Vagrant Story is a work that is practically bursting at the humble seams of its PlayStation finery. The character models crackle and mutate with unease as the prologue of Ashley Riot in the grimy urban sewer of Leá Monde careens ever closer towards its breaking point. This is a story that avoids the trappings of good vs. evil and is instead based on tension: the tension of legalists, theocrats, and peasantry grinding up against each other as unkempt gears in some ancient clockwork.
What Yasumi Matsuno and the team at Square attempted with this late fifth-gen classic is nothing short of lofty. The combat is unlike anything I've seen, for better and worse. Hidden behind archaic knowledge and frequently unforgiving encounters, it makes Vagrant Story a difficult sell almost two decades out from its release. Perhaps most relevant to current discussion is its influence. Within Vagrant Story's densely-packed tunnels, the DNA of the Souls series may lie. At the time, very little could match this action-RPG-platformer-begrudging puzzle game in storytelling, environmental or otherwise. And to this day, I find it to be one of the most intriguing in the medium.
If you can surrender yourself to the acidic, crumbling structures, Vagrant Story may end up being one of your favorite games. I can't imagine Square Enix being able to give this a remaster, doubly ensuring its status as an underappreciated gem. If that's the case, I suppose I'll have to make my peace.
Vagrant Story is ambitious and unique for an RPG of its time (the year 2000 — an extremely busy year for Square), but its strengths outweigh its flaws. If you can suffer through the steep learning curve of Vagrant Story's elaborate, multi-layered combat system, there's an incredible RPG to be found.
Ashley Riot hails from the aloof-loner-badass school of RPG protagonists, but his mysterious past and unclear (at first) role in a complex conflict make him more compelling with each passing hour. The differing motivations and parallel goals of NPCs Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Sydney also add intrigue to the story. I didn't finish Vagrant Story in time to record the podcast, but the big drama and plot hooks present were a delight.
Ultimately I couldn't finish Vagrant Story for personal reasons: poor time management and a badly-timed medical issue are what stymied me, although Vagrant Story's complicated combat didn't help. But it didn't take a full 30 hours for me to realize that this is one of Square's highlights of the company's heyday, and anyone who's a fan of video game stories or over-designed RPG systems needs to experience Vagrant Story for themselves.