Vagrant Story review. Rules of winemakers

This time we’re going back to the era of the first Playstation to taste some of the 2000 vintage. That’s when Vagrant Story was released, a game created according to the rules of winemakers, whose wine list can easily satisfy your specific tastes: Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII та XIV. That is, they know how to play regular RPGs, tactical RPGs, and MMORPGs, but today’s example will prove to you that preparing a recipe for an action RPG is no problem for them either.

And although this is very rare for games, unlike wine, in some ways Vagrant Story’s age has been good for it. Thanks to modern emulators, it looks as good as ever, and thanks to the modern ailments that the genre suffers from, it can take you back to a time when it could not afford to do so technically. The grass was greener, the games were shorter, and the poorly implemented open world hadn’t yet filled your backlog.

I’ve tested a couple of emulators, found the best one with the best settings, researched unique interviews with the game’s authors, and after making sure it’s worth your attention, I’ll try to convince you of the same. Traditionally, either with a text review or its video version.

Storyline

Back in the days of the first Playstation, and even before that, there was a tradition that if the player did not click on anything in the start menu, the game would launch an extra splash screen.

In the case of Vagrant Story, it shows not only the extremely important and exclusive story content, but also the philosophy that guided the development team: the player must be attentive. Not only during the game, but also in the official printed materials and, as the start menu shows, in the game itself.

There, the player is introduced to the main parties in the dark fantasy setting: the clergy of St. Iokus, the Parliament, the terrorist cult of Mühlenkamp, and Duke Bardorba, who strangely has influence over the Parliament and at the same time finances the cult’s activities.

For unknown reasons, terrorists seize the Duke’s estate, the clergy sends its knights there without the Parliament’s permission, and the best agent of the Parliament’s special forces and the game’s protagonist, Ashley Ryot, arrives to influence the situation.

If it seems to you that one person is not enough for such a problem and he could use reinforcement, you just don’t know what kind of person he is yet. He is the reinforcement.

Ashley has the title of Risk Breaker. Such agents operate on the edge of high risk, justified by a high reward: the safety of citizens. Looking ahead, the developers have successfully translated this narrative to the game plane, turning risk into an important game mechanic of the same name, worthy of your attention. After all, if you don’t take risks, you don’t drink champagne, and if you don’t explore the retro cellars of the gaming industry, you risk missing out on its most precious pearls.

We’ll come back to the game design because it’s worth noting another theme of the plot that became the game mechanics: phantom pain. Without it, I think the final boss is impossible to defeat, and without it, Ashley probably wouldn’t have become one of my favorite video game characters.

Whether she is running from phantom pain or chasing after Sydney (the head of the cult, and thus the game’s conventional main antagonist), it is only at the end that Ashley realizes the path she has taken, and the game reacts immediately. It shows the appropriate subtitle in the end credits: The Phantom Pain.

They claim that this is the end of the Vagrant Story, i.e. the “Traveler’s Story”, and that the Traveler’s Story begins. This could be taken as a hint at a sequel, if not for an interview with the head of development, Yasumi Matsuno. He specifically said there would be no sequel, and I personally don’t see the only available ending to the game as open-ended. It is definitely not a cliffhanger.

In general, what you see and hear may remind you of movies «The Bourne Identity», «Old Guard» and the series «Game of Thrones». While the ending is similar in staging and essence to the ending of the first The Matrix, after which the second and third, and especially the fourth part, could have been dispensed with. It is generally perceived as a humorous parasite of the cult work, but that’s another story.

While Matsuno’s “travel story” was humorless, and its title was too conceptual not to talk about. As he himself stated in an interview, the team’s task was to create a full-fledged narrative that did not draw conclusions instead of the player.

Thanks to him, Vagrant Story is much more appropriate for the title of a traveling game, rather than what Steam’s translators mean by the word (for the record, this is how they currently translate the roguelike genre).

