Christ, I'm effing bushed! I just got back from orientation at New Paltz. Wore my Lincoln Force shirt, ran into some duders, exchanged pleasantries, and then sat through a lecture on rape. College!
Last time we met, Children of God, I had retreated into the safe, noncommittal zone of nostalgia by revisiting the late Squaresoft's PlayStation RPG classics Final Fantasy VII and IX. But then I cast off the chains of the past, ripped the scales of fear from my eyes, struck out of my cave for a new sky and played...the Squaresoft PlayStation RPG classic Vagrant Story.
I had never played Vagrant Story when I bought it a few days before the great PSN Debacle of 2011, as I will call it. I was trolling through the PSN store for impulse buys when I chanced upon two revered games: Xenogears and Vagrant Story. On a coin flip, I bought VS, leaving Xenogears for another day. Or not, as a favored Goon of mine is conducting a Let's Play of it as I type.
In eloquent, Shakespearean terms, Vagrant Story is fucking weird. But it's also kinda fucking awesome. It's a Square developed, so it shares some tropes with the much beloved and bemocked Final Fantasy series. Such as its turn based combat, and...it's turn based combat? Okay, it shares one gameplay trope and a few story tropes...one story trope but w/e. These paragraphs are for the game!
Let Us Dance
The combat of Itinerant Chronicles is turn based, but, unlike the Ultimate Delusion games, the encounters are not random. So already Beggar Tale is the best PSX RPG I have ever played. The actual procedure of killing dudes plays in a rhythmic fashion. Ashley Riot, protagonist extraordinaire, leads his enemies though a dance of blood and death. With each level up you acquire new attacks to chain together in a deadly waltz with the denizens of Lea Monde.
That paragraph right there is free, reviewers. Take it or leave it.
The clothes make the man, and the armor makes the Ashley. You must rely on your equipment for stats as the level up mechanic provides nothing such. Three core: Strength (physical), Intelligence (magical), Agility (athletical). Both attack and defense are derived form these stats. Vagrant Story does not dick around with 10 different attributes for your character. It instead dicks around with 16 different stats for every single piece of armor and weaponry that you may find.
There are three sets of stats. First is Class. Forget about it, it sucks. Next is elemental affinities. This is where the shit is at. The classic air/earth, fire/water and light/dark are here. You raise them by hitting stuff. Hit a water monster, and your fire affinity with that weapon goes up. But your water affinity goes down! That's terrible, right? Wrong! By the time you need to exploit enemy weaknesses you will be able to min/max your weapons with buffs and gems to such a degree that the base stats will be rendered worthless. We are left with the third set, Type. These are Edged, Pierce and Blunt. Every weapon has all three. But each kind only uses one. Swords use edged, knives pierce, and maces blunt. There are other kinds of weapons. They suck. There are two handed variants for each. They also suck. There are ranged weapons. They, too, suck(not really, but you will never need one).
But what of difficulty; is it hardcore enough for my sadomasochistic tastes? The first few hours are punishingly difficult, but quickly plateaus as all the mechanics open up. Then it becomes soul crushingly easy. But even with its ease, you will die if you go into a battle thoughtlessly. You need to approach every encounter with care, and that includes the mooks. So no zoning out, zoner! By the mid point you will have more than enough means to exploit the enemies' weaknesses for massive damage. Battles come down to proper preparation and equipment. After a while, I found that prep phase to last longer than the battles themselves. It sounds annoying, but I found completely dominating the opposition with but one chain empowering.
What is a Vagrant?
Now with the Metroid, with the Vania, and the map screens. This was my most shocking discovery. First thing I do is open the menu to find the word Map, and I opened the map to find a not3D representation of all the areas I had explored and a percentage count. A percentage count! In an RPG! With progression I found doors and paths I could not open and to which I must return to explorate and loot. The whole game takes place in a closed complex. But it never flips itself upside down.
But the Metroidvania experience is characterized chiefly by one aspect of play: the map. Back when I first played Symphony of the Night, often would I find myself staring at the map screen, inspecting every inch trying to find that one undiscovered grid square. Just one space where I can use the shiny new bat form I just got. This scrutiny has since then been what defined the Metroidvania genre to myself. And lo, half way into Vagrant Story I was reading and rereading the map with that same thoroughness and I knew, despite its not3D nature and lack of powerups, that Ashley was as much a successor to Alucard as any other. And their names start with A. Clearly they are the same person.
The game also has puzzles. Block puzzles. Block puzzles suck, but the ones in VS don't...mostly. Sometimes they do, but otherwise they are fairly rewarding. I feel smart after finishing one.
Words, Words, and Words!
I will not spend too much time on the story, other than say it's very well written. The localization is one of the best I've found, the characters are well defined and likeable, and the protagonist is compelling. The plot does not dominate the game, and most cutscenes after the (really long!) intro rarely break into five minutes. The twists are twisty and the journey is overall a fun one.
Vagrant Story is fucking good. The combat is very fulfilling, the story is well told and the art is fantastic. Many duders will recognize the style found in Final Fantasy Tactics. Overall, I would recommend Vagrant Story to anyone who likes games. It's available for 6-10 bucks on PSN. Just go play it for fuck sake.