"The body is but a vessel for the soul, a puppet which bends to the soul's tyranny. And lo, the body is not eternal, for it must feed on the flesh of others, lest it return to the dust from whence it came.Therefore must the soul deceive, despise and murder men."
This here is just about my favourite game of all time. I mean, I'm not very good at picking favourites but this is probably it. That said, I'm well aware of the fact that this game isn't for everyone and so for those of you who haven't played it I'm going to try to give you a good idea of whether or not it's worth hunting down/downloading.
Released by Squaresoft in 2000 for the Playstation Vagrant Story is a game unlike many others. It's essentially a dungeon crawler with a unusually complex combat system. This is backed with a well told story with top notch presentation and great audio and visuals. Whether or not you appreciate (or even understand) the combat system will determine if you find the game to be a tedious chore or a rewarding challenge so I'm going to go into a fair bit of detail on it but first! Let's talk about the rest of it.
The game tells the story of Ashley Riot, a riskbreaker, and his investigation into the cult of Müllenkamp lead by Sydney Losstarot in the week leading up to Ashley being wanted for the murder of Duke Bardorba. Riskbreakers are basically medieval secret agents and they work for the Valendia Knights of the Peace (VKP.) In the opening sequence Ashley heads to the manor of Duke Bardorba where the cultists have taken several members of the Duke's family hostage. Ashley meets up with Callo Merlose, an Inquisitor, (also in the service of the VKP) when the Crimson Blades (a group of knights under the command of the Cardinal) lay siege to the manor. Callo comments on how their actions are in direct violation of the authority of the VKP and Ashley heads in alone to sort things out. He encounters Sydney who attacks Ashley forcing Ashley to shoot him through the heart with a crossbow. Much to Ashley's surprise this doesn't stop Sydney who pulls the bolt out of his heart and summons a wyvern (a creature of myth, most characters in the game believed the setting to be low fantasy) and then escapes with the Duke's son as hostage to the ancient city of Leá Monde. Ashley and Callo follow Sydney to Leá Monde and the events of the game unfold.
The story has a fair bit of mystery and intrigue to it and is well told through many in-game cut scenes. These cut scenes are beautifully done outshining many games today with Metal Gear Solid being the only other game at the time that'd rival them. The game has no voice acting and everything is told through cartoon-like speech bubbles. The dialogue itself is very pseudo Shakespearian but it isn't laid on as thick as it is in games such as Final Fantasy Tactics: War of The Lions. So make of that what you will. I enjoy it and think it's very well written but I know the pseudo Shakespearian annoys many. I should mention that it's very easy to miss some of the story at the beginning of the game. If you leave the game on the title screen there's a cut scene that provides some good back story and in the opening sequence it's very easy to skip half of the bloody thing by pressing start. You see, at times the game will wait for you to advance the dialogue by pressing a button (not start) and at other times it will proceed automatically if you take too long. At one point in the opening there's a quote on the screen for a needlessly long period of time and nothing you press will make it proceed, you're supposed to wait. Many people press start, skipping the rest of the cut scene the first time through.
As mentioned above the game's graphics are great. While the character models may not be that realistically proportioned they look very nice and the attention to detail to them and their animations as well as the game world is astounding. These are honestly some of the best graphics you'll see for the original Playstation. However it isn't like the game is filled with scenery porn, a lot of the environments can be a bit drab with them being little more than brown caves and mine shafts.
The music is fantastic and anyone familiar with Hitoshi Sakimoto's work should recognise his style instantly. That said this is very Sakimoto so if you don't enjoy his music (Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, Tactics Ogre, Odin Sphere, Breath of Fire V) then you won't be thrilled here. A lot of the various tracks are quite similar and most of the music is very ambient so don't expect to be humming any of the tracks a week later.
Okay so I guess it's time to talk about the part of the game that you actually play, the part where you're running around and stuff. A lot of this stuff ties together so bear with me as I jump around making a mess trying to explain it all.
As I said earlier, the game is a dungeon crawler and you move from room to room fighting, opening chests and solving puzzles. Many call this an RPG (or JRPG) but it's entirely stat based. There's no experience and levelling up to be had and there's also no NPCs for you to interact with aside from enemies. Every character in the game is only met in cut scenes or boss battles.
