My overall reaction to Vagrant Story was nowhere near as favorable as Matt's, but the one thing that we will agree upon is the superiority of the graphics. This was a revelation for me when you consider I railed on the graphic quality of Squaresoft's previous release, Front Mission 3. All the visual glitches and general ugliness in the earlier title had me proclaiming that even Squaresoft's best efforts could not hide the fact that the PlayStation's outdated hardware was horribly inadequate for today's cutting-edge games. The same did not hold true for Vagrant Story. Vagrant Story looks and sounds great with plenty of style and substance to spare. I was particularly impressed by its precise attention to camera angles during story cut-scenes, which was worthy of Hollywood's most esteemed action directors like John McTiernan or Tony Scott. The developers have managed to squeeze a little more life out of the PlayStation and its efforts could be considered the best-looking game on the system to date. Such a statement is usually beyond cliché in this industry, but consistent readers know that I almost never make such proclamations, but in the case of Vagrant Story, I think it actually holds true.
What I consider to be the main weakness of Vagrant Story is that it wants to be something that its not. Sort of like Quentin Tarentino stretching as an actor or Sylvester Stallone attempting to do comedy. As Matt's review confirms, Vagrant Story is a dungeon hack or crawl (whichever term you prefer). What makes the genre so popular and persistent over the years is that we are drawn to its basic concepts that are so fundamental to our nature. The general idea is that you enter a dungeon and fight monsters. If you make it out alive, fortune and glory soon follow. It's a simple yet rewarding living.
Dreamcasts first role-playing game, Evolution: World Of Sacred Device, understood that basic premise and fashioned its high-powered graphics and like-minded whimsical tale around the notion. Vagrant Story on the other hand, wants to fuse a complex medieval tale filled with deceitful murder and religious/political intrigue with the genre. The results are decidedly mixed or rather poorly mixed because the whole package never comes together convincingly due to the kind of epic game it wants to be and the conflicting simplified elements that usually make the genre successful.
This problem is well illustrated in the opening introductory story-sequence (executed in real-time). The movie-like wipes and sweeping camera movements during the cut-scene will undoubted turn heads and does make the story seem more artful. The problem is that amidst all the flash band special effects and technical wizardry, it forgets that we as players need to identify with our controlled character in some way. Players immediately take on the role of Ashley Riot without any sense of understanding about his character or his motivations. Admittedly, his past is intentionally mysterious and is meant to be unraveled, but the game doesn't set itself up that way. Unlike Final Fantasy III (U.S.) or Hybrid Heaven, you don't feel as though you're meant to rediscover your former life. You feel more like a guy who is just clueless as to what's actually happening around him. That's not a story convention. It's a failure of narrative progression on the part of the developers.
Still that's not to say the story isn't a good one. I agree with Matt in that the translation of the original Japanese text is superb and I liked the many plot-twist. Plus, the gray personalities of characters make for some interesting relationships. But Matt puts too much emphasis and praise on the story when its really the dungeon crawling that makes up a majority of the gameplay. Unfortunately, that part of the game is also severely flawed. Like Matt already mentioned, the actually gameplay isn't always tightly integrated into the story sequences. If that wasn't bad enough, what bothered me more was that the action was just plain monotonous, repetitive, and boring. There arent extra party members to add more diversity and depth. Solo players never square off against more than three enemies at once and boss enemies are stringently tough. Without interesting gameplay, the whole linear process of having to trudge from one location to the next in order to advance the plot gets to be a real drag (innovative ideas like 'chaining' attacks only help mildly).
To top things off, the process of forging and combining weapons isn't just complex and confusing (again, uncharacteristic of the dungeon crawl genre) as Matt alluded to. It's also flat out annoying! The finer details of weapons creation are poorly documented and players also have to contend with a confusing menu interface that relies too heavily on statistics rather than perception. It's a part of the game that really could have been streamlined and presented in a more intuitive manner.
Does this mean that epic story-driven dungeon crawls should be forbidden? I don't think so. I think it can work, but developers shouldnt turn their back on the simple yet almost instinctive qualities that make the genre work to begin with. Vagrant Story will not represent that groundbreaking fusion of story and gameplay. While the game succeeds on so many levels in terms of narrative and graphics, at its core, it fails to be what it brandishes, an engaging dungeon crawl.