I've long held up Vagrant Story as one of my favourite games ever. Throughout my long and colourful history with video games, I've never hesitated to mention it in the same breath as titles like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid 3 and Shadow of the Colossus. A little over three years ago, when such things were all the rage on the Giant Bomb forums, I even positioned the title fifth on a list of my Top 30 Games. And yet, in spite of holding Vagrant Story in such high regard for all this time, a terrible weight rested upon my gamer's shoulders - I'd never seen the whole thing through. That's right - the conclusion to Ashley Riot's mission in Lea Monde had persistently eluded me, my opinion standing for only two-thirds of a game. That changed last weekend when, after almost a decade's worth of attempts, I finally broke through the invisible walls that impeded my progress and witnessed the final few hours of agent Riot's tale. Beyond the expected relief of getting one of the longest-residing gaming monkeys off my back, Vagrant Story's conclusion also brought with it a sense of affirmation - the feeling that my love of the game was justified, and if anything has only grown with the passage of time and the completion of the adventure.
My first encounter with Vagrant Story must have been about ten years ago at this point. It started as so many of these gaming origins stories do - in my local GAME store's pre-owned bargain bin. I was twelve at the time, and completely unaware of what I was getting myself into when I picked it up for what was most likely a sub-£10 price point. I was young, impressionable, and a huge fan of Final Fantasy, having probably sunk a collective one-hundred-and-fifty hours into the seventh, eighth and ninth instalments of the franchise. The sight of the Squaresoft logo in the corner of the game's box art, coupled with a synopsis that read like a Final Fantasy game on the back of the box, were enough to persuade me to drop what little money I had on this title. Getting it home, out of the box and into the PlayStation, I evidently found my faith to be well-placed.
My memories of my earliest experiences with Vagrant Story aren't quite as clear as the previous paragraph might have you believe, but I'll do my best to recapture them. The first thing that struck me was the game's art style. Walking a fine line between realism and fairy-tale ethereality, everything about Vagrant Story looked incredible. The characters, the enemies, the various locations that made up the lost city of Lea Monde... it was a world I was glad to get lost in. The story was unique and captivating, balancing upon an axis of political and religious intrigue and played out by a cast of interesting, morally complex characters - a welcome change from the fairly clear-cut good-versus-evil struggles of the three PlayStation Final Fantasies. I loved the stat-driven complexities of the combat system, the need to weigh up the options, choose the right weapon for the job, and balance lengthy chain combos with ever-rising RISK. The only thing I can remember disliking was the game's steep difficulty, which was much more punishing than that of the Final Fantasy games I'd grown used to. It was this difficulty (coupled with lack of preparation and a shallow understanding of weapon stats) that at first left me unable to progress past some difficult bosses, and later encouraged me to abandon it completely. Vagrant Story was an awesome game, one of the best I'd ever played. I simply accepted that I wasn't a good enough gamer to finish it, and confined it to the dusty shelf that housed my Pile of Shame...
Which, I suppose, brings me back to the spring of 2012 and my decision to return to Lea Monde. That decision was inspired directly by fellow Giant Bomb user Sparky_Buzzsaw, whose influence on my choice of games this year has been pretty heavy indeed. While reading his series of three RPG Retrospective blogs about Vagrant Story back in April, I found myself falling in love with the idea of playing the game all over again. Not only that - I believed that with my more capable mind, my more dexterous fingers, and a wider education in the works of producer Yasumi Matsuno through Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, I might finally be able to overcome the obstacles that slowed me all those years ago and see the game through to its conclusion. I was playing Soul Reaver at the time, but when my time with it was cut short by persistent disc read errors, I wasted no time in swapping Raziel's adventure for Ashley's.
