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Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Retro Night: Vagrant Story

After a string of PS1 successes in the late 90’s with games like Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Saga Frontier 1 and 2, Einhander, Xenogears, Parasite Eve 1 and 2, Legend of Mana, Front Mission 2 and 3, Threads of Fate, and Chrono Cross, Square was at the top of their game. Just two months after the 90’s ended, they unveiled their latest RPG offering: Vagrant Story. It was a bit different from many of their other RPGs, in that it featured a semi-realtime battle system and full 3D graphics. It also took a more realistic art style for its characters and settings, rather than the anime-influenced style of previous Square RPGs. The title, headed by Yasumi Matsuno [known for his work on several Ogre Battle titles and Final Fantasy Tactics], received a perfect score from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu and similarly high praise from American websites and magazines. However, it was somewhat overshadowed in its time by being squashed between the releases of Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve II, and Final Fantasy IX.

In terms of gameplay, Vagrant Story is a far cry from Square’s other RPGs. Rather than turn-based combat with parties of characters, the combat in Vagrant Story all takes places in near-realtime with just one player character [Ashley Riot, a member of the Valendia Knights of Peace]. To attack, the player must first enter battle mode by pressing the X button and then bring up the attack menu by pressing the O button. The attack menu displays all the opponents that Ashley can attack as well as which parts of their body that he can target. Different parts of the enemies’ bodies can result in varying amounts of damage and varying degrees of success. An opponent’s arm might be easier to hit while amounting in less damage, but an attack to the head might result in greater damage but be more difficult to land a blow. Once an attack is select, Ashley will carry it out. However, this does not mean that control is taken away from the player until the attack is finished. During the animation, the player can press either the X, O, or Square button to chain together different attacks or effects [based on which have been preselected before combat] but these must be done at exactly the right instant, otherwise the chain attack will fail. The game takes place in the dungeons and sewers of a large, Renaissance-style city and is decidedly a dungeon-crawler, as there are no towns or NPCs to interact with. Some people will looks on this as a bad thing, as most RPGs feature these two things prominently, but Vagrant Story is still able to tell a rich, dramatic story even without these things.

There’s also a bit of platforming in the game. Sometimes you’ll have to stack up and arrange boxes to access areas that are high up. It’s not really a big thing and most of these can be solved fairly quickly, but its…well…mildly interesting I suppose and something to do other than fighting all the time.

The graphics in Vagrant Story are completely in 3D and it is possible to zoom into a first-person mode and look around the room that Ashley is currently in. It definitely looks good for a PS1 game and the realistic art is a nice change from what is seen in a lot of other RPGs, but it really hasn’t aged well. The textures are heavily pixelated and there’s an abundance of texture shimmering [a common ailment of PS1 games with 3D graphics], especially in the cutscenes. There is a nice attention to detail, particularly in the environments [although they do tend to be a bit repetitive] and in the faces of the characters, which actually emote.

Item customization is a big factor in Vagrant Story, since getting new equipment is no longer as simple as finding a shop in the latest town. Weapons and armor can be broken down into their base components and then recombined to make entirely new pieces of equipment and there gems found throughout the game that can imbue equipment with various stat increases and other effects. Tweaking of equipment and making new equipment plays a major role in Vagrant Story and becomes essential as the game progresses. All the more so because there is no experience or leveling system. Sometimes after a boss fight or mid-boss fight, you’ll have a chance to get a stat bonus and fighting does unlock certain special moves, but that’s it.

Problems? Well, there are a few. For one thing, the game is very short. It can probably be beaten in about five or six hours, maybe a couple more if you try to find all the side rooms and such. For an RPG that’s practically miniscule. Another issue is that the underground dungeons get pretty repetitive after an hour or so. There’s just not a whole lot of variety to all the rooms and corridors, unfortunately. There’s also a spike in difficulty at around the two hour mark, when enemies suddenly see a huge boost to their defenses. Not their attack though, oddly enough. Theses are very real problems and they can make the game a bit frustrating to play.

Now, the question: is Vagrant Story still worth playing? Sure, just don’t pay a fortune for it, that’s all. It’s got its issues, that’s without question, but it’s still a fun little RPG from people who are masters of the genre.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | Retro Night | , , , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Violinist of Hameln

Enix, a company almost synonymous with RPGs, had their own platformer for the SNES at the height of the craze during the 16-bit years. Released September 1995 in Japan, The Violinist of Hameln, based on a manga of the same name by Michiaki Watanabe, followed the exploits of Hamel, a skilled violinist, in his quest to take down a group of demons that have been terrorizing a small village. Before he leaves, he takes a young girl named Flute with him.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way right now: Violinist of Hameln is probably one of the most sexist platformers ever made. That’s no small accomplishment when most of them feature a heroic male character saving a helpless female character who has been kidnapped by the bad guys. But Hameln beat all those with ease. That’s based on the gameplay aspect that also makes Hameln unique among platformers. Flute, the village girl who helps Hamel, basically gets used and abused in every single level. This is through a variety of ways. For one thing, Hamel can pick her up and throw her like a projectile at enemies or headlong into breakable obstacles. There are also a variety of costumes that Hamel can find to make Flute use to get past various obstacles [one costume is an ostrich which can walk across spikes and another is a frog that leap high up in the air]. Hamel can also stand on Flute’s shoulders to reach higher locations than he might otherwise. Flute has a health bar but she can’t actually be killed, how much health she has left at the end of level determines bonus points. So…yeah. It’s really wrong, but also kind of funny. I guess that makes me bad person.

With that out of the way, Violinist of Hameln is a pretty basic platformer. There are various platforms, ladders, enemies, and spikes to be overcome along with other environmental traps to avoid. Hameln’s main weapon is a violin that can shoot out deadly musical notes, which actually work surprisingly well in fighting enemies. If not for the addition of Flute as a gameplay element, it really wouldn’t be all that special. So, I suppose that means that extreme sexism is this game’s claim to fame. That’s so horrible to say. Well, anyway, just don’t take it all that seriously and it shouldn’t be too hard to enjoy.

The game is a bit on the hard side, I got killed once just on the first level. It’s not among the hardest platformers out there, since you’ve got a health bar and several extra lives, but I’d put it above some of the other platformers on the SNES.

The music is the sort of upbeat tunes that you can expect to find in most mid-range platformers. It’s nothing really all that special, but it serves the game well enough. The graphics are nice and colorful, but, again, nothing that you couldn’t find in a number of other mid-range platformers. Both of these elements get the job done without really being all that memorable.

Overall, it’s a fun little game. The addition of Flute and her many costumes is interesting and adds some variety to the gameplay, but it’s still not an all time classic like the three other platformers discussed so far. Try it out, have a little fun, and then move on.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , | Leave a comment