The narrative here moves from the hero to the antagonists – it cannot find a place to stop and reveal a one-sided picture. Divided into a bunch of fragments that often do not give concrete answers, this picture travels from player to player, each of whom eventually has their own interpretation of what they have seen.

And so, as I wandered around the forums, I noticed that the goal had been achieved. At least two key events in the story divided people into those who understood them differently and those who understood them not at all. And that is very cool. But it’s probably not so cool that with such a creative explosion of ideas, these fragments have scattered beyond the game itself. To get a full picture of them, you have to go online: to the pages of a fan or official encyclopedia – Vagrant Story Ultimania.

But even considering that, and the fact that the developers had to cut 50% of the planned storyline due to technical limitations and deadlines, they can still be proud of the result. After all, we ended up with one of the most mature works among Japanese RPGs, where there is nothing superfluous.

No extraneous story quests, no unnecessary splash screens or dialog. No comedic characters, children or teenagers who act like underdeveloped oligophrenics for their age or character.

Vagrant Story is all drama and ultra-hardcore. Only phantom pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, political intrigue, betrayal and disappointment in one’s own patriotic ideals, or even memories where not only traumas but also forgotten fighting skills are stored. Maybe these aren’t the best or easiest issues to deal with in our time, but maybe, on the contrary, it will make someone’s life easier, because this game is ultimately about overcoming all of this.

The good thing is that it didn’t take long to overcome all that. Because of the aforementioned limitations, the team had to keep only the most important things in the game, and oddly enough, I’m actually grateful for those limitations. The 24 hours it took to complete the story turned out to be full of only the most necessary things.

It’s funny that it takes players this long on average, as opposed to the six hours Yasumi Matsuno once claimed. He must have underestimated the depth of the philosophy with which I started this review, and it turned out to be either the hardest Japanese RPG or just not very intuitive.

Gameplay

According to Matsuno, he is more of a salesman than a creator. Before developing an idea, he weighs supply and demand.

When he felt that people were tired of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, he realized that the time had come for his Ogre Battle. When he noticed that the same Final Fantasy game had already become a Hollywood blockbuster, he realized that the art house niche was unfilled. That was the first step towards Vagrant Story.

The next step was to listen to his team. In addition to technical and aesthetic suggestions (which we’ll talk about later), the team expressed exactly what he wanted to hear. They didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. As a creativity marketer, this was a blessing in disguise, because uniqueness goes hand in hand with high competitiveness.

Thus, the game did not become a hostage of the genre, because it had several genres. Vagrant Story is an action-adventure platformer with active pausing, role-playing, and even rhythm game elements. It also didn’t become a hostage to the rules of Japanese “winemakers” because Matsuno’s team deliberately broke them.

That’s why, for example, there is no currency in the game and no vendor to buy things from. You have to rely on enemy inventory and a sophisticated crafting system.

In Vagrant Story, there is no grind, no experience points, and not even a character level to level up to. All of the boss fights here are designed purely for the player’s agility and Ashley’s weapons, and the reward is usually the unlocking of subconsciously forgotten abilities, equipment, or a random trait point as a pleasant but insignificant bonus.

The game does not have the traditional division into towns, dungeons, and the open world. The entire map here is a vast system of large rooms that form one big maze.

It begins in a wine cellar on the outskirts of town and ends at the top of it. But no matter where it takes the player, except for save and crafting points, it will always be dangerous. It offers:

  • platforming on the edge of an abyss with a bunch of hidden traps underfoot;
  • puzzles with boxes like pyatnashki, whose roof burns;
  • closed doors whose keys are on the opposite side of the map;
  • and, of course, a whole bunch of battles that are deadly even when they’re not boss battles.

    But what makes the battles difficult is not the challenging combat system, but the next rule-breaking. Vagrant Story does not offer a gradual or interactive tutorial. From the very beginning, a separate menu item is available to the player with a detailed textual explanation of all game mechanics, which of course is rarely read to the end. This brings us back to the philosophy of the development team that I mentioned at the beginning: the player has to pay attention.

