Home > Chronological Challenge > Chronological Game Challenge – Vagrant Story / Fear Effect

Chronological Game Challenge – Vagrant Story / Fear Effect

This week on the Chronological Challenge, it’s time for two of the most ambitious PS1 games of the final year the PS1 was much of a thing. Yes, we’re continuing through 2000 with two games that would ultimately end up owned by the same company in 2016. That wasn’t intentional, obviously.

Vagrant Story
Publisher: Square | Developer: Squaresoft | Released: February 10, 2000 (Japan)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS2/3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Solve the mysteries of Lea Monde

Actual Outcome: Failed to solve the mysteries of the weapon system

Squaresoft were renowned for their extensive JRPG selection in the 90s. During the SNES and PS1 eras in particular, they were putting out great JRPG after great JRPG, both in and out of the Final Fantasy franchise. One of the more intriguing titles, and one with a tenuous link to Square’s big franchise, was Vagrant Story. Supposedly set in the same world as Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII (despite having no real story connection to either), Vagrant Story is a complex tactical action RPG that demands your attention.

And that’s both a good and a bad thing. You see, Vagrant Story is intensely complex, which works both for and against it. This is for the hardcore gamer, not one of them filthy casual types as the kids call them. This is a game where management of your inventory, management of your weapon crafting and management of how you’re building your character definitely matter, because putting a foot wrong can severely hinder your progress in later parts of the game.

Vagrant Story is a strange hybrid of different things. Exploration feels a little like Resident Evil or Metroid, where you move from room to room uncovering mysteries, in a linear way in levels that don’t feel linear at all. But built into that is a strange hybrid combat system, where combat happens in real-time with action commands, but also seems to draw influence from traditional strategy RPGs. When you go to attack an enemy, a grid-based orb appears around your character, and you can attack specific body parts on your enemy, while also factoring in the weapons they are weakest to. When you select your chosen body part and attack, you can use button combinations to create a chain of attacks that do more damage and can have special side effects as varied as stealing your enemy’s MP to causing a larger amount of damage.

And it’s a pretty interesting system, right up until the point where, despite your best efforts, you aren’t doing any damage anymore. You see, the game expects you to craft weapons throughout the game, constantly improving your equipment to best tackle the multiple ways enemies can be weak – their type (dragon, phantom, human, etc.), their blade weakness (blunt, edged or piercing), and their elemental weaknesses – while simultaneously trying to use the best materials. But the problem is, the system is so complex, that it can feel very hit and miss that you’re doing things right.

And this was my major problem with Vagrant Story. On my initial playthrough, I failed to sink my teeth into this important crafting system, and ended up facing against a wyvern that was strong to my only weapon. Second time I played, I recognised the need to explore this crafting system…only to reach the final dungeon and find myself in a situation where none of my many weapons were causing damage all of a sudden. Upon reading what I did wrong, it seems that I mixed two weapons in a way that made them weaker somewhere along the way, but had no immediate feedback to tell me this, trudged through the game just fine and then got punished for it hours later.

In short, Vagrant Story has a huge problem with accessibility. I have no problem with the game’s complex inventory and weapon system. What I do have a problem with is how poorly it’s communicated with the player. You’re told about the weapons system when you walk into your first blacksmith, but in the vaguest terms. You’re never given hints about good weapon combinations, or the best practices that lead to the best weapons. I don’t need the game to hold my hand, but a general sense of what my stats will be once I combine two weapons would be nice rather than just slapping two daggers together and hoping for the best, or worse, feeling like I need to look up a spreadsheet online.

And it’s a real shame that this crafting system makes the game less enjoyable than it could be, because Vagrant Story is a fine game in every other way. The battle system is interesting, but there are so many other aspects at play here that are impressive for the system it was on.

Puzzle designs are practically a game in their own right, while the aforementioned exploration-based gameplay keeps up a level of suspense and desire to discover that drives the player through the game. And on top of that, Vagrant Story is possibly one of the best-looking games on the PS1.Often compared to Metal Gear Solid at the time, Vagrant Story is a game that has a lot of care and attention put into its details, and character models, while a little dated now, are some of the best, most realistic models in a game of its era.

