Vagrant Story, I was reminded forcibly, is probably the best game of all time. Now, I know terms like ‘best’ are of course relative and subjective, but just forget that for a moment and let me tell you about this game.
I suppose it all goes back to the concept of ‘arthouse’. This is definitely an arthouse game, one of the first. You don’t necessarily enjoy a Pasolini or Warhol experimental film, but they’re definitely a harder kind of best than some blockbuster. They explore things and open new avenues. Similarly, not everyone will appreciate Vagrant Story, but that doesn’t mean that you should be so presumptuous as to ignore the cultural cringe - director Yasumi Matsuno is liek Pasolini, and who are you or I to question Pasolini? The game itself is admittedly stupendously complex, but think of the learning curve as being like salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn more salmon. Lots of effort, but good stuff waiting at the end. And death, but hey, every simile breaks down after sufficient abuse, much like a rubber band used to hold shut an exploding bank vault.
So why’s this game, this bit of code, this commercial bagatelle, so good? First of all, the localisation is pitch-perfect: for once, we got a better deal than the Japanese on one of their own games. The setting for the game is a kind of moody, ‘Paint it Black’ take on medieval Europe, armwrestled into shape by star localiser Alexander O. Smith. The result, far from being merely pretentious, exhibits formidable virtuosity. Rather than a shoddy attempt to transliterate the Japanese original, we have exactly what a great, brave game needs to survive the fact that gamers tend to be cynical bastards: dialogue that comfortable in its own expressive latitudes, and demands some degree of nous to grok, but is for all that not drippingly overwrought. In fact it’s minimalist. And the characterisation generated through this dialogue is wonderful.
Sydney Losstarot and Ashley Riot make for compelling agonists, and even the hangers-on and camp-followers are exceptionally well defined and written. Hardin probably takes the prize for most least annoying sidekick ever. In fact, he’s so not annoying that I wonder if he should be classified as a sidekick at all. Distracting wonderfully from what has been institutionalised in yaoi fan commentary as the ‘Sydney-Ashley dialectic’ are delicious nutjobs: Guildenstern the would-be tyrant, Merlose the shrink. Square even made the wise decision of not letting the child actor have any lines. And although Ashley Riot does jump on the massive Squaresoft bandwagon of amnesiac heroes along with that stupendous idiot Cloud Strife, most of the cast of Final Fantasy VIII, ‘really manly!’ pretty boy Zidane and airheaded sports nut Tidus amongst others, at least he doesn’t turn out to be a clone or some shit like that.
Character designs are exquisite throughout, awash in fine evocative details that somehow make it unscathed into the game’s low resolution graphics. The same applies to the environments. Plot points stud the action with the tempo and precision of the finer examples of the form from which the game borrows its speech bubbles and action aesthetic: comics. The storyline itself is typical of Matsuno’s fastidiously realised anachronisms: a medievalist super-spy whose mind is awry, Riskbreaker Ashley Riot, must single-handedly brave the ruins of a city that somehow was the victim of a catastrophe that can only be natural but nevertheless has hints of being man-made. His target is Sydney Losstarot, deranged cult-leader, but forces of Church and State conspire to thicken the plot. The dead walk. Myths come to life. The city is a rune. What was guaranteed repose eternal by our ancestors is subjected to the indignity of animation. Just as the designers of Planescape: Torment decided consciously to give the Nameless One no knightly magic swords in favour of the survivalist’s axes, clubs and knives, there are no elfin longbows in evidence in Vagrant Story’s exquisitely researched arsenal – only brutal machine-like crossbows. Dark Age visuals and the agony of individual death meet the techno-violence and mass slaughter of the Postindustrial nuke head-on. Neither blinks.
The game’s battle system is a design triumph, a Bauhaus chair for the ludic self. Tinkerers can spend hours in menus here squeezing every little last bit of data from the cagey game CD. Conversely, it’s entirely possible to get through the game using just one weapon, judicious magical adaptations and a pitcher of sang-froid. Much like its plot, from a few relatively simple axioms, Vagrant Story manages to create a vastly complex game system as a kind of emergent phenomenon. It’s almost more ecosystem than program. The ‘Risk’ system gives players enough rope to play profligate action or cagey RPG, just as they see fit.. Every creature in the game, it seems (even bosses, those infamous cheats!), is defined by a certain set of attributes (such as what class of creature it is, what its resistances to various elemental attacks are and how well edged, pointed or blunt weapons will help it across the River Styx), and once the player works out how to roll with these punches (through forging weapons and using magical gems), the system is deep – I mean James Earl Jones or Baruch Spinoza or Mariarnas Trench deep. Enemies generally have abilities that Ashley can acquire himself, making the whole experience remarkably coherent and rendering opponents with special abilities actually somewhat special rather than just another set of fancy animations. The game is more instrument than ecosystem.
A gripe, then: given the amount of item-swapping that is necessary throughout the game, the inventory- especially the chests scattered about the place where items mysteriously exist in a kind of blurry quantum state and can be accessed from any one of the analogous strongboxes- is difficult and slow to use. The save game takes up three whole slots on the Playstation’s peabrained memory card, making the problem of data storage one of Vagrant Story’s major pitfalls. But frankly, a game that fails only in such peripheral areas as saving and loading time gets more points than one that fails in, say, gameplay. And gameplay in Vagrant Story is as slick as its protagonist’s bunny hairstyle due to one prescient addition mapped to the oft-ignored R2 button. Hugging this button short-circuits aeons of menu-hunting, bringing up a sidereal shortcut menu that contains everything Ashley has on hand with which to mortify his puny opposition. Everything. Even items, the things I complained about just before. More orchestra than instrument.
I can understand that some players don’t have the time or patience to learn such a complex system and at least in the PAL version the manual was less than helpful, especially the second half, which was entirely in German. But remember, such people are effectively knocking Andy Warhol or Pier Paolo Pasolini, so if you want anyone smart to respect you, eject them posthaste from your social circle. Such inapt people are probably similarly oblivious as to just how amazing the game engine is. All cutscenes (apart from an excellent opening movie) are handled in-engine with the perspectival and gestural panache of a Michael Mann, a Francesco Goya or a Goseki Kojima. With the advent of next generation consoles and all that rot, in-engine scenes are hardly surprising anymore, but it should be noted that Vagrant Story did it with the PlayStation’s pathetic processing power, and did it very well. Famitsu gave this game 40 - a perfect score. Those cats knew what they were talking about. And only gamers, only gamers, can know what the Fam knew in imparting that score. The rest can weep.
With a storyline that writhes with intrigue and competently wrought ‘man-encounters-his-dark-past’ schenanigans; with a complex battle system that respects the right of players to choose between poleaxe, crossbow and broadsword as weapons of choice; with a character who actually uses the word ‘suppurate’; with a supporting cast that is more interesting and vibrant than the main characters of almost every other game in existence, it’s no wonder that Vagrant Story was as unpopular (compared to lackwit blockbusters) as it was. Kinda like Pasolini.