    As Matsuno said:

    Vagrant Story is for hardcore gamers. You shouldn’t buy it expecting something like Final Fantasy, because the vector of gameplay, scenario, and fun is too different. It’s like the difference between meat and seafood, rock and jazz, or movies “Titanic” і “Відьма із Блер”.

    In my opinion, making a difficult game is risky. You can go too far and people will give up because they have enough difficulties in their lives. Such a risk can be justified if you can offer players something so interesting that they are willing to overcome the high entry threshold. This is exactly our case. Vagrant Story is complex, interesting, and the risk is literally sewn into it.

    From the first few minutes of the game, a smart player will notice a scale in the corner of the screen that reads RISK ZERO. Each hit on the enemy increases the risk score, which makes the game very balanced. The higher the risk, the higher the chance of inflicting critical damage, but the lower the chance of hitting the enemy. Additionally, by taking risks like this, Ashley takes more damage from the enemy while receiving a greater amount of healing from all sources.

    Weighing the pros and cons divides players into two groups: those who want to take risks like a berserker, and those who believe that Moscow will not collapse immediately and will be chipped away steadily but gradually. But no matter how you play Vagrant Story, its combat mechanics are just getting started.

    Aside from energy-draining magic and health-draining special moves (which also helps balance the game), Ashley’s abilities are divided into offensive and defensive. You can choose only three of the many attacks to fight with by assigning each one to one of the gamepad buttons.

    The thing is, unlike the enemy, Ashley can build a chain of attack abilities, hence their name: chain abilities. Within his turn, the player can theoretically deal an infinite number of blows, and this is how it looks.

    After triggering an active pause, you will select a part of the enemy’s body, and at the moment of the hit, you will see an exclamation point above Ashley. During this short period of time, you must press one of the ability buttons. This will cause Ashley to immediately swing for the next hit, and you’ll have to press the button again when you see the next exclamation point. But this time it has to be a different ability, because you can’t use the same one twice, otherwise the combo will be interrupted.

    Different abilities for different weapons have different animations and timings, and the game changes them slightly as you combo, so each combo doesn’t become a routine. You always have to pay attention. That fits the philosophy of the developers, doesn’t it?

    But you should understand that the previous rule about risk still applies. A dozen consecutive hits can fill the risk scale to the brim, and your Ashley can become particularly unpredictable and dangerous, both to the enemy and to you. That’s why you need to protect yourself with separate defensive skills.

    You can also choose up to three of them, and they must also be assigned to separate buttons, but unlike attackers, they cannot be combined. This is logical, since the enemy can only perform one attack at a time.

    There are many enemies in the game, each with multiple attacks with different timing, so you need to be alert and agile even when defending yourself. But no matter the variety, the principle remains the same: when you see an exclamation point, you react.

    Parrying can have various effects that I don’t want to spoil for you, but I can assure you that although they are difficult to do, they make the game much easier, and it’s hard to overestimate them. At least the final boss is impossible to defeat without parrying.

    But that’s not the only reason Vagrant Story has gained a reputation as a difficult game. While researching the forums, I found a key mistake most players make: they simply don’t understand the characteristics of the weapons they use. And I don’t blame them. After all, the game doesn’t offer a simple, step-by-step guide, and it’s hard to distinguish the most important things in the pile of text that’s available instead.

    I don’t usually do this in my reviews, but I really want someone to be interested in the game after watching the video and not drop it before the end. Since Vagrant Story can seem insurmountable in the first half without the right weapons, I’ll briefly explain what’s what.

    Three factors determine the effectiveness of weapons in the game:

    • race of the enemy;
    • the element of weapons;
    • type of damage.

    The hardcore game design of Vagrant Story implies that the player should figure out which of these factors is most important through experimentation, but unfortunately the game doesn’t have the best interface for this. You have to switch weapons frequently, which is very inconvenient, and the type of damage the game shows during an active pause is confusing.

