Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
In the year 2000, back when Square Enix was just plain old Square, it was at the height of its power. It had built itself a grand reputation as an industry giant with the incomparable successes of its flagship Final Fantasy franchise and its other notable JRPG hits such as Xenogears and the Chrono, Mana, and SaGa series. Such titles are sure to hit many a gamer growing up in the 90’s with a wave of nostalgia, reminding them of the good ol’ days of saving a magical world as a teenage boy with the help of colorful party members, ultimate guides, and days spent grinding the night away.
Lost amid these recognizable names is the one game that Square only dared to make because of its position then when it could do no wrong. For all of the little innovations its JRPGs had, they followed a winning formula. An expansive world where the players could roam free, interacting with welcoming NPCs in towns bursting with life and unfolding a fantastical narrative where the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Along the way they meet characters filling archetypal roles to join the party, and they all get some sort of personal story arc to justify their existence. As the game progresses, the characters all get stronger by gaining experience through battles and acquiring better gear. They can even easily surpass enemies set into the main plot points with fixed power levels if the players choose to spend hours leveling up the characters in appropriate monster-filled areas.
And of course, Vagrant Story doesn’t follow any of those guidelines, resulting in a gaming experience unlike any of Square’s previous offerings, much to the dismay of its core audience, unfortunately.
Its plot takes some well-worn inspiration from JRPG tropes such as having a religious institution turn out to be corrupt, looking to silence anyone from uncovering its unsurprisingly unholy practices to (continue to) control the world in a conspiracy with/against the ruling government. Caught in between is a shadowy organization looking to make things right/usurp power, and the mysterious yet charismatic villain vulnerable to grand displays of power and speechifying.
However, Vagrant Story pulls off some neat twists that manage to make players question their allegiances, their missions, and even main character Ashley Riot’s own identity. That is if they can hold on to the bare narrative thread that mostly just leaves them grasping for a story to cling to once they’re dumped in the dead city of Lea Monde.
And it’s in this setting where the game begins to lose the traditional JRPG fan suckered into thinking this was going to be another ride through convention after playing Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Lea Monde is a forgotten realm, buried in its haunted past of dark sorcery. Its dungeons are tombs filled with reanimated corpses and all other manners of evil; its paths twisting, turning and converging in a labyrinthine maze of floating platforms, puzzle cubes, and locked doors. Passage through its halls only promise dread, even in the inescapable beauty of its forest and under the harsh light of the sun through its abandoned streets and alleyways inspired by 18th century French architecture.
Through it all, Ashley Riot walks alone.
No shopkeepers peddling their wares with glee, no bartenders to idly chat with for rumors spreading across the land of Ivalice, no unlocked houses to barge into and strike up polite conversations with villagers ready to give you their opinions and whatever wares and money they might have lying around. Your only respite is the forging of armor and weaponry behind four walls of workshops scattered throughout the land.
Ashley himself is a cipher, his very meaning for being left to a series of ambiguous flashbacks locked away in the frame of a cold-blooded one-man army, as pointedly noted by main antagonist Sydney Losstarot in one of the game’s many superbly shot and written dialogue.
Sydney is also a man of mystery, his intentions never becoming truly clear until the final moments where the game hits a profound moment of tragedy and heroic sacrifice. And he carries himself with a charisma like any good villain should have that gives the chase spaced out between long dungeon crawls some much needed weight.
Deeper into the heart of the game itself, the interconnected complexity of the equipment and fight mechanics, are what ultimately either alienates you or drags you down the rabbit hole.
Like your typical RPG, Ashley has baseline stats like STR and INT and HP that grow as he vanquishes increasingly tougher opponents through his quest. The difference though is that these points barely make a difference when going up against enemies. It’s the gear that matters, with each piece of equipment possessing certain properties that play to varying strengths and weaknesses. Matched up with the appropriate adversaries, a bronze dagger with low innate strength can be a more effective tool than a silver great axe packing more raw power.
