Retrospective: Vagrant Story
For some reason, the only games I manage to finish are ones that are infamous for how unfriendly they are to the player. Well, I can't help it. I will suffer through a lot for a fundamentally good experience. Thankfully, I played this game in a "book club" with 4 - 5 friends, and sharing strategies and thoughts as we played definitely made the experience better than it would've been otherwise.
The greatest pleasure this game offers is exploring the city of Lea Monde where the game takes place. I didn't think so much care would've been put into the architecture, layout and expression of the various areas, but it honestly feels like one of the most intruiging fantasy locations I've ever encountered.
The idea is that a ruined city comes back life as a dark power starts to protrude from within. A main character who lost his wife and kid now chases an outlaw into this magical city where the dead come back to life.
What does this mean? The only way to find out is to go deeper.
This is no generic dark force we're talking about, but one that is symbolically tied to the main character's personal quest. The world is deeply interconnected, and all the areas have a lot of lore and thematic meaning to them. Every location tells its own little story and confronts the main character in its own way.
Playing the game, it became apparent to me that there was a lot less story than gameplay. The beginning of the game is more promising in this regard. There's a constant stream of cutscenes keeping you hooked between the game segments. Some of these scenes are related to the grander plot while others deal with subplots – like one about following a pair of guards who witnesses the magic of Lea Monde for the first time.
After the first dungeons however, the amount of story material that is presented is gradually reduced until the dungeons finally mostly revolves around the gameplay. It's at this point in the game that you will then trudge through a dungeon for 2 hours only to be rewarded with a 2 minute cutscene. The game can at times feel like it took a movie and chopped it up with the intention of tempting you to delve further into the game instead of being organically integrated into it. By the time you have completed dungeon, so much time has passed since you got an update on the story that you've sort of lost sense of what you're doing.
This becomes even more of a problem when you consider how hard the story is to follow to begin with. The storytelling in this game is extremely economical and important exposition is often only mentioned once. The game reads more like a poem, or an algebraic equation reduced down to its most terse expression. Considering how much information there is to take in, and how the development of the story often entails throwing away your previous knowledge as new secrets are revealed, it becomes extremely hard to follow in anything but a very general sense.
One of the questions me and my friends had to ask was why a certain character attacks you when you first reach the surface of the city after reaching it by tunnel. Other characters that were part of the faction were clearly confused when they were ordered by the disguised villain to attack the main character, but now they are actively hunting him. Similarily, why did the main character let the villain go when he finally reaches him in the midpoint of the game?
The storytelling is too economical for its own good, and I suspect it's not entirely internally coherent as well.
These problems have to distinguished from the story questions that are supposed to make you question the reality of what you're seeing, like the true nature of Ashley's wife and child – which is well done. It's good storytelling to keep thematic questions open, but it's seldom good storytelling to leave the audience uncertain as to what is even happening in the moment. It makes emotional moments lose all their power.
To appraise Vagrant Story's quality accurately, it may therefore be better to seperate the «story» from the «storytelling». Vagrant Story's story is fantastic, and I personally think it's the best in the entire medium. It can however be hard to realize this when you don't understand what's going on.
Case in point: I'm planning to rewatch the cutscenes on Youtube and experience it like a movie to make sure I've gotten everything about the story right. I suspect the best way to really get the story is to see this movie version.
As for the gameplay, the game can be pretty slow and clunky, but it's rewarding to stick with. If the player manages to synchronize their inner tempo to the game's tempo, it can easily become addictive.
This is made harder however by the fact that the game doesn't have much in terms of relaxation. It would make the game more tolerable to have, for example, the town streets not be so chocked full of enemy soldiers - just have a place where you could roam freely and hunt for secrets or lore if you wanted. Just to get a break from the constant threats.
The clock tower shows 1 o'clock when you come out of the Sanctum and the final boss takes place during the night. Given that the game takes place over a single day, the intense design makes sense, but I personally think it's too much. Every time you want to go somewhere, you have to wade through a marsh of enemies that reach you to your waist, and you have to get rid of them patiently. Or run from them. Patiently.
The game would feel a lot more swift and juicy had it cut the amount of enemies in half and made them respawn only when you exit a dungeon. It would also rebalance the gameplay-to-cutscene ratio and make the story feel more involved, as well as making it easier to remember.
Some of the dungeons also felt unecessary. The second level of the mines as well as the Limestone Quarry, despite its wonderful music, were just more of the same and didn't have anything to say that hadn't already been said by the other dungeons. They both reused assets and design from other dungeons. I personally wouldn't mind cutting these as well.
Personally, I felt safe showing this game some patience, as it has so many qualities that make up for it. It is a slow experience, but not fundamentally flawed.
The soundtrack is one of the few Hitoshi Sakimoto has done for a Matsuno game where none of the workload has been shared with other composers. This makes Vagrant Story's soundtrack one of the highlights of Sakimoto's career, and it is spectacularily unified.
I listened to the soundtrack years before playing the game, and I couldn't get it to make sense for me. A lot of the tracks felt like noisy horror film music, but now that I've played it, I get it. The music is full of elusive emotional nuance, and I appreciate the horror elements a lot more when I experienced them in their intended locations.
The first time I truly felt this way was upon entering the catacombs – the second area of the game. When you first enter Lea Monde, it's through a passageway in an old wine cellar. This wine cellar has no music at all – you're simply left to the sound of your footsteps and screams and moans from afar. It's fantastic, but it's when you reach the catacombs and hear the unnerving, dissonant low string chords that you truly feel that you have entered a place you're not supposed to be.
Atmosphere and dramaturgy really are the strongest points of this game. It's always keenly aware of where you are emotionally at any point, and it knows how to pull your strings. When you'veve made your way through the wine cellar, the catacombs and the sanctum and finally see the daylight as you step out into the streets of Lea Monde, it's a magical moment. The game is kind to not fill this space with music, but simply the sound of the wind and birds. After the previous underground areas, it felt like waking up from a nightmare. But the feeling is not one of relief, but rather solemn, naturalistic ruin. Whatever once was here is now past. There's nothing here. Maybe it would've been better to never wake up.
The poetry of this game – the way the setting, the characters, the music, the atmospheres and the story itself comes together – is beyond anything I have experienced in a game. There's this weird effect where so much of the content plays out in my own mind only, through associations unearthed by vestigal gestures from the game that were not coincidental, but probably not controlled either.
Vagrant Story feels like its creator woke up from a dream and continued to live in the grip of that dream for as long as he worked on it. Vagrant Story is more than the sum of its parts in a way I don't think is calculable, but just happens when artists are completely engaged with their work and let their unconscious rule and spill out on the paper. It feels unhinged and free, transcending whatever rationales its creators must've had for doing what they did.
Since I haven't said it outright: yes, this is the most artistic, magical, insane game I have ever played. Tactics Ogre - a game by the same creator - is fantastic, but it's grounded. This game is not. This game is a live nightmare. It confronts you, it swallows you, you come out on the other side not quite the same person you were when you entered.