Retro reflections by Nick H.
I was one of only two people I knew who sprung for a Sega CD when they came out. Admittedly, it was sort of a half measure to try and keep the otherwise excellent but quickly aging Sega Genesis relevant just a little bit longer. The thing is, despite its lack of overall adoption, the Sega CD had a lot of games that I really enjoyed at the time, including Vay.
Vay was one of those titles that almost no one seems to remember any more, even though it did receive an iPhone port a while back. It was the first major release for Working Designs after Lunar: The Silver Star and even though the games were both developed by completely different teams, Working Designs brought them both over to the US and they had some similarities besides just their publisher.
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Of all the Sega CD games that I played, nothing topped Lunar. Back then I was a little less aware of the difference between publishers and developers, and just assumed that since Vay was from Working Designs, it was the same team that had created Lunar. That they were for the same system, they were both RPGs and both titles used the hardware to help create cinematic scenes only reinforced that notion.
In many ways however, no game embodied the Sega CD the way that Vay did. The hardware was stuck between console generations, and Vay often felt the same way. The story was generic, but the characters were generally charming. Sandor is the typical protagonist but other characters like Lynx provided plenty of laughs as a bard who possesses absolutely no musical talent whatsoever. It helps that the dialogue was actually quite well-written for the time. The story was just a little darker (one of the few RPGs up to that point in time to feature a major character death) than some, and the conversations characters had were arguably some of the most interesting from the genre up until that point. Even the presentation seemed stuck between the past and the future as the game's overall visuals were pretty drab, but the cinematic scenes were usually excellent. Music took advantage of the CD format to provide a soundtrack that was truly memorable and complimented the cutscenes with solid voice acting. Conversely the sound effects were often dull and repetitive, because at that time their importance was relatively underappreciated by developers.
Ultimately what I believe held Vay back from greatness (besides being released on a console format with no real future) was a lacklustre story and mechanics that did nothing new or refreshing. This was the typical RPG game from the time, with an on-rails story that offered very little freedom or exploration. It was a very grind-heavy RPG as well. You could try to rush through to the end, but some of the boss battles were absolutely brutal if you did not have enough levels under the belts of your characters. I suspect this could have been mitigated if Vay had more exploration and secrets to find, because then combat would happen more naturally as part of the discovery process. What modern JRPGs generally do, in other words.
The overworld map was certainly large enough, and there were plenty of diverse environments and numerous dungeons to explore, but they were there to serve as challenges on a linear adventure. Unfortunately it became more a matter of battling just for the sake of earning experience to ease some later unforgiving difficulty spikes. Combat consisted of turn-based options such as attack, defend, use items or cast spells.
Lunar proved that games could survive the ill fate of the Sega CD and become classics, but they were few and far between on that system. Vay at the time seemed like one of those titles that might be poised to do the same thing when I played it. My friends would come over and play it just as much as Lunar. It was obviously not a perfect game, but it deserved a better fate than it received. But that just goes to highlight which games that we're playing now might be the ones remembered decades from now; it's the plot and creativity that are important, and games that are guilty of being "generic" will be forgotten, regardless of how impressive they might be in other areas.
Half-measures have seldom worked out for the best in the video game industry. Many people felt that the Wii U was a half-generational bump over the Wii instead of a proper system early on. Expansion peripherals added to a core console never seem to take off either. I am looking at you Sony Move (though VR might be the tech to break that curse). Vay is perhaps the best software representation of everything that went wrong with the Sega CD. With a little more polish and refinement coupled with a release on the next generation of console, I suspect it would have been better remembered. Had some of the corners been cut and it released in some fashion on the Sega Genesis (obviously the cinematics and such would have been removed) near the end of the console's life cycle, it would have garnered a fonder response as something delightfully "old school" in the minds of players that were making the upgrade to the new generation of consoles coming through. Instead it was a good if not great RPG that never really found a proper home and perhaps failed to really understand the direction that quality games were taking.
- Nick H.