Trying to understand how games work

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I’m currently putting together a series of articles chronicling my time throughout Final Fantasy. Sometimes I’m going to stray from that and play something that isn’t really part of that series, but there’s still some connection to be found to it and I want to write about it. These connections form more of a scenic route on my journey, and while I hope to look at these without making too much comparison to those other games, I’m still carrying the thoughts and feelings I picked up along the way.

How strong the connection Vagrant Story has is somewhat arguable. It’s made by the same team as Final Fantasy Tactics, and is supposedly set in the same world, but outside of similar aesthetics and articles mentioning such, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. There’s also the fact that this game isn’t called “Final Fantasy: Vagrant Story”. For larger corporations like Squaresoft names are often chosen in relation to marketing, so it’s clear with that messaging that they wanted to distance this game from that branding.

I can see why they did this, as it ended up being a very difficult game for me to parse from a play perspective. I actually gave up on this one after around ten hours because I hit a brick wall. What was initially fascination with such peculiar role-playing systems eventually became frustration with something that I lacked the patience to have it work for me.

Before I really get into that I just want to set up what Vagrant Story is for those unaware. This is a medieval-fantasy action RPG with only a single playable character, where most of the game is set in dark dingy dungeons broken up with combat and the occasional platforming puzzle. That protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent in pursuit of a cult leader in order to resolve a hostage situation. 

In terms of how the mechanics of this game play out, it’s like they really thought about how something like Metal Gear Solid would map to an RPG. This isn’t a stealth game, but a lot of work is done to emphasize Ashley’s lone-wolf nature, it really sells the feeling of being an agent in enemy territory where nobody is there to help and all resources have to be found on-site. The circle button is also used to confirm menu decisions in both of those games, but that’s a rather frivolous comparison. It’s funny because some older games press articles covering this game would call it “Medieval Gear Solid” and I used to think that was a rather simplistic comparison, but now it seems somewhat appropriate to me.

There’s no levelling up and very small amounts of stat growth throughout the game, so character growth is heavily weighted towards equipment that has to be found. This was the source of my struggle with Vagrant Story, as especially with weapons there were just too many things for me to mentally juggle. It wasn’t simple enough to just have big strong weapons, certain enemies are only weak to specific kinds of weapons, and even with that it also has to be trained on that particular type of enemy as well. I thought I was understanding the way things worked, but then I’d go into a boss fight and it felt like trying to demolish a house with a teaspoon. If I had the time and willpower for it, I would have probably gone back to reassess my equipment loadout, but I don’t as doing so seemed like it just wouldn’t be interesting. It’s a real shame too because I like everything else about the game. 

The presentation is dripping with atmosphere. Everything is dark and cramped, really contributing to the feeling of a hostile environment. This is one of the few games Squaresoft made entirely in 3D graphics for the Playstation, and the jittery nature of polygons on this platform really emphasizes how fragile the spaces are, like they’re ready to collapse in an earthquake at any moment. It’s something that screenshots can’t give a good impression on as it looks better in motion.

There’s also incredible direction on the game’s cutscenes, with a real kinetic energy that would eventually be used to strong effect in Square’s Playstation 2 efforts like Kingdom Hearts. Characters speak in an old-English-style dialect, which is not as insufferably overbearing as it was in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, as it still maintains clarity and good pacing. I was so invested that even after giving up on the game I took to Youtube to watch the remaining cutscenes.

Some of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s best composition work is in Vagrant Story. The music can really sell the foreboding atmosphere, but it gets to its best during the bosses where it brings in the oppressively percussive sound that he excels at. Some of it might not work as well as tracks to listen to on their own, but taken in with the rest of the game’s atmosphere they really shine. Sometimes there isn’t even music playing, and all that’s left is the quiet creepy sounds of the dungeon, bringing the real loneliness of the game to focus.

I know that comparisons to Dark Souls are tired at the best of times, as it’s overused to just mean “game that is difficult”, but I think there’s a case to be made here. This is a game where quiet spaces are punctuated by bombastic boss battles. When I first tried to get into Dark Souls, I bounced off after about ten or so hours on the first few attempts since I didn’t really understand how it all worked. Eventually everything just clicked for me and I ended up playing through to the end and loving it. Maybe some other time Vagrant Story will click for me.



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