You see Vagrant Story get praised to the skies a lot around retrogaming circles, and I can only assume that people who are coming to the game learn a lot about it before they even fire it up for the first time. That's the only way I can see excusing the game's complete lack of explanation, exposition, ANYTHING to give you a clue about what the hell is going on, who these characters are and how to effectively play the damn thing. Now I grant you, I am not much of a manual reader - but who is in this day and age where reasonably priced copies of ten year old games don't usually come with them?
Fortunately, Vagrant Story does actually have a pretty thorough in-game manual that explains the game mechanics in decent detail. However, it doesn't explain anything about the plot or characters, nor do you get access to it prior to the confusing opening cutscene.
If you come into Vagrant Story knowing absolutely nothing about it, here's how the game starts out for you - some Duke's castle is on fire for some reason. We then see a bunch of knights getting stabby on everyone, so apparently they are implied to be the bad guys, but for all we know at this point they could be a rebellion deposing a tyrannical asshole or something. No explanations forthcoming from the game as to who they are or what they are doing torching the place; instead, cut to a guy who looks like Fei Fong Wong from Xenogears, but with less charisma (if you can believe that to be possible) and wearing pants with slits inexplicably cut in the buttcheeks. We soon learn that half-naked men is actually going to be a recurring theme in this game, in spite of being warriors who engage in constant combat, many of the characters choose to bare large swaths of their body. Such is the case with Prince Liquid (given that name by me since he isn't properly introduced either), the character whom our Fei Fong Wong clone (still unnamed, even after we take control of him and kill off a few soldiers) is apparently here to capture, and who has armor that inexplicably leaves his whole torso bare, including a "landing strip" leading right to the top of his junk. Fei gets the drop on Liquid with a crossbow, but Liquid foolishly goes for his blade forgetting that he isn't in a Kojima game, and gets shot through the heart for his trouble. However, he RISES FROM HIS GRAVE and summons a huge dragon for you to fight to cover his escape.
Next, the game tosses you into some sort of wine cellar. We finally learn the main character's name is Ashley, but only because it says so in the menu. No explanation as to why we are here or exactly what just happened in the intro, but there's only one way to go, so off we go! The game basically plays like every crappy early-generation PC 3D action-adventure game ever, exception of combat; enemies move about areas in real-time, but attacking them makes the action pause while you choose what part of their body to target, and you have to wait a bit before you can launch another attack against them. Kinda like World of Warcraft at a slower pace and with way less options, really; the better but lesser known comparison is Square's own Parasite Eve, of which the battle mechanics here are basically a copy, just with a short-range sword instead of a long-range pistol.
The entire game is basically an extended dungeon crawl; no towns, no inns, no NPC interaction beyond cutscenes sprinkled here and there. Just hacking, hacking and more hacking ... oh, and crate puzzles. I swear, someone at Square in Japan used Babelfish to get a poorly translated version of the old Old Man Murray site, and was like "Ah! Gamer like crate puzzle! We make big crate stack puzzles No. 1!" Seriously, there are NO other puzzles in the game EXCEPT for those involving stacking, pushing and jumping on crates.
The 3D engine is decent, I have to say, and you can rotate the camera 360 degrees to see the entirety of the playfield (possible mostly because the game is just a long collection of fairly small rooms). This is a nice feature, but irritating in that you can't do anything else while the camera is moving, yet the enemies can keep attacking you, causing you to take some cheap hits when the action suddenly moves to behind a wall from your perspective. There really isn't anything outstanding here in the sprites or polygon work, but the game looks about as good as a wholly 3D Playstation One game can (which is not very). The stylistic choices are odd; the combination of poorly scrawled comic book dialogue balloons for the text, highly homoerotic dress for the male characters, and the stereotypical depressing Ye Olde Europe Dark Ages setting (with random French architecture) and affected speech makes for a combination that isn't really *bad* per se, but definitely odd, and just doesn't quite seem to work however it was the developer was apparently intending it would.
Combat, leveling and equipment are subject to a lot of needlessly complex rules and regulations. The free-ranging action is rendered almost pointless by the fact that you have to stop to attack an enemy, and it is usually so difficult to stay out of their attack range that it isn't worth bothering; most battles just degenerate into standard turn-based hack fests, which is a major problem I had with the Parasite Eve games too. Levelling and equipment are really odd. First of all, there is no EXP to speak of; Ashley himself does not level up, but his weapons and equipment do through use. The more you attack particular types of enemies - such as humanoids and beasts - the stronger the weapon you are using becomes towards them, BUT that might also bring a corresponding drop against other monster types. You can also sort of fuse your own weapons together out of different parts such as hilts and blades, and each of these is levelled seperately. For added complication you have the Risk system; as Ashley lands attacks on the foes, his Risk goes up, and it sorts of acts like a handicap where the higher it gets the more damage enemies do when they hit you. So every now and then, you have to stop fighting, put your weapon away, and kind of run away from the foe (as best you can) to let your Risk sink back down.
The whole combat/levelling/equipment thing is one of the most often critically praised aspects of the game, which confuses me. It seems almost like people are praising the concept without looking at how it actually works in execution. For one thing, the only way to level weapons is to tediously hack away at things, and you absolutely need to do a lot of this because most of the game bosses are brutal. This is slow, time-consuming and very very boring. I guess the weapon customization could be fun if you enjoy diving into minutiae like that, but the game virtually forces you to due to the structure and the high difficulty, freezing out pretty much anyone who is not a "hardcore" RPGer.
The story is also highly critically praised, which baffles me. If you happen to be a 13-year-old male who wants to project a power fantasy onto a violent, nihilistic, D&D tinged approximation of medieval Europe, then yes, I'm sure you'll enjoy this. For everyone else? Not so much. In an interview a little over a year ago, producer Akitoshi Kawazu basically admitted that Ashley Riot was an almost totally undeveloped character; he really has more than a touch of the old Grimm Shadoe complex, as does the whole story. I've honestly never gotten the whole Ivalice universe; this game, as with every other except for maybe FFXII (since I haven't played it yet), has just totally flat and unlikable characters combined with tired tropes of "political intrigue" that tend to end up leading nowhere since, again, there isn't a single character or story element in there that is developed well enough to care about. Again, I understand that the target audience for these games are adolescent males who are literate enough to get into Lord of the Rings but not much beyond that; however, to use words like "deep" and "brilliant" to describe the plot, characters and writing here is just flat-out irresponsible.
When you revisit a dungeon crate-pushing puzzle that you've already solved, the game screams "Evolve Or Die!" at you, and you get to do a sort of time attack of the puzzle for fun and bonus stuff. The "Evolve or Die" is fitting to the overall theme and attitude of the game; translated as a message from the designers, what it really means is "Suck down our janky and needlessly complicated play mechanics and questionable design decisions, or go piss off". Plenty of people seem to have chosen to suck it down, for whatever reason; I guess because only people predisposed to like this sort of thing are the ones that spend enough time with it to write about it. To me, Hobo Story seems like a bunch of concepts just sort of thrown together overall as a game without much real cohesive overall vision. The aesthetic choices are bizarre, the gameplay is frequently tedious, the graphics aren't anything special and the characters and plot are mediocre at very best.
* Gameplay Video