A story of the vagrant
Whenever I start writing anything about Vagrant Story, I have to force myself not to start gushing about the elegant perfection of the weapon system. I mean, it’s simple – six monster families, using a weapon on one builds up bonuses against that monster type, and your goal becomes stacking up that bonus while you reforge that weapon into more potent forms over time. But then you consider that weapons have different damage properties, and you want to try and build a weapon using properties that most monsters of that family will be weak against, and then whoo, I’m down the hole again and I wake up to find I’ve ranted about the system for hours.
It’s a simple, elegant, brilliant design. So much of the game is a simple, elegant, brilliant design. On one hand, it’s almost criminal that the game has never received any kind of sequel, even any sort of larger story resolution beyond getting retroactively thrown into the overall Ivalice continuity (although Yasumi Matsuno has gone back and forth on that one). But on the other thand, it’s kind of a good thing. It somehow makes the game work better that it never became iterative, that all of it is contained solely herein, even if you wish there was more.
Even the story is largely a self-contained affair. It’s an extended dungeon crawl, Diablo with a more compelling cast. Ashley Riot goes into the city of Leá Monde to hunt down Sydney Losstarot for a crime, finds out that the real villain is the knightly Romeo Guildenstern, abandons his job and then leaves. And yet that’s only the barest sketch of the plot; hell, it’s easy to play through the game a few times before you really start to notice that the whole plot with Callo, Hardin, and Joshua is more or less entirely irrelevant to Ashley’s actual quest.
What the game is trying to do is done entirely via subtle hints at the larger world. We never see the Crimson Blades outside of Leá Monde, but we learn a great deal about what the unit is and how it operates despite that. We learn how they relate to the VKP, the organization that Ashley belongs to, and what the VKP’s ultimate goals are simply by watching others react around Ashley as he presses forward. Sydney’s relationship to the characters in the plot remains hidden until the last moments of the plot, and that allows us to view everything that has happened with a more critical eye, giving a long shadow to figures who never show up in the ruined city but have a great deal of relevance just the same.
There are no codex entries, no lore dumps, no explicit points where the game says “let’s talk about the lore of this setting.” It’s simple enough that people can argue it in or out of the greater Ivalice canon without a problem – and placing it there or removing it doesn’t significantly affect the game for good or bad, aside from a shot at a larger tapestry of events focused on the most compelling multi-game setting in Final Fantasy.
The game’s crafting and refining system is interesting, too; it’s all a matter of combining weapon types to make better weapons or switch types, combining metals to make something better, and so on. Combining weapons is the name of the game, carrying your bonuses against enemies as you move from the most basic stabbing implements to more advanced versions. Those bonuses are what ultimately make you a powerhouse, turning an otherwise generic shortsword into a weapon that slays dragons with ease.
But that’s just part of the overall elegance of the game. The core of the battle system is stringing together combos, but longer combos means more risk accumulates – and as risk rises, the damage you do decreases and the damage you take increases. It’s a simple juggle, a reason to not string together endlessly long combos, but it also serves to create new tension. Do you try and bust out a long combo and accept the risk penalties if it drops the toughest enemy on screen? Stick with short combos? Single hits supplemented with magical assaults? They’re all perfectly viable approaches, and rather than favoring one or the other the game lets you pick out what works best for your particular playstyle.
Not to say that there aren’t holes in the game just the same. The block-moving puzzles are generally annoying, and most of the really difficult jumping bits are best navigated by completely ignoring them via judicious use of the Fixate spell. Designer notes indicate that the game had to be significantly reduced in order to make deadlines; the graphics looked acceptable at the time it was released, sure, but they weren’t great even then, and they’ve aged pretty badly. There are several parts of the game that are perfectly functional but a bit lacking just the same, at that. It’s a game much like the later Front Mission installments, with an astonishingly robust engine that could support far more cool stuff than the actual game has.
Of course, it was a single title released for the Playstation just before the Playstation 2 hit the market, so there’s only so much that could be done with the CD-ROM format at that point. You’d think that the game would have sequels, but alas, like so many of the titles Square released in that era it didn’t sell as well as upper management wanted and it was quietly left alone forever. Chasing the numbers that Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII achieved sort of damaged several of the company’s IPs, really.
But here we are, and here’s a game that could benefit from a remake or a proper sequel, right? Except it couldn’t.
As limited as the game may be, part of what keeps it working reliably is the simple fact that there are strict limits to how much game is in place. There are no stores, no larger world, just a very straightforward crawl through a crumbling city and the visually distinct portions of it. And while the very end of the game makes it clear that there’s more to the story, ending with a statement that this is the start of Ashley’s tale, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we as players get to see more of it. It just means that more happens afterward.
There’s a temptation with games, especially good ones, for usto want more. A good game deserves another, a continuation of the story, more exploration of the world. But a good game is always going to have more stuff you want to explore, more elements you want to see fleshed out. The definition of a good game, in part, is a game that feels like it has more waiting in the wings. All a sequel can do is show you that… and if it’s good, leave you wanting still more.
Eventually, you wind up with sequels like the original Megaman games, where an idea hasn’t just been stretched to its logical conclusion but has been forced to keep on going through space that it can’t possibly fill. When one of the bits of novelty in a given title is that it removes features from previous games, that’s a sure sign that the core of the franchise went missing and no one is quite sure where it can be found.
I’d love to see a remake of Vagrant Story that gives us visual changes to Ashley’s design based on the armor he wears. Hell, I’d love to see a version that lets us customize our own Ashley Riot and take him or her through Leá Monde, but… it wouldn’t actually add anything to the game. It would just be needless goobery. Any actual alterations to the game beyond simple details like UI improvements would require throwing off the balance of the whole elegant machine, and a lack of alterations would make the whole thing a form of masturbatory thought exercise rather than an improvement on an older game.
And any sequels, ultimately, would have the same problem. Even the smallest tweaks could upset the whole balance.
Sometimes, it might be better to hope for nothing more from a game that you love. Yes, that means that by definition when your time is done with that game, it’s done. There is no more to look forward to. Yet at the same time, it means that the whole thing exists on its own, rather than sequels that may or may not live up to the legacy of the first. An isolated spot of wonder, something worth playing even if it isn’t going to be re-released, even if there’s no real benefit beyond playing through it again if you liked it the first time.
As much as I’d love more Vagrant Story, I prefer no sequels to a bad sequel. Which is good, since that’s where we are anyway.
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