Those who were on the positive side of that divided reception learned to appreciate that Ashley was a one-man army and they were that army’s quartermaster, responsible for ensuring his selection of weapons was wide enough to exploit any weakness: playing not just the hero in battle, but his squire outside of it. As it’s the weapons and armour themselves that gain experience through combat, the artificially short lifespan of traditional RPG equipment – no matter how grand an item, it’s only useful until you find a +1 version of it – doesn’t apply. Weapons are cherished, made legendary, at worst broken down into their separate components and reforged with stronger materials. As one of surprisingly few RPGs to allow you to name your armaments, you’re encouraged to build a personal myth of dragonscale-piercing lances and hallowed greatswords alongside Ashley’s preordained story.
Actually fielding them in battle is a slightly more inglorious procedure, as switching weapons goes ignored by the shortcut menu accessing the four schools of magic, special attacks and combos, instead requiring constant inventory-swapping. Combined with the lengthy menu to-and-froing to repair and rework weapons in Lea Monde’s remote workshops, the dedicated player would spend more time elbow-deep in interfaces than exercising their trigger fingers. Others were driven to simply chaining enough attacks for the combination bonuses to stack up damage that their weapon couldn’t otherwise deliver, allowing Ashley to triumph over most foes using only his original sword, Fandango – though such a protracted process should require renaming that blade Track And Field.
The breadth of combat possibilities means that retooling Ashley before each fight is almost comparable to swapping party members in and out in a traditional console RPG, and yet the other most prominent criticism of Vagrant Story alongside its complexity is its isolationism. For nearly the entirety of gameplay, Ashley is alone, with comfort in numbers a luxury only the other characters enjoy, and boss encounters often feeling less fleeting than the plot encounters (strangely, narrative cut-scenes can be skipped, but boss entrances must be endured). It seems a needless abstraction that you must confirm Ashley as the target of spells and item effects, until a chance encounter finds Sydney fighting at his side. Oddly, it’s not a sign of things to come: the partner dynamic is confined to that single fight, and after that moment even narrative encounters become more spaced out, though no less packed with exposition.
There’s the slight sensation that the game’s oracle has unexpectedly fallen silent, and while a teleport system is introduced to allow you to revisit old locations and plumb some of their secrets for items, none trigger another bout of foreshadowing or memory. It’s a forgettable lapse given that the narrative returns with renewed intensity in the final hours (giving even latecoming incidental characters affectingly poignant send-offs) but one explained by Matsuno in a post-release interview: nearly half of Vagrant Story, including the introduction of companions, was cut to meet schedule and the PS1’s limitations.
It’s hard to resist imagining what could have been – gameplay questions of how supporting characters would have affected the game, story questions of where characters would be reunited, or where the seeds were planted for others to be pulled apart. Yet the game doesn’t feel unfinished, isn’t tangibly lacking in resolution or impact or length, and perhaps it’s best to appreciate what has been achieved to the fullest of the team’s application, if not their ambition.
There’s no extended edition, no unlockable epilogue, just the same double-edged closure as is offered to Ashley over the conflicting stories of his past: “What difference does it make? Whether you lost a wife and child or killed an innocent family, you cannot bring back the dead.” Anyway, the game says, people die: now, play through again for 100 per cent map completion, to descend to the heart of the now-unlocked Iron Maiden high-level dungeon, to forge Damascus and Dread equipment from the spoils of Last Crusaders – but not for another moment of storyline. Where the first playthrough is pure videogame storytelling, the extra content is pure videogame, perhaps the proof of the accusation that the game’s balance between drama and min-maxing exercise is too heavily towards the latter for it to be considered a work of art. To that, fans will retort that precious few games can command attention through all their cut-scenes all over again on repeat plays.
As with many of the titles that stay in the mind long after every moment has been exhausted, all the mistakes that were included and all the ‘if only’s that were not are part of the experience: Vagrant Story is a glorious, impossible mess. Though the finale leaves the story open as wide as the introduction’s camera sweep finds the sky at dawn, there will never be a sequel – really, there could never be a sequel, only the hope that more developers will take the same chances, and that there will be players to accept the strange hand those chances deal.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in E150.
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