August 14, 2000
by Squaresoft Reviewed by: Brian Williams
It's been a long time since I was really excited about a video game. Even the games that have impressed me haven't made me feel like I did when I was a kid and I first read about Final Fantasy in Nintendo Power. Even when Tomb Raider first appeared, I was more intrigued by the potential development of a video game character with depth who could also become a kind of pop idol -- unfortunately, it seems Eidos decided you can't have a character with too much depth and pop stardom at the same time. Vagrant Story and its star, Ashley Riot, have given me a new hope.
After the murder of Ashley's wife and child by a rogue some years back, he transferred to the Riskbreaker division of the Valendian Knights for Peace. The Riskbreakers are the Dangerous Criminal Task Force who work mostly alone with a license to kill (He's even cooler than Bond!) -- they go after the most heinous, vicious, and brilliant criminals. More than 70% die in action; even many of those who survive fail in their missions. Ashley, who graduated Valedictorian in his class from the VKP Academy (and he's cooler than Squall too!) has a perfect case record.
The game starts when Duke Bardorba's manor is seized by a cult called "Mullenkamp" led by Sydney Losstarot and Ashley is assigned to investigate, assisted by Callo Merlose, the resident babe agent (with a PhD) from the VKP Information Analysis Unit. The Duke is away at a second residence, so Sydney's comrade-in-arms, John Hardin, kidnaps his son, Joshua Bardorba. Now Ashley must follow the fleeing criminals underground into the lost city of Lea Monde. Lea Monde was an impressive city with the strongest walls in all of Valendia and renowned for its great wines. Legend has it that this city that sunk in an earthquake 20 years ago was the home of the very powerful, very evil sorceress Mullenkamp to whom Sydney's cult is dedicated.
Some artifact hidden there is also the object of desire of the Order of the Crimson Blade, a group sanctioned by the Church and under the control of the Cardinal, led by Romeo Guildenstern. This group is at odds with Parliament, so is it at odds with the Duke? Why were they at the Duke's manor "unofficially?" What is the Duke's connection with Mullenkamp? What are the true motives of the VKP in sending another agent, Jan Rosencrantz, into Lea Monde with more background knowledge than Ashley? And what exactly is suppressed in Ashley's memory? This intriguing story unfolds in immersive in-game cinema sequences throughout.
First off, Ashley is WAY easier to control than Lara Croft (as you can tell, I see a lot of room to compare these characters, but the games on the whole are very, very different) and while Lara's gig is staying all cool and collected all the time, Ashley gets a little high strung in the heat of battle and has to remember to keep calm. This is the beauty of the RISK system. Basically, while Ashley's fighting he becomes enraged which gives him RISK Points that make his attacks less likely to hit as he becomes unstable and less focused. Especially if you keep Chain Attack going, each time he lands an attack and a Battle Ability is used, RISK increases. Monster attacks also will hurt more if they connect. Keep in mind that Ash loses Risk Points as time passes in Relaxed Stance (i.e. no weapons out; so he can climb, push, pick up stuff and calm down after a fight) so take the time to let him chill out between fights. There's another group of Battle Abilities that are used to defend. For these, timing is still the key. This time, though, instead of timing your hit when your previous attack lands, you time your defense for when the enemy blow connects. You'll get the hang of it. Lara never had so much to think about in the heat of battle.
However, one thing Mr. Riot and Ms. Croft definitely have in common is a love for packing an arsenal. But while Lara is all guns, Ashley broadens his horizons using maces, axes, swords, and spears. Plus, Ashley doesn't just find weapons; different grips and blades can be recombined and forged in factories to make new tools of destruction. Once you make a weapon, you can name it. There's even a type of magic he can learn that will allow him to "enchant" a weapon or armor with certain attributes -- you don't have to find the Ice Shield in this game, you can MAKE it!! Spending time with one weapon allows it to gain Phantom Points from creatures it has slain and to become stronger. Eventually, when a weapon you've created has been used enough to reach its potential, it will earn titles of renown. Excalibur wouldn't be Excalibur without some history. Each weapon also has Damage Points, though, which represent the structural decay from use (yes, folks, metal hitting metal does make a dent... or metal hitting a dragon's tooth for that matter), so be sure to keep a balance between Battle Stance and Relaxed Stance. Don't just go around banging your shield against walls and dragging your blade on the ground. Remember, too, that Ashley can also repair weapons in the Factories where they're forged and make them last longer.
Besides the weapon being stronger, another asset of being dedicated to one in particular is that over time, Ash will recall Break Arts with a specific weapon from his suppressed memory allowing for lethal attacks without the button-pushing/timing savvy of the Chain Attack battle ability.
