Vagrant Story is an incredibly deep and complex RPG (not)

AKA: How dedicated fans can be a game’s worst enemy

Yesterday I finally finished Vagrant Story after fifteen (!!) years of false starts, general frustration, and everyone’s favourite RPG problem, putting it down for a week only to come back hopelessly lost. All the staff who helped bring this game to life should feel very, very, proud of themselves (the UI designer however needs putting over someone’s knee), and everyone else in the industry should take a long hard look at their own work and ask themselves how a relatively low budget Playstation game still has better art direction and shot framing than the vast majority of titles released afterwards. Vagrant Story should be a required reference tool for anyone involved in creating game art, it’s just that good.

Unfortunately I’m not here today to talk about Leá Monde’s crumbling architecture and masterful use of light and colour, what I want to talk about today are fans overcomplicating what is essentially a very simple process.

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I was lucky enough to play through my favourite Ivalice-flavoured game, Final Fantasy XII, around its Japanese launch - which meant there were next to no guides or FAQs available anywhere. This meant that so long as I was making progress then I thought I must be doing something right, but in the years since then I’ve often heard “help” coming in the form of detailing specific enemy chains for particular item drops or having a selection of esoteric equipment for bleeding-edge optimal play. Now for certain high-end marks and the Trial Mode in the Japan-only “International” release – sure, go nuts. But for regular I-just-want-to-get-through-the-game play? Not even close to being necessary.

Since completing Vagrant Story I’ve realised that it suffers under the same misconceptions Final Fantasy XII does, and the end result is that rather than helping people understand the mechanics at work new players are instead left struggling to make any progress in a game they might otherwise enjoy.

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I’ve looked at many Vagrant Story guides over the years, trying to put the information within to good use or even attempting to rigidly follow walkthroughs to the letter – anything to get the hang of Vagrant Story’s complex battle and crafting systems.

“Use piercing weapons against this boss’ chest”

“Make sure you’ve got a blunt weapon with beast attributes for this area”

“Attach the gem you found in a chest that’s about a million miles away from where you need to be for this next bit.”

It is true to say that in this game buffs, debuffs, and various alignments are all useful tools that can be used to your advantage, but vital to your progression? Not even close. Here’s the sort of deep RPG understanding you actually need to know:

 “Use water-based attacks when fighting a fire-based enemy”

“Cast Soil Guard to help defend against the earth boss’ spells”

“Healing undead enemies will damage them”.

That’s it, basic RPG stuff.

Could I have made things a bit easier for myself  if I’d learned and understood all these peripheral things? Oh yes, definitely. But the notion that lugging around a selection of specialised gear and constantly switching between it all is necessary for survival is absolutely false.

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You might think this is an attempt to brag – “Look how smart I am for managing to complete the game anyway!” - but that’s not the case at all; I just want to do something to help put this beautiful game with its abysmal menu system back in the hands of gamers, which is where it should always be.

So venture down into the wine cellars of Leá Monde and take this advice with you - hit stuff, heal Ashley when his HP gets low, and most importantly - have fun.

Virus was a game that I played

I originally wrote the awful title above just because having anything up there tends to be better than having to actually apply myself and come up with something witty, but as it turns out the sense of fantastic bewilderment that comes from playing through Hudson’s Saturn-exclusive adventure game is probably summed up best with that non-title after all.

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The world presented in Virus that Serge and Erica must navigate is a rough-n-ready cyberpunk setting where the internet has advanced to the point that it’s essentially a part-time Matrix where people willingly and knowingly immerse themselves in a digital reality for up to thirty hours at a time, only instead of this being some leather-n-guns scenario or a flawlessly white Apple-style vision of the future Hudson’s version of the net is an utterly bonkers but very much lived-in affair with its own shady bars, dodgy unlicensed “Ura-net” connections, slick company presentation areas and high-fantasy recreation lands. This leads to some nutty (charitably: “dream-like”) situations where you’re picking coconuts out of trees for talking penguins or battling girls dressed in pink rabbit outfits, but the game pulls everything off with absolute sincerity so while it certainly feels strange it somehow doesn’t feel disconnected, forced, or random-for-random’s-sake. In fact it’s very much like our modern use of the internet: one minute you’re watching cat videos on YouTube or saving Eorzea from summoned Moogle-gods, the next you’re visiting a local government website to check when your weekly bin collection’s due.

Virus doesn’t appear to have set the gaming world on fire but it did do well enough to spawn the anime Virus Buster Serge (which you can watch – legally and in English – here) which bears a vague resemblance to the general plot of the original game, and this anime then spawned the Playstation game Virus: The Battle Field that appears to be some sort of card battling…. thing.

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Underneath this extensively-realised setting (including the beautifully nineties idea of CYBERJAIL) Virus spends most of its time being a typical Japanese adventure game with the majority of your actions being of the usual look/talk/show-somebody-that-thing-you-just-found variety. You’d think the Saturn mouse compatibility mentioned on the back of the box would be a perfect fit considering the genre, but as it turns out it’s actually far more cumbersome than using a standard controller. The “problem” is that Hudson did a faultless job when they created the controller interface, every possible action is tied to a specific button so you’re essentially holding a bunch of hotkeys in your hand with no need to slowly drag a pointer between the icons along the bottom of the screen. But the real joy comes when you realise (alternatively: read the flippin’ manual) that repeatedly pressing the corresponding look/use/talk hotkey will automatically cycle through every appropriate interactive point on screen – goodbye pixel hunting!

