The PlayStation era was arguably when Square Enix were at their creative peak. After the release of Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft received a large amount of profit from the game and decided to use the money to finance a series of innovative projects unlike any other video game released at the time. This involved the company dabbling in genres that they had never been a part of before, and in most cases, redefining the genre. To list a few example; Bushido Blade is one of the rare fighting games to change the Tekken/Virtua Fighter engine through limb targeted attacks that adds a layer of strategy that is not present in any other fighting game (other than it’s sequel, Bushido Blade 2), Einhander took the R-Type model and transformed it into one of only two SHmups that incorporate a well told story into in gameplay to give an added incentive to see how the plot unfolds (the other being Radiant Silvergun). Despite other experiments such as Brave Fencer Musashi, Tobal 1&2, Front Mission and so on, Squaresoft were still contributing to the RPG genre through continuations to their ongoing series like Final Fantasy VIII and IX, Legend of Mana and Chrono Cross, Square will also willing to release new IP’s that later went on to become cult classics (Xenogears anyone?). It is also during this period that Squaresoft provided the Final Fantasy Tactics director Yasumi Matsuno enough money to create his dream project: Vagrant Story: One of the greatest RPGs ever made.
The plot of Vagrant Story is the video game equivalent of the “Mono-myth”, a proposal introduced in the book “A hero with a thousand faces” that says that every given hero goes through the same character arc during the progression of the story (The classic example of this is Star Wars, especially since Joseph Campbell worked with George Lucas on the script). The way this is introduced is as we see the opening cut scene showing the main character Ashley Riot pursuing the game antagonist Sydney (who is one of the most complex antagonists for a video game). This correlates with Campbell’s Call to Adventure which gives the character a motivation as his character develops for what would be in movie terms the first act. This continues until the very end of the game where the structure of the character arc remains similar to the “mono-myth,” but the surroundings and situations are what truly make the game special. In fact, the plot of this game might be considered another typical JRPG plot if it weren’t for one thing. Vagrant Story is lucky enough to have one of the best translations for any video game. Alexander O Smith was lucky enough to come to the translation project with a vast knowledge of Middle English to add to the games vernacular, and it really shows with just a sentence of dialogue that can contain more tone and meaning to it than most games can accomplish in forty hours.
The game’s main setting is the city of Lea Monde, a city which is based of Saint-Emillion commune in the Aquitaine region of France. The atmosphere of Saint-Emillion is remarkably well, transferred into the game, with lots of rich vibrant colours plastered around the lush architecture that encapsulates the town. This setting also translates into the indoor areas such as the Wine Cellar where you start the game (this game and GrimGrimoire are the only games I can think of that extensively references types of wine, although the latter does this superficially even if it is kind of cool), and the numerous outside settings like the Snowfly Forest.
You’d think that for a late 3D Polygon PS1 games that the graphics would probably have the same jaggedness that Final Fantasy VII suffers from when looked at by modern eyes. However, Vagrant Story boasts some of the most impressive 3D polygons on the system (like Einhander) that makes the low resolution graphics rather quaint and charming, in the same way that Megaman Legends and Wachenröder do. These polygons permeate into the backgrounds, where the imagery incorporates a sense of scale into the area where the wine cellars feels cramped and claustrophobic while the forests are large and open. The places where the polygons really stand out are the boss battles, which vary from minotaur, dragons, elemental spirits which always keep the player in a sense of interest of what monster is going to come up next (calling it the Radiant Silvergun of RPG’s is a pretty good description). The music is also a key part of the experience. While Hitoshi Sakimoto has composed a large range of games from Valkyria Chronicles and Radiant Silvergun (There’s a lot of Radiant Silvergun references here), Vagrant Story is widely considered to be his finest work with melodies of intrigue that are woven into the cut scenes to provide gravitas to the situation, wispy undertones for the sleepy villages that are common throughout the game and fast paced tunes for the boss battles.
The gameplay is what divides people on whether Vagrant Story is a gaming masterpiece or a quintessential example of style over substance. The game lacks a lot of RPG conventions such as the existence of towns, multiple party members and the existence of other people in general. Weapons are separated into three categories: blunt, edged and pierced. However, each enemy contains one of the six abilities of Human, Beast, Undead, Phantom, Dragon and Evil, and this is in addition with the seven elemental categories of Physical, Air, Fire, Earth, Water, Light and Dark. When you defeat an enemy with a given weapon, that weapon will be stronger against that given type of enemy and weaker against another type. This encourages weapon switching to deal with various situations, which is cited as tedious by some. As far as combat goes, you can turn into battle mode at the push of a button where your health and magic regeneration slow down at the benefit of withdrawing your equipment. Each weapon has a range that shows how far Ashley can be to attack from an enemy. Along with that, you can also target different body parts on the enemy which cause detrimental effects to the enemy and to Ashley when they attack (preceded by Bushido Blade, succeeded by Fallout 3). When it comes to attacking, hits can be chained into extra attacks if you time the button presses right (An exclamation mark appears when you need to hit circle or square or cross) that allows the tension to be a constant presence in the battle through movement around the surroundings and in the process of combat itself.
The aforementioned streak of creativity ended when Squaresoft lost most of their profits on creating the failed movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits within (The last Squaresoft game that could be said to be a product from this era was The Bouncer and the less said about that, the better). The future of Vagrant Story is also rather dire. Matsuno himself stated that Vagrant Story was the “Independent Movie” to Final Fantasy’s “Summer Blockbuster,” which was proven when Vagrant Story received merely modest sales on initial release. Matsuno’s creations such as the Tactics Ogre series and the Final Fantasy Tactics series (along with Final Fantasy XII which Matsuno left during the production) combine with Vagrant Story to create the Ivalice series which all take place in the same setting. Along with a rerelease through Playstation Network, this is likely to be the only way that the legacy of Vagrant Story can be preserved.
Yasumi Matsuno is currently working at Level 5 working on Guild01: A joint endeavor with a group of Japanese video game designers (including a certain Suda Goichi) that will result in a four game complication for the 3DS. While there will probably never be a Vagrant Story 2 and there haven’t been that many games which have tried to mimic it from a design standpoint (The whole game could be described as a JRPG roguelike which isn’t the most attractive genre to borrow idea’s from), I feel like a modern-day successor would be in the Demon’s Souls series. Both games are sparse with inhabitants creating a sense of loneliness and mystery in their rather simplistic but well told stories. Both games lack RPG conventions instead using the environment as a constant setting rather than being segregated into set town and field areas and, most importantly, their brevity is the reason why both games work and why both games are some of the greatest JRPGs ever made.