During the second half of the 1990s, it was pretty clear that Square were the kings of the J-RPG genre. After the huge success of the Final Fantasy series (you can learn more about the history of that series here), they had certainly claimed the throne and showed no signs of giving it up. It was during this time that they released Vagrant Story, a very experimental J-RPG game that would later be retconned as an additional story within the Final Fantasy Tactics/XII world of Ivalice.
The fact that it was effectively added to the Final Fantasy series, later on, should tell you just how popular Vagrant Story was. But that isn’t really the question, is it? Instead, we’re here to look at whether it deserved the popularity and success that it received. Let’s take a look!
Vagrant Story takes place during a civil war within the kingdom of Valendia. You take the role of Ashley, a member of the Valendia Knights of the Peace (also known as the VKP), who is sent to track down the leader of a cult, Sydney (an antagonist name that always makes me laugh). From here, conspiracies and plot twists are everywhere, as you would expect within a game made by Square… Especially an RPG.
One really interesting fact about Vagrant Story is that the plot is really tight and focused on a very small area of the world. Most RPGs involve grand tales of epic adventures across the world to stop someone from destroying the planet or ending all civilised life. Vagrant Story is entirely different.
Instead, it focuses on one small tale that takes place within the greater world. This means that the developers and scenario writers were able to put far more effort into the character building, allowing each character to feel well-rounded. Everyone seems like they have a story of their own, rather than just being there for the sake of having a character.
Vagrant Story is one of those games that is really hard to talk about without giving away any spoilers, but I can say one thing – it is an incredibly entertaining plot that will keep you wanting to know what happens next.
The gameplay of Vagrant Story is where the experimentation I mentioned earlier really comes into play. To begin with, Square ditched the turn-battle battle system and random encounters in favour for something half-way between a turn-based battle system and an action RPG. Enemies are always moving around the game world and can be attacked without going into a separate battle scene. To do this, you need to switch Ashley from standard mode to battle mode by pressing O.
This is where things get very different. A large wireframe dome will expand from Ashley, showing the area of the current map that you are able to target within. Any enemies outside of that wireframe dome are unreachable, whilst those within can be targeted. Targeting is also very different than normal J-RPGs. Rather than going through a menu-driven system of selecting an attack and then the target enemy, you move a cursor around the various body parts of the enemies. That is definitely one of the most interesting parts of Vagrant Story’s gameplay; the fact that you need to think tactically and attack specific body parts of enemies.
This adds a huge layer of thought and suspense into a battle as you try to figure out the best tactic for each fight. On top of this, you can’t rely on magic straight away either, as you need to learn spells by finding Grimoires – books containing the spells.
On top of this, the soundtrack is brilliant. Each dungeon area has a fitting backing track that adds to the emotion of the area or specific event that transpires. This careful precision with the music composition is a treat for the ears and really helps to add to the game. This is then backed up by the great dialogue scenes that feel far higher in quality than most Final Fantasy games at the time.
It’s really hard to think of any negatives when it comes to the gameplay of Vagrant Story. Even the puzzle rooms have replayability as, if you return to them, then you will enter an “Evolve or Die” mode. This is effectively a time-attack mode where you need to finish the puzzle as quickly as possible. But if you don’t like that idea, then the developers have also catered for you as you can disable this within the game’s settings menu! There’s even the option to switch to a first-person view.
Vagrant Story’s design is a far more realistic take on fantasy. For example, the armour for most of the knights looks like it actually took inspiration from medieval combatants, rather than just being a bunch of materials thrown together to look cool. This isn’t quite the same for Ashley, but that’s to be expected of the main character in a J-RPG.
However, when you take into account that the game came out in 2000, the character models do feel a little dated. This may be because it started development in 1998, shortly after the release of Final Fantasy VII, and with only 5 people in the development team. Because of this, you can forgive the slightly out of date graphics due to the fact that they would have to keep redoing the graphics over and over to keep up to date. With a team their size, this would be nigh-on impossible.
Interestingly, the user interface makes use of the same fonts as Final Fantasy Tactics, even before it was decided that the two games would be connected. Sticking with the user interface, as you’ll be staring at it a lot, it is nice to see that the developers kept it relatively minimal. It gives you all the information you need without taking up a huge portion of the screen!
The dialogue, being that it is written like most J-RPGs on the PSX, uses actual speech bubbles rather than just text boxes. This gives an almost comic book style look to the cutscenes, which really stands out from the crowd of other, similar games at the time.
And That’s All Folks
In the end, Vagrant Story is a great example of what a small team of developers can do with a great storyline and enough freedom to experiment with gameplay ideas. It is a brilliant game in its own right, even if you ignore the connection to Final Fantasy Tactics added later. If you are a fan of RPGs in general, especially those in which you need to think before you act, then you can do a whole lot worse than try out Vagrant Story.
Have you played Vagrant Story? Would you be interested in it? Let me know in the comments below!