It’s not all about talking to people so other people will talk to you and then checking a bookcase three times until Serge notices something though: The game has plenty of simple maze-like areas in both FMV and real-time 3D variants that allow you to do some light exploration and give a little freedom to a typically rigid genre.

Hudson also included a fair few mini games at set points in the three-disc story to break things up, ranging from disarming several explosives (thankfully not all at once) to analysing voice samples or even curing people of terrifying internet viruses. None of these sections are particularly long and you wouldn’t want them to be either, but they all come together to help create an adventure that feels more “hands on” than a lot of similar titles.

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Still not enough? Then how about getting your hands dirty with a little battling too? Virus features both mandatory boss fights (often, but not always, occurring at the end of a chapter) and less intensive random battles when wandering around certain areas of the net, giving Serge something to wave his (cyber)gun at and the player the opportunity to engage in some real-time cursor-pointing action.

There are two gauges to worry about when fighting, HP and AP. The AP gauge* depletes every time Serge performs an action - anything from firing a shot to using a healing item – but it will slowly recover over time. As such it’s important to take note of how much AP you’re going through as you carelessly blast away at all and sundry - it’s very easy to end up on the receiving end of an enemy’s most powerful attack and unable to do anything about it other than stand there and watch Serge die! Boss battles throw in the added complication of multiple changing (but not random) weak points that need to be hit in order to do any damage; these aren’t actually visible on screen, you have to either find them yourself with a few exploratory shots or throw a Net Bomb and see where the damage marker pops up. It’s not a great idea but at least Virus’ continue system is mercifully the sort that allows you to restart a boss fight from the beginning regardless of when you last saved.

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All-in-all Virus is a good and thoroughly nineties sci-fi adventure that was well worth the paltry £5-ish plus shipping it’s currently selling for. It could have probably been a bit shorter; not due to the quality dipping at any particular point but just because the world they meticulously created was really too much for a single game to adequately handle. The only notable black mark I can raise against it is no fault of the game’s at all and entirely typical for a text-heavy import game – unless you have some Japanese reading ability (or are so bloody-minded that you’ll methodically try everything on everything until something works) you’re likely to end up hopelessly stuck very early on, possibly even in the first room.

 

*I’m not prepared to insult your intelligence by explaining what the HP gauge is for

Kurokishi no Kamen maps

All credit to the original author here – I’m only sharing screenshots of their work (with links to the original) because this is exactly the sort of incredibly useful information that just ups and vanishes without warning.

Legend:

S = Floor start position (there is only one way to enter each floor)

! = event or object (some event locations need to be returned to on multiple occasions to progress)

Arrows = Stairs going in the relevant direction

Square = Umm… other events, I think? (Non-essential maybe?)

Monster = Battle

Key = Locked door. Some doors are permanently locked on one side but not the other. The only locked doors that can be unlocked are in 1F’s kitchen (00,14) with the basement key item and the basement door at (10,03) after viewing the event at (07,07) – (answer “Cohen” when asked).

Basement: http://www.geocities.jp/milano9801/gh/gh01.html

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1F: http://www.geocities.jp/milano9801/gh/gh02.html

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2F: http://www.geocities.jp/milano9801/gh/gh03.html

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3F: http://www.geocities.jp/milano9801/gh/gh04.html

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Have no idea what this game is but would like to find out more? Head over here – click!

A little look at… Kurokishi no Kamen

Kurokishi no Kamen for the 3DO is the final game in the Ghost Hunter trilogy of first person RPGs; the first game, Laplace no Ma, was released in some manner across everything from the PC-88 and Super Famicom to the PC-Engine and X68000, although the Super Famicom port is probably the most well-known (and the most unlike the original). Thankfully for me Humming Bird Soft simplified things for the sequels, although picking the 3DO doesn’t appear to have been the most sensible format for this final entry, does it?

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Well let’s take a quick detour into the realm of historical context before we decide, OK?

Kurokishi no Kamen came out early in the Japanese 3DO’s life, on the 28th of May 1994. At this time gamers were busy playing Super Metroid and Sonic 3 whilst saving their pennies for newcomer Sony’s definitely-going-to-flop Playstation hardware or Sega’s Virtua Fightin’ Saturn. So this was a time, if you can remember that far back, when CD gaming was a premium product and seeing real people in a game (as badly blue screened as they were) was still something special - or at least novel.

So while it’s easy (very easy) to laugh at acting that’d make Calculon blush and grainy FMV today it’s worth remembering that at the time this came out the 3D0 really was at the bleeding edge of gaming, and so was this game.

