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Vagrant Story: Game of a million swords


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.

I'm not sure when it happened, but it must have been sometime in 1999. My friend Stephen and I engaged in a sort of foreign exchange program. We didn't go overseas or anything – we just loaned our respective game consoles to each other. I borrowed his entirely alien PlayStation and a few games, notably Silent Hill, which had just come out and that I was dying to play. Meanwhile, he borrowed my Sega Saturn. (He really liked 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.

Gallery: Making Time: Vagrant Story | 10 Photos

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.

Mechanically, Vagrant Story is a dungeon crawler infused with traditional Japanese role-playing. Monsters wander corridors and forests, engaging Ashley in pseudo-real-time combat. Ashley can attack via a few different menus. The basic attack menu allows you to select any enemy body part within range – arms, legs, midsection, head, tail, etc. Magic spells, special techniques and items are all activated through other menus. There's also a small cool-down period between attacks and spells, so you can't just jam on the attack or menu button and avoid getting attacked yourself.

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.)

In theory, you could continue chaining attacks forever, so long as you maintain your timing, but Vagrant Story does a few things to discourage this. The most significant is the Risk meter, which increases with every chain attack. The higher Ashley's Risk, the less accurate his attacks. Ashley also suffers more damage when Risk is high, and is less likely to evade enemy attacks. However, Ashley's healing spells actually become more effective as Risk increases, as does his chance to land critical hits.

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.

This can be tricky, especially when Vagrant Story starts spawning monsters of opposite classes and affinities into a single dungeon. The result, at least if you're as compulsive as I am, is that you have to constantly equip different weapons in order to make them as effective as possible. Even if you're not so obsessed, it's absolutely necessary to choose the proper equipment for boss fights, as the wrong weapons may do little damage, or even no damage at all. Discovering an enemy's weaknesses requires casting a specific spell, which adds yet another layer to the micromanagement (never mind that some bosses seem to be immune to this spell).

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.

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