Earlier this year I played Vagrant Story again. When I played it for the first time in 2009, it quickly became my favorite game of all-time. I wasn’t sure if I was remembering the game through rose-colored glasses. As I ventured once again into the world of Lea Monde in search of Sydney Losstarot, I discovered that this was not the case and I caught myself falling in love again. Vagrant Story is a special game that deserves more recognition. It was released during a time period where other games such as Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy IX received more attention. It carves out its own place in the gaming world, and it was a game that was ahead of its time.
Vagrant Story may seem a little daunting at first because it uses some terminology that is specific to the game. You play as a man named Ashley Riot. Agent Riot works for the Valendia Knights of the Peace, or the VKP for short. He is known as a Riskbreaker within this organization. The beginning of the game begins with Ashley entering a duke’s manor to rescue hostages taken captive by a cult leader by the name of Sydney Losstarot. If you allow the game to run at the main menu screen, you will be shown an additional cutscene that explains the events immediately prior to Ashley arriving at the mansion. Agent Riot meets with the higher ups of the VKP who tell him about the cult’s attack on the manor. He agrees to visit the duke’s home to investigate the incident, and when he arrives he decides to infiltrate on his own, believing himself to be as capable as many reinforcements. He learns that the church has also sent the Order of the Crimson Blades to deal with Sydney and his group known as Mullenkamp. As the attack is unfolding, there are three different factions present. Ashley finally encounters Sydney where he summons a wyvern to attack him. After Ashley defeats the wyvern, Sydney tells him to follow him to Lea Monde where he promises to reveal more information behind the attack and his kidnapping of the duke’s son. These events constitute the game’s playable prologue. Ashley arrives and descends into Lea Monde on his own desire and as he begins to investigate, our game begins.
The biggest criticism levied against Vagrant Story is that it is too difficult and it is rather obtuse. However, one of the main reasons I love the game as much as I do is because of the battle system. Vagrant Story can be classified as an action RPG. When you attempt to attack an enemy, you can choose different body parts to attack with varying percentages which indicate the success rate. Choosing the correct body part is important in taking down foes and bosses. Furthermore, there is no traditional levelling system. In its place is a huge emphasis on upgrading equipment and stat upgrades that you will receive by clicking a spinning roulette after bosses are defeated. You can also boost certain stats permanently by consuming various items found throughout the game. When it comes to attacking there are different weapon and class types that need to be taken into account. The three weapon types are blunt, edged, and piercing. The class types are evil, human, beast, undead, phantom, dragon, evil, and human. There are also elemental types that should be considered. It may seem like a lot of information to remember, and it is. This is part of Vagrant Story’s unique charm. Enemies and bosses will be weak to a specific weapon type and exploiting these weaknesses is crucial for success in battle. You can even level up a weapon’s class type affinity. For example, if you want a sword that is strong against human enemies you can level the sword’s human affinity by using it to fight human enemies. There are dummies for each class type that can be used to raise affinity. Even though the dummies can be destroyed, they can be respawned by moving a certain numbers of rooms away.
Not only does Vagrant Story use standard HP and MP bars, there is also something known as Risk Points. Risk Points range from zero to one hundred. The closer you get to 100, the more damage Ashley will take and the lower his percentage will drop on his attacks. Therefore, it is in your best interest to keep Risk Points as low as possible, and there are consumable items that will lower your risk. Your Risk Points increase when you use chain and defensive abilities. Vagrant Story’s combat utilizes a combo system where you can chain attacks together, and if you are successful, his damage output can significantly increase. You must pay special attention however to your Risk Points when doing this and there is a fine line that must be traversed. Chain abilities are offensive abilities that can be mapped to the face buttons on the Playstation controller. The timing for these abilities can be difficult to learn at first. However, once you become proficient at landing abilities, you will feel incredibly powerful. Defensive abilities also provide an immense amount of satisfaction. Successfully landing a counter attack because you activated a defensive ability at the correct time is one of the most rewarding feelings the game is able to provide. There are many other combat related aspects that I have not yet explained, but this is to provide a brief glimpse into the combat of Vagrant Story.
Another reason Vagrant Story succeeds as well as it does is because it copies from Metroidvania. Lea Monde is an interconnected labyrinth. You will progress and be unable to go any further, only to later realize that the path you couldn’t access leads to an end-game area that you can open the shortcut to for ease of travel. Thoroughly combing the map in hopes of discovering where you should go next is fun in of itself. I have always been a huge sucker for Metroidvania type games and it is a huge reason why I enjoy the first Dark Souls game as much as I do. Vagrant Story heavily borrows from that genre in its world and level design and it does its own take of it to perfection.
The unsung hero of Vagrant Story is one man: Hitoshi Sakimoto. This may seem controversial, but in my opinion, Vagrant Story has one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all-time. Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, and Tactics Ogre. He has always been a composer that focuses heavily on battle themes and that is also the case with Vagrant Story. The soundtrack is dominated by the battle themes. The prologue track titled Graylands Incident Climax does an excellent job of building up to the final moment where Sydney escapes by using a rather hushed melody that reaches a strong conclusion as the prologue ends. Other notable battle tracks are Wyvern and Ifrit. Wyvern gives you that sense that victory is imminent and you should keep pushing forward as the end is in sight whereas Ifrit is a hectic battle theme that causes a surge of emotion in the heat of battle. Sakimoto also does a solid job with area tracks with Limestone Quarry being particularly memorable in providing a unique flavor. Vagrant Story’s soundtrack is one of those special soundtracks that is able to stand on its own merits outside of the game and for me, that is the true indication of a noteworthy score.
Vagrant Story is memorable because it gives you the idea that as the player you truly are alone in this world. It fully puts you in the shoes of Ashley Riot. He undergoes a mission single-handedly. He enters Lea Monde by himself and uncovers its secrets and the plans of the man he is following along the way. Unlike the vast majority of RPGs, you do not interact with any NPCs. In order for Ashley to become stronger, he must create stronger equipment which he does so through workshops you find scattered throughout the city. You must obtain materials from chests and enemies and combine them in different combinations. Ashley does interact with other characters that are important to the story, but they are antagonistic encounters for the most part. Ashley plays a very important role in Sydney’s scheme and as it comes to together in its final moments, everything leading up to that point makes so much sense. As the credits began to roll and I listened to the excellent credits music, I had to put my controller down and really think about all the events that had just transpired. Vagrant Story has me thinking about the game long after completion and that is the most important quality in my eyes of a truly great game.
Vagrant Story has a difficult barrier to entry. Most people fail to give the game enough play time because it can get lost in its own menus and lack of explanations. If you are willing to plough through the beginning gameplay elements, you will find a rewarding battle system that encourages experimentation. The game also has a strong narrative and it clearly caters to an adult audience with its more mature protagonist and themes. The story is one any person can relate with and in many cases your expectations will be played with until the very end. Furthermore, Hitoshi Sakimoto does an excellent job as the game’s composer and the soundtrack uses battle themes very effectively for a game that uses so many boss encounters as you explore the labyrinth-like city. If you never heard of Vagrant Story before or even if you only have some passing interest, I implore you to find the time to give this game a shot. It can be purchased digitally for $5.99 on the PSN Store, and I promise it will be the best $5.99 you spend this year.