Released in May 2000 for the PSX
, by Squaresoft
Vagrant Story is one of Square's last releases for the aging PSX, and it is a worthy send-off- Vagrant Story pushes the machine to its limits and weaves an amazing story into a seamless environment, to create one of the most compelling PSX titles to date.
The setting is a quasi-medieval world reminiscent of that in which Final Fantasy Tactics takes place (indeed, the game's art was drawn by the same designer as Tactics, and the game opens with a quote from Alazlam Durai...)
You play the part of Agent Ashley Riot, an agent of the Valendia Knights of Peace (a FBI-like organization in this fantasy world) who is a member of the elite "Riskbreaker" unit, this agency's equivalent of the modern-day Delta Force. Riot joined this group after his wife and child were killed by bandits. As a result, he undertakes well-nigh suicidal missions without hesitation.
Riot is sent to investigate a cult worshiping the dark goddess Mullenkamp, which is led by a man named Sydney Losstarot. Losstarot is a genuine mystic- he can look into the depths of a man's soul and draw out visions of inner truth. The Mullenkamp cult takes over the stronghold of the Duke Bardorba, but is repelled by the Crimson Blades, a sect of holy knights. Losstarot flees to the ancient city of Lea Monde, pursued by Riot, as well as the Crimson Blades. The game begins as Ashley Riot enters Lea Monde- within, he will confront the darkness within himself as well as that which infests the cursed city.
This game gets extra points from me for taking the time to explain phenomena that you normally would expect in video games simply because they're video games by means of the plotline. For example, the standard dissolution and disappearance effect that one always gets when stuff dies in video games is explained as the result of a long association with the Dark- when you die in this situation, your spirit and body are sent to wander the ether, in search of something else that's dead to inhabit (termed "an incomplete death".) Anything that dies in Lea Monde has been subject to this effect since the city was cursed.
The only pre-rendered cutscene you'll find in Vagrant Story is the intro movie- everything else is scaled right from the gameplay. This makes for truly interesting cinematics, which are well-integrated with gameplay.
The art of the game is striking. Characters are drawn with a truly unique style. Some of them do feel a bit too modern- some characters sport clothing that makes them look like stranded Goth-clubbers, and piercings are everywhere. The models themselves are highly detailed, thus they scale well in the aforementioned cinematics. Also amusing is the Pokemon-like monster index which allows you to closely inspect the models of the creatures you fight (a shame they don't have this for humans you encounter and major plot characters...)
The gameplay is quite reminiscent of Parasite Eve- you run freely around a world organized by rooms, and combat is realtime. Sometimes, the view really does get in your way, as in most 3D games utilizing this sort of perspective, but you can still operate even if your view is obscured. This is true even in battle. You can attack something that you can't necessarily see on screen due to overhead scenic obstruction simply by opening your lovely Parasite Eve geodesic targeting sphere, and you can freely rotate the screen while this is up, anyway, so you don't have to spend valuable realtime cycles fiddling with the view.
The battle system is also quite refreshing, as it incorporates a nice hit-location system (you choose where you strike with your weapon or magic, and every enemy has a point where his stance or his armor provide a weakness.) In addition to this, there is a Xenogears-like attack chaining system, whereby you assemble combinations of moves to create greater damage and debilitating effects. Intelligent fighting is rewarded by the "Risk" system, whereby repeated attacks weaken your overall defense and chance to hit. So, chipping away at a creature over and over again with an ineffectual weapon in the hopes of wearing it down slowly is going to harm you directly by making each subsequent attack worse and worse (although high Risk is not without its benefits- healing spells are markedly more effective on a highly Risky character, and the chance of a critical hit increases with Risk.) Also, you can design new weapons by disassembling and reassembling them in various workshops scattered about Lea Monde.
All in all, this is a truly worthwhile buy- the gameplay is smooth, the plot gripping, and the entertainment nonstop. I've enjoyed this game more than I've enjoyed most games I've played in the last year...