Sparky's Update - RPG Retrospective test run: Vagrant Story

Hey folks! Welcome to the latest Sparky's Update, wherein I try to stuff your mind full of nonsense and hullabaloo. And possibly sweet, delicious Starburst jelly beans. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh baby, that's the shit.

This week's going to see the implementation of a new feature here on Sparky's Update, called the RPG Retrospective. I'm essentially going to be taking a good, long look at various RPGs of all sorts, with no set pattern or focus in mind save to see how they stand the test of time. I'll also be reminiscing about the impact some of these games had in their day, so while the Retrospective aims to be informative, it won't always be as scientific as a real journalist or a blogger worth his salt might write. I'll devote however much time I feel is necessary to explain the basics of each game, but if I feel like the game warrants it, I'll play each to completion. I can't really predict how many blogs I'll devote to each game, but I'll try to at least explain the fundamentals and get in a good glimpse of the story and characters.

While I don't expect this to be a regular, timely feature on the Update, I do expect it to be semi-regular with possibly some spin-off blogs to follow, depending on my creativity. Some RPGs, frankly, are insanely long, and as such, some weeks might just see story updates. Some weeks I might not update at all. What I'm saying is that, like normal, don't expect any degree of certainty on when or if these will be published. Nor will this stop me from updating you on other games, though those updates will likely be relegated to a smaller section of the Update when a Retrospective is published.

Whew. On with the show!

Vagrant Story - RPG Retrospective

The Basics

I came into Vagrant Story completely fresh. I knew nothing about the game, its characters, or its story. When the game was released in May of 2000, I was graduating high school and preparing for college, a time when I couldn't afford the time or money to new games. Fast forward eleven years and change, and I finally pick up the game on the PSN.

The game is a straight-up dungeon crawler. There are no towns, no overworld, no NPC's to converse with (yet, at least). Instead of focusing in on experience points, the game rewards you with stat boosts when you finish certain sections of the game or defeat certain bosses. There is also a heavy focus on weapons and crafting, an aspect I'm still getting used to.

The game is set in an ancient city called Lea Monde, though you aren't actually exploring the city proper. Instead, as Ashley Riot, you traverse through the bowels of the city, going room to room, fighting monsters, and solving basic block puzzles. The combat is a great blend of action and turn-based. Enemies will attack you in real-time, but when the player attacks an enemy, the game pauses for your strikes. By hitting buttons at the precise time, Ashley can chain together rudimentary combinations. These are affected by a factor called Risk, which increases with every swing of your sword. Risk builds up over time, and starts to affect the chance you have of striking an opponent. Therefore, the player is left with two options - go for a long combo with the risk of eventually missing the opponent, or let the chain break to allow an enemy to attack and decrease the Risk amount?

Boss fights are a treat. Using only brute force won't generally work. Take, for example, a fight against a golem. At first, I tried just straight up attacking it from various angles. I quickly ran out of health and MP related items and died. But when I tried that same boss fight and relied instead upon a defensive maneuver that reflects a portion of the damage dealt by the boss, I quickly defeated him with minimal fuss. And I'm sure there were other options there too, such as using Risk-reducing items to help string together some longer combos. These boss fights are where the combat system really shines.

The Story

Judging from the map percentage stat given at the end of each section of the game, I appear to be about a third of the way through the game. With that in mind, here's the story thus far:

The game follows Ashley Riot, an agent of a group called the VKP, as he chases down the villainous Sydney. In the game's introduction, Ashley confronts Sydney, and fires a crossbow into his chest. Sydney gets on his feet and plucks out the crossbow bolt. Using a wyvern as a distraction, he makes good his escape, followed doggedly by Ashley and his companion Merlose all the way to an ancient city called Lea Monde. Ashley, full of cold confidence, enters the ruins of the city alone. Merlose is kidnapped immediately, and used as bait throughout the game to keep Ashley going.

And all that's just within the first ten minutes or so. Whew.

Most of what I've played since then has involved primarily around murky motivations for Sydney and his deep fascination with Ashley's potential and soullessness. Ashley himself is plagued by visions of his wife and child, who were killed by errant knights while on a picnic. Sydney seems to be aware of these visions and bedevils Ashley with veiled hints that Ashley can become something more. Indeed, he does, as Ashley begins to accumulate special abilities and magic.

So far, the story has been compelling. The narrow focus on only a few characters really helps propel the story forward fast. What's particularly great is how grim Ashley Riot seems to be without going over into emo territory. He's not the brooding archetype, nor is he wisecracking or happy-go-lucky. He's seemingly calm, almost emotionally distant in his pursuit of Sydney. He's really a neat character. Sydney himself seems sort of blandly evil, though his fascination with Ashley shows some promise for character development later on in the game.

The localization is fantastic. I cannot praise it enough. There's none of the usual "Japanese-ness" about the dialogue. Someone very lovingly crafted this story and saw it transferred very well into English. The effort really shows.