    The thing is, when you select a target in combat, you see the correct enemy race, but the damage type that is written next to it is not what you need. It’s not even the enemy weapon type. For some reason, it shows the damage type of the weapon you are holding, when what you need to know is what type of weapon the enemy has the least resistance to. And that is not shown here, and not easily.

    In the first quarter of Vagrant Story, before the enemies are heavily armored, Ashley gets a very important spell – Analyze. It’s the only way the player can get information about the enemy’s vulnerabilities, but again, it’s terribly designed in terms of UI and UX.

    After a seemingly successful use of Analyze, the game shows no context menu, no data table, nothing. The battle continues as if nothing had happened. In fact, the player already has access to important information. He just doesn’t know how to get it. He has to go to the menu, find the subsection “Status”, and switch the window from Ashley to the enemy, even though the game does not tell him that he has this option.

    This finally brings the player to the most important factor in the effectiveness of his weapon of the three I mentioned earlier. Of course, the enemy’s race and element are also important, but they serve more as a bonus to the type of damage, and no matter how difficult the game is in general, it’s hard to come to such conclusions. The incomprehensible interface is simply a hindrance, which I’m willing to call the only important drawback.

    The lack of save points could also be mentioned as a disadvantage, but we remember that we only have normal access to Vagrant Story through the emulator, and you can save anywhere, so this is irrelevant. What is important about the emulator is how much it improves the look of the game, so we’ll focus on that separately.

    Aesthetics

    To appreciate the aesthetic bouquet of this “traveling story”, you must shake its contents like a true sommelier, inhaling the classic aroma and embarking on a journey through time and space.

    Уявіть. 1998 рік. Франція. A group of sleepy Japanese men wander the streets of a town in the southwest of the country, taking pictures of every stone. The town is Saint-Émilion, from the wine region of the same name. The team chose it as the inspiration for Yasumi Matsuno’s mission. He wanted to see a city that was still alive, but rather old and dying, and their choice turned out to be perfect.

    Old, sometimes slightly dilapidated, yellow houses, wine cellars and catacombs, a church and a bunch of greenery that constantly reminds you of your rights. In all this, it is not difficult to recognize Lea Grande, the city where the game takes place. Unfortunately, most of the time the player spends is not in its streets but in its catacombs, but they remain as characteristic as the original.

    Since all the events take place in a small town, the developers will not have a lot of locations to choose from. Apart from that, the player will only visit the forest labyrinth and that’s it. But there is an important nuance here: although there is not much variety, from a technical and especially artistic point of view, it all looked amazing at the time.

    In fact, this is one of the most graphically advanced games of the first Playstation, not only matching the level of cinematography of the first Metal Gear Solid, but successfully surpassing it. In a joint interview with Matsuno, Kojima himself admitted that he had never seen a more beautiful game in his life, which even made him look at his work sideways.

    Matsuno admits that his band went through what he likes to call “Metalgear shock” in ’98. Kojima’s work looked great at the time, and it took two years to change that with Vagrant Story.

    In addition to the impressive cinematics and artistic lighting, the game has a free camera and its characters have simple yet effective facial animations. They blink their eyes and move their lips during dialogues, and their hair flutters in the wind – all that’s missing is your favorite female breast animation to make the player’s eyes go wild with local beauty.

    And none of this is in separate pre-rendered cutscenes that would have stretched the game across two or three disks. With the exception of the intro, all the screensavers are made with in-game graphics, continuing the Metal Gear Solid trend that has become the gold standard today – the transition between the video sequence and the gameplay itself is imperceptible.

    The introduction to each of the many bosses is always tasteful, the camera always makes unique pans, but no matter what happens on the screen, sooner or later it smoothly takes a standard position, the interface appears on the screen, and the player can get to work.