Returning to Vagrant Story all these years later elevated the experience above a simple return to an old favourite. I found myself admiring things that the twelve-year-old me had all but ignored in the past - things like the brilliant translation work, and the heavy French influence present in almost everything in the game from the architecture right down to the names of the spell-teaching grimoires. I also managed to overcome my battle with the game's hardened difficulty, a revelation which came about when I finally worked out how the gem attachment system works. Over the last month or so, it's become one of my favourite customisation systems in any JRPG. Several years ago, I found myself constantly at a loss for effective weaponry, in spite of all the tinkering I'd done in workshops throughout Lea Monde. With this playthrough, though, I worked out that one weapon can effectively serve multiple needs simply by attaching the right gems to it. Need a weapon to take down a humanoid with a Fire affinity? Just whack the Haeralis and Salamander Ruby into your sword and you're away! This free customisation meant I could stay focused on the three basic weapon types, keeping two Edged, two Blunt, and two Piercing weapons with me at all times and simply switching gems to suit my needs. Having this knowledge under my belt made Vagrant Story a little easier, a lot less frustrating and a lot more rewarding.
The other thing that probably played a huge part in my success this time around was my willingness to use buffs and debuffs. I'd never really cared for these indirect, status-altering spells in RPGs up until a couple of years ago, when Final Fantasy XIII's Paradigm system made me aware of just how much a timely Protect, Haste or Dispel can turn the tide of battle in your favour. It's a lesson that was reinforced by Persona 3 at the beginning of this year, where skills like Tarukaja and Rakunda went a long way towards helping me overcome the more difficult boss fights. I brought that knowledge back into Vagrant Story and relied heavily on the status-altering spells I'd learned from grimoires. Every boss fight began with extensive preparation - Herakles to raise my strength, Prostasia (or one of the Fusion spells) to increase the effectiveness of my weapon, and Degenerate or Psychodrain to make my foes less of a threat. This preparation, coupled with the constant gem-switching, made my build of Ashley Riot a force to be reckoned with.
Vagrant Story isn't completely without flaws, though. Because the game's Analysis spell is so unreliable, figuring out the right strategy is often a case of trial-and-error until something starts to give. While the constant re-speccing is what brings about the game's biggest sense of reward, having to re-jig your inventory every time you enter a new room can get a little tedious, especially when playing for long periods of time. And finally, there's that final boss battle. Even by Vagrant Story's standards, that mean mother is incredibly difficult. I died a lot, and ultimately had to turn to YouTube to seek out an effective strategy because my hitherto tried-and-tested methods failed to make a dent in its armour. But while these things can grate, they're a small price to pay for the game's awesome story, interesting characters, and highly rewarding combat system.
If you want some bona fide reasons to pick up Vagrant Story as a new experience in 2012, then please go and check out Sparky_Buzzsaw's RPG Retrospective on the game. It's a fantastic break-down on why the game holds up so well, and makes a solid case for why it's still worth playing now. I guess this blog is aimed at a different audience - people in my own position, who played parts of the game years ago but didn't see Ashley's adventure through to its conclusion. If any such people are reading this, I implore you to pick the game back up and give it another chance. It's every bit as fantastic as you remember it being, perhaps even more so. It's available for a pittance on the PlayStation Store, so if you own a PS3 or PSP, there's really no excuse not to. I waited ten years to see the credits roll, and for me personally, it's one of the most satisfying video game endings I've ever witnessed. In retrospect, Vagrant Story is definitely deserving of its spot on that Top 30 Games list. In fact, it might even deserve to rest a little bit higher...
With Vagrant Story finally stripped from my daunting Pile of Shame, I've decided it's time to put paid to another Square RPG - one which has been on there for even longer. Final Fantasy VIII is yet another game that I've probably spent a cumulative total of several dozen hours playing, but in spite of all that time investment, I've never made it past the earliest stages of the game's third disc. It's been a slow, deliberate start to the game, and at the three-hour mark I've just embarked on Squall's SeeD practical exam in Dollet. It's yet another game that seems to have held up remarkably well over time, and I'm excited to dig deeper into it and rediscover the nuances of the Junction system. Also on-the-go is Batman: Arkham Asylum. I'm not a Batman fan, but what I've played so far has been a brilliant action game, irrespective of the branding. The combat in particular is really satisfying, probably due to the incredible animation, the weighted feel of each punch and kick, and its easy-to-pick-up, difficult-to-master nature. Expect more detailed thoughts on both games as and when I finish them. In the meantme, thanks for reading guys, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Batman: Arkham Asylum (X360)