Vagrant Story (PlayStation) review
"Every combat action Ashley takes affects a risk meter. As it rises, both good and bad things happen. He can cause much more damage, but his accuracy and defense both suffer. If you gain high risk because you chained a 10-hit combo on some fool and immediately get assaulted by something else, you'll receive a severe dose of pain."
Thanks to combining a fast-paced battle system with sweet presentation, Vagrant Story should have been a truly incredible action-RPG. Unfortunately, Square mixed in just enough tedium with the cool stuff to make it somewhat of a rarity in my library -- a game I truly enjoyed, but never have seriously felt the urge to pick up for a second go-around.
The game grabs your attention immediately, as protagonist Ashley Riot enters a duke's manor that's been overrun by members of a cult run by Sydney (a typically bizarre blond-haired Square antagonist). After dominating a pair of cultists, he corners their leader and wastes the dude with a crossbow when he refuses to surrender. Syd's not the average zealot, though, as he quickly recovers from what seemed a lethal wound and summons his wyvern (handy pet to have, that) -- which allows him and a subordinate to escape with the duke's hostage son, Joshua. All Riot knows is that the trio are going to the cursed city of Lea Monde.
Now things get really complicated. Ashley, as an elite Riskbreaker of the Valendia Knights of the Peace, is accompanied to Lea Monde by VKP Inquisitor Callo Merlose. Of course, since Ash is a typical PlayStation-era Square hero, he's an antisocial loner (who also has the requisite mental issues which lead to flashbacks and confusion) who immediately discards the inexperienced Merlose -- who promptly gets taken hostage by Sydney. Two other factions are also searching for the cult leader, which leads to all sorts of in-fighting and treachery as players get drawn into enough intrigue to make most soap opera writers feel inadequate.
Ashley, meanwhile, tries to keep away from that spider web -- preferring to to solve his problems with weaponry. Battling against the multitude of human and inhuman foes Lea Monde possesses is done simply and effectively. A critter comes up to Ashley and you hit the circle button, causing a wire frame (reminiscent of Parasite Eve) to appear. Not only can you target anything inside the frame, but for many foes, you can pick individual body parts, which adds a bit of depth to the combat, especially when fighting a gigantic dragon with armor-like skin.....except for one or two specific areas.
As your quest begins, Vagrant Story sets up a few additions to this system to ensure you and the opposition won't simply be trading blows until the repetition drives you insane. After defeating the monstrous minotaur serving as the Aquamentus of Lea Monde, Ashley remembers some old combat abilities (connected to the aforementioned mental issues, of course) which allow him to set up combo attacks. With good timing, you can now hit foes repeatedly to really mess up their day.
But don't worry.....this doesn't make the game a cakewalk. Every combat action Ashley takes affects a risk meter. As it rises, both good and bad things happen. He can cause much more damage, but his accuracy and defense both suffer. If you gain high risk because you chained a 10-hit combo on some fool and immediately get assaulted by something else, you'll receive a severe dose of pain. This puts a touch of strategy into fights, as you'll want to decimate enemies efficiently, while not getting over-aggressive and leaving Ashley open for crippling "risk-related" assaults.
All of which works together to make a game I had a blast playing through. The city of Lea Monde just oozed with atmosphere, hosting catacombs, a mine, a gigantic cathedral and more vast places to battle through. Also, instead of buying equipment, you craft it yourself. Treasure chests contain both weapons and the components for inventing them. A visit to any of the city's forges is an opportunity to vastly improve what you're wearing and wielding, assuming you have the right goods to mix-and-match together.
However, this is where things started going a bit south for me. Weapon-forging is a time-consuming practice thanks to Square going a bit overboard in creating an intricate battle system. I was cool with how the various types of weapons are divided into three classes (piercing, blunt and edged) with each one strong against some foes and weak against others. Dividing enemies into six groups and making it so if you use a weapon against one group, it will become weaker against the next two on the list.....that's going overboard. Now, you're essentially forced to keep AT LEAST three weapons on hand at any time and you might feel compelled to go all-out and have one specific weapon for each different monster group.
Now fighting becomes a bit more tedious than it should be, especially when you consider how I said combat is done "simply and effectively". The actual fighting is, but it's kind of a drag to constantly be thinking, "Okay, that's a wolf, so I need to switch to my beast-killing mace.....wait, now I'm fighting soldiers, so I better switch to my human-fighting sword...." for the complete duration of the game. There are a few other annoyances, such as the multitude of bland, time-wasting block-moving puzzles littering Lea Monde, but the overly-cumbersome weapon system was my main beef with the game.
And that's why, even though I had a great time beating Vagrant Story, I've neither done so again nor even traveled through all the optional areas unlocked after clearing the main quest. There have been a couple of times where I've picked it up, but since I know how the plot's twists and turns unfold, dealing with the weapon management winds up killing my desire. Still, that initial trip was a blast ....
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (July 29, 2009)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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