Vagrant Story – Retrospective
When Sydney Losstarot summons the devil, the devil comes a-sprinting – or, at the very least, sends his most senior fiends without delay. We players are used to occultish showmanship: the sweep of the staff, the hooded head bowed in dramatic concentration, the twitch-lipped incantation; the purplish burst of colour as spell conjures from air. It’s grown routine, robbed of spectacle by familiarity. So we thumb-twiddle till the cutscene plays itself out. Get on with it.
But when Sydney Losstarot casts a spell everything’s different. He kneels, glaring at existence through his blonde fringe, a scissorhand nail scratching arcane symbols on a bald cobblestone. Then to his feet and, in loud proclamation, issues reminders to the darkness of the terrible oaths they’ve made, of ‘sin-soaked contracts of kinship’ and other such unsettling imagery. It’s not a plea for devilish help; it’s a demand. God help the imp who doesn’t show. God help us all. It sends shivers down your spine, moments before those shivers turn to shockwaves as a summoned golem brings down his gravel hammer.
Sydney Losstarot. The cult prophet’s surname is a prickly contraction that speaks of defeat on the cards. Sydney Losstarot. The tattoo on his back – always on display and, in the game’s most gruesome twist, the unholy grail that some wish to carve from him for themselves – is a brand bespeaking his fragile hell-contract for immortality. When Sydney Losstarot summons the devil, you better look lively.
In Squaresoft’s peculiar police line-up of arch-villains it’s Final Fantasy 7′s Sephiroth who is most regularly called forward to mind. But Losstarot is the developer’s most mesmerizingly wicked creation – and he’s not even the primary antagonist in his game.
Vagrant Story, one of the final releases for Sony’s PlayStation and designed by Yasumi Matsuno and his crack team of number-crunching tacticians, is a game riddled in medieval intrigue, warring factions, grimoires and knife-in-the-dark power wrangling. But beneath the bluster it’s a game about men locked in an irresistible duel. Sydney Losstarot, and you, the hero: Ashley Riot.
Ashley Riot, by contrast, ill-fits his name. His dour demeanour – a coolness derived from years of dehumanising military focus – ensures there’s no riot of laughter when he settles into a scene. His preference to work alone – a shadow assassin who’s as comfortable wielding a crossbow as a lance – sees him part company with his companion Callo Merlose at the entrance to the game’s story. He is a one-man army – alone for almost the entire game, save for a brief moment when he and Losstarot join forces.
There’s no thronging riot of sword-flash here: just precision murder, caring strikes to lay enemies low: leg then arm then torso.
Gems may be attached to suitable weapons, increasing their abilities in specific ways.
This sense of martial calculation is hardcoded into Vagrant Story’s divisive, intricate combat system, which freezes the game before every strike, allowing you to pick out the specific part of the enemy’s body you wish Ashley to target, or to swap your weapon for one more tailored to their type. It requires a different mode of thinking, an altered rhythm of thought. In video games we are used to picking the most powerful sword and, when we find a better one, discarding the former. Here, weapons are tools, not linear statistical upgrades, and you must pick the right tool for the right job.
Nothing is wasted. Should your crossbow be superseded by a new find in some cobwebbed chest, you may dismantle it and use the constituent parts to create a new item. The flexibility is dizzying because it comes with the tight squeeze of responsibility. Find yourself ill equipped for a particular fight and you have none to blame but yourself.
You read read the rest of this review at Eurogamer.