It pays to be wrong sometimes. When I first heard about and saw screens of Vagrant Story, I was less than impressed. The art style seemed a bit sketchy and crude, the use of huge word balloons for the game's dialogue (inspired by Spawn comics, of all things) made me cringe, and the combat system seemed too much like the one in Parasite Eve, a game I wasn't too fond of. I even wrote a bit about my misgivings in an editorial column elsewhere on this site. It turns out that I was wrong, and the baked crow with wine sauce I'm eating tastes pretty damn good. Vagrant Story is simply wonderful to look at as well as play.
From the amazing CG intro and the excellent sweeping score, to the brilliant in-game movies that tell the drama-filled story, VS does what it does without peer. The game has been drawing some comparisons to Metal Gear Solid from other reviewers, and even Squaresoft's magazine ads for the game hint at this in a sly way, but the game actually holds its own against Hideo Kojima's masterpiece. Sure you can play the game during the intro, and it also uses its in-game engine for some truly spectacular cinemas, but to me this is more of an example of how the Playstation should be used, rather than a game that "borrows" a few visual tricks here and there. The opening sequence is better done than a lot of whole games I've played this year, and puts the sorry-looking, laughable movies in both Syphon Filter games out to pasture.
You play as Ashley Riot, Riskbreaker, and you start the game off as pretty much a badass medieval special forces agent investigating an incident at the manor of Duke Barbarossa, one of the many well-scripted characters in the game. You soon find out that nothing is as it seems, and one of the people you're after, the mysterious and deadly Sydney, holds some sort of key to unlocking your past along with some pretty raw memories. As usual in a Squaresoft game, the plot is full of as many twists and turns as the dungeons you'll be spelunking through. There's not a whole lot of humor in the game- in fact, this is probably the most serious a Square game has been in a while, and this is a good thing; I'd hate to see the translation ruined with out of place unfunny jokes. I'm trying hard not to give out any of the story, because I want as many people as possible to play this game, so I'll stop here, and talk about the gameplay.
You move around the detailed (and mostly dark, though torchlit) dungeons in full 3D, with a superb controllable camera. The dungeons are masterfully designed so that you have to switch to the great first person viewpoint to see hidden doorways and switches (and you can pause battles and check out some of the deadly enemies in close up). Other than some exterior cinematics and flashbacks, the entire game takes place indoors, giving things a sort of closed in feeling which enhances the atmosphere. There are some puzzles to solve, but nothing too mind twisting (think an easier version of Tomb Raider without the killer jumps)- the meat of the adventure comes in the loads of battles you'll fight, and the hundreds of weapons that you can make.
As you make your way through the game, you'll be able to (with the exception of bosses) see clearly just who you're up against. Sometimes, it helps to spin the camera around when entering a new location, as it helps uncover enemies hiding behind boxes or columns. The battles themselves are semi-real time, as in once you tap the circle button, the action pauses and a list of spots appear that you can attack. Going for the legs usually reduces the movement range of your target, while a blow to the weapon arm reduces accuracy. There's also magic to be used and a great Risk Meter, that can mean the difference between life or death if you don't pay much attention to it.
At first, your stock weapons are effective against most of the creatures, but after the first boss or two, you'll need to get pretty creative with you weapon selection, which is where the assorted workshops you come across come in handy. You can assemble, disassemble, and reassemble a wide variety of swords, shields, axes and bows. It's like the equipment screens in Front Mission mixed with the foundry areas in Thousand Arms, and is a welcome addition to the game. Of course, a lot of the weapon creation is pure trial and error, but paying attention to the games' story should help a lot.
The art style is definitely unique- characters are realistcally animated, yet almost look as if they're sketches come to life in 3D. The usual bigheaded wide-eyed look of most RPGs is gone, replaced with more or less normal sized characters sure to make players identify with the assorted heroes and villians of the story. Some of the bosses are really massive, and make the most of their entrances and exits, should you defeat them. Sets are dramatically lit and the direction of the game's cinemas is again, truly awesome. A few times during the game, I got caught off guard as a cinema blended seamlessly into the gameplay, and that's just how it should be.
The only thing i can find "wrong" with the game is that it may be too hard in the later areas for those RPGers not used to the battle system or the weapon making- but this is what gaming should really be about, learning to try and appreciate new experiences. Vagrant Story is one of those great games that sticks in your mind long after you're done with it, and a game you'll remember even more when the lesser clones of it start showing up on other systems. Well, You've heard enough from me, and my crow is getting cold- pick up Vagrant Story if you haven't done so already- It's the best Action/RPG this year.
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