So aside from murdering things there are a few other things Ashley likes to get up to in his time in Leá Monde. You can run and jump (grabbing onto ledges) and there's a moderate amount of platforming and puzzles to be had. Flying platforms (called cloudstones) move about in some rooms and you'll often have to time your jumps on to or off of them. If you suck at platforming it isn't the end of the world as any falls into the abyss simply take a small amount of health and respawn you at the entrance to the room. While it only applies to one, maybe two puzzles in the game it's probably good to mention that the game does use inertia when it comes to the flying platforms. So if you're standing on one as it moves forward and you jump forward you'll travel farther from the point of your jump than you would if you were just on the ground. There are many block puzzles to be found as Ashley must pull/push/lift/place/destroy the various blocks found in some rooms to proceed. You'll find wooden crates that can be picked up/put down and destroyed with a weapon, stone blocks that can only be rolled, frictionless cubes that slide until they hit something or fall off of a ledge, giant metal magnetic blocks that will either lock together or push apart when placed on top of each other and other crap that you'd totally find in the average cave. While I'm on the topic of block puzzles it's important to mention that there's an option in the game's settings to 'save' any solved block puzzle so you don't have to redo it every time you revisit the room after leaving the area. Otherwise you do get a 'time attack' screen that pops up and scores you on your speed to complete the puzzle and gives you a ranking on the food chain? but nothing is actually gained by doing them again and I'd highly recommend turning that time attack mode off.
While I'm talking about the options menu the game does have a nice set of options for you to fiddle with and it also has some nice extras. There's a bestiary where you can view most of the foes you've defeated (human enemies aren't included.) There's a 'title' section that is basically what you'd now call achievements and they're earned by performing various tasks. They don't actually affect the regular game but you do need to get certain titles to achieve higher riskbreaker ranks. Your riskbreaker rank is basically a rank of your 'score' and score is gotten by defeating monsters. Your rank is displayed after every boss fight (along with your score and map percentage) and does... nothing. Actually I think it changes the picture you get after the credits but I'm not 100% on that. The game's manual is also included in the options menu so that's useful if you get a physical copy without one. There's also a statistics page that lists various things such as your best times to defeat certain bosses (the bosses in the boss rush (well, not so much a boss rush but there's an area in the game with repeatable boss fights (more are available as you progress) and it'll time you)) as well as things like your highest chain attack combo, the current percentage of chests in the game that you've opened, your map percentage ect. The game has a new game+ option and your best map percentage, chest percentage, completion time on any playthrough ect. are also displayed in this section.
So aside from that you've got your basic menus for inventory management, character stats, magic, skills ect. Inventory management is actually a bit of a thing in this game since aside from consumables you're rather limited in what you can carry around and you'll want several weapons and other items on hand at all times. Throughout the game you'll find storage chests that can hold a large amount of items and every one of them links to the same item 'bank' and utilising these is in your best interests.
As I've mentioned before there's no experience or levelling up in this game so character progression is based almost entirely on gear and stats. Stats are obtained randomly after boss fights (while it is weighted towards what stats you are lacking you are basically slot machining here) and stat increasing items. Stat increasing items are actually quite plentiful and should help offset the random nature of the stats obtained after boss fights. That said stats don't matter nearly as much as good strategy and gear so you won't be boned if you don't get many strength increases from the bosses or whatever. Like everything else in the game gear is obtained from chests and enemies but an important feature of the game is upgrading gear. Weapons and armour can have certain stats change during combat (I'll get to that) but also combined in workshops. You'll find workshops around the city and you can use these to combine items together to create new and (hopefully) better gear. It does show you the end result before you commit to any combinations so you know what you're getting. So keeping lots of gear around in your storage chests for combining is a good idea. Every workshop has a storage chest but using the storage chest requires you to save the game so it's a tedious process putting items in/out all the time if you have a bunch you want to experiment with. Also that you might want a backup save if you don't want to commit to your crafting.
Right, so time to talk about the combat system. Enemies and the like appear on screen as you move around the room. Once Ashley pulls out his weapon you are in what is known as combat mode. This is independent of any actual enemies being around. In combat mode your health, mana and risk regenerate slower but you'll take less damage than standing around in 'regular' mode. When using any attack/skill/spell/item the game will pause and a targeting sphere will come up and you'll be able to choose any valid target within it. Depending on what you use you may be able to target individual body parts. Physical attacks for example are able to target any part of an opponent's body. Lowering the health of different body parts has various effects. On human enemies injuring the legs enough reduces movement speed, do enough damage to the head and the enemy is silenced, enough damage to their weapon hand and their attack strength will drop ect. This also applies to the main character although you are unable to target specific body parts when healing yourself.
I mentioned a stat, risk, and it's important to explain what that is. Health is straightforward, have more than 1 and you're alive. If your health reaches 0 you die. Mana is used for casting spells in a very typical fashion. Risk ranges from 0 to 100 and starts at 0. When you attack, depending on what type of weapon you're using your risk will increase by a small amount. The higher your risk the more damage you take and the harder it is to hit enemies. The benefit is that your critical hit chance increases and you can restore more hp but it is generally a good idea to keep risk low by not spamming attacks or making massive attack chains.
