The “VM” in VM Japan stands for Vantage Master, a very short and sporadic run of tactical fantasy games by Falcom beginning in 1997 with the predictably titled Vantage Master and (currently) ending with Vantage Master Portable for the PSP just over a decade later (this title was eventually ported back to PC via an official Chinese licensee). VM Japan – or Vantage Master: Mystic Far East as it sometimes decides to call itself – and it’s Power Up Kit (that’s an expansion to you and me) both came out on PC in 2002, with a PlayStation 2 port of the standard game later published (and as far as I know, developed) by Asmik Ace in 2005.
As with all complicated games – and we’re dealing with a game bundled with a manual so thick it has a spine here – the ultimate goal in VM Japan is very simple: All you have to do to win is reduce the opposing summoner’s HP to zero either by attacking them directly with your own (extremely dangerous and not recommended) or by calling forth a small army of spirits to do the job for you.
That’s it! Easy, right?
Wrong. However unlike many other complicated games the very, very, first thing you’ll find in VM Japan’s intimidatingly bulky manual – before installation instructions, before the table of contents, before absolutely anything bar one beautiful full-page illustration – is a thorough but friendly step by step tutorial presented as dialogue spoken by in-game assistant Hazuki with a rotund tanuki hanging around to offer humorous reactions along the way, taking you through all the essentials and concluding with your first victory. It’s clear a lot of thought went into this opening section: This isn’t an introduction that thinks all anyone needs to do to learn a game is to blindly obey a few bullet points and then get on with the rest of it; VM Japan’s support for newbies spans several full-colour pages and frequently takes a break to explain new concepts and commands, these segments always accompanied by appropriate screenshots. It was thanks to this solid foundation that I didn’t just win my first fight, I honestly went from being a “Oh heck, I guess it’s time to be rubbish at Vantage Master again” novice to having a firm grasp of what I was supposed to be doing and how I was supposed to do it.
There are two main ways to play VM Japan: The first is to tackle Scenario mode, taking one specific character from a selection of eight through the game’s story and battling across a mythical Japan in a mostly linear fashion. The other is to play Free battles: these offer the same maps as the main storyline but here they’re all unlocked by default, allowing you to pit any combination of summoners, spirits, and spells against each other on any battleground whether you’ve already set foot there or not. It’s a testament to the strength of their design that these locations serve both purposes well, being visually cohesive enough to believably appear as a string of related areas as part of an ongoing adventure but still able to operate as highly tactical arenas that do genuinely feel and play differently from each other even when shorn of any narrative context. These hex-based battlegrounds come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes – some are thin and winding, some are squarishly compact, and others are large and open enough to demand a little scrolling even on a spacious modern monitor. Hexes may be higher or lower than those surrounding them or even submerged underwater, combat zones capable of resembling anything from narrow streams to dramatic rain-lashed battlefields on a high mountaintop. As you’d hope these are more than just interesting cosmetic flourishes – enemies may be too high (or low) for an attack or spell to reach them, an awkward pillar may block a ranged attack, and narrow paths can create dangerous choke points both sides aim to control. Whether you’re calling forth spirits under delicate pink cherry blossom trees or deep within a crystalline cave you’ll always find magic stones dotted around each map, all of them glowing an inviting neutral purple until claimed. Taking these hexes for yourself isn’t technically required to win but as these stones greatly enhance your summoner’s magic recovery each turn whoever has the most will find themselves able to conjure and then maintain stronger spirits and also cast more powerful spells more often, creating a fundamental need to cautiously push forward towards the other summoner even when you’re feeling vulnerable. Magic stones of any colour only need to be stepped on once to be claimed (a unit does need to end their turn standing on it though, passing over isn’t enough), although control can just as easily be snatched away by your opponent so it’s often worth leaving a unit nearby to help fend off any opportunistic thieves.