Such equipment, however, does not usually come prepackaged with its elements molded to deadly efficiency. Weapons and armor have to be forged in battle to increase their affinities, and raising one property always comes at the expense of another. Thus, there can’t be one ultimate sword or shield to defeat every enemy, forcing players to develop an entire collection of killing tools to deal with all the varied monstrosities lurking in Lea Monde.
Players can also craft new gear by combining existing pieces together, attaching gems imbued with power to supplement their strengths, and there is a bevy of unique combinations that can be made.
None of it would matter though if not applied properly in the inevitable encounters through the unique battle system. Movement is in real time, but attacking is a freeze-frame process of precision striking of body parts. Once initiated, Ashley can then string together chains of attacks by timing button presses assigned to a specific Battle Ability for various effects.
To keep players from catching enemies in an indefinite loop of chains till they die, RISK comes into play. The more chains done, the higher the RISK. The higher the RISK, the lesser the chance of hitting the enemy and the higher the damage the player receives once attacked. There are benefits to increasing RISK, such as improving chances of doing critical damage and making certain magic more effective.
On the defensive end, the well-timed press of the right Defense Ability button can save your life, halving the damage of a heavy blow or restoring Ashley’s HP among other beneficial defense mechanisms.
Then there are Break Arts, grimoires and the magic system, the dungeons with their deceptively simple puzzles, and all the different enemy classes. Learning all of it already sounds like a hassle. It doesn’t help at all that the game drops you into all this with only the slightest of in-game hints and a manual that merely scratches the surface of its inner workings.
It’s certainly not uncommon to hear people share stories wondering why they’re doing zero damage to bosses and getting Game Over screens after engaging a couple of random generics. And so there’s no surprise how despite the near-universal critical acclaim (it was only the third game to receive a perfect Famitsu review score before they started handing them out to hyped up AAA titles) and initial strong sales, it has largely been forgotten by mainstream audiences and Square Enix has yet to develop another game in the same vein.
They stuck to their guns, producing best-selling JRPGs hewing closely to their tried-and-tested tenets to triumph with titles like Final Fantasy X (a personal favorite of mine, to be honest) and Kingdom Hearts and its many iterations (the first one being a guilty pleasure of mine, to be frank). But as history would have it, that well would soon go dry not just for Square Enix but for other developers focused on the genre. Western companies soon took over the RPG scene with games that gifted players more expansive worlds, more daring plots, and the power to choose their own fates.
Square Enix has lost all the goodwill it accumulated in the 90’s to a host of reasons like pursuing a pet project turned certified Hollywood bomb, bungling their latest online venture, having incredibly lengthy development cycles that only lead to disappointingly mediocre products, overly relying on ports and remakes of past titles instead of creating new IPs, and setting unreasonable sales expectations for millions-selling published games that resulted in a net loss. I also believe it’s mainly for their stubborn insistence in staying the course, seemingly not realizing that their target audience has grown up and is looking for something more, something different, something new. If only they bothered to appreciate what they had in their hands in the past!
Perhaps its a testament then to the visionary genius of its maestro Yasumi Matsuno (creator of the similarly deep strategy-focused games Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics) that he managed to enthrall a group of die hard devotees with this giant question mark of a game, the game that could have steered Square into an exciting new direction. They are the ones who to this day light up with an effervescent glow at the mention of the game’s name, ready to trade war stories with fellow fans about crafting their own repertoire of badass blades and nigh-impenetrable mail with personalized names like “Deathbringer 5000” or “My Ex-Girlfriend”. They are the ones who also dared to take the risk and make the big leap with him, out of genre expectations and into uncharted territory never since explored again.
[As duly pointed out by some readers, I screwed up by mentioning the Breath of Fire series as one of Square’s when it was developed by Capcom. Square was only a publisher and just for the very first game for its NA release. Doh.]