Attack chains? Chain attacks! After a short while into the game Ashley will have the ability to use chain attacks. You can set three chain abilities to offence and three to defence. Successfully using a chain ability will give you a chain point and acquiring enough of these will bring up a menu with a list of new abilities and allow you to pick one. You can chain these together when attacking but when you're on the defensive only one ability may be used. During an enemy's attack there will be a very brief window of time where an exclamation mark will appear and if you hit a button that you've associated with a defensive chain ability then Ashley will use that ability. For example a chain ability that lowers fire damage by 50% can be set to one button and one that lowers water damage by 50% to another. When an enemy uses an ability and you notice that it's of the fire or water element you can attempt to time it to use the defensive chain ability. An important factor to note is that the abilities that 'lower damage' don't actually do that, they regenerate that much hp instead. So if you timed your 50% fire damage reduction ability correctly on an attack that did 80 fire damage you'd take 80 damage then heal 40hp. Why is this important? Enemy damage will never reduce you below 0hp and the regeneration will actually heal you if you're reduced to 0hp. So if you took that 80 damage on 5hp you'd actually go down to 0hp then up to 40. An interesting quirk that speed runners love to abuse. Similarly, abilities that prevent status ailments actually remove them so you can use these on other attacks to remove a status that you've been afflicted with.
Now, offensive chain abilities also range in what they can do. Anything from healing you or repairing your weapon to doing additional damage based off the hp you have lost. When Ashley makes an attack an exclamation mark will appear and if you press a button you've associated with an offensive chain ability (basically circle, square and triangle can have one of each mapped to it) then Ashley will use that. During that animation another exclamation mark will appear and using a different chain ability (you can't use the same one twice in a row) will make Ashley continue his attack. In theory you can link these together indefinitely although the timing gets absurdly hard. The downside of making these attack chains is that they'll raise your risk exponentially. Up to eight can be performed safely at the cost of 1 added risk per attack but it quickly increases after that and you'll be at 100 risk before you know it. Chain attacks can also miss and this is determined by the enemy's body part's chain defence. This is independent of your regular chance to hit (affected by risk but you can start a chain on a missed attack) and some enemies have very hard or almost impossible to chain parts.
Now risk, health and mana all regenerate at different rates on their own (risk lowers the others increase) you'll want to use recovery items/spells in combat as it isn't at a viable rate for combat, even if you're not in combat mode. Spells are a pretty straightforward affair and come in the variety of buffs/debuffs/attack/utility/restoration spells. Spells are learned by finding an associated grimoire and these are usually found in chests although some are dropped by enemies/bosses. Using the grimoire will actually cast the spell and after that you'll have learnt it. Some spells can be levelled up (you're able to cast any level of the spell that you have learnt) by finding the same grimoire again.
Another ability Ashley can learn is that of break arts. Break arts are basically powerful attacks that are based on the weapon Ashley is using and are used at the cost of hp. There are several classes of weapons and each one has different break arts associated with it. Killing an enemy with a weapon of a certain class will earn you a point towards learning that class' next break art.
Now when it comes to damaging enemies it is not a straightforward matter of your attack power vs the enemy's defence power. Players and enemies have three main attributes. Strength, which affects weapon damage dealt and received. Intelligence which affects magic damage dealt and received and finally dexterity. Dexterity affects the chance to hit and to be hit. All armour and weapons will affect these either positively or negatively. Heavy armour might increase your strength but lower your intelligence and dexterity. Aside from that there are the stats of class, affinity and type to worry about. Type means the damage type, piercing, blunt ect. Affinity is elemental affinity, water, fire earth ect. Class is to do with the enemy class, beast, human, dragon ect. Every piece of armour and every weapon will have different stats when it comes to all eight classes, seven affinities and three types. Affinity and type are pretty straightforward in that you want high values on your weapon in categories that your opponents have low values on their armour. For class you actually want a high value of the enemy type that you are attacking. So a high value in the dragon class stat on a weapon that you're using against dragons.
Now class and affinity actually change while you fight. (I alluded to this earlier when talking about workshops.) Hitting a dragon type enemy will increase your weapon's dragon class stat. However when any stat raises there's a chance for others to decrease. Each class has two associated classes that might decrease upon raising it. For example, raising a weapon's human stat will often lower its beast stat. When it comes to the seven affinities it's a similar matter. Enemies are either fire, water, air, earth, light, dark or physical. Fire opposes water, light opposes dark, earth opposes air and vice versa. Raising any of those has a chance to lower its opposing affinity as well as the physical affinity. Raising the physical affinity has a chance to lower any of the others. For armour it's the same deal but it depends on what attack you are hit by. Important to note that hitting a fire type enemy will increase your weapon's water stat (although there's no guarantee that that enemy will have weak water affinity on its defensive stats) but being hit by a fire attack will increase that piece of armour's fire stat.
