Vagrant Story, 20 Years Later

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There are a few facts about me that you must know before this article makes sense:

  • Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT) is one of my favorite games of all time.
  • Anything even tangentially-related to FFT is instantly of interest to me.
  • In and around the year 2000, I was a Squaresoft fanboy, and I bought almost all of their Western releases based on the box cover and their company logo alone.

Vagrant Story is an “action” RPG for the original Playstation. Published by Squaresoft in 2000, Vagrant Story is set in the Ivalice Alliance series, a bit of trivia it shares with Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII. Like those two games, Vagrant Story was also directed/produced/designed by the legendary Yasumi Matsuo, the creator of Ivalice itself.

In addition to its relationship to one of my favorite games of all time, Vagrant Story reviewed really well at the time. Glancing through the Reception section of its Wikipedia article, including a 40/40 from Famitsu, a 9.6/10 from IGN and GameSpot, and a 9/10 from EGM (R.I.P.).

And, after booting up the game in an emulator recently, I do not see any kind of perfection whatsoever.

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For the last two decades, my only memory of Vagrant Story was my complete inability to beat a ghost monster you encounter within the first hour or two of the game. In returning, I wanted to see what I missed by allowing myself to quit the game in frustration. After all, its an undermentioned classic, right?

At first, Vagrant Story got a lot right. For starters, the atmosphere is top notch, and kind of terrifying in its own way. Like Final Fantasy Tactics, there’s a lot of political intrigue, but there is also a presumed Big Bad who refuses to die, even when he takes an arrow square in the chest. Once the game actually begins, you’re greeted with a dank wine cellar, almost no music, and a mix of classic Gothic video game enemies (bats, wolves, corpses, skeletons).

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Now, maybe this is an unfair comparison since I only have a passing familiarity with the series, but I instantly thought of Dark Souls when I first started out in Vagrant Story. It has that same unsettling emptiness to it. Plus, the bosses I have seen so far have been fairly large in size (at least for the era).

The wife saw me playing the game and snickered at how it looked, but despite the polygons and artifacting (and with the emulator’s help), there is beautiful art buried beneath it all. Hiroshi Minagawa has the credit for artist here, and he has worked on some of the best games of all time (including this year’s excellent Final Fantasy XIV expansion, Shadowbringers). It shows.

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Now that the positives have been had, let’s talk about why I am hating this game and may not continue playing it.

It’s a Box Puzzle Game

I cannot recall the last time I played a true box puzzle game. I am so vague on the concept now that I am unsure if it is a true sub-genre of gaming or a weird dream of mine.

Ask yourself if this sounds familiar (and infuriating):

In each room, there is a door to the next room. To reach that door, you must stack boxes in the appropriate manner. Due to the limitations of how you can maneuver boxes (and related objects), each room plays out like a small puzzle. If you fail or mess up, you have to leave the room and come back to start over again.

In two hours, I have had to do these puzzles at least ten times now. They are not memorable, interesting, or welcome. The game may eventually drop them, but their frequency (and simplicity) early on does not bode well.

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“Action” RPG

I don’t think anyone makes RPGs like this anymore. Owing a lot to Parasite Eve, another Squaresoft game of the era (and another I couldn’t get into), Vagrant Story is a real time-and-pause game. In other words, you run around in real time, but when you attack, the game pauses so you can target the right enemy and/or a specific body part of that enemy.

I suppose V.A.T.S in Fallout is similar, but here it is an incredibly unsatisfying experience. There’s no tracking on your attack swing cooldown, so after each attack sequence, I am rapidly pressing the button to get another attack in before the enemy can. There’s also a range component, including melee weapons with variable ranges, so combat consists mostly of spamming attack button at max range, pause and choose target, let animation play out, move a few steps, and repeat.

There is another aspect to the game that I have yet to master: chaining abilities. This is a classic gaming experience, so there are zero tutorials, but this last time I played, I started to figure it out. Basically, you map different reactions to different face buttons on the controller and, whether on defense or offense, timing your button press right activates the reaction.

It is a nice way to add a little more action to the experience, but it feels clunky especially with slow animations and …

3D Cameras on the Playstation

Since each room is a smallish 3D box, there’s a classic PSX-era platformer feel to the camera. It even has “shoulder buttons to rotate”, though I have started using the game’s weird first person view as a quick turn.

Like other games at the time (and, to be honest, for another decade), Vagrant Story has a terrible camera. When you add in the need to place boxes all the time or “real time” fight enemies, there have been a few occasions where I was staring at the backside of a horrible drawn texture while something was happening out of sight with my character. It dates the game more than anything else.

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But hey, I finally killed that Ghost. Maybe I will finish the game in the next 20 years.


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