Plus, Ashley can READ!! By finding Mullenkamp's old Grimoires scattered around the abandoned city, our clever boy can learn four different types of magic from Shaman spells for personal healing to Warlock attacks to acts of Sorcery and Enchantment, Ashley can eventually do it all. He's not just some dumb jock with guns.
I still haven't mentioned my favourite innovation in this fresh, fresh game -- one that seems obvious, but I haven't seen it before: hit locations. You don't just randomly lose or take hit points. Ashley's body is divided up into sections as are his opponents' bodies. If an attack is focused on a dragon's tail, it will lose the ability to use its swinging tail attack. Likewise, only an attack focused on its underside, where it's not protected by scales, will kill it. If a monster focuses on devouring Ashley's legs, he may become crippled and not move so well, or a head attack can leave him silenced, unable to use magic. You can tell the Final Fantasy Tactics team was working on this game: besides the beautiful character design and bewitching soundtrack, there's also the refusal to give up the importance of intelligence and strategy in battle.
The Target Dome battle system is similar in a way to Parasite Eve. If something is in the range of the sphere around you, you can target a part of its body and attack it and it you. Of course, there are also long range weapons like the bowgun and certain magical attacks that let you annihilate enemies outside your sphere.
Finally, whenever an enemy is killed, it becomes stored in Ash's Encyclopaedia so you can go back and view it whenever you want. There are a few other subtleties like the Monster classing system and traps and "Evolve or Die!" puzzles to solve, but this already gives you a sense of the complexity of this title and some things are less complicated when you're playing than I can make them sound in print. While the game is very involved, the world and gameplay in it quickly become seamless and intuitive.
Graphics & Audio
Beautiful. Beautiful! BEAUTIFUL! The monsters look great, the weapons look great, magical effects are great (but you don't have to wait forever for a Guardian Force sequence). And our hero looks... great? Look at his hair and his rad gloves with elbow shields and his backless shorts that say, "Hey man, I can be as sexy as Lara Croft" ...well, maybe-maybe not. But he definitely looks cool. Akihiko Yoshida may have surpassed Yoshitaka Amano as my favourite character designer. All of the characters in this game have a certain... darkness, and most of them are also charged with a fetish sexuality that reminds me of Aeon Flux. There are body piercings and tattoos and lots of buckles and zippers. You gotta love that.
The textures of everything in the game's settings are well-rendered creating an immersive world that feels very real. The lighting and color palette create the perfect atmosphere throughout the game with the right mix of the eerie and the beautiful. The only thing I'd like to see is blood and gore in the battles (I know it's not Square, but it would be appropriate for this game) with limbs falling off according to where you attack in the Target Dome. It would be an added level of realism and, dare I say it, violent fun to watch a stupid orc's head roll off.
Of course the same is true of the soundtrack. This is, after all, a Square title scored by Hitoshi Sakimoto, the same brilliant composer who worked on Final Fantasy Tactics. I think he's even on the same plateau as Ryuichi Sakamoto when it comes to creating a vibe. His music submerges in a blend of Castlevania/Dracula X and Final Fantasy and Vagrant Story's own kind of industrial sound. And it's also very listen-able outside the game environment. This is literally the most beautiful and tightly composed soundtrack I have ever heard.
If I wasn't afraid of the weight of the statement, I would definitely call this the greatest game ever made. Instead, I'll just say it's quite possibly and probably the greatest. With in-game puzzles and so much personal customization, it has great replay value. The history of Lea Monde is as "haunting" as Hill House and Ashley's personal saga is as compelling as The Crow's. The main villain, Sydney, combines elements of my two favourites -- Kefka's insanity and playfulness with Sephiroth's tragic beauty -- adding new elements and emerging them into a whole that surpasses either. And the whole story plays out as elegantly (visually and structurally) as a Final Fantasy game.
Ashley Riot may well become every bit the personality that Lara Croft is, but I think Square respects him too much to let that take away from the depth of his character. We probably won't see cheesy comics with storylines that are beneath him or low quality action figures and merchandise. The director, Yasumi Matsuno, has said: "If Final Fantasy is the game industry version of a major Hollywood movie, then Vagrant Story is an independent movie to be watched quietly in a small movie theatre." It's more intimate, like Tomb Raider, but no less intense. This is arthouse, but it's also so much fun that I think it's arthouse for everyone. While Ashley is really cool, I don't just want to look at him, I actually love to play the game. Again, finally.
Review Posted On 31 July 2000.
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