Vagrant Story is a game that I’ve owned since I was probably 14 years old. I’ve started it many times, but I’d never gotten any further than halfway through. It’s a demanding game, to say the least, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it difficult. It’s just that it asks a lot of the player, often more than I really had the energy to commit. This is the first time that I’ve really had the patience to wade through and see the story to its end. I have to say it’s enormously satisfying to finally put this game behind me. Though I’d never been able to finish Vagrant Story, it has always clung to a space in my mind, a corner where I still recall the cobbled streets and ivy-covered walls of sunken Lea Monde. The beautiful graphics and affecting cutscenes are a big part of this; everything drips with emotion, like a gothic novel. The scenery oozes with longing, regret, and remorse. Unsurprising then that the game’s subtitle, revealed at its end, is “The Phantom Pain”.
I seem to remember some reviews at the time of the game’s release (2000) eager to compare Vagrant Story to Metal Gear Solid, and to a point, I think, it’s true that the two games share similarities (although in my opinion the Metal Gear series wears its themes a bit more on it’s sleeve, and is more concerned with big sociological ideas). Yasumi Matsuno, whose credits include Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, and much of Final Fantasy XII (though he left production part of the way through), is the director and producer. I love this guy, and unknowingly I’ve purchased and greatly enjoyed almost everything that he’s worked on that’s been released in the United States.
Vagrant Story came out late in the PS1’s life cycle, at a time when Squaresoft was releasing some of its biggest hits; the PS1 trifecta of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX, as well as games like Chrono Cross. I think, understandably, a lot of the residual feelings around those games ended up rubbing off onto Vagrant Story’s legacy, a game that is, in a lot of ways, a very different experience. It’s hard to call Vagrant Story a masterpiece, but for the most part it accomplishes what it sets out to do extremely well. Unlike the aforementioned Square games, I feel like the scale of Vagrant Story’s ambitions is considerably smaller. Essentially it has two pretty well thought out mechanics (the battle system and the weapon growth/management system, inherently subordinate to each other) that it ties together with dungeon exploration, treasure hoarding, and a narrative told through brief but poignant, extremely well-directed cutscenes. I think it succeeds because the aesthetic elements are so convincing and beautifully implemented. The cinematics are very short (I would be surprised if any of them last more than 5 minutes), and none of the dialogue is spoken (which I think benefits the game tremendously), but because of their high level of quality I found them to be entirely compelling. The crumbling environments of Lea Monde enhance the air of grief and tragedy that suffuses the plot. The artistic design the underpins the city is outstanding, as at times we see the city slowly being overtaken by nature, with moss and creeping vines covering the brick walls and cobbled streets. Moldering dungeons are lined with half-melted candles and shelves of ancient books. Ashley passes through haunted forests, decrepit wine cellars, and collapsing churches as he infiltrates the city in persuit of Sydney.
The music is lovely as well, never anything less than ideal for this setting, expertly composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who frequently collaborates with Matsuno.
Vagrant Story manages to wring a great deal out of a surprisingly small amount. The script itself is quite modest, and the cutscenes, the primary narrative device of the game, are few. This is no Metal Gear Solid at all. But, through first-rate art direction, music, and editing, the game manages to tell a surprisingly emotional and complex story. The audience isn’t really given a whole lot to work with as far as understanding what is going on; like Ashley Riot, we’re dropped into the middle of a crazy situation, and we’re figuring it out as it unfolds. Only, to us, the world is unfolding along with it. To a degree I think Vagrant Story is undeniably opaque, and it’s hard to really say what is going on or what is at stake much of the time. I also believe, however, that the writers were able to transform this from a problem into an asset by hinting at the much larger and culturally/politically complex world just outside the confines of the player’s view. Vagrant Story really implies that Ivalice is a huge, breathing, teeming world, grimy and rich like our own, and that this game, along with Tactics, are just slivers of light through a small window. Maybe it’s a way of saving time and conserving development resources, while tantalizing the player with untold narrative riches just beyond their perspective. A lot of fantasy, in video games and other mediums, is so excited about building new worlds that it bombards the player (or reader or whatever) with a lot of information all at once, and you can kind of sense how implausible it all really is. The strings end up showing, and while it can still be a lot of fun, it would maybe be a little more fun if the telling of it were more organic, if the scenarios were a little more reasonable. So Vagrant Story succeeds because the director and writers realize that a little can go a long, long way, and that it’s always better to leave the audience hungry, wanting more, or forced to use their imagination to fill in some of the holes. And sure enough, the ending does hint at further adventures, which remain, as yet, unrealized.
Matsuno and the game’s other creators wisely chose to keep the cast small, and we receive tantalizingly little of their back-stories. However, I really felt like the game delivered a satisfying emotional arc, and it was surprisingly earnest and full of heart for something that initially seemed a little cold. Like Metal Gear, the most stoic characters (particularly Ashley and Sidney) are revealed to have hidden depths, nuances of emotion that were resonant to me personally. I found Ashley’s transformation to be pretty captivating, and the conclusion of his story was handled well by the designers. Was Ashley a murderer, or simply a man who failed his family? He can never know, and neither can we. Ashley, and by extension the player, are left to decide.
There are a lot of threads that the game never picks up on. Why was Merlose in particular chosen to accompany Ashley? What role were Tieger and Neesa meant to play? What did parliament know about the connections between Duke Bardorba and Sydney? It’s hard to tell if these elements were meant to be fleshed out later but abandoned because of budget constraints (or something), or if the creator was giving himself options for a sequel.
Like I’ve said before, I think Vagrant Story seems to have relatively modest ambitions. Really, the only mechanic that is fully fleshed out or used to its greatest effect is the combat system (which is wildly complex, and which I still don’t understand even after beating the game). The rest of the game is a string of single room environments, usually not particularly big. There is occasional platforming, added seemingly as an afterthought and only difficult in a few places. There are crate puzzles, like an old Zelda game, and these are a fun, if frustrating, diversion from the combat in the rest of the game. But otherwise, that’s it. You fight monsters, and go deeper into the dungeon. Once and a while you see a cutscene to advance the plot, or fight a boss. This isn’t bad, and in fact, is probably the smartest way to get a game like this made, but the beautiful graphics and the hints of narrative complexity obscure what is otherwise a small-scale effort.
The battle system, it has to be said, does feel rather tedious to me, but I’ve never been one for endless min-maxing and menu navigation. I honestly still don’t know what many of the variables really did on most of my weapons. Though, in retrospect I’m glad that the game respected the player enough to allow them such a wide breadth of options as they navigate the experience. I think that the alternative, a combat system that was very simple, would have been detrimental to the product. The minutia of managing weapons and navigating menus seems to work in direct contrast to the narrative elegance and visual artistry of the game; Vagrant Story thus seems to be pulling the player in opposing directions. I suppose the argument could be made that this is the way that Ashley perceives the world, that the extensive technical intricacies are a symbolic way of allowing the player to experience Ashley’s expertise in the “killing arts”. There is an undeniable level of monotony involved in the combat, particularly during bigger battles. Without being properly armed it’s easy to waste a lot of time doing 1 or 2 damage per hit, if that. Regrettable, but overshadowed by the enormous satisfaction that comes with getting it just right, arming yourself with the perfect combination to take down a foe quickly and effectively.
I think the feeling of having beaten Vagrant Story is better than the actual playing of it. I don’t know what that says about it in the end, but I really do like and respect Vagrant Story. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the time or patience to return to this game, it does feel good to finally have it completed.