Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Vagrant Story

I replayed one of my favorite video games recently, a Squaresoft game from way back in 2000 by the name of Vagrant Story. This game has been tied with Final Fantasy Tactics as my overall favorite video game of all time. Incidentally, these games were created by the same team, and each written and directed by Yasumi Matsuno. This same guy later helped create Final Fantasy 12 as well, which was a better Final Fantasy than we had seen in awhile.

Vagrant Story is essentially a one-man dungeon crawl. The whole game, save for the introduction sequence, takes place in an abandoned city that serves as one huge dungeon. There are no shops, no NPCs to talk with, no allies. It's mostly a lonely trek through different areas of the city fighting monsters. Along the way, you pick up weapons, armor and spells to help you. The closest thing to the merchants commonly seen in other games are workshops - blacksmith shops that allow you to combine weapons and armor and shields into better ones.

The process of navigating these combinations is actually pretty complicated, and getting the best weapons in the best material is pretty tough and requires farming. This is why it qualifies as a topic for Complicated Fun.

One would think the storyline would suffer from this minimalist approach, but the storyline is surprisingly good despite this limitation. Powers awaken in everyone who enters this ancient magic city, and the main character's clairvoyance allows him to see through the eyes of people in other factions to piece together part of the larger story. The real villains and heroes aren't at all what they appear. And neither is this whole magic city. Plus there's that whole bit about the main character's false memories and how it challenges his very conception of himself, and whether it ultimately matters. All of that probably deserves a spot on my analysis blog.

Oh - and the game is tough. It's complicated, and it doesn't play nice. If you're running through rooms with low HP, you're actually more likely to run into tougher encounters than not. In fact, this is what is necessary to find the best equipment in the game. Mastering this game definitely left me ready for a game like Dark Souls later on. It's kind of amazing how much they have in common, actually.

I play through it again every couple of years. I do think it has aged pretty well. But in recent playthroughs, I'm struck by how unfinished it looks in some places. Some of the story does feel a little bit rushed, of course, but there are also things like the storage capacity of the long-term storage chests - a bizarre 256 for misc. items, despite the fact that even keeping all the dropped grimoires on subsequent playthroughts of the game will never begin to approach more than 100. And this is compared to only 64 slots for blades and armor, and 32 slots for shields. Clearly they didn't understand what sort of storage requirements their system would incentivize.

I've since done research on the development of this game, and apparently Matsuno stated that he cut out about half the scenario due to storage capacity. There was also supposed to be a two-player mode! How cool would that be? He also cut out several scenes where an AI-controlled ally takes part in the battle due to the PSone's memory limitations. We have the one in the Snowfly Forest, but that sure would be something to see if it was anything like the variety of NPCs and scenarios in Final Fantasy Tactics. I think the trimming of this element explains the existence of your ally, Merlose pretty well. She was clearly supposed to play a much larger role than she does.

Vagrant Story is significant to me for another reason - I've gotten a lot of inspiration from it for D&D campaigns and characters. I named my first character after the best Gem in the game, the Arturos gems, which it states is named after a Legendary King - clearly a reference to King Arthur. When I eventually made a campaign, I pretty blatantly stole the name of the kingdom in this game, Valendia, for my own medieval kingdom where most of the game takes place. And I used part of the premise and some elements of it in the famous Increasingly Inaccurately-named One-Shot Campaign, wherein much of the action took place in an abandoned magic city. I'm even thinking about revisiting that premise for another game soon - a game that takes place entirely in one big dungeon.

I personally think this is one game that is begging for a remake, perhaps at least on the scale of the Final Fantasy Tactics games. Here are some things they can tackle for a remake:

- Restore the full storyline.
- Restore the allied AI battles
- Change Ashley's equipped armor the same way his weapons and shield change
- Give more storage slots to weapons and armor.
- Balance tweaks.
- Character build options - make more of a Mage Ashley if you want, or more of a Warrior.
- Give incentives to two-handed weapon builds - there is very little reason to give up the utility of a shield in the base game.
- I actually would love a sequel, picking up right where the last one leaves off. The now-enlightened Ashley is an actual Vagrant, and wanders from place to place using his powers to vanquish people misusing dark powers. It would be awesome.

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