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John (Gabriel) Priest Jr. June 26, 2000 Review Feedback

Vagrant Story

So there you are, sitting in front of your Playstation. You finished Final Fantasy 8 long ago and Saga Frontier 2 was a snap. You’re waiting...waiting for Square’s new opus, hoping for a challenge...a real challenge. Enter Vagrant Story.

You take the role of Ashley Riot, an agent of the Dangerous Criminal Task Force, or “Riskbreaker”, as they are commonly called, sent in by the Valendia Knights of Peace (VKP) to investigate and dispose of a certain Mullenkamp cult leader, Sydney Losstarot, whose desire doesn’t simply end with conquering Valendia…he wants the world. Most Riskbreaker missions have a 30% margin of survival…do you have what it takes to defeat possibly the most powerful conjurer/sorcerer to ever live?

Where do I even begin with a game that I give almost the highest rating available? I was sucked from the real world for hours on end…binge-playing Vagrant Story for hours upon hours…missing meals, sleep...not even aware of my wife’s frustrated calls for attention. They say that Civilization II caused marriages to end…I wouldn’t be surprised if Vagrant Story did the same. I can only be thankful that my wife is an understanding one.

Vagrant Story takes the Final Fantasy Tactics engine on which it was based to the next level…and beyond. Although the rooms in which Ashley Riot solves puzzles and kills creatures are relatively small, they are utterly amazing in the amount of graphical and architectural detail. The storyline is fantastic...the monsters huge and amazing...the women beautiful…this game has it all, folks!

Lets start with the most notable aspect of the game…the graphics. I don’t think the horridly antiquated PSX hardware has ever been pushed this far, not even with Metal Gear Solid. Although pixilated beyond belief, you can tell that the graphics are as top-notch as you are ever going to witness from the little gray box. It does take a minute or so to adjust to the pixilated views, but it doesn’t take long to look past it. You have a 180-degree rotation around the screen so you will never lose Ashley behind a stack of crates or be surprised by a baddie jumping out from a hidden cheat spot. I was a little disappointed that the game didn’t also zoom, but we are already dealing with a game that causes my PSX to churn out graphics at least twice as good as we would have ever expected three short years ago.

The characters’ 3D models are very realistic, and the whole game has a distinct gothic look to it, painted mainly with dark browns and shades of gray. Character design is very reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics characters…imagine a cross between the Tactics characters and Tony DiTerlizzi’s amazing art that graces the interior of the Planescape campaign setting books for AD&D. As is always the case in the most recent Square games, the lead character is defined as the good guy not by a white cowboy hat, but by unimaginably strange (and usually spiky) hair. Walking, fighting, running…all the motion in the game has been carefully and articulately animated so that it appears as real and smooth as it does in the real world, which leads to an amazing effect on screen (especially during the cut scenes).

Speaking of cut scenes, Vagrant Story doesn’t feature your typical Squaresoft cuts, i.e. Final Fantasy or Parasite Eve. Taking after Metal Gear solid, the character models are so nicely done, it would be a shame to waste them just on gameplay. We get a nice zoomed-in view of these people each time a cut begins. The faces are nicely painted on these models (I was amazed when Ashley turned sideways and he actually had a nose!), and the eyes and lips move when speaking. The pixilated aspect of the game almost adds an abstract quality to the graphics that I really began to enjoy after a while. So overall, Vagrant Story has the best 3D graphics that I’ve ever seen from the PSX.

As usual, Square delivers when it comes to music. The original score is big-budget-Hollywood-film good. I would love to hear a fully orchestrated version of all the music, and if a CD is released I will definitely purchase it. The music adds to the drama, be it while fighting one of the giant monsters of Vagrant Story or exploring Ashley’s past in a cut scene.

Voice-over? Of course not…but I wish. I was so taken away by the dramatic effects of the story and graphics that I totally forgot that Square just doesn’t do voice-overs, and was shocked when speech bubbles appeared on the screen. I’m not sure why Square doesn’t do them…I think its probably a hardware issue, or perhaps because it already takes bloody long enough to get a game over here from Japan…it would take even longer if they had to re-record dialogue. However, I watch a lot of anime in Japanese, and am completely satisfied reading the translation across the bottom of the screen. If we are going to have to read anyway, why not add the voice acting for posterity’s sake…I can’t imagine watching an anime with just sound effects and music while reading the translation. Even if you can’t understand exactly what the characters are saying, you can get a lot out of just the tone…and screaming or grunting has no language barriers. So perhaps with the PSX 2, Square will have enough space and memory to put in some high quality voice-overs, be they Japanese or American. We’ll all keep our fingers crossed. (I am giving Square the benefit of the doubt in this situation, and am not lowering my rating for sound because of the lack of voice-overs. If this game had come out on a more capable machine, such as the Dreamcast, I would not have been so forgiving.)