But ultimately, the complexities of the game come back to haunt it. It’s clearly aimed at a more hardcore crowd, but this often feels at the expense of general enjoyment, and a little more guidance and feedback in its crafting systems would go a long way towards improving the player’s experience.

Fear Effect
Publisher: Eidos Interactive | Developer: Kronos Digital Entertainment | Released: February 25, 2000 (US)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (PSN release)

Goal: Beat the game

Actual Outcome: Battled the criminal underworld and won

The PS1 era was gaming’s first foray into 3D worlds, although admittedly the technology at the time wasn’t particularly good at rendering a lot of polygons in real-time. So, how exactly do you make your game look as good as a film when you’re forced to render your main cast with jagged edges? Simple, you load it with FMV sequences and that covers up the cracks!

This seems to be the general aesthetic thinking behind Fear Effect, Eidos’ attempt to cash in on the whole Resident Evil thing. And yes, I’m aware I bring up Resident Evil a lot in these reviews these days, but if developers of the 90s would stop aping it, I’d stop bringing it up.

So, Fear Effect, then. This is a cinematic adventure game which is equals parts survival horror, Hong Kong action flick, and influential 80s anime movie Akira. You play as a trio of shady mercenary types – Hana, Glas & Deke – who are tasked with finding a little girl who’s been kidnapped by Triads or something. It’s set in a cyberpunk future, it uses the tank controls and fixed camera angels of everyone’s favourite survival horror franchise, and it’s all made of FMVs.

Yes, that’s right, Fear Effect utilises FMVs as liberally as the average Sega CD game, but rather than presenting itself as a series of vaguely interactive movies, Fear Effect replaces the pre-rendered backdrops of its contemporaries for a series of looping FMV. In theory, this should make the game look superior to many games of the time, but in practice, only serves to highlight its age when playing it now.

So you know those bits in Final Fantasy games where you’re running along and a wild FMV springs up, and you’re still partly in control with the polygonal cast looking rather jarring against the smooth CG in the background, while the framerate goes a bit wonky? Imagine a full game of that, and you just imagined Fear Effect. While the game isn’t horrendous, of course, there are certainly moments where the cracks are so glaringly obvious you need a road crew to fill them in.

Boss fights, for instance, tend to suffer the most. There are a few battles with a helicopter in the initial level, and in this the gunfire is all FMV, and with it comes weird, inconsistent hitboxes, framerate issues and an obvious join where everything goes a bit jerky graphically while the game reloads the sequence. And it tends to happen a lot. These battles are little more than an exercise in remembering where the bullets show up in the background video, and not anything particularly skilful.

And because everything’s built around FMVs, Fear Effect is also a painfully linear game. The game very much has a set sequence of things for you to do, and failure to follow this sequence can lead to a punishing death quite often. Deaths are often a little cheap, in fact, such as when the aforementioned weird hitboxes and path-finding can cause you to take damage even though the danger isn’t visible on the spot you’re standing, or the game just employs good old trial-and-error challenges (usually by having something just spring out on you unexpectedly).

The inventory management is also weird. In the developers’ apparent determination to make everything feel cinematic, there’s no inventory screen in a separate dimension that you can disappear into – instead there’s a really unintuitive inventory you can flick through at any time with the Square and Circle buttons mid-gameplay. But this becomes a massive problem if you need something quickly like, say, a sequence on disc 3 where a cutscene ends and you’re immediately in a gunfight with nothing equipped and you have to frantically hammer Square just to find a decent gun. That’s not cool.

That said, once you get past the shakiness of the FMV concept and the inventory management, Fear Effect becomes oddly intriguing. It has a very strange story, blending cyberpunk, Hong Kong crime thriller and psychological horror in ways that probably shouldn’t work, but do. There’s always a desire to move forward to discover more of what’s going on, and it helps that the main team are pretty well-written for the time (although admittedly a little dated by today’s standards).

The presentation, while dated, is also fairly impressive. Polygon models employ a fake cel-shading technique on hardware that couldn’t actually do cel-shading. Voice acting is generally excellent. The twists and turns of the story are gripping. And there’s also something oddly satisfying about clearing a puzzle or stealth-killing a bunch of guys.

Fear Effect is an interesting experiment that suffers from some severe problems with initial accessibility, but once you’re past them, it’s easy to get drawn into its world and quirky puzzle design to make it a somewhat underrated gem.

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