The PS1 had some of the most innovative JRPGs ever developed. Vagrant Story was at the top of its class. Directed and written by Yasumi Matsuno, it’s a role playing game that defied categorisation, mixing genres while telling a complex story that blended seamlessly with the gameplay and art style. It’s by far the darkest Final Fantasy game, even if the connection is tangential thanks to geography (Vagrant Story takes place in Ivalice, the same world as FFXII and FF Tactics).
You play as an agent of the Valendia Knights of the Peace (VKP), Ashley Riot. Wandering the catacombs and claustrophobic spaces, the maze-like corridors feel as convoluted as the mysteries of your soul, which is bound and reanimated in a “wellspring” of the dark arts. Sins pervade and there’s a raw brutality that significantly changes the feel of turn-based battles. With targeted attacks, the combat system wasn’t about madly mashing buttons. It was about precision, a planned approach that required thinking about your limbs and the rhythmic procession of attacks.
It’s also a very difficult game that I struggled with, especially when I tried to force my way through the catacombs. I kept at it though, mainly because I wanted to know how the intriguing story unraveled.
Warning, spoilers abound.
The Grimoire of Politics
There are multiple agendas at stake and politics is the poetry of power. The Cardinal, Parliament and Duke are vying for domination. Ironically, the “evil” monsters summoned forth to fight Riot are caught in between the factions, fighting without real cause aside from a general want of destruction.
Ashley Riot’s sepia and muted existence all starts with the memory of the death of his family. Whenever he flashes back to them, the colours are vibrant, teeming with bliss. It’s no coincidence that the world around him feels so desaturated. Life has lost any sense of meaning. He is a person without home, the titular vagrant, both physical and on an emotional level (a title spitefully given to you by Rosencrantz).
Ashley is a riskbreaker in the VKP, which directly connects to the Risk bar the vagrant utilises in combat. The more you chain attacks, the more the Risk bar grows, making you vulnerable to strong blows, but also upping your chances for critical strikes. Vera-based items lower the Risk bar, but it’s still a balancing act that adds layers upon an already complicated battle mechanic.
There’s also break arts, magic from grimoires, and a crafting system that gives players a level of customisation that can initially seem daunting. With different classes of weapons and equipment having affinities that work differently against the varied foes, experimentation is an essential component. You control every aspect of battle, and there’s a raw realism to it that intensifies each confrontation. You are taking “risks” with the choices you make. Every string of attacks can have damaging repercussions if not carefully and meticulously planned. Some might be offput by the intricacies, but I found it refreshing as it forced players to get into the nitty gritty of combat. This wasn’t just a matter of equipping the latest weapon and being conveniently given whatever you would need against an upcoming boss.
Fighting had never felt so visceral. The intense crunch of the attack SFX adds to the grind of blood and grunts.
Vagrant Story made combat interesting again.
Ashley’s relationship with Sydney, the cult leader of the Mullenkamp, forms the strange orbit around which the narrative revolves. It’s Sydney who first lures Ashley forward, believing it to be part of his prophecy. But it’s also the prophet who shows Ashley his true past, the one where he isn’t a heroic avenger of his family. Instead, a killer who suppressed his own memories to hide from his overwhelming guilt. His rekindled battle abilities stand as silent testimony against his self-deception.
The game’s deep story peels away layers like a sigil that needs uncovering. It’s a difficult task, and the battling is rife with difficulties through an underground inspired by real-life landscapes of the southwest of France. It also hearkens to the dark religious past that marred all those involved with whispers of witch hunts and religious persecutions. Glyphs surround the entire city, marking every “den and dovecote” in the city. In two thousand years, the city has barely changed as the “entire city is a circle of magic.”
The search for the Gran Grimoire is a bloody one. Rosencrantz, a former Riskbreaker himself, has his own agenda and schemes machinations that’d be worthy of a Shakespearean villain. He too is trying to break free, playing both sides, seeking only to defy those who ultimately pull the strings without thought to their pawns. Rosencrantz injects himself into the succession plans Sydney had been making and also reveals your true backstory, shattering any illusions you may have fostered. You were a killer who murdered an innocent family that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rosencrantz was the one who distorted Ashley’s memories so that he believed the civilians were his wife and child, viciously murdered. It fueled a desire for revenge, which is why he joined the Riskbreakers. His whole life is based on a lie. It’d be like Bruce Wayne realising his parents weren’t real, but victims of his own actions.
It’s a bold risk for the developers to take making the protagonist a killer who couldn’t come to terms with his own crimes. All of this takes on particular significance as we learn about the truth behind the Blood-Sin which is tattooed on Sydney’s back. It’s forcibly removed by Rosencrantz, who tears the flesh off his back. Ultimately, Riot prevails and stops Rosencrantz from controlling the Dark. But there’s also a transference of that dark power to Riot which is a symbolic acknowledgement that evil can never truly be vanquished, only contained as long as it’s in the hands of someone “who doesn’t want it.” Ultimately, Sydney and the Duke’s sacrifice ring poignantly because of their desire to not only atone for their sin, but to make sure it falls in the right hands. Sydney wants you to be his successor because you’re the only one who won’t misuse the dark arts. In his twisted way, Sydney is the hero.
That’s when I wondered about the significance behind Ashley’s past. In a final flashback, the mirage of his wife and child comes to him offering an atonement of his own. But that forgiveness is a lie as they never existed, even though he finds solace in it. Is it hinting at the greater deception Ashley accepts? Is it also hinting that Sydney’s ultimate sacrifice is a lie? No villain thinks of themselves as evil. But, as is made evident throughout the game, the Dark is a corrupting power that infects any who wield it. The Duke and Sydney believe their sacrifice is for a greater good, but if it’s rooted in deception, does it ultimately mean nothing? The ambiguity the illusion creates in the player suggests that even evil has to find some kind of lie to believe in. They are the heroes of their own final fantasy.
At the very end of the game, there’s text that reads, “And so began the story of the wanderer, the vagrant.” The real journey seems to be beginning, even with its given prequel title, “The Phantom Pain,” (which, in an odd twist, shares the name with Metal Gear Solid V).
What will he do now?
“It is no matter. You are merely doing your duty,” is the last line Ashley says while using his powers to masquerade as another VKP agent. The deception continues and Ashley remains unrepentant.
Vagrant Story did something bold for the JRPG genre. It made a villain the protagonist and the arc he follows, his origin story. It made him sympathetic and convinced players to want to desperately believe in the lie about his family. It turned us into accomplices in arming and abetting a killer down to every stat and weapon. Unlike Ashley though, we don’t have dark powers to distort our memories. We see his evil all too clearly.