The battle engine was based on the Parasite Eve engine…when you draw your weapon and prepare to attack, a green radius bubble appears around Ashley, who can then attack enemies within range. Not only can you attack enemies, but you can choose where to attack them. An enemy not wearing a helmet is susceptible to headshots, while others may not be wearing protection on their arms or legs. Large monsters usually have one or two weak points to exploit, and you will have to navigate Ashley around to those spots to attack them, i.e. you may be able to select a head attack, but if you are standing in a position that puts another body part in between your sword and target, you will probably miss. You also have a library of magic, called Grimoires, which you can unleash upon your foes. Once you learn chain abilities, you can practice chain attacks…pressing a chain key just as you hit an enemy will cause another attack, and another, and another…not all attacks actually hit when you think they might, so it takes some time to become adept at hitting the buttons just as your weapon connects. The chain abilities can do anything from stealing HP, to simply doing more damage, to adding poison to your attack. There are also defensive abilities that you can call upon when you are attacked. If you press the button set for a defensive ability just as the creature’s weapon makes contact with you, you can lower the damage, dodge the attack, or even help cancel out special attacks that involve fire or ice, for instance. The clumsy will certainly have to practice to master the chain techniques, but once you do, they prove invaluable in your quest to rid the world of Sydney Losstarot.

Most of the gameplay is puzzle related. You may have to turn this or that lever, or more commonly, figure out how to stack crates in order to reach high places that you need to access. The puzzles are various and challenging. Occasionally while re-exploring areas that you’ve already been in, you may hit a room that will display “Evolve or Die!” You will then have a time limit to figure out a puzzle, but you won’t actually die if you run out of time; you will simply miss out on the high rating that the game will give you if you are quick to remember (the lowest rating being “Game Designer”). If you don’t like that style of play, it’s no big deal; you can turn off the Evolve or Die challenges in the Options menu (nice touch).

Ashley Riot is a Clint Eastwood meets Squall kind of character, with great dialogue like “Reinforcements? I am the reinforcements.” He’s a smart fellow who has blocked out much of his past since the tragic death of his wife and son, which lead him to join the VKP as a Riskbreaker. The game does have a Teen rating, and although there isn’t much foul language, there is a lot of blood and disturbing images…such as Ashley’s wife and son being slaughtered right on screen. Square’s got guts. They also tackle the Church again, as the corrupted power that it was in the real world during the Inquisitions…convert by the sword. Romeo Guildenstern is the brash Captain of the Knights of the Cross…is he seeking the secrets of immortality from the diabolical Sydney?

The most complicated and interesting feature of Vagrant Story are the various Workshops throughout the game. Each Workshop has the ability to combine different types of materials, be it iron & leather, bronze & steel…whatever. Each weapon in Vagrant story has many different attributes that tell you what types of enemies it is strong or weak against: undead, dragon, human, beast, etc. When you combine blades, you can fine tune a weapon against a certain enemy, or try to create the most well balanced weapon you can. Gems are attribute boosters that you come across during the game. For instance, you could add the Dragonite gem, which has a dragon affinity of 15; so if your weapon has a -3 dragon affinity, with the Dragonite gem you could have a 12 affinity.

You can also disassemble weapons and some armor, and recreate them to be more powerful or hold more gems. You may come across a broad sword with a swept hilt…a swept hilt is more suited for piercing weapons, so you’d want to change out that swept hilt for a cross guard hilt as soon as possible. Each time you modify a weapon or combine metals, you are given the opportunity to name them -- you can also rename any weapon that you have in your inventory. This can lead to interesting results when your friends try to convince you to name your new two-handed sword “Bitch Slapper”. I liked the option though…coming up with names for your weapons is much cooler than coming up with names for your characters anyways, right? Weapons become more powerful with each enemy you kill, gaining Phantom Points. However, the longer you leave your weapon unsheathed or readied, the more PP it loses. By sheathing your weapon, you can save those valuable PP, especially during the very long boss battles. There is also a durability factor that goes into account, but you can repair all your weapons up to full whenever you come across a Workshop, without having to use any resources (other than a few seconds of your time).

One other major attribute of the game that should be mentioned is the Risk Level that Ashley displays during his exploits. The more chain abilities or attacks that you perform, the higher your Risk level goes. If your Risk gets very high, your blows become weaker or increasingly inaccurate. On the other hand, the more panicked Ashley is, the better he heals himself. I managed to keep my Risk level at normal throughout the game…how well can you do?

Vagrant Story is simply the best game I’ve played in a long, long time. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the game, and it never left me wanting more. I felt fully sated upon finishing the game, and I plan to go back and beat it again with the Evolve or Die! option on, and I will try to beat my overall Riskbreaker status. The lush graphics...the wonderful music and sound effects...the awesome story…they all lead to a fully satisfactory experience. I encourage you to go buy this game immediately. Don’t miss out on this Square classic. I am already anticipating Vagrant Story 2, and am looking forward to absolutely anything that the Final Fantasy Tactics team puts out, because they have proven themselves to be Square’s most valuable resource!

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