Friday, April 21, 2006

Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story
Role Playing Adventure - Playstation
Memory Card - 10 slots (2 required)
1 player

I had been avoiding Vagrant Story for quite some time now. I read a little bit about it, and it didn't seem like my cup of tea. But having played Matsuno's other game Tactics Ogre Let Us Cling Together, I was impressed by its brilliance and wanted to try his other titles. I'm always up for a game that does things differently. Vagrant Story is definitely that.

The problem is... I was right about the game. I had been avoiding VS because I heard that pre-battle preparation was key. To me. preparation didn't equate to strategy. I want my strategy in the battles, not before them. Vagrant Story has a crazy complex affinity system where your weapons and armor are strong against specific types of weapons (Piercing, Edge, Blunt), specific types of classes (Dragons, Humans, Evil, etc), and specific types of realms (earth, fire, holy, etc). When you fight against Human enemies, you grow stronger against Humans. When enemies of the Earth realm attack you, your armor's defense against Earth grows. This replaces the traditional level up system. Your weapons and armor grow with usage. Every enemy you come across will have specific weaknesses. Maybe an Undead enemy is weak against Edged weapons and the Fire realm. Then the best weapon to use against him is one that is strong in Fire, Edge, and strong against Undead. Chances are, you won't have a weapon that meets all three criteria. In fact, it's very likely that for most battles, you may only meet one or two. You are only allowed 8 weapons in your inventory, so you're constantly compromising. Having the wrong combination against an enemy means you will deal close to zero damage. But if you have the best combination, bosses can go down in a few hits. Most of the time, you will be in the middle.

I am unsure of the intended purpose of this 3-fold affinity system. It seems like it's complex just to be complex. Because of the limited inventory slots, there is no possible way you can prepare for all scenarios. So you just have to make trade offs here and there and hope it's good enough for an enemy. I don't think the system added anything to the game, and in some ways just made it more tedious. If you don't have a weapon that works against a boss, you may actually have to start from square one and go off and build it up. Speaking of unnecessary complexities, Vagrant Story also allows the player to fuse weapons and armor together to make new items. While it's nice to be able to create your own items, the problem is that in execution, you're playing the guess and check game. Line up two items, look at their stats individually, and compare to the stats of the newly created item... if it's not a good match, then cancel... and line up the next pair. Repeat until you've gone through every possible combination. Again... I don't think this added to the game, and like the affinity system, made playing a little more tedious.

Luckily, I was also wrong about Vagrant Story. While battle preparation isn't my favorite type of mechanic, VS also allows for plenty of strategy within the battles. Battles take place in real-time, but action stops whenever you pull up the command menu. You can see Matsuno's experience with TO/FFT because terrain plays a role. You can position yourself so that walls or even other enemies are between you and an incoming threat. Enemies can end up hitting their own men if you position yourself right, and cause an internal brawl. It's very cool to be able to use your surroundings for you. Height also plays a role. The battles are also incredibly engaging because there is a timing system. In a single turn, you can chain multiple attacks together if you time it right. You can theoretically do it infinitely until an enemy dies, but the timing is very precise and there's a few tenths of a second in which you can chain. The same applies for defense. If an enemy attacks you, you can set up different defensive arts that have different effects: heal 50% of the damage, reflect 40% of the damage back to the enemy, or many others. For both chaining and defensive arts, an exclamation point appears briefly at the exact moment when you need to press a button. The drawback is that the more chains and defensive arts you use, the higher your RISK meter goes. RISK lowers your accuracy and raises the damage you sustain from attacks. It's a very cool concept and makes the game that much more thoughful and fun. There were several boss battles where I utilized defensive arts as my primary strategy. There were others where giving myself attack bonuses for an all-out offensive was my best plan. There's so much variety offered in the fight scenarios that I was never bored.

In addition to fighting, Vagrant Story plays very much like a 3D platformer. You explore areas, jump over giant chasms, cling to ledges, hop on blocks, and all that. The control is very good too, which makes the platforming integral and not a half-hearted inclusion. One of the more unique things about Vagrant Story is the nature of its puzzles. Unlike most RPGs where it's go one place, pull a switch here, go to another, pull a switch there, Vagrant Story has single-room puzzles. Usually you'll need to get to higher ground to access a doorway, but there's no immediate way to get there. Scattered on the ground are a variety of blocks that you can arrange and stack toward your goal. There are a bunch of these puzzles scattered throughout the game. Some are pretty straightforward. Others require quite a bit of brainwork to figure out. It's absolutely refreshing to see this in a RPG, and it was one of the most enjoyable aspects.

Vagrant Story is quite an interesting game. There isn't quite anything else like it out there. Between the platforming, block puzzles, and intense battles, I couldn't put it down. Nevertheless, the complexity of some of the systems felt too much like experimentation than thought-out game design. For the equipment affinities, sure I coped with the limitations. But I am not convinced that the system was a good idea to start with. The same can be said about the equipment fusion. Nevertheless despite its weaknesses, I have already started to play it again. That speaks volumes about the quality of what's contained within.