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.

Unfinalized Fantasies

I uninstalled Slay the Spire and have free time again! Well, had. After going on a productive run and finishing a few games in January and February, I decided the MMO itch was too string and briefly journeyed back to 1999 on an emulated server for EverQuest. Despite having fun, that only got me wanting to play a MMO that “mattered” (see has a future) again. Obviously, the only good one still running is Final Fantasy XIV, so I have been playing that.

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I have trouble wrapping my brain around the idea of playing an MMO casually. I am managing with Final Fantasy XIV, but only after a week off from working being sick and playing so much that I could play it an “hour or so” per day. Otherwise, I might have given up entirely.

With this return to Eorzea, I opted to create a new character rather than reroll the name and race of my old character. I wanted to do this to give the Main Story Quest (MSQ) a fair shake since back when I first played, the idea of a “good story” being written in an MMO was laughable to me. It still is, but I have enjoyed paying attention to the plot, so I am decidedly more neutral on the topic of MMO narratives than I once was.

Rather than Bard, Warrior, and White Mage, this time I have focused on the Paladin, Ninja, and Summoner. I really want a healer, but I am waiting to unlock Astrologian.

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The Paladin is okay. I hated the Warrior years ago because he was a DPS-as-Tank. The Paladin is a tank-as-tank, which is my preference, but the rotation from 1-50 is too limited to really be enjoyable. Plus, the class story is bad. I saw somewhere that the class has a tournament arc in its story later, and that’s the main reason I decided to level it as my tank.

The Ninja is a lot of fun now that I have all my mudra unlocked. There is a weak twisting element to the class which I wish was more pronounced and a larger focus, but it is fun all the same. The story was better than Paladin, but nothing to get too excited about.

The Summoner and Scholar are both okay. I am leveling them last and haven’t done the latter portion of their stories or really unlocked their core gameplay.

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I am far from the cutting edge, but it has been enjoyable logging on every day or every other day and getting things done. While games like Slay the Spire monopolized my time through focused gameplay loops, I only really log on to FFXIV to feel like I am accomplishing something. I did accept an invite to a random Free Company (i.e. guild) and they seem nice enough, but I haven’t yet reattached myself to any of the game’s social elements.

As far as the future is concerned, I preordered the latest expansion, but never bought Stormblood. I can get to level 60 if I keep at it, but I am forced to wait on Stormblood content until the newest expansion is available and my key retros me access to all past content. That being the case, I have slowed down tremendously and am maybe half-way done with the post A Realm Reborn content. Once I get to Heavensward, I will likely double-back to see if Astrologian is the healer for me and catch him up.

Until then, an hour here and there is plenty to scratch all my MMO itches. That both shames and enlivens me.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PS4, 2017)

During my blogging hiatus, I revisited Final Fantasy XII with its Playstation 4 remaster.

For the longest time, FFXII was my least favorite in the series, much to the chagrin of my sister-in-law who is a huge fangirl for the game. Anytime I brought up my hatred, I’d get a side eye from her, whereas most of my other friends who happened to be Final Fantasy fans never even touched XII when it originally came out on the Playstation 2. After playing it again, I can safely say that Final Fantasy XII is pretty okay.

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My history with the original goes back to Blitz: The League, an arcade-style football game that has absolutely nothing to do with Final Fantasy or Square Enix. “Back in the day”, my friends and I would meet after school to play Blitz. On one occasion, a friend who I eventually served as Best Man at his wedding, got so excited in a Blitz win that he jumped up. In so doing, he ended up pulling the console down onto the hardwood floor by a connected controller cord (praise be to wireless). Thus ended our time playing Blitz and my time being a Playstation 2 owner.

A year later when Final Fantasy XII came out, I couldn’t afford to purchase a new Playstation 2. By then, I had mostly moved onto being an Xbox fanboy. Still, as Final Fantasy X and X-2 faded into memory, my need to play the latest and greatest Final Fantasy game increased. Plus, it was set in the same world as Final Fantasy Tactics, my absolute favorite Final Fantasy game.

Through shame and guilt, I made my friend loan me his Playstation 2 until I could finish Final Fantasy XII, which contributed to the first reason why I disliked the game: I rushed it.