The Graphical Style

I'm not a graphics whore, but I can appreciate great graphical design. Be it a colorful world, great character designs, or some special kind of graphical quality that holds up well over the years, I can find a lot to love about the way a game was designed, even if it was released "in the good old days." This section will take a critical look at the RPGs I play, noting how well things have held up and what kind of an impression (if any) they had on me back in the day.

And since I didn't play Vagrant Story upon its release, that leaves me with how the game's style holds up today. First and foremost, Square's usual CGI greatness is on display here, though they seem remarkably reserved for that period of time. That's not a bad thing - the game seems to be focused on such things as speed runs as well as relying upon a lot of in-engine cutscenes. It renders the tasty CGI as something of a sparse treat - something to look forward to and to savor when you eventually get it.

The character designs are, frankly, as Japanese as they get. They're hilariously ridiculous. Sydney runs around looking like a bare-chested teenage boy. The first time I saw him, I thought, "Oh, this is what David Spade must have looked like as a young 'un." But even worse is Ashley. He's got what looks like insect antannae for hair, and even more hilariously, he's wearing assless chaps. Hoooooly shit, it's so awful it's kind of appealing. Ridiculous outfits aside, the characters look pretty good for that period of gaming. Emotions play out on their faces nicely, they animate relatively fluidly, and they don't seem at all wooden or marionette-like.

Unfortunately, the dungeons of Lea Monde don't hold up to such scrutiny. Even during their day, they must have seemed drab and repetitive. Imagine the inevitable sewer level of your favorite RPG. Now imagine that the entire game is focused arount that level. Yep, that's Lea Monde. Maybe this changes later in the game. I sure as shit hope so. I was relieved when I found running water in the game. When something as basic as a river makes you glad to see a change, you know the game's world needed a little bit more.

I should note that some of the combat-related stuff looks great. There are only a few basic enemy types so far, but again, they animate nicely. The bosses look particularly good. The in-engine cutscenes look nice, with the highlight being the speech bubbles, of all things. The text looks remarkably good.

Sound

Again, musical quality is a trademark of Square's RPGs, and this is no different. Music is surprisingly understated throughout the game, used mostly for full effect in cutscenes. With the aid of Wikipedia, I found out that the game is composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who also composed the music for one of my all-time favorites, Final Fantasy Tactics. It's no surprise then that I am really loving the music here and might even go out of my way to track down the score if it's widely available. One of my hopes with this series is to enlighten not just the reader but myself as to who does the music for RPGs. It's not something I can claim to be overly familiar with (except when it comes to Bear McCreary, my favorite composer).

There's no speech, which is to be expected of an RPG in the PS1 era. The sound effeccts are serviceable but not particularly noteworthy. All in all, the sound holds up fantastically well today. Here's a bit of that tremendous score:

The Rest

This will be a catch-all section of sorts, describing anything else I feel noteworthy that doesn't really have a home anywhere else in the Retrospective.

Vagrant Story is one of those rare old games I'm glad to be playing right now. It holds up supremely well, even to a first-time player. I shouldn't like its laser-focused dungeon crawling aspects, and yet, I do. The combat is tremendously fun and inventive, and exploring Lea Monde is quite a joy despite its drab appearance. I can't confirm this yet, but it looks like there will be some form of a New Game+ as well, which I'm looking forward to. It's the sort of game that encourages speed runs with its stat tracking, and yet, my first time through, I want to get in every nook and cranny that I can.

So yes, it's a remarkable game that holds up very well if you can get past some of the graphical design problems.

Other Games and Randomness

-I finished off Star Ocean: First Departure this week. It's a solid, mildly bland action RPG that never quite lives up to its space-agey premise. But the combat is good, the leveling system incredible, and there is an absolute ton of meat to the game. It's sort of a rainy-day RPG - not one I'd go out of my way to play again, but it's the sort of grind-rewarding goodness that I'll pick up occasionally to while away the hours.

-Also finished is Broken Sword III. The plot and the characters are a lot of fun, but it makes several boneheaded errors that made it extraordinarily unfriendly. Most notably, many sections of the game are graphically dark with no light/dark slider option. Even a fully sighted individual might have trouble with some of the puzzles. The primitive 3D camera work is also infuriating at times, hindering certain timed events. It's a pretty good game, but man, I felt like the developers were intent on making one stupid mistake after another with it.

-I started Modern Family this week, which ended up sucking up more of my free time than I'd like to admit. I should've been getting some reading done, and instead, I found myself sucked into this show. It's a fairly clever, upbeat family tale with some surprisingly good emotional moments (such as a brother admitting to his sister he just wanted to feel like they were on a team together again - sucker punched me right in the gut).

-Had a lead on a job, found out the job was way over my head. Bleh. Still, it opened up a new venue to me, so maybe something will come of that.

And that's it for this week. Long blog today. I hope you all don't mind. And I really hope you like the new RPG retrospective. Whaddya think? Am I missing any bases you'd like covered?

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