This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.Dragon Force, which is easily worth a column of its own.)
I wound up spending the bulk of my time with Silent Hill (mostly alone, eek), but I also tried out Vagrant Story, and I remember enjoying it. Fast-forward 13 years or so, and I've finally picked it back up via PSOne Classics to finish what I started. It's taken me several hours to come to this conclusion, but I think I still like it.
I'm not very well-versed in Square Enix's litany of RPGs. I played all of Final Fantasy 6, some of Final Fantasy 4, quite a few hours of Final Fantasy 7 and a few more on the DS remake of Final Fantasy 3. I also almost beat Super Mario RPG but, alas, I had to take it back to Movie Time Video or risk a dreaded late fee. Still, I think I'm safe in saying that Vagrant Story is a fairly drastic departure from most of Square's RPG offerings.
There is no party system here. There is only Ashley Riot, an elite agent known as a Riskbreaker, who wears a convoluted outfit that exposes his buttocks. The story, too, is convoluted, involving a seemingly endless cast of characters, all speaking in pseudo-Elizabethan dialects about the battle between spiritual faith and godless dark magic. There's a duke involved, as well as a cardinal, so you know it's serious. Then there's Sydney, Ashley's sadistic partner in fashion and Vagrant Story's waifish, shirtless main villain.
What really stands out, though, is the chain system. As Ashley gains experience, he gains various chain abilities. By pressing Square, Triangle or Circle at the exact moment an attack lands, Ashley can unleash a second attack with special properties. Press a different button the moment the second attack lands, and you can execute a third and so on. The effects of these attacks range from things like poison to extra damage and health regeneration. Some of them even have more complex effects, like dealing extra damage based on how much damage Ashley has already taken. (Ashley also has defensive abilities that allow him to do things like reflect damage or evade harmful effects.)
This is where Vagrant Story may start to lose some people, as the deeper you go into the game's systems the more obsessive management they require. You see, each weapon or piece of armor in Vagrant Story has three sets of important, ever-changing statistics. Not three important statistics, three sets of important statistics. There's the basic type of weapon (piercing, blunt, edged), the weapon's affinity (fire, earth, evil, etc.) and the weapon's class (human, dragon, phantom, etc.).
All of these statistics dictate how much damage a weapon does to a particular enemy. Let's say you're fighting a lizard man, which is a Dragon class, earth-based enemy. Attacking it will raise your weapon's air affinity – which is strongest against earth – and make it more effective against Dragon class creatures. Meanwhile, when the lizard man attacks you, your armor will become stronger against both Dragon class creatures and earth affinities. Now, at the same time, increasing one affinity or class statistic may lower stats in other affinities and classes. In other words, if you raise a weapon's fire affinity, it's water affinity may drop.
That brings us to Vagrant Story's other hallmark feature, weapon and armor crafting. That's right, on top of all this stat management is a detailed crafting system. By entering workshops, Ashley can break down every weapon into various blades and grips, which can then be recombined into new weapons with different stats. Weapons and armor of different materials (bronze, iron, etc.) can also be combined to create new materials. And when you're done doing that, why not socket a gem onto your new masterpiece, altering its abilities further? You can even give your creation a name. My personal favorite is my mighty spear, Pokey, which strikes fear into earth-based, Beast class creatures everywhere.
It might appear that I've spent this entire column complaining about Vagrant Story's sprawling minutiae, but the truth is that I've grown to like it quite a bit. I can see how it might turn off some players (our own Mike Schramm, for one), but the combination of stat management and reflex-intensive combat has kept me engaged for over 11 hours now, and I've only completed 34 percent of the map.
If others can get their kicks from planning a virtual suburb or managing the various systems of a starship, I don't see why I shouldn't be excited about a new sword hilt.