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How's your memory? You gotta love memories about those happy moments when you finally learned how to ride a bike or those bittersweet high school "firsts." And don't forget the Great Depression and those wacky World Wars. Or was that a history lesson? It's hard to remember...after all, I'm 120 years old, yessir. So don't even get me started on how I feel about the Hoover administration, dagnabbit.
Point being, how well can we trust our time-sweetened remembrances?
Ashley Riot has memories, too, depressing memories of the brutal slaying of his wife and child. Those memories burned. Ashley deadened himself to the pain, casting his life aside to become an elite soldier - a Riskkeeper.
But now, his memories are going to catch up with him. Political powers and evil forces of magic are preparing for battle in the dark halls of Lea Monde. Therein, Ashley Riot must face the truth.
Vagrant Story is a fusion of action, role-playing and storytelling brimming with a maturity and depth yet unseen in a Playstation RPG. Taken together, this is a one of a kind single player experience.
Of the many features employed to tell the story (including a rich musical score imbued with environmental noises), the one that strikes me most is the implementation of the age-old speech bubble. It's amazing what a simple pointer to a moving mouth does to a character's speech. The presence of the bubbles works so well that the lack of voice acting is hardly bothersome.
Speech bubbles would be nothing without the words to fill them, and the level of writing is flat out impressive. A medieval tongue is used gracefully without falling into the trap of becoming overplayed. The words simply embody and hold together the different elements of the game. Props to the writers.
Graphically, the use of real time polygons is stunning, with intricately detailed characters and a smoothly running game engine. Also striking is how well the characters emote. Rather than overblowing its graphical horn (as many a Squaresoft game does), the beauty of this game can be found in the little things - a subtle smirk, a cast down gaze, a bloodied tirade. Though the game looks great on the PSX, I want to see this game on the Bleemcast...
Despite not having the traditional auspices of an RPG, there's still a sense that Vagrant Story is turn based, as if a timing mechanism was happening underfoot. When Ashley makes an attack, a list of your opponent's body regions comes up. For example, if you choose to attack the legs, you'll eventually be able to limit your opponent's ability to move. Your initial attacks can then lead into combinations.
At the very core of the combination is the 'alert' system. An exclamation mark appears when your weapon strikes your opponent. At that precise moment, you hit a button, and then another, and another, and so on. It's like Squall's Gunblade attack from Final Fantasy 8.
Chaining attacks can become oddly detaching as you find yourself tapping to the beat. Yet at the same time, you become really attuned to the game. In this sense, Vagrant Story's combat bears similarity to music games like Bust-A-Groove. Did I mention originality?
So, what if you decide to just endlessly chain your opponent? That's where the 'Risk' meter comes into play. The longer you chain, the higher you aggravate your risks. You become weaker and more vulnerable. It's a great "checks-and-balance" feature, if you remember to stop trying for those 20+ chains.
In the workshop areas, Ashley can combine weapon parts to create stronger, more powerful weapons. You can modify your weapons for statistical advantages over the different classes of enemies. The right combinations yield some truly bad-assed weaponry, like a Grim Reaper-esque scythe.
Offensive magic tends to be an underutilized resource. The MP cost-to-use (getting into economics here, folks) is not good, making physical attacks the smarter choice. And it does get annoying when a seemingly large number of enemies are endowed with magic that can instantly kill Ashley.
There's a whole wad of dungeons to explore. The 3D mapping feature works well, though I would have liked an 'unopened treasure chest' indicator for the visited rooms. While the game will take most between 20-30 hours to beat, you can go back in with all your resources and the ability to check out previously locked areas after completing it once.
Vagrant Story is a full bodied single player experience built upon the seemingly simple game of "Simon." After all, it's still just the gunblade attack wearing a new dress. But what a pretty dress it is - curvy customizations, tight chain attacks, and sparkly exploration. Despite its somewhat limited action elements, Vagrant Story presents a unique RPG with terrific storytelling. And how about them bubbles!