named Mullenkamp. This search leads him to follow their leader and candidate for the silliest outfit in video game history, Sydney Losstarot, to the abandoned, cursed city of Lea Monde, where dark magic runs free. At the same time, knights of the church, lead by a man named Romeo Guilderstern, are also pursuing Sydney and Lea Monde for their own ends.
This set up does its job of bringing the primary cast of Ashley, Sydney, and Guilderstern together in Lea Monde, and with a supporting cast that is just large enough to support them without getting distracting. Unlike most video game stories at the time, Vagrant Story's plot was highly political in nature. Rather than discussing personal problems, most the dialog concerns the opposing ideologies of the three characters and the factions they represent. The one exception is Ashley, who mostly serves as a viewpoint character. Fitting this role, his job is mainly to ask questions and consider the answers he gets to those questions. With a rich and interesting lore backing it up, the story is one of the greater tales of the PS1 era.

The gameplay is a bit more hit-or-miss. Revolutionary for its time, Vagrant Story introduced concepts that were relatively new back in the early 2000s. As an action-RPG, players moved about the world freely, with jumping, climbing, and most basic movement mechanics in place. Instead of going to an abstract “fight zone” to do battle, players would fight enemies in the same field they would explore in. When players encounter an enemy, they can press a button to draw their weapon. Once the weapon is out, pressing that same button again pauses the action to reveal a wire-frame sphere surrounding Ashley, indicating his weapon's range. If an enemy is in range, they are vulnerable to attack. The most unique feature is that player's could target specific body parts, such as the arms or legs. Damaging any limb enough will break it and impact the enemy's capabilities. Since the enemies could also do this to Ashley, a lot of depth was added to the game.
Further, the game also had an interesting timing mechanic. When Ashley lands a blow, he can use a chain technique by pressing that technique's preset button with the correct, and precise timing. These moves can also be further chained into with a different technique, meaning that a combo could go on indefinitely. This is balanced by a stat called Risk. Whenever Ashley performs an attack, his Risk rises. A higher Risk results in a higher critical chance per attack, but lower odds of landing a hit. Therefore, a long combo chain will frequently result in constantly missing attacks. Since Risk lowers gradually over time, players have to decide whether or not they want to go for high hit chains or to take things more slowly. It is a fairly interesting system that no game before or since really attempted, to my knowledge. It merged real-time and turn-based mechanics and forced players to think about their tactics and strategies more than most other games did.

Next, let us discuss another unique element of Vagrant Story. This game is unique in that beating boss battles is one of the only ways to boost Ashley's stats. The game has no system for experience points and leveling up. Instead, when a boss is defeated, a slot reel pops up on screen. When the player stops the reel, the stat boost it lands on is applied to Ashley for the rest of the game. Aside from that, there are also elixir items that apply these permanent stat boosts in a similar way. These are the only two methods the player has to advance Ashley skills. Though I appreciate the experimental nature of the system, it honestly did not work for me. I often found myself underdeveloped thanks to a series of unlucky spins at the wheel on my first playthrough, among other things.

Lastly, the game featured a semi-Metroidvannia style of exploration in the game world. Some doors were locked with magic sigils or keys. In order to progress, players needed to look for these items in order to break the seals on the doors. More often than not, players would find these items behind either a block puzzle or a boss fight, possibly both. At first, the game's level design is pretty straightforward. Towards the end, it often becomes hard to keep one's bearings while traveling through the world. I found that I often got lost, not knowing if the direction I was going was the one the game intended me to go. The game does provide maps, but they tell players where they are, and not where they need to go. As an example, in the game's final dungeon, I had reached the door to the final boss chamber only to find that it was locked. I had looked for almost twenty minutes until I looked up what went wrong online. As it turns out, my mistake was missing a hard-to-find, well concealed lever in one of the earlier rooms. This switch just happened to open the final door. Needless to say, I was a little upset.
The puzzles also had a similar problem for me. Most of the puzzles in the game are block-based. Being an lifelong gamer, you would expect me to be pretty good at block puzzles. I expected me to be pretty good at block puzzles. However, most of the late game puzzles are either too devious or too tedious for their own good. Again, I found myself leaning much more towards checking the FAQs to solve the puzzles. Alternatively, I would just use the jump boost spells to bypass them altogether. In a game that was breaking the mold in so many ways, these sections seemed almost like a waste.

Lastly, the game had a crafting system. As a Knight, Ashley has training in the maintenance and creation of all kinds of different equipment. With this knowledge, he can use the various magic gems and weapon/armor parts players acquire and put them together at workshops. Each workshop specializes in different material type. A shop that can work leather items might not be able to do the same with steel. Weapons and armor can also be taken apart to salvage their materials. Mastering the nuances of this system is critical to the success of a playthrough of Vagrant Story. Personally, I do not understand it enough to go into any further detail, which is partially why I did not get terribly far into the game on my first playthrough. Most of my knowledge of this system comes from second hand sources.

Vagrant Story is interesting because it was one of the most experimental games I have ever played. Most of the mechanical concepts, gameplay, and even the nature of its plot were wholly unique at the time, and remain so today. Still, that experimentation has its drawbacks. The game expects a lot of the player, and if they do not learn the mechanics quickly, they will find themselves struggling throughout the game. It is designed to cater to the more hardcore gaming crowd: The kind of gamer that stereotypically loves Dark Souls. Until I realized this, I honestly did not like the game all that much. Sure, it was a breath of fresh air, but it was a breath that frequently resulted in a Game Over. Were it not for the save I took from GameFAQs, I probably still would not have finished. Considering how great the story is, that is a bit sad. Still, for all the gripes I had, I understand why critics adored it. For the $6 asking price on PSN, I would still say it is worth it to check out, if only as an examination of game design.

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