It’s been a fair few years since I played Vagrant Story, so when I put it back on I was nervous.
You see, there have been some titles I’ve replayed that have been as good, if not better, than I remember – Plok!, for example, is more deliriously fun than I remember (and it’s always nice to have an excuse to wire up the Super Nintendo and make sure it’s still working!). But for every Plok!, there’s a Tomba!, which I remembered with fondness and couldn’t quite wait to play again, yet somehow the craziness doesn’t quite work when you’re all grown up and sober. So which was Vagrant Story going to be? A memory refreshed, or a memory I’d rather forget?
The tale of Ashley Riot is still as good as I remember; the narrative throughout is complex but reasonable and reflective of the dark past of the city of Lea Monde, a place where something very bad happened indeed. Now lying somewhere between ruined and stuck in a time bubble, it’s a twisting mess of corridors and rooms sprinkled liberally with the dead, the undead, demons and dragons. Not to mention the numerous political and religious factions also vying for the mystical Gran Grimoire; the key to magic, to the dark and perhaps immortality itself. From the brief glimpse of a priest with the compassion of a toadstool, to the black heart of a militia leader cloaked in the protective veil of a twisted Cardinal and his holy order of Crimson Blades, and the cryptic leader of a cultish rebel group who delights in straddling the line between truth and fiction, right and wrong and good and evil with a deliciously biting sensibility, the cast is compact but perfectly formed around our VKP Bloodhound, Ashley Riot, and his journey into the dark heart of mankind and the fragile and fickle tricks that the mind plays on you, and has had others play on you. Delivered silently in a pseudo-comic book style bubble, the narrative is mature and interesting sprinkled lightly with physical drama and light comedic relief. It’s hard to imagine that this was unlikely the full cast, but more on that later.
I do still have a fondness for the combat system – the combat sphere. Bring it up, and the action stops, allowing you to target specific body locations depending on your reach. Each body part has a weakness, elemental or a variation on the physical type, be it piercing or edged or blunt. A big club, for example, is blunt. Daggers can be piercing or edged, dependant on the type, as can swords – a gladius is not the same as a rapier, after all, and it’s in this that the game plays a wonderfully tactical edge. Knowing what tools to use for what jobs is key, and the more use something has against a particular type of enemy, the more effective it becomes against them. The penalty for this strengthening is that the weapon becomes less and less useful to fighting other sorts of enemies, so keeping a diverse set of eight weapons and managing their strengths and weaknesses is a large part of the game. For me, this is where it sort of fell down; being so used to the convenience of the modern era, stopping combat in order to open a main menu, go into the items menu, open up the equip menu, click my equipped weapon, select the new one, hit okay and then cancel back to the main gameplay is terribly disconcerting, and moreso when in one room you can have quite a diverse range of enemies at any given time. The execution must have been revolutionary and groundbreaking back in 2000, but thirteen years on and with so much water under the bridge now, it’s easy to see this as perhaps its greatest weakness. The menu system is important, but it’s rather clunky compared to the smooth, swift and streamlined versions that we are accustomed to in a modern world.
There’s more evidence of this strange schizophrenia of good and bad when it comes to the surprising depth of Weapon Combining. Certain workshops in the game have facilities to combine certain different weapon and armour materials – wood, bronze, iron, silver and so on. Combining weapons seems to add together weaknesses and strengths and then divide, leaving you with a weapon that could be stronger than before, but weaker against other enemies, and in combining different materials you can create new ones. By combining different weapons, you can find yourself with entirely new visually impressive blades and maces. Ashley’s look never changes but managing his armour in the same way allows for making the numerous boss battles throughout the game easier or harder. It’s all very clever, but doing this with a limited inventory and some considerable space between the workshops means that tossing certain things is inevitable, and later, tossing lots of items away because you’ve already maxed out on the space can feel a little depressing because you’re never quite sure what they could have made, or could have been to you.
If that’s not bad enough, then the storage facility – again with limited space and at the time needing its own save slot – seems a little more insulting. It must be remembered that back on the PlayStation 1, save slots on memory cards took up blocks of a certain set size, so it’s perhaps inevitable that there would be a limitation on the amount of weapons you could have stashed away; but even so, looking back on it now the limitations were hugely restrictive and arguably must have led to a lot of people consulting weapon guides to know what to keep and what to throw away. Rather than encourage experimental learning, it now feels like a system designed for the knowledgeable or those with a print-out or laptop dictating to them what to do, what to pick up and what to combine in order to get the sexier, stronger weapons. And this is quite aside from the fact each items needs to be selected twice, then you need to cancel out to the storage screen, then save the file which takes a fair while. It’s a time-consuming process.
