I've been noticing a pattern with Squaresoft's games of late. Aside from the fact that their localizations are greatly improving, I've found their plots to be increasingly unpredictable. It isn't that their narrative information is at all surprisingly new or original, but in terms of general focus and execution, they appear to be more confident and understated. I can no longer trust my opinion of a Square game with simply one play-through; I now have to finish their games at least twice to really understand what they are trying to do. What often seems banal and underdeveloped initially can seem expertly-controlled and fleshed-out in hindsight. Such was the case with Final Fantasy VIII, and such is the case again with Squaresoft's newest offering, Vagrant Story.
Vagrant Story is a 3D action-RPG that tells the tale of one Ashley Riot, a parliamental knight in a kingdom called Valendia. Although the kingdom itself is imaginary, it has been designed to bear a striking resemblance to medieval Europe, both in terms of the religious/political climate, as well as in its general architecture. Featuring vividly rendered and detailed cathedrals, catacombs, and other such gothic dwellings, the 3D and 2D artists have outdone themselves in creating a world that is both vibrant and ominous -- reflecting the elements of political unrest and religious zealotry that battle for supremacy within. There is a feud going on between the Cardinal and the Valendia Parliament for control over an ancient city of magic known as Lea Monde, a feud in which Ashley is to play a key figure. When the story begins, he is a VKP (Valendia Knight of the Peace) who has been chosen to infiltrate a nobleman's manor on the Parliament's behalf. The manor has been seized by a cult known as Mullenkamp, lead by a man named Sydney Losstarot. Mullenkamp is at odds with the Cardinal, who has dispatched his own knights -- the Crimson Blades, lead by one Romeo Guildenstern -- to exterminate them. In the prologue sequence, the player takes control of Ashley as he attempts to avoid the cultists and apprehend Sydney. After he escapes the action moves to Lea Monde, where Ashley races against time to discover the nature of Sydney's plans for the city, as well as Guildenstern and the Cardinal's true intentions.
Most of the action takes place within the city itself, as the player guides Ashley through Lea Monde in search of Sydney. Events are seen primarily through a typical three-quarters perspective that can be rotated and zoomed in or out at will. Lea Monde itself is sectioned off as a series of areas, similar to the way maps were presented in this development team's previous effort, Final Fantasy Tactics, and contain the usual RPG trappings of treasure chests and puzzles. In addition to the exploration element, there is the combat system -- which is, to say the very least, quite complex. Some critics have said it is too confusing, but I have found that if you stick with it can becomes extremely rewarding. The trick is understanding how it works from the start -- which, admittedly, isn't easy. It seems more complicated than it really is, though. There are basically two aspects to the combat: creating weapons and using them. Each weapon has two parts: a handle and a blade, which each in turn have two different aspects -- "blade types" and "gem slots" for handles, and "creature" and "elemental" affinities for blades. There are also different types of weapons and different types of materials, both of which determine what kind of weapons can be crafted with what types of material. Furthermore, all the different types of materials can be combined and reforged to make them stronger, weaker, or into new weapons altogether. If this all sounds confusing, that's because it is. It's very daunting at first to think that you have a scimitar made out of bronze with a beast affinity of 5, an edged rating of 8, and an overall strength rating of 115, and how this might be better or worse than an spear made out of iron with a phantom affinity of 10, a piercing rating of 12, and an overall strength rating of 110. Fortunately, the more you get into it, the more you realize there is indeed a method to this madness. Although I will refrain from explaining the entire system in detail here, I will say that once it is (eventually) grasped it works rather well. The important thing is to remember the inherent logic of the system. On the most basic level, the more you use a weapon on a particular type of monster, the stronger that weapon will become against that type of monster and whatever combinations of elemental or physical affinities it might contain.
Combat is a combination of menu-based strategy and reflex-based action that is initiated when the player triggers an equipped weapon near an enemy. If the enemy is in range, Ashley can strike it once, and, if the player times it just right, strike it again if he/she presses the button again at the moment of contact. This can be continued indefinitely until the player mis-times a hit, a technique the game calls "chaining." Governing this is an attribute called "Risk," which basically represents Ashley's stamina. The longer he continues a chain, the higher his Risk goes, resulting in decreasing accuracy and coordination, and thus requiring the player to use chaining sparingly and strategically. In addition to chaining, there are menu-based options that allow the player to use spells, items and special attacks (called "Break Arts"). As with normal attacks, the action is paused during battle when the menu is selected and then executed in real-time. This, in addition to the endless customizability of the weapons creation system, offers an admittedly daunting but ultimately fulfilling gameplay experience which will most likely keep dedicated gamers coming back for more.