Final Fantasy XII is not a game you should rush. With its open world setting, a real contrast to Final Fantasy X, it had an exploratory quality that the series had been missing for some time. Plus, the extra boss fights are both easy to miss and fun to do, so a large part of the game can be ignored if you aren’t looking beyond the plot.

As I previously mentioned, Final Fantasy Tactics was and is my favorite Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy XII shares the setting of Ivalice, but is set in a different time, in a different part of the world, and all of its callbacks to Tactics are done through flavor text. In other words, it was not a successor, spiritual or otherwise, to Final Fantasy Tactics. This was the second reason I disliked the game.

Despite not being another Tactics, FFXII does have better characters. Sure, the plot was terrible in comparison, but that’s true of 99% of video games because FFT really was that damn good. I didn’t even mind Vaan, though I was pretty tired of the teenage boy shtick for Final Fantasy leads and would’ve much preferred any of the game’s more mature characters to be the sole focus.

For my final reason, I point to the combat. Final Fantasy XII was a huge departure since you only control one party member at a time, though you can switch around. Combat is still turn based, but it takes place out in the open world, and the game promotes automating most of it to the Gambit system. Gambits work as a sort-of customizable AI mini-game that allows you to set conditions for how the AI should play your party mates.

In 2006, I hated gambits, so much so that I refused to use them. Instead, I micromanaged everything in combat, rapidly switching from character to character, queuing actions and hoping for the best. This made Final Fantasy XII harder, but when compared to my more recent play through, far less enjoyable.

Part of the beauty of Final Fantasy XII, much like Bravely Default, comes from powering up your party, creating unique combinations, and finding ways to automate things for efficiency. By skipping over that entirely in 2006, I really missed out. Playing the game as intended and using gambits to their fullest is so much more fun. I loved farming and grinding so much that I did every achievement but kill the secret boss Yiazmat because fuck a boss that takes hours (not hyperbole) to defeat.

I loved Final Fantasy XII this last time around. It is a great example of marrying classic Final Fantasy with a then-modern twist (MMORPG-esque open world, revamped approach to combat, etc.). I hate that the series has only moved further away from its roots, but FFXII was a happy compromise if only I had recognized that fact then rather than last year.

Why then do I say it is only okay?

Because the plot sucks, most of the characters would be better off in a narrative that wasn’t “crappy Star Wars”, and it wasn’t Final Fantasy Tactics 2.

Sorry! Some things don’t change.

Onward to Distant Worlds

This past weekend, Diane took me on a (very delayed) anniversary trip to see Final Fantasy Distant Worlds in St Petersburg, Florida. It was fantastic!

Highlight of the Evening

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Nobuo Uematsu was there and most of the crowd, save for one older gentleman sitting next to Diane who smelled like a marijuana, recognized him. The volume of applause went noticeably up anytime he was present.

It’s not that I feel like no one knows who he is or that people at a Final Fantasy concert wouldn’t recognize him, I just didn’t expect the level of respect shown him for his work was that evident in his fans’ passion.

It was a pretty spectacular thing to witness.

Oh and there was a sing-a-long for ‘One-Winged Angel’ where we all got to yell SEPHIROTH back at Nobuo himself. Amazing.

Lowlight of the Evening

There weren’t that many cosplayers, but there was one really amazing Zack. He was so good that we spent some of the evening just watching people walk up to him for pictures (it was a lot of people).

Diane and I were conflicted on this, but the reason this excellent cosplayer is a lowlight for me was because during ‘Swing de Chocobo’, he and his date started swing dancing in their balcony seats. People started pointing it out during the performance too, so I felt like it was a bit too much “hey, look at us and not these talented musicians currently performing right now”.

Best Song of the Night

I was really hoping for something from Final Fantasy Tactics or Final Fantasy XIV. I got the latter featuring the Tampa Master Chorale, which included one singer who absolutely floored both Diane and I with her singing.

The song? “Heavensward”:

Top 3 Songs I Wish They Had Played

For fun, here’s three songs I still wish I could hear played live:

Final Fantasy Tactics “Ultima, the Nice Body”

Final Fantasy VI “Aria di Mezzo Carrattere”

Final Fantasy XIV “Good King Moggle Mog’s Theme”