A rich, dark elixir of a game, to be savoured while plotting your own rise to power.
Back in the day VS was rather misleadingly referred to as 'Medieval Gear Solid', and although the two games are really nothing alike they do share a certain cinematic quality and depth of storytelling. From the moment VKP Riskbreaker Ashley Riot infiltrates the rain-lashed manor of Duke Bardorba in pursuit of a group of renegade cultists the player is sucked into a dark and twisting adventure that grips to the end. I'll stop short of any story exposition but suffice to say that as Ashley pursues his quarry to the haunted city of Lea Monde things soon become other than what they seemed at the manor, and what starts as a simple hunt for gang of rebels soon becomes altogether – spookier.
What this boils down to is essentially a dungeon-crawler. The player makes their way through a series of rooms comprising the different sections of Lea Monde, clearing them of enemies, opening chests, solving puzzles with various types of movable cubes and thumping the occasional boss monster. Which all sounds rather simple, but is all enlivened by a fun and rewarding combat system that allows Ashley, with the right timing, to 'chain' together various abilities to add extra damage, recover life, shield him self from attacks etc. Leavening this system is the 'Risk' factor, which is a number below Ashley's health bar that goes up as he trades blows with his enemies. A higher Risk score makes it harder to hit enemies and also increases the damage he takes, but also increases his chances of landing a critical hit. What this means is that, while it might be tempting to lay on the chain abilities, the player needs to balance this against the penalties of increased Risk and adjust their strategy accordingly.
Accompanying all the monster-whacking is a masterpiece of storytelling, replete with a rich supporting cast and accompanied by a supremely elegant English translation which eschews modernity for a more archaic style, giving the game a wonderful 'high fantasy' feel. Graphically the game is solid, but special mention goes to the sound. The music is atmospheric enough, but it's the background noises that will really grab you – the moans of the undead in the catacombs, the snarls and barks of wild beasts in the city, the chirping of birds in the ruined eaves, even the laughter and cackling of poor, mad souls lost to Lea Monde's embrace. And then there's the crafting system to explore. Scattered around the city are workshops wherein Ashley can disassemble and recombine blades, grips, gems, shields and pieces of armour into new and original pieces of kit.
After all that, are there any negative points to pick up on? A few. The learning curve is quite high, requiring the player to get a handle quite quickly on the various types of enemies and the sort of attacks they're vulnerable to. Changing weapons and equipment on the fly is rather cumbersome, particularly seeing as how you're often up against different types of enemies in quick succession and need to change your gear accordingly. Also – until you get the Analyze spell at any rate – it can be a case of trial and error when you're trying to find out what sort of attack will harm what class of enemy.
But these are minor niggles, and in no way detract from the game's dark brilliance. To summarise, all I can really say is – buy Vagrant Story. For the price it's a steal, and you owe it to yourself to sample this fine vintage from the final years of the PlayStation's life.