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Vagrant Story: Exploring its cold majesty

A look back at another excellent Square RPG...

Even at the time, there was something audacious about Vagrant Story's lack of voiced dialogue. In this, and many other ways, the game was behind the times - a holdover from Square's mute empire of epic role-playing games. But if this did mark the end of an unspoken era, then what a Hell of a way to go out.

Vagrant Story is densely and beautifully written - poetic and adult in its approach, where most of its peers seemed to be written by surly schoolboys with a fetish for oversized swords. And, in contrast to pretty much every Square game before it, it features an uncommonly excellent translation, with no garbled spelling errors and not a single spoony bard in sight. To hear it spoken aloud would be a tragedy.

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When we said it was dense, well, we meant it. Here's the abridged version: you're Ashley Riot, a reticent Riskbreaker (think Medieval secret agent) tasked with scouring the ancient city of Lea Monde for a pale, bony sorcerer named Sydney Losstarot. Along the way you'll meet people called things like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and uncover dark psychological truths about your past.

The story can be difficult to follow, particularly if you've grown accustomed to the burning hometowns and evil empires of the stereotypical Japanese role-playing game, but despite the obvious care that's gone into developing such a rich set of characters, they're secondary to the city of Lea Monde itself.

There's an atmosphere to the medieval Europe-inspired city that Square haven't been able to match since. It's gloomy, austere and beautiful, with a sense of claustrophobia in-keeping with the unforgiving nature of the game's combat. It can be difficult to appreciate after a decade of technological advance, but Lea Monde is one of the best-realised game settings we've ever seen.

And the visuals play a very small part in this - it's the sound design that truly brings the (mostly) empty city to life. Vagrant Story saves its bombastic music for boss battles, with exploration defined by an absence of sound more than anything else. The chink of a soldier's chainmail, the crunch of bones under your feet, even the movement of the cursor on the menu screen, all carry a heavy echo that reverberates bodily around the room.

For much of the time there is no music, just a shuddering vibration that manages to establish the scale of your location and the oppression of your situation far better than merely showing it ever could.

RISKY BUSINESS
Of course, this is not a game where you simply wander around a medieval city gawping at architecture - though, if one did exist, we'd probably snap it up immediately - you also get to hit slimes with swords. Appearing during a golden age of sorts for the J-RPG, when every new game (even in established franchises like Final Fantasy) was a bold attempt at reinvention, Vagrant Story offered the most succinct and successful combination of real-time and turn-based combat yet.

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You can attack as often as you like, but it's a slow and heavy process; battle speed is helped by your ability to 'chain' attacks together - by hitting a face button just as Ashley lands a blow - thereby extending your combo to a potentially limitless number. There are a number of different chain and defence attacks, as well as magic, Break Arts (unique weapon spells), and the ability to muck about with your weapons at handy workshops located throughout the city.

For a neophyte player, it can be really quite difficult to take it all in. Many RPGs treat fighting as an afterthought, but combat here is immeasurably deep, and unquestionably the focus.

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