With all of that it's easy to see why a lot of players get tricked into thinking mastering class and affinities is the way to win. They grind out high stats with a variety of weapons for dealing with different enemy types. Trust me when I say that this is -not- an effective way to play the game. The type stat (as in blunt, edged or piercing) is the most important factor when it comes to your weapon vs their armour. Class and affinity is easily manipulated through buffs/debuffs as well as inserting/removing gems from your weapon or shield. Oh yeah, there's gems that you can find and insert into your weapon/shield to do various things like raise an affinity by 20 or increase your chance to evade magic by 20% (includes your own spells as well!) and it's important to not neglect them since they really make a difference.
There's also phantom points and durability to worry about! Phantom points build up on equipment as you use them in combat (actual combat, they actually decrease in combat mode unless you're being hit/hitting things) and these basically make your gear better. Durability decreases with use. Repairing gear can be done in a workshop but for every point of durability repaired you'll lose one (if available) phantom point. Ideally you want high phantom points and durability on your gear and chain abilities are great in assisting here. I should mention that it isn't a simple matter of 1 durability still meaning a piece of equipment is still good to go. Just as every phantom point acquired helps increase its effectiveness every point of durability lost will make it less effective.
By the way? Shields help heaps. So seriously, use a shield and a one handed weapon. Even a shield with apparently low stats will help reduce the damage you take since the game basically takes the mere fact that you're using one into account in its damage formulas.
So that's combat, I mean there's a lot of strategy to it that rewards clever thinking. Let's say you run into a room with an enemy that does physical damage with a weapon and he's making a fool out of you. Debuff him to lower his strength, decreasing his damage. Buff yourself to increase your strength so you take less damage. His weapon does physical and there's no affinity buffs for that? Buff his weapon with an increase to water affinity and your armour with the same to decrease his damage even further. The game also gives you a spell eventually that creates a ward that blocks the next spell (even your own) that targets the player. The game wants you to use this. Some of the powerful spellcaster enemies will die very quickly but can easily one shot you across the room with their ridiculously powerful magic. This game will punish you for not playing properly. Now punishing players for not playing the game 'right' is fine but it's hard to know how to play this game right. The combat system isn't exactly beginner friendly and the game also starts out absurdly easy with the player just attacking everything (you lack magic and any real abilities) for a bit with no strategy involved. Remember what I said before about a weapon's damage type being more important that its class or affinity? Damage type is actually the third page of stats when viewing a weapon, class and affinity come before it so it's easy to see why players assume they're more important than they really are. Changing weapons and swapping gems around mid combat really helps but there's no quick shortcut for this. There's a shortcut to cast magic, break arts, use items, assign chain abilities but nothing for gear management. Also, to see the stats of an enemy you can cast the spell analyse. Since obviously it's much easier to see the enemy stats rather than swapping gear around until you find an effective combo. Now, after casting it you'll probably notice that NOTHING HAPPENS. You need to go into the menu, go to your character's status screen and page over to the enemies in the room's status pages (something you might not even realise you can do) to find out what you learned. Obtuse.
One thing I haven't mentioned yet is map design. The rooms themselves aren't exactly wonders of game design but they look nice and the puzzles are pretty solid. The first part of the game is fairly linear until around the half way point where you've explored a good chunk of the city and found many locked doors (locked by keys or magic sigils) and you then gain the ability to teleport between save points. At this point it has more of a metroid-like feel to it as you run around the city opening up new paths to explore and gaining access to even more locations. It ends fairly climatically in what is in my opinion a very solid final dungeon filled with bosses. (This game loves to throw boss battles at you. There's roughly 40 on your first playthrough) I also mentioned the game punished the player for not playing right. This game can be very hard at times but it doesn't have to be? As you might have guess after reading an explanation of the combat and related systems there are many different approaches you can take to overcome the battles you face. This leads to the difficulty being a little inconsistent. It's not quite as bad as say Chrono Cross, a game I found to be wildly inconsistent when it came to difficulty but you might find a group of enemies much harder than the next boss depending on what gear/abilities you've made/found/unlocked at the time.
Finally, wrapping up this tidy little and very concise review let's talk about new game+. Upon beating the game (should take around 30 hours) you are able to start over with everything you had (including stats) other than key items and consumables. The items in the storage chests will also be kept. You'll gain access to new areas (some doors are locked and only open on new game+) and in those areas you'll find new enemies, items and bosses.
So, it's an interesting game quite unlike any other I've played with a complex system that is hard to learn but easy to master. I obviously love it and have tried to be fairly reasonable here so as not to mislead anyone. For those of you who haven't played it hopefully this review will be beneficial in deciding whether or not it's worth playing.