Ah VS, that shrine of greatness and immortality. Ironically both this and what I feel is the best RPG on the PS2 I picked up completely randomly without any prior knowledge of either game. For game reviews I'll start with Pro/Con lists (in this case just for this summary post) as follows:
+++ Innovative gameplay, possibly the most indepth combat system for any JRPG to this day.
+++ Customization and Advancement are both innovative and interesting
+++ Excellent Storyline, Characters, and plot development
+++ Exceptional score leads to very atmospheric feel
++ Enemy, Weapons, and Ability Variety, hundreds of ways to dispatch opponents
++ Largely unique chaining system utilizes timing, somewhat easy to learn but very difficult to master
++ One of the first games to feature New Game + with actually good content
++ Very little grinding
+ Best graphics on the PSX
+ Extremely difficult
+ Final boss is difficult in a suitably gratifying manner
- Poorly Marketed
- Feasibly only 25 years ahead of its time, as opposed to a thousand years or so
- Not titled "Final Fantasy"
- Unlikely to receive a sequel, though rest assured if it did I'd buy that shit in a tenth of a second.
Well, I'll just start with my standard storyline of how I got into Vagrant Story in the first place. This game has an extremely brutal learning curve, it took me maybe 15 hours to get it right, and this is a very common story for newcomers. You figure out how the chain system works and assume you're supposed to chain everything to death but fail to realize all of the different determinants for damage dealing (alliteration bitch). There are 7 categories of enemies, some of them crossing over between a couple of different ones, 3 different "weapon damage types" and 7 different elements, while each opponent typically has several different body parts each with vulnerabilities to particular types and elements, though generally you can count on one particular element working. Chain resistance also varies from part to part, but as you enhance your chain rate your risk meter goes up, and while risk enhances your damage it also decreases your accuracy and greatly increases the damage you take (the final bosses main attack does 450 or so damage with 100 Risk, you will not have that much life in your first playthrough), so you need to manage it quite a bit. I actually quit the game after failing at a random boss about 10 times, but eventually came back and had an epiphany, I started using various weapons for different situations and greatly improved my success.
That is, quite simply, the longest time I've ever taken to get into any game, and as I am pretty damn competent at JRPGs in particular this still impresses me. As stated above the storyline and atmosphere are both excellent, still in my top 5 for game storylines at the moment, and the desolate destroyed city of Lea Monde is quite interesting to patrol around. Advancement in this game is very gradual, and at first you don't notice the benefits. You start out with 250 life/50 mana and 100 Strength/Agility/Intelligence, by the time you finish your first playthrough you may have 320 life/100 mana and 110 STR/AGI/INT on average. In general finding equipment doesn't seem to be all that much better than the previous equipment you already have, until you realize how customizable each weapon is, and how to greatly enhance the effectiveness of your weaponry. There's even ways to make your weapons and armor virtually flawless, though it takes a very long time to do so and the reason for doing it is nebulous at best.
The final boss is also essentially the hardest I've ever faced in an RPG, taking about 15 tries to figure out. Main Bosses are not for the most part vulnerable to "Analyze" which tells you a bosses' particular strengths and weaknesses and depending on whats in your inventory can be key to defeating them, but this boss is quite different, and it generally is more about figuring out where to chain him with your best weapon, assuming it isn't "Dark" and doesn't favor killing humans, which is fairly unlikely, and managing your risk. One thing that games fail at miserably quite often is making the final boss extremely difficult if he is labeled as a badass in the first place.
Struggling through fighting the boss makes you respect his badassery much more than simply throwing you in at an extremely advantageous stage of the game, a la every Final Fantasy except for IV (and possibly XIII, though we'll get to that later). There's actually a "speed boost" item that is very useful in particular on this fight, though you're unlikely to have used it in the past. Positioning actually matters in this game, and in certain cases you can avoid the more vicious attacks of bosses by standing at the right spot in the room (though it is more about avoiding an invisible attack sphere than, for example, not standing in fire). In general the game has a great deal of buffs and debuffs that can be quite useful against certain opponents, though it is sometimes difficult to keep track of them all.
And so I wait for another RPG to come out of this caliber, I was presently surprised when Valkyrie Profile 2 felt very similar in terms of the combat system and was also quite exceptional in several ways, thus securing its place as my favorite PS2 RPG. The exceptional Vagrant Story/ Final Fantasy Tactics team worked on both VP2 and Final Fantasy XII, while XII isn't all that difficult it certainly feels, looks, and sounds a hell of a lot like Vagrant Story, thus making me feel wonderfully nostalgic every time I played it. Unfortunately that's likely as close as we'll get to a sequel, but perhaps in the distant future another game shall arise. This is the one game I have the soundtrack to, for good reason.
Final Grade: 10/10
Vagrant Story song of the day: Staff Roll
Random Favorite Song: Return of the Mack