Fortunately it is a little faster these days when you have the digital version, because I do recall moments where on casting one of a myriad of spells that the game gifts you throughout that it took a good few minutes for the disc to rattle away and find the specific file it needed to execute. Modern technology has afforded us a reprieve on that front at least; but that it maintains much of the other loading rigmarole and saving progress bar either means that it was artificially set at a specific length of time or – gasp! – not terribly well-made.
There’s a lot of evidence to support this, not least that today we sit in the knowledge that in its infinite wisdom, SquareSoft as it was then decided that it needed the game out before the PlayStation 2 took hold, and as a result much of the game was simply cut away and many cast members didn’t make the final version. That the game somehow feels complete as a result is probably the work of the narrative writer witches that worked feverishly behind the scenes to tie off as many loose ends and fill in as many plotholes as they could, and that is definitely to be commended. But the sluggish, methodical combat is of an era and we’re used to similar complexity and detail now in the form of the Dark Souls series. There are numerous parallels to be drawn between the two; a ruined, cursed landscape. A hero more than the sum of their parts. A selective supporting cast and plenty of enemies and boss fights. Boss fights are where Vagrant Story both falters and excels; the imagination even for the era is pretty special and ambitious, but of course, married to that weapon system – moreso in its earlier stages when certain weapons are not yet tempered for specific enemy variations – they can take forever to get finished. Which is a shame.
But the layout of the city and its intricacies is still utterly amazing. The cast is strong and mesmerising, the enemies inventive and clever. It’s a testament to the Vagrant Story team that they managed to put out something of such incredible ambition and depth. Has Vagrant Story aged well? Sort of, but as I’ve said, in many ways it has aged rather poorly compared to what we enjoy now. Realism, once again, should not come at the expense of convenience. Players might want to play with the weapons crafting system, and to do that, they’re going to need more than eight blades in their inventory in order to truly tinker with it and find what works for them. The complexity is hindered by performance. It’s a shame.
However, in a nod to the future, Vagrant Story has one final trick up its sleeve; a New Game+ mode. Ashley starts again with weapons intact, items saved, spells stored. Not only that, but numerous new sections of the city are now open for him to explore, to discover new weapons and new items and new spells and all new bosses. Once New Game+ begins, the challenge and complexity and the effort expended in the first playthrough suddenly feels like it was for a purpose. Everything clicks, and clicks together. It still doesn’t excuse the fiddly weapons changing, nor does it help that most people will instinctively hit the right analog stick in order to move the camera – which doesn’t work here, it must be said, instead thrusting you into a motionless first-person viewpoint. But the new enemies, the new weapons and new spells all feel more interesting. You’ve done the hard work, and this is the fun bit. And by golly, is it ever fun!
It’s a shame I don’t feel altogether like I am still as madly in love with Vagrant Story; but I concede much of my criticism comes from a gamer who has likely been spoilt the last decade, and played some blinding games which have perhaps clouded how I view the past. I could see a fantastic new high-def update in this; with some minor changes, perhaps the D-Pad to switch between weapons on the fly, the right stick used for the CAMERA like we’re all used to now, sharper visuals and crisp lines. I wouldn’t, however, want voice acting. It’s a comic book style game! It’s a graphic novel in video game form, and adding speech to it just seems blasphemous. On the other hand, this is the modern Square-Enix we’re talking about here and they’re hardly being very sensible these days.
And I do still love Vagrant Story. I love that there are so many box puzzles. I love the precision of the combat and the rhythmic RISK system, allowing to chain together attacks that get stronger at the expense of accuracy. I love the sometimes sheer lunacy of it, the menacing cast, the silly jokes. I love that Lea Monde still feels like a city; a large place, but one that even in death feels very much alive. I even love the nods to ancient RPG’s, after all, the era of a locked chest in a world of demanding me-me-me culture is still a ballsy move. I love the timed challenges, and I love the music. The sound is fantastic.
There’s still loads to love here. What niggles I feel towards it are mostly of a time; limitations of hardware and storage space that restricted it from being as smooth and brilliant as it could have been. It’s something that we need to be mindful of; a hugely technical RPG of this type was always going to be difficult to make. How they did it and how they saved it at the end when it was to be rushed out of the door without so much as a by-your-leave is something I may never fully understand, but I know enough to be thankful that the team clearly loved it enough to make sure that it had those final tweaks to keep it from feeling like half a game.
Because it never feels like half a game; it feels like a huge, ambitious, monolithic 50+ hour journey. And it’s hard to imagine how they could have made this fantastic game any bigger or better.
We may never know, but still… perhaps it’s best to enjoy what they gave us, than worry about men in suits complicating things and making us wonder what might have been…