    And when the work is done, he will always be able to enjoy his results in the form of another unique screensaver, but it’s a pity that the pleasure comes only visually. First of all, the dialogues in the game are not voiced, and secondly, the music is from a master of the craft (Hitoshi Sakimoto) doesn’t work out this time for some reason.

    Yes, this is the same Sakimoto who would go on to found his own composing studio, Basiscape, whose name would become well known in the industry. Their last high-profile work was for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, which I have already reviewed in the past, so along with the link to the review itself, I offer you the link to soundtrack playlist Vagrant Story.

    You can see for yourself what I’m complaining about: Vagrant Story’s music is too abstruse, authorial and chaotic. There are hardly any pop motifs in it, designed for a mass audience or player, and in the end, both then and now, the whole game seems to be just that. Perhaps like a wine that is exquisite by the standards of connoisseurs, Matsuno’s work can be strange, incomprehensible, and even bitter to less experienced consumers.

    On the one hand, there’s the impressive artistic value of the image, but on the other hand, there’s weak music, which is difficult to add to a playlist to enjoy without playing.

    On the one hand, it’s interesting for the player to change the type of weapon to match the vulnerability of each enemy, but on the other hand, it’s too cumbersome.

    On the one hand, the player can rotate the camera to all sides of the world, but for some reason the mini-map does not show these sides of the world. To see them, you have to open a full map in a separate menu item, where the controls are unfortunately inferior.

    Today, such little things are hardly noticeable, as three generations of consoles have passed since its release, and with them a generation of gamers and game designers has grown up. But today, thanks to emulators, Vagrant Story plays and looks as good as ever.

    Having checked the two most popular ones, I have to admit that the era of ePSXe is already in the past. It has no competition with the emulator of your dreams – Duckstation. Its interface is more modern, settings are simpler, compatibility is wider, and its scaling and perspective correction functions are simply irreplaceable.

    When played on a modern large monitor, the original look of the game can seem either too pixelated, too blurry, or its textures and models will shake much more noticeably than 20 years ago. Therefore, if you want the game to look like mine, you can use my instructions on settings.

    Summary

    I do not believe that two sommeliers from the world of Japanese games and cinema met at one time by chance. It was the 1998 Tokyo International Film Festival, Hideo Kojima was already basking in the glory of his Metal Gear Solid, while Yasumi Matsuno was just beginning to lead the development of Vagrant Story.

    With two years to go until its release, it will be as mature, attractive and cinematic as Hideo’s work, and they will both enter the hall of fame of any seeker of the best games of the first Playstation. It’s just a shame that it won’t be as commercially successful as Snake’s adventures.

    Yes, maybe Matsuno is less creative by nature, but as they both nicely noted in a joint interview a year after meeting at the festival, they have a common film DNA. Such people do not meet by chance – they are brought together by fate.

    And it is not surprising that the games of both of them turned out to be unsurpassed for their time. Matsuno compensated for the lack of creativity with a team with common tastes, and the lack of time with cut content, but even so, Vagrant Story is not to be missed among retro games.

    It is too interesting and complex not to try your hand at it, and the fusion of its genres is too rare not to explore. As I said, this is an action-adventure platformer with an active pause, elements of role-playing and rhythm games, with difficulty and an emphasis on parrying blows, ala Dark Souls or Sekiro.

    However, I agree that it was not for everyone at the time, and over time the situation even worsened. On average, games have become simpler, more convenient and more accessible in every sense, so few people want to fight through thickets of outdated interface, hardcore gameplay and emulation settings. After all, old games are like old wine. One sip is enough to get drunk.

    And like a specific old wine, Vagrant Story needs a specific glass. Of relatively modern platforms, the game is only available on PlayStation 3 as PSOne Classics, where it looks worse than the original, therefore, it is not for nothing that I recommend trying it on the Duckstation emulator, the settings of which I gave above. This is the only way your impressions of the game can be complete.