I'm a gameplay guy. I tend to focus on the way the game plays first and foremost. While I enjoy a good story, it is very rare that I will continue to play something that I find "not fun" strictly for the narrative. In fact, I can only think of one title off the top of my head that grabbed me due to the narrative more than anything else: Vagrant Story.
Vagrant Story was released at a time of experimentation for Squaresoft. The Japanese company was busy experimenting with samurai simulators, side-scrolling shooters, and cinematic RPGs while they were releasing the occasional Final Fantasy title to much deserved fanfare. Yasumi Matsuno, having completed work on the amazing (and often bewildering) Final Fantasy Tactics, directed Vagrant Story, and his presence is felt throughout the entire experience. The story follows Ashley Riot, a special agent tasked with stopping the enigmatic Sydney following an attack on the local Duke's mansion. Imagine the cinematic quality of Metal Gear Solid, an adult script focused on the nature of identity, and a fantastically realized "villain" and you begin to see why Vagrant Story is a game in desperate need of a sequel. Really, the less I say about the story the better. It is something that has to be experienced for yourself. Fans of the Final Fantasy titles taking place in Ivalice should also note that Vagrant Story is set in the neighboring kingdom of Valendia.
It's amazing to me how well the title has aged over the past decade. The cinematic direction is still second to none, with clever camera tricks used to punctuate key scenes. Intriguing twists and turns in the narrative may seem almost clichéd nowadays, but you have to remember that many of these plot developments were used here before they had become blasé. The game even ends on a wonderful cliffhanger that opens things up for a sequel. This world is just begging to be revisited.
Vagrant Story's gameplay is by no means bad, but it certainly didn't drive me to complete the quest. Matsuno lifted the basic design from Parasite Eve and then added a great number of options and permutations to the formula. Imagine the original Model-T compared to a modern Corvette and you have the basic idea. You select an enemy to attack and then proceed to attack in a rhythm-based system. You get specific attacks to combo together that can do everything from steal HP and MP to inflict poison and other status effects. But you have to maintain your Risk Gauge, which rises with every successful attack, and leads to an increase in critical hits you give and receive. Every enemy in the game fits into a specific group of categories, and every weapon has a rating against each type. I could go on and on about the crafting system, the way weapons develop based on repeated use, the magic system, and dummies you can pummel to develop the perfect weapon, but I would honestly need to devote a college class to the subject. Vagrant Story is epically deep, which is both a blessing and a curse. The game can keep a diligent player busy for hours, or force a lesser man/woman into a fetal position. Truth be told, I never clung to the gameplay of Vagrant Story because I found it simply too daunting to think about the amount of time I would need to invest to truly master the system (and the less said about those blasted block puzzles the better).
No, Vagrant Story kept me interested because of the world and characters. I would love to see the story of Ashley Riot continue, but I shudder to think what the result would be. Very few games threat the audience with this level of respect. Many cite Final Fantasy XII, also (partly, at least) directed by Matsuno to feature a storyline rife with mystery and intrigue, but comparing it to Vagrant Story is like sending a small child out into the ocean to fistfight a shark. Given Square-Enix's latest efforts (as well as their continued focus on style rather than substance), I can't help but feel that Ashley would appear on the scene riding a motorcycle and sporting a level of ennui usually associated with fashion models. Vagrant Story is about subtlety and letting the audience determine for themselves what exactly happens. I doubt we'll ever return to the world of Valendia, but I can always hope.