Although the gameplay is certainly the main attraction of the experience, no review of Vagrant Story would be complete without taking the time to examine the great lengths the designers went to to push the graphics engine further for the sake of the story. I have already touched on the meticulous job the designers did on the architecture and general look of the world, but that pales in comparison to the strikingly expressive quality they have been able to imbue within the characters themselves. Vagrant Story represents probably the closest synthysis of 2D conceptual art and 3D model design I have seen (or probably ever will see) on PlayStation. Every character contains the subtlety and beauty of a hand-rendered sketch in as much as PSX technology will allow, and compliment this with a complete range of subtle facial expression and flawless body language. Many times it looks as if we are watching a moving, three-dimensional painting as seemingly hand-rendered figures gracefully sweep and glide within a scene. Adding still to the ambiance are the excellent use of text bubbles that carry the dialogue in traditional comic book style. I have long been a strong advocate of text-only dialogue in games (they are our own distant cousin to the forgotten art of silent cinema), and Vagrant Story is yet another example of just how golden silence can be when it is used correctly. The dialogue scenes have a quality in silence that they would most certainly lack in voice, and that fact that the development team has managed to successfully marry film language and comic book language without it ever even slightly feeling awkward is a testiment to just how precious and effective a style of digital storytelling this is.
And while I'm on the subject of the dialogue, I'll mention a word about the translation. Vagrant Story has by far the most literate, intelligent and mature dialogue I have heard in a localized game -- the likes of which I haven't seen since Konami's Suikoden was released in '97. After warming up with a decent, but still improvable translation for Final Fantasy VIII, and the functionally excellent, but otherwise not overtly impressive dialogue of Front Mission 3, they have out-done themselves with a flat-out remarkable rewrite of the original Japanese dialogue in Vagrant Story. The game features not only a passable translation, but a rather excellent one. Done in a deliberate Shakespearian dialect that is richly literate and never awkward, the dialogue in Vagrant Story is never ceases to be a joy to read and is no doubt responsible for much of the narrative effect.
And what of the story itself? It is difficult to dwell on much without ruining the experience. I would like to touch on a few points, though. I had two totally different reactions to this story. Upon completing the game the first time I was not completely disappointed, but I definitely felt there was something missing. I was frustrated with the storytellers for providing such a compelling dramatic framework and then choosing to remain needlessly ambiguous in so many of their points. However, upon completing it the second time I had a completely different reaction. Things I felt were simply loose ends turned out to be rather subtle pieces of character motivations and foreshadowing that pointed to a much more fullfilling experience. It isn't that any ambiguity was necessarily eliminated, but the ambiguity seemed to have much more of a point fitting in with the underlying themes of truth and identity tied into the game. I personally feel this story effort marks a significant stride over Final Fantasy Tactics. I have always respected this development team's squarely unsentimental approach to storytelling, as well as their fascination with the hypocrisy of mediveal European religious politics abundant in each game, but Vagrant Story handles these themes with much more control, subtlty and focus.
So, are there any bad points? Sure, although I must admit to them being more my own personal bias about the game. Although I feel the narrative works and works well, I still feel it might have been improved with a little more fleshing out. A lot of the story material is so good you simply wish there was more of it, and while I am deciding to interpret its omission of major narrative information as bold rather than sloppy, I can certainly say it wouldn't have hurt to tighten up the story in parts. Sometimes the balance between gameplay and narrative sequences seems obtuse, which might have something to do with the fact that the game was lengthed to provide more pure gameplay late in the development. If they were going to add parts, they might have added some additional story as well, sinces at times it can feel like you are adrift in Lea Monde in search of the plot. Also, although this game has a magnificent, cinematic art style that propels its plot along quite well, I can't help but think how much more interesting the game might have been had the actual narrative been incorporated into the gameplay. Although people like to get down on games like Metal Gear Solid for being too restrictive in player freedom when it comes to the narrative, at least it did try to effectively blur the line between gameplay and story quite often. Vagrant Story really offers nothing like this. There is a clear, thick line between "story" and "game" which I feel could have been creatively minimized if the development team so wished. But they didn't, which makes me slightly disappointed in this development team for simply making a game that has a story when they had the perfect opportunity to make a game that is a story.
Still, though, these are minor qualms. In the end, Vagrant Story is just about perfect for what it is: an old-fashioned, action RPG with loads of gameplay, a strong narrative and unparalleled presentation.