9 - Vagrant Story (Playstation)

Vagrant Story is, to me, the Playstations crowning achievement. It pushed the machine to its limits technically and served up a magnificently dark, epic, intelligent adventure with incredible depth and replayability.

The unfortunate downside of its complexity is that it's reluctant to show its qualities to a casual player, and many who tried simply gave up, bewildered by its arcane combat system and seemingly impossible boss battles.

With a modicum of effort and research though that initial spike can be overcome, and the greatest RPG to grace the Playstation is the reward. It seems to me that Vagrant Story is a true labour of love for everyone involved. Coming off the success of Final Fantasy Tactics, director Yasumi Matsuno and his team from Quest got a chance to craft a game of their own, and Matsuno brought his full genius to bear on it. His brand of convoluted political intrigue served as a background for a story of one mans journey of self-discovery and redemption. Every character is full of hidden motivations and shifting allegiances, and by the time the game approaches its climax many assumptions are undermined.

The story of Vagrant Story is by far the most intriguing and compelling I've ever come across in a videogame. Lucky then, that the western localization was carried out by a tremendously talented team who relished and respected the task. It's undoubtedly among the finest translation jobs ever performed on a game.

At its heart, Vagrant Story is a dungeon-crawler. The player takes direct control of the main character and journeys through the derelict city of Lea Monde, both above and below. Along the way he is confronted with all manner of creatures from bats to dragons, beasts and supernatural beings. Combat is very much the core of the gameplay, and its here where Vagrant Story truly shines.

The player can create his own weapons and armour by combining found items of the same. By experimenting, two weapons can be used to create a new, more powerful one. Likewise with armour. Underneath the surface of this is a complex system that determines what the outcome of any combination will be, and it's the exploitation of this system that makes for one of the most compulsive aspects of the game. You will very rarely find an item as good as one you can make. It goes without saying that - for someone who tends to get addicted to the minutiae of a game - this is an irresistible draw. I once spent five hours entering and leaving one room on the off chance of the creature inside dropping a particular item I wanted. By the time I'd finished it had dropped it three times.

The combat itself has a kind of rhythm-action vibe to it, with timed button presses keeping a combo of hits going. Everything is scored, too. From your highest combo to the number of enemies you've killed with each type of weapon. It's a stat-hounds dream come true.

There's a clear game option after you complete the adventure, which allows you to start over with your stats, abilities and items intact. In fact this is the only way to complete the game 100%, as certain areas are inaccessible on the first play. I've played Vagrant Story six times over on the same file.

Last but not least goes a mention to the music. Hitoshi Sakimoto's finest hour, the score here ranges from pure ambience to grandiose battle themes. The soundscape meshing perfectly with the theme and visuals of the game.

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