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The Moonlight War novel by S.K.S. Perry

Vagrant Story (PlayStation) artwork

Vagrant Story (PlayStation) review

"By and large, most RPGs aren't hard, really. They merely take a lot of time and effort to complete. This is because most RPGs base the player's skill on how much experience they've obtained, how many battles they've won. Racking up experience points is a time-consuming process, and it's hardly a challenge, unless you consider the test of endurance involved “challenging.” Your typical Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior really doesn't take much skill to beat, now, does it? "

By and large, most RPGs aren't hard, really. They merely take a lot of time and effort to complete. This is because most RPGs base the player's skill on how much experience they've obtained, how many battles they've won. Racking up experience points is a time-consuming process, and it's hardly a challenge, unless you consider the test of endurance involved “challenging.” Your typical Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior really doesn't take much skill to beat, now, does it?

Compare this to Vagrant Story. There are numerous large-scale battles throughout the course of this thirty-hour adventure, and I found that no matter how long and hard I fought, one thing always came back: By the end of a typical Vagrant boss battle, my hands were sweating and aching, my legs were shaking, my heart was racing, and my ass was halfway off the couch. I've fought adversaries that took me well over a half an hour to bring down, and every second of that time was spent literally on the edge of my seat, forgetting to even blink, so focused on what I was doing that my eyes never once strayed from the TV screen.

No, the reason I kept having so much trouble wasn't because I sucked at the game. It's because Vagrant is challenging for exactly the right reason – it takes a good player to beat it. Vagrant isn't the best RPG I've ever played – though I do think it's up there – but it has got to be the most intense.

In fact, there are so many things brilliant about Vagrant that I doubt I'll have time to discuss them all in the review. To start, the game marks a number of ways in which Square takes risks and breaks from the norm that it has set for itself. The entire adventure, including the environments and cutscenes, is rendered using the game's 3D engine. Furthermore, though, it utilizes real-time combat to rid us of the cumbersome breaks and pauses that turn-based battle sequences often provide. The idea is to create one smooth, seamless experience that is free of the typical flaws of PSX-era RPGs. It works – for all its differences, Vagrant is better than about 99% of its competition.

The game is set in the city of Lea Monde, a once-great kingdom that was wiped out by a terrible earthquake and has since been home only to ghastly creatures and the moaning undead. Familiar “forgotten world” themes aside, it's a beautifully realized game environment. Imagine the palace of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Tallon IV from Metroid Prime, or any other crumbling-at-the-seams game world. That's Vagrant, simplified for the PSX generation. Lea Monde's distinct subsections – bright outdoor areas, deep mines, towering cathedrals, blue-lit underground districts – all help to create a unique atmosphere that it unlike anything I've ever seen. It's one of the coolest game environments I've witnessed in a long time.

As to why you're there… I won't say much. You're an agent named Ashley Riot who's been assigned to investigate the workings of a mysterious cult, called Mullenkamp, following a brutal attack on a nearby town. I wish I could say more about Vagrant's plot, but I can't – just know that, even without the aid of FMV cutscenes and voice acting, it's pulled off with enough exceptional theatricality to rival most films.

The game isn't even structured like a typical RPG, but rather like one big dungeon. There are no towns, no shops, no inns, and no NPCs. There's very little outside of the dungeon-crawling, but that dungeon-crawling is so engaging that anything else would throw the game off. Vagrant's pacing is so perfect that there's never a hitch, a hiccup, or a moment when the game isn't quite as fun as it usually is.

Its main draw, as I mentioned before, is its battle system. There are no random encounters or separate fight sequences – all battles take place right there, where you meet up with your enemies. Hitting the circle button triggers a radius in which you can hit with your weapon, and after that, you can target specific body parts for varied effects and maximum damage. Your standard items and magical spells can all come into play if so desired.

Square's brilliant twist is to base the battles around chains. It works like this. As you fight more and more enemies, you'll be able to choose from various offensive and defensive chain maneuvers. If, when you attack an enemy, you press one of the chain buttons right when your weapon makes contact with your foe, Ashley will fire back with another attack of varying effect. Chains can go on forever provided you've got the right timing. Defense works the same way, with players executing blocks just as they're being hit by enemy blows.

This has a tremendous effect on gameplay. No longer is the RPG world confined to sit-back-and-select-attack-repeatedly combat options. The battles of Vagrant require constant use of chains, and the amount of concentration and skill required to pull off successful maneuvers is mind-boggling. Even the smallest of enemies can take you down in an instant if they catch you off guard, and the bosses of Vagrant are among the most vicious and intense I've ever seen. I mentioned that some of the boss sequences in Vagrant took me over a half an hour to overcome, but you have to consider what that means: Thirty minutes of being alert, focused, and on the edge of your seat.

This fact alone will make or break the game for some people. I can see some getting upset over the game's sometimes overwhelming difficulty, and I admit there were times when I felt like giving up. But what's great about Vagrant is that it's never unfair, that any obstacle can be overcome with the right amount of determination. The game's extreme difficulty, due in part to the risk system (which lowers your battle abilities the more you fight), only makes it that much more rewarding when you finally beat a dragon that you've spent weeks trying to kill.

Is the game's final boss fought on top of a burning cathedral, with a winged second form and an elaborately animated, all-encompassing uber-attack as its sign-off? Why, yes. Yes it is.

All this, and it's a well-rounded adventure with everything done excellently or better: The equipment building system is one of the deepest and most robust I've ever witnessed; the skill set and number of abilities is considerable; there's a reasonable portion of extra content and side quests; and my compliments to Square for creating box-pushing puzzles that are actually a lot of fun. This is the kind of game I could gush over for hours, because there's just so much that it does right, and because there are so many risks it takes that ultimately paid off. It's a close second for my favorite RPG on PSX (the first being Star Ocean: The Second Story), and my only regret about playing it is that it's over now.

Rating: 10/10

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (July 06, 2007)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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