Honorable Mention in Horror: Vagrant Story
The body is but a vessel for the soul, a puppet which bends to the soul’s tyranny. And lo, the body is not eternal, for it must feed on the flesh of others, lest it return to the dust from whence it came. Therefore must the soul deceive, despise and murder men. – A.J. Durai
Vagrant Story begins with words culled from a vocabulary most macabre. Though it is a JRPG, the skin of a horror game has been stitched over it; looking into its eyes you’ll find genre staples such as floating damage numbers, but its outsides are nightmarishly dreadful. The Dark City of Leá Monde hides a tainted history within its crumbling castles and rotted Undercity. Condemned corpses rise and fall as meandering souls enter and exit whenever they desire. Unseen birds wail mournful dirges as the sun burns bones to sallow dust. Also, just about every male character wears homoerotic bondage gear (look at the title image again, and enjoy the ass-exposing chaps).
In Vagrant Story, you play as a Riskbreaker named Ashley Riot on a mission for the Valendia Knights of the Peace. A terrorist cult under the moniker of Müllenkamp has been seen as a threat by multiple organizations, including the VKP and The Knights of the Cross. This cult is led by Sydney Losstarot, an enigmatic prophet whose arms and legs are wicked prosthetics crafted of metal. When Sydney becomes involved in political machinations with Duke Badorba, Ashley and his fellow Riskbreaker Callo Merlose (also seen in the title image) are sent in to investigate the Duke’s manor. Upon their first meeting, Ashley sends a crossbow bolt through Sydney’s chest, seemingly killing him. Not a moment later, Sydney rises to pull the bolt out of his chest, and summons a wyvern with arrows half-sunk into its scales, including one in his eye. Sydney makes his escape and heads to the aforementioned city of Leá Monde. It’s here that everything gets a bit scary.
You see, Leá Monde is a city ravaged by earthquakes and is currently rife with rotted corpses and monsters not seen elsewhere in the world. Magic and monsters both have become fairy tales in this world, though they were known to have existed in some distant past. Yet reanimated skeletons, liches, dragons, even humongous crabs have all found a home in this tainted land. And all of them want a piece of you. Though Vagrant Story doesn’t have the same scarcity of resources as most survival horror games, there are many times that you will find yourself short on health-restoring or risk-lowering items. Risk is an integral part of the combat system; the more hits you chain together, the more your risk bar goes up. An unchecked risk meter quickly leads to defeat, as high risk leads more vulnerability and increased difficulty when starting a new combo. This leads to some particularly harrowing battles as one hit can be enough to kill you – making risk a quantifiable source instead of a nebulous concept is genius and keeps you on your toes.
In general, the game is just creepy. Whether you’re fighting a half-decomposed minotaur or just running to the nearest workshop to improve your weapons, the sound textures are haunting. Sometime you’ll hear the edges of hushed conversations seeping out of the walls. Sometimes there will be only the sound of an occasional bird and your footfalls echoing loudly in forgotten courtyards. The metallic clang of your weapon of choice against enemies is always uncomfortable yet deeply satisfying. And seriously, tell me this song doesn’t remind you of mansion theme in the original Resident Evil.
As they story continues, the events only become more heinous. One character (who I shall not name just in case this article instills within you a desire to track down a copy or play it on PS3/PS Vita) dies later on, but due to the curse of Leá Monde, his/her soul wanders until, against astronomical odds, it finds the same corpse it was released from. The person is obviously struggling just to move their vacillating mortal remains and says “A moment, please. My body is not…cooperating.” Brr. One character is even subject to a partial flaying, if botched resurrection wasn’t enough to discomfit you. Speaking of sadism, the optional dungeon in the game is called the Iron Maiden, and every single room is named after a torture device. Some of the names are well-known, but others just sound Google-worthy, like Squassation and Heretic’s Fork (pictured). I wince every time I read the words Shin Vice.
There are other horror elements here, though they might sound a bit far-fetched. It wouldn’t be a Vagrant Story article if I didn’t mention the block puzzles. Unlike most JRPGS, platforming is a constant fixture (or terror, depending on your skills) and there are times where you’ll be stuck in a room wondering how the hell three blocks are going to be enough to get you to the other side of a chasm. These rooms are reminiscent of the sometimes esoteric puzzles you find in survival horror games. The difficulty of these puzzles plus the difficulty of the basic combat brings to my mind the constant tension indicative of the games we love to cover on this site. In recommending Vagrant Story I am not promising a fully terrifying experience. It lives on the edges of terror, and also happens to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s an amalgamation of concepts ranging from rhythm-based combat to block puzzles to horrific environments. If you play it, you may not exactly be scared, but you will be entertained. Give it a shot and let me know what you think!