So last week I played Vagrant Story, which if you haven't heard of it, is a PS1 Final Fantasy spinoff kinda that was directed by Yasumi Matsuno, of Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy XII (aka my favorite one) fame. It takes place in the same world as FFT and FFXII, Ivalice, though you wouldn't really know outside of some item and location names, but it feels indescribably like a Yasumi Matsuno game. This, more than anything else, ties this game to not only his other Ivalice games, but his games in the Ogre series as well.
Now when I say Vagrant Story feels like a Matsuno game, there's a couple things I mean. First, it has a complex political plot, tho this game's plot is more character driven than something like FFXII. Second, it's gameplay is bonkers complicated but driven primarily by a few small interactions and thus easy to just kinda "wing". FFXII has it's gambit system, FFT has it's whole job and skill and type weakness system, Ogre Battle has its... everything. Third, it has a super atmospheric art style punctuated with nearly Shakespearean dialogue. There's more to it than just that, but those are the big ones for me, and my god Vagrant Story fits this more than anything else of his.
I mean hell, the combat system here is so completely it's own thing that the closest thing I can think of to it is the VATS system from Fallout? Like, the game is real time, but when you hit the attack button the game pauses and lists every enemy limb in your range, then you choose which one to attack. But there's a lot more complexity than just that. The system revolves around exploiting enemy weaknesses to the point that if you don't you literally won't be able to do ANY damage, which can get frustrating at times. There's a very good guide to the combat system that is super helpful in figuring out good strategies for taking the game on. Honestly once you read that guide there's only a few encounters in the game that are actually all that tough. Without the guide though, the game becomes an exercise in frustration and dealing 1s and 2s of damage to a boss with 500 health who can kill you in one or two hits.
Beyond that, this game is atmosphere incarnate. Most of the game is spent alone, trekking through dungeons full of destroyed rock, hostile beasts, and the undead corpses of a calamity long-past, all set to a sparse yet brooding orchestral soundtrack. It feels like tiptoeing around in your attic, looking out for mice, breathing in the dust layered on top of all the books and antiques that haven't been touched in years, looking to discover something forgotten. Which is to say, it feels amazing. The empty city becomes as much a character as all the extremely well written characters that push the plot forward, and that's a feat not many could pull off.
The frustration, combined with the dreary, lonely, ruined castle atmosphere actually reminded me of Dark Souls quite a bit, which, if you read my post last week, is a game I didn't finish partially because of how frustration is baked into it's core design. The difference with Vagrant Story is that frustration is a very clear and temporary signal that you're doing something wrong, something that can usually be fixed by shuffling gems and weapons around really quick. There's still some frustration to be had (liches SUCK and the analyze spell can FAIL), but broadly, nothing is bite-your-controller terrible. Well, maybe the final boss, who's defenses are so high that it's hard to do damage, and the way it moves makes it hard to keep your buffs up. On top of that the ai was kinda bugged for me, in that it wouldn't attack until I buffed myself? Which was annoying, and made the fight take an hour and a half not counting the time I DIED AND RESTARTED :/. But it's the final boss, so if there's any part of the game that should be frustrating it's that.
But yeah, Vagrant Story feels like the best possible version of an atmospheric and punishing dungeon crawler set inside of a shakespeare play, and also maybe the most Yasumi Matsuno game ever. There's not so many game developers with that kind of signature style but without the name recognition of someone like Suda51 or Hideo Kojima. The only thing I can think of is Swery, but what's interesting about Matsuno is his games aren't low or mid budget affairs. FFXII is a gorgeus fully realized MMO-sized game, and Vagrant Story is far and away the most technically impressive PS1 game I've ever seen. Like, everyone's mouths are animated! The character models are the same high detail models between cutscenes and gameplay! The shots are MGS levels of hollywood-esque! If the game had voice acting it'd basically be a low res PS2 game, and it blows my goddamn mind that such an experimental combat system and interesting non-standard JRPG story got this kind of a budget. I wish more AAA games got this kind of experimentation today, sometimes it feels like the only auteurs left in the industry with budgets are Kojima and Hidetaka Miyazaki. Everyone else who would make an interesting game is Indie and needs to make things as cheap as possible. Basically what I'm saying is BRING BACK THE MIDDLE MARKET SO WE CAN HAVE VIDEO GAME AUTEURS
Anyways, next on my docket is EverGrace, an early FromSoftware PS2 game that's got the best soundtrack in any game ever no contest. Here's to hoping it's not as frustrating as Dark Souls!
also play vagrant story it's really good