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Everywhere you explore in this first person sort-of RPG is presented as a prerendered FMV sequence; think like D or Enemy Zero, but instead of being whisked between three or four designated points of interest in a room you instead walk tile-by-tile, like an old dungeon crawler. This approach has its ups and downs – while it certainly feels more “free” than other FMV games (as well as massively impressive for the era – imagine walking “inside” an FMV!) - on the other hand the game doesn’t actually do anything interesting with this freedom, and the technical limitation of using prerecorded footage means crucial items are completely hidden from view in all circumstances, so when you’re checking another identical desk and another identical cupboard for items you wish that maybe the game had been a bit more restrictive after all.

It’s also visually quite repetitive – nothing as bad as Septentrion (where numerous rooms are literally identical, or if you’re “lucky”, a mirrored version of an otherwise identical room) - but it’s obvious that almost every room has been decorated with the exact same desk, lamp, cupboard, etc. with maybe a unique painting or different coloured (plain) bed sheet to break things up. I’m not entirely convinced I’m being fair to the game by raising that as an issue, but with D coming out just a year later on the same system it does make Kurokishi no Kamen feel a little unambitious next to WARP’s more famous offering.

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The same could be said of the RPG system which is in all honesty virtually non-existent, especially when compared to the careful stat-allocating job systems seen in previous entries Laplace no Ma and Paraclesus no Maken. The story starts with a pre-set team of four and it eventually expands to six once you’ve rescued Ed and Lisa, although these two new additions do quite literally stuff all for the rest of the game other than show up as names on the UI. Battles only occur in set locations on the map and offer no experience or items once won – a feature that could be seen as allowing players to focus on the horror atmosphere (and the item hunting) if only the battle system didn’t feel so lightweight and unthreatening thanks in part to the unlimited-use health and MP recovery items the party start with and carry at all times until the end of the game.

But while Kurokishi no Kamen isn’t really much more than a CD of the-future-of-gaming-as-imagined-by-the-nineties it was a fun enough way to spend a day and a curious little window into an avenue of gaming that’s mostly been left behind.

If you’d like to play the game for yourself you might find these maps useful.

A little look at… Dark Echo

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Don’t panic – you have come to the right blog! I don’t cover mobile games often but Dark Echo isn't the first and I’m sure it won’t be the last either. Unfortunately as is the fate of many perfectly decent iOS/Android games this one would have completely fallen under my radar if it weren’t for the lovely Gassi mentioning it and that would have been a real shame because this minimalist action-puzzle-horror game is damned good!

Wait - horror? In a game where all your enemies are “small cluster of red lines” and “big circle of red lines”? Seriously?

Yep!

With the right frame of mind (and with the sound turned up) you’re not just a foot icon making white lines bounce off collision barriers when you move but a lone survivor stood in the dark, your only initial waypoints being the sound of flies buzzing around an unknown object or water slowly dripping from the ceiling on to the floor below. As you walk – sometimes crunching over gravel, sometimes noisily wading through water – the reverberations from your footsteps produce a fleeting image of your surroundings as you explore the dark. You appear to be alone – safe – so you stamp the ground hard to give yourself a better idea of your location, but these stronger sounds shoot down an unseen corridor and awaken a monster that makes a beeline straight for the source of the sound. Running’s no good – it’ll just keep chasing the sound of your footsteps through the dark – but perhaps ricocheting a stone off a nearby wall might distract it, or sneaking away quietly (and slowly) into the unknown and hoping you can tiptoe around it as you grope around in search of the exit.

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I suppose the point of that previous paragraph is to try and illustrate that as with any horror game the “magic” only really happens when players make the effort to meet the designers halfway and try to let the intended atmosphere take over. But while the style may be minimalist and invite player’s to use their imaginations it doesn’t feel like anything’s being deliberately held back or obfuscated and the environment is always clear and easy to read: red things are dangerous, blue means water – it’s all very obvious and never needs explaining; death will come because you weren’t quick or clever enough, but not because you couldn’t interpret what was happening in time.

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It also helps that the game introduces new concepts and abilities individually with levels designed to teach you how to use them effectively before upping the complexity or tinkering with the rules, and the cryptic single-word level names offer helpful pointers on how to approach new challenges too – for example “Pull” is a level that requires you to draw the enemy closer before giving them the run-around and sneaking off to the exit. Just as you think you’re done and you’ve got the game well and truly under your thumb after forty levels in the dark you find the light you escaped into isn’t the salvation you’ve been looking for but another trap – essentially a “New Game +” mode where each level has been redesigned to be more dangerous and difficult than ever before.

Then you find out that there are fifteen treasures hidden within the game, their location only revealed by the way sound passes through the fake walls they’re hidden behind (if that sounds unfair; fake walls are a concept introduced as a central part of the game’s progression). Finding them is completely optional, but it’s a thoughtful little extra in an already well crafted game.

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Ultimately how much joy and terror you get out of this is determined largely by your own imagination and your willingness to turn the sound up or plug in some headphones, but even if you can only see this as the game where the red lines try to kill a pair of white feet you’ll find Dark Echo is still a damn good puzzle game at its core.

Dark Echo is currently available on iOS/Android for a mere £1.49 – I don’t know about you but I’ve definitely spent more than that on games far worse than this one.