All of the magical beings under your command are defined by one of four elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Heaven, forming a strictly circular relationship of strengths and weaknesses to each other (earth beats water, water beats fire, but fire and earth have no inherent vulnerabilities or defenses against the other, for example). I normally get myself in a real mess when strategy games reach this point: Water beating fire’s obvious enough but fire beating heaven is less so, as is remembering in the heat of battle whether the oncoming possessed teapot is an earth spirit or something else entirely. Terrain also has a significant role to play in all this strategic number-crunching, the most obvious of which is different types of ground hampering or outright blocking movement depending on whether a spirit can walk, fly, or swim.
Wait, there’s more.
Positioning also matters – an attack from behind will always do more damage than the same attack dished out to someone’s face – and so does the time of day, various spirits gaining or losing additional stat buffs depending on whether the stage is warmed by the sun’s rays or bathed in cool moonlight.
Trying to keep all of this in mind can feel like a lost cause at first with no amount of helpful tables or clearly laid out information in the manual making the game feel any more accessible, especially as the AI is very keen on mercilessly killing you off as soon as possible on any difficulty level, putting any well-meaning ideas of trying to muddle through and learn as you go firmly in the bin. But in spite of these off-putting hurdles VM Japan does make an honest effort to help players bring these stats under their control: Scenario mode greatly limits your available spirits at the beginning and allows this pool to grow slowly over many battles so at first you only have to concentrate on the elemental system and some basic land types, and the early magic stone placement is heavily in your favour. As you move on from there it becomes clear the game doesn’t expect you to remember everything – no, anything – whether you’re looking at some tufts of grass or a wanyuudou it only takes a quick mouseover to see everything you could possibly want to know, information either displayed in an easily understood box or “spoken” by one of two in-game assistants.
VM Japan is one of those very special PC games that feels really slow and methodical when you’re caught up in the moment, carefully deciding which units to summon in response to the approaching enemy forces and whether it’s worth making a dash for a remote magic stone with a weaker spirit or letting it go in favour of keeping your team together, and yet when you glance at the time what you could swear was only five minutes has somehow become three hours. I found myself completing the entire first chapter of scenario mode – all seven battles of it – in one go without realising and I haven’t done anything like that in a very long time.
Any game this enthralling is naturally going to leave players yearning for precious more, and this is where the Power Up Kit comes in: The Scenario and Free modes return but now you can also try your hand at Expert battles, a new Tournament mode, and play most of these not only with all the heroes from the original game but also every villain, adviser, some brand new faces, and some of Falcom’s old favourites – Ys‘ Dark Fact, Brandish‘s Dela Delon, and Pyura from The Legend of Xanadu. As if that wasn’t enough every single map has either been heavily altered or outright replaced, there’s one new spirit per element, several new spells, and it all seems much harder than it was before – even on the “beginner” difficulty setting. Fiddling of this magnitude should bother me, especially as I now seem unable to make any progress in a game I was at least doing OK-ish at the day before, but luckily for me the Power Up Kit has one perfect feature everyone will surely love – it’s install folder is completely independent of the original VM Japan’s, enabling these drastic alterations and additions to be truly optional, the standard game left exactly as it was before.
I’m still not even close to being “not too bad” at VM Japan but between that excellent tutorial and all the in-game information on offer I can only conclude that this is more a failing on my part than anything else – unlike a lot of other games that revel in their tactical decision making and stat soups I couldn’t honestly tell you what more VM Japan could do to help beyond deliberately hold back and patiently wait for me to be a little less rubbish at it than I currently am. If you’re as awful as these games as I am you’ll find VM Japan a demanding but satisfying way to while away the hours (just keep the difficulty setting low), and if you’ve any degree of competence this game will definitely put up a deeply rewarding fight.
If you’re intrigued by the concept and dream of trying out an earlier Vantage Master, for free, in English, and directly downloaded from Falcom (yes, that’s right!) head over here: https://www.falcom.co.jp/vantage/index_e.html