On a whim last night, I downloaded a copy of Vagrant Story to my PlayStation Vita (may it never, ever break). It’s one of those games I missed out on but always meant to go back to, especially since I’ve been digging into director Yasumi Matsuno’s back catalogue lately. Having played Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy XII, I knew what to expect: a layered, rich fantasy setting with loads of political intrigue and a complicated fictional history. What I didn’t expect is how damn good the first 20 minutes of Vagrant Story are—it’s almost 20 years old, and a lot of games today don’t start this well.
The funny thing is, it’s also the cleanest opening of the Matsuno-led games I’ve played. It relies less on exposition and more on set pieces and art design, delivering credits and tiny bits of history in between vignettes that set up the plot. A knight (Riskbreaker, in Vagrant parlance) Ashley Riot is sent to investigate the Duke Bardoba and his involvement with a strange cult. Once there, Riot encounters the cult leader, Sydney Losstarot, who possesses strange powers that allow him to cheat death in front of your eyes.
It’s a cool premise, but what really makes it sing is how it’s delivered. The art direction in Vagrant Story is incredible—individual shots are composed like paintings, the camera moves cinematically, and the character animation is top-notch stuff. Like a lot of games that age well, part of its success lies in the fact that it’s not using the PlayStation’s crude polygons to deliver something realistic; rather it strives to immerse players in the stylised world dreamed up by artists Hiroshi Minagawa and Akihiko Yoshida. The result is something that is still nice to look at. (The music ain’t bad, either.)
Most role-playing games start poorly, taking far too long to introduce its characters and world, often saving the truly interesting stuff for several hours down the line. Usually, you have to latch on to one small thing—maybe a character, maybe the music, maybe pretty locales—and hope it leads somewhere good.
Vagrant Story is a 19-year-old reminder that you can do it all! A cool world, a creepy villain, an interesting combat system, and great visuals, all in 20 minutes or less. I can’t wait to play more, here’s hoping it ends well too.