The Best Video Game Ever: Square’s “Vagrant Story”
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on the Best Video Games Ever. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, please click here.
I don’t expect that I will ever play a better video game than Vagrant Story. The PlayStation dungeon-crawler, published in 2000 by Square, comes closer to literary and gaming perfection than any title on any system that I’ve come across. Yasumi Matsuno, the game’s producer, writer and director, achieved this by keeping everything about Vagrant Story focused and modest. He did a lot with a little rather than a little with a lot. Everything from the music to the sound effects to the minor characters has its place.
The setting for most of the game is an abandoned medieval city pulsing with dark magic and roaming monsters, and most of the story takes place over a single day. Ashley Riot, a government agent and the one playable character, plays a game of cat and mouse with an elusive, charismatic cult leader through wine cellars, city walls, courtyards, ghostly mines, an eerie undercity, buried temples, and finally a great cathedral. The city, Leá Monde, was designed by the game creators in the style of Saint-Émilion in France, and it lives on the screen and in the mind like few other virtual places I’ve had the pleasure to visit. It’s a singularity, yet multitudinous. You feel as if you’re in one place throughout the game, and yet it presses upon you as a whole, heavy world more than most RPGs that span a globe.
Vagrant Story isn’t an epic. The fate of its world isn’t at stake. The drama takes place between a handful of characters, some major, some minor, but all of them with their own peculiar motivations and goals. The cultist Sydney Losstarot, who at first appears to be the antagonist, is a man with metal arms, a rood device tattooed on his back, and the power to see into the souls of others. He initiates the events of the story by breaking into Duke Bardorba’s manor and kidnapping his family, taking them to Leá Monde. The region’s government sends agents Ashley Riot and Callo Merlose to investigate. Also on the scene are the Crimson Blades, ostensibly under the command of the Cardinal, but in truth led by Romeo Guildenstern, who has his own motives, believing that Sydney has the key to unlock limitless dark magic hidden somewhere in the city. He’s right, but it turns out that the city itself is the book of magic for which the pious knight lusts, and Sydney has no intention of turning its full power over to the likes of him. Rather, he’s preparing Ashley to possess the Dark, as it’s called.
Sydney, we learn late in the game, is the elder son of Duke Bardorba and in league with the nobleman. The attack on his manor was a ruse concocted by the two of them to bring out of the shadows someone worthy to assume the magic power to which Sydney has access. Enter Ashley Riot. Sydney is intrigued by him and sets out to test him, conjuring monsters and puzzles to shape Ashley into one who can wield the Dark. Sydney also taunts Ashley by peering into the agent’s soul and questioning his memories. Ashley grieves for his deceased wife and son whose murders he was unable to prevent, but Sydney suggests to him that those he believes he lost were not his family but rather his victims, his memories having since been altered by the government he serves. We never learn whether Sydney speaks the truth here, but his motives become clear: he wants to discern how far Ashley’s commitment to justice goes. He wants someone to be able to control the Dark without being corrupted by it. The battle of wills between these two and among others on the scene hints at a larger game of thrones played by political and religious leaders in the land, but the game wisely keeps these larger conflicts in the background as the stuff of hints and shadows on the wall so that the more intimate and haunting drama between the main characters can unfold gracefully. It’s remarkable storytelling for any medium, made all the more impressive by a kickass script and a solid translation.
The gameplay of Vagrant Story can take some time to master. You control only Ashley, but damn you have a lot of control. Like any RPG, you have a variety of weapon and armor types from which to choose, but individual weapons can differ as well. You could have two pole-arms, for example, made of the same material, that nonetheless function uniquely in battle. Weapon types have properties related to their base power and kind of damage (blunt, edge, piercing), and the more you use a category of weapons the better you get at it, unlocking special techniques, but individual weapons have monster and elemental affinities as well. The more you use a specific weapon against undead monsters, the better it gets against those kinds of monsters and the worse it gets against others. You really have to think both short term and long term about your weapon development and battle plans, and even with lots of tactical thought, you could still end up in a pickle. You might wield a great sword enhanced to slay dragons that nonetheless proves weak against a particular dragon foe because it has strong defenses against edge and blunt weapons. The defeat of some monsters requires effective spell-casting, of a type of magic you may or may not have.
Anyone who played Parasite Eve will recognize the battle mechanics. Rather than target individual foes, you narrow your attack to parts of the body, those parts depending on the foe. Enemies do the same. A whack to the head may half your intelligence. A blow to the legs may cut your speed. A slice at your right arm may decrease your attack power. You can dish out these effects as well. Having trouble with a magician type? Aim for the head. Need to keep your distance from a foe? Aim for the legs. The battles in this game are never tedious, unless perhaps you’re trying to obtain a very rare drop. You can take your time or blast through quickly, but you’d best consider your surroundings and consider your foes. A regular foe can become a lethal nightmare. You might find Ashley suddenly slain because some meager monster strikes at him in a way to which he’s unexpectedly weak.
After beating the game, you can replay it with all your growth and equipment, but don’t think you can breeze through Leá Monde like a god. New locations in the city are open to you and more frightful foes as well. Plus it’s unlikely that you’ll have mastered every weapon and every way to play, so replays still give you much to do and many ways to fail. The hardest and spookiest dungeons and the mightiest equipment await you after completing the game the first time through.
Vagrant Story is clearly a labor of love. It’s professional and mature. I love the political intrigue, the religious motivations and delusions, and the moral ambiguity of the plot. And the play of the game itself. I spent many happy hours searching the city for rare monster drops and hidden chests so as to combine and assemble a set of supreme weapons and armor. These sorts of pursuits can easily become tedious in even outstanding role-playing games, but Vagrant Story keeps these mindless tasks interesting with its unique mechanics. Every successful swing of a weapon improves your skill with it. Every blow you receive strengthens your defense against that kind of attack. You improve Ashley instantly corresponding to how you use him; you don’t have to wait for the periodic raising of levels. What can I say? Immediate results are more fun. Just make sure you save often.
Not having had a new system since the PlayStation 2, I haven’t been able to keep up with the latest classics, but I return when I can to a handful of games that have kept their charm over the years. If I had to pick one that stands above the rest, I’d pick Vagrant Story every time.