is one of those games that wows you at the start--a big "WOW!" in this case--but maintains only a tenuous hook in the long haul. In this mix of action/adventure and fantasy role-playing, players are cast as a Riskbreaker (think one-man army) named Ashley Riot, whose pursuit of a villainous cult leader takes him to the mysterious city of Lea Monde.
The highly stylized graphics in Vagrant Story are easily some of the best ever seen on the PlayStation, and give the game a gorgeous, distinctive look to match its somber tone. Cinematic story sequences blend in almost seamlessly with gameplay, which takes place in 3-D environments (viewed from a third-person perspective) that can be rotated to provide the best angle.
Vagrant Story features a rich battle system that's built on both strategy and quick reflexes. In addition to character statistics, weapons and armor have detailed numbers of their own and can be disassembled, assembled, or even combined to create new items. Hand/eye coordination factors heavily into combat, as Ashley develops offensive and defensive battle abilities that require perfectly timed button pushing in order to be used.
Unfortunately, it's all too easy to get bored with Vagrant Story. The painfully linear gameplay here doesn't rise above killing enemy after enemy in room after room, and (oh boy!) solving puzzles by manipulating boxes. If not for the wholly intriguing (but sparsely littered) plot, one would be strongly tempted just to leave Ashley to rot in the catacombs beneath Lea Monde. --Joe Hon
- Highly stylized graphics
- Rich battle system
- Intriguing plot
Let's just get it out of the way - Vagrant Story is a groundbreaking game. With this melange of action, adventure, and RPG genres, Square has truly beaten all odds and produced a seamless epic unlike any other. A brutal battle wages between the Knights of the Crimson Blade and the Mullenkamp Cult in the city of Lea Monde. Caught in the middle is Ashley Riot, an agent for the Valendia Knights of Peace's elite "Riskbreaker" unit. After a chance encounter with Sydney Losstarot, the heartless leader of the Mullenkamp Cult, Ashley finds himself in a life-or-death game of cat and mouse amidst a plot larger than the two of them. Many have described Vagrant Story as "Medieval Gear Solid," a comparison that is both correct and not correct. While the MGS feel is there thanks to Vagrant Story's perspective, attention to detail, and emphasis on cinematics, you never actually skulk through shadows, avoid guards' cones of sight, and the like. The game is an odd blend of action, adventure, and RPG gameplay, and a lot of Vagrant Story's charm lies in the sheer amount of control you have in playing through what is mostly a linear game. Most of the game takes place underneath Lea Monde, where Ashley runs into room after room, slays several monsters without a second thought, and recovers information and keys to aid in his pursuit of Sydney. You navigate around the world as you would in Metal Gear Solid, guiding the character with the analog pad and rotating the viewpoint with the L and R buttons. Ashley can switch in and out of battle mode, freeing his hands for tasks such as lifting boxes or grabbing edges. While the latter isn't emphasized too heavily, Vagrant Story does have a surprising compunction for box puzzles. Though they start off easy, they eventually become fairly fiendish with the addition of a variety of new and different box types. While navigating the labyrinthine corridors under Lea Monde is all done in real time, battling is a decidedly different affair. Once in battle mode, tapping the attack button pauses the game and causes a large wireframe sphere to erupt from Ashley's body. This sphere represents the range of the weapon Ashley is currently using, thus any targetable item within the sphere can be attacked. While smaller enemies may only have one attackable segment, most of time monsters' individual limbs can be targeted. Detailed percentage-to-hit and damage stats help you plan your attacks more effectively, but attacking certain areas can have other effects. For example, if you attack a monster's legs there's a good chance you'll reduce its movement rate by 50 percent. After you have selected a target, game time resumes and Ashley attacks. After defeating the first boss, Ashley will gain the use of chain abilities. These let Ashley perform consecutive hits when he's attacking enemies, with every additional attack benefiting Ashley in ways other than sheer damage. Ashley can ready up to three of these attacks at a time, and with the proper timing, chain them until the target keels over. For example, you can restore magic points or life with a carefully timed chain attack. Learned at the same time as chain abilities, defense abilities allow you to key different kinds of defense. When you're attacked, tapping the right button could restore half of the damage you just took or reflect it back at the enemy. After gaining enough experience, you'll be presented with a choice as to which new ability you'd like to learn. Using chain and defense abilities is useful but they build Ashley's risk level. When the risk level is too high, Ashley's ability to connect with both weapons and spells drops steeply - while you could theoretically chain attacks together forever, this would cause Ashley's risk level to skyrocket, and any other enemies in the area would surely wax you. Thus, the real advantage of chaining is that it prevents enemies from attacking while you deal lots of damage. In addition to chain and defense abilities, Ashley has a few more elite tricks up his sleeve. Break arts, learned after gaining considerable experience, allow Ashley to sacrifice some of his own life meter to inflict massive damage on an enemy. As Ashley progresses to and through the dark city of Lea Monde, many enemies will drop pages from the legendary spell book Grimon. Each page contains a single spell that is memorized once read. Magic spells fall into four categories, such as attack, healing, and status magic. Some spells, such as the explosion and thunder-burst spells, let you position a sphere of attack to target multiple enemies or multiple body parts on the same enemy. Despite all of these options, Vagrant Story's gameplay interface is relatively clutterless and intuitive - hold down the L2 button, and you have fast access to just about everything. Outside of battle, Vagrant Story continues its control fixation with a maze of menus that lets you customize your experience even more. In addition to the standard RPG equip and inventory screens, Vagrant Story lets you forge your own weapons and armor from weapons and armor you find in the game. Ashley can only perform these feats in factories scattered throughout the game, and each factory can only forge items made from certain materials. As Ashley's weapons become more accustomed to killing certain types of monsters as he progresses, this lets you carry your old weapon stats to onto new weapons. In addition to forging new weapons, Ashley can disassemble any weapon and reassemble a new one from the parts, allowing for greater customization. Finally, gems can be inlaid at any time to alter a weapon's stats and allow for more on-the-go changes, such as changes to a weapon's elemental attribute. Vagrant Story is one of the most beautifully cinematic games to date, easily toppling Metal Gear Solid. With character designs by Akihiko Yoshida, the venerable artist behind Final Fantasy Tactics' noseless wonders, Vagrant Story looks and feels like a living 3D comic brought to life. Each model is fluidly animated and textured with a sketch-like quality that gives the game a visual feel all its own. Topped off with impressive lighting and spell effects, Vagrant Story is a visual feast. Adding to the game's cinematic charm is yet another impressive score by Hitoshi Sakimoto, one of Final Fantasy Tactics' composers. The sound effects are well done and impressive, straying from Square's standard of synthed noise. From an audio standpoint, the only thing conceivably missing is voice - while the jagged comic dialog boxes are charming, one can't help but think this game could be more impressive with voice. However, avoiding Metal Gear Solid's glut of dialogue is definitely a plus. All together, Vagrant Story's disparate parts come together in a beautiful, cinematic experience. The game's story is compelling and constantly urges you to press forward, giving the game the addictive quality of the finest RPGs. While a fairly short game, the depth and density of the story and gameplay give Vagrant Story an intensity missing from most longer games, as well as a higher replay value. Due to thick Japanese dialogue and some complicated Japanese menus, English-speaking gamers are advised to wait for the US version, due this May. --Peter Bartholow
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