Vagrant Story is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated video games to date. It was an action RPG released by SquareSoft (now Square Enix) in the spring of 2000, and there were a couple of remarkable things about it. First and foremost was the localization, specifically the dialogue: Vagrant Story takes place in a pseudomedieval setting, and the writing follows suit. Instead of being a straightforward translation from the original Japanese script, it was heavily and thoughtfully stylized to match the setting of the story. It gives the game a Shakespearean feel without sounding like Ye Olde Ren Fest. It may not seem like much now, but at the time of the original PlayStation and localizations that often contained now-famous lines like “This guy are sick,” it was no small feat.
The graphics were another thing: SquareSoft had long been known for pushing graphics, and Vagrant Story was no exception. The in-game renders of characters had such a specifically stylized appearance that the technical limitations seemed to work in favor of the game, not against it. The dialogue was presented in comic-style word bubbles, which gave the whole experience the feeling of a graphic novel.
It was also a solidly dark and “mature” story. Square already had a reputation for not pulling punches, but even the darkest of its catalogue’s moments were usually balanced with comic relief. Not so here, in a plot that tackled religious fanaticism and the manipulation of perception. The characters were great, the pacing was great, the story was great. Vagrant Story ultimately suffered for its overambitious and clunky gameplay (a system that was revised and reused to much greater effect in Final Fantasy XII) and a plot a bit too gritty for its time.
But the best thing about Vagrant Story, at least to me, was its music. Hitoshi Sakimoto did the score, and he has stated in interviews that it’s his favorite. Sakimoto has done far too much work in gaming and media to even think of listing it all, but he is perhaps best known for his work on Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Advance, Tekken, and Final Fantasy XII. If I had a massive chunk of money to spend on something frivolous, having the Vagrant Story soundtrack arranged for and performed by a symphony orchestra would be a priority.
Even in its current state, it is something special. A lot of the tracks are composed cinematically, which is difficult to pull off in a medium where audio loops indefinitely. The track “A False Memory” plays through a cut scene; the trickiness comes in at the fact it is up to the player to physically advance dialogue for parts of it, and the track is written so that those specific parts of the song can span however long is needed without sounding forced together. The soundtrack is imperative to the somber and serious atmosphere of the game while keeping things interesting and exciting. Tracks like “Snowfly Forest,” “Abandoned Mines,” and “Undercity” capture the strange and eerie otherness of those areas perfectly.
It also features some of my favorite boss music of all time. “Golem” is a high-energy, almost frantic piece that utilizes percussion to great effect. “Ogre” is as threatening as it is heart pounding. But the title of best boss theme goes, hands down, to “Tieger and Neesa.” This duo is your typical contrasted pair—Tieger is a big, slow powerhouse, while Neesa is a quick hitter whose danger comes from her speed and not her strength. Their battle music perfectly encapsulates this dynamic between them in a way I haden’t encountered before.
Vagrant Story was ported for PSN, available to PlayStation 3 and Vita owners, and is currently available. I strongly suggest picking up this title if you missed it on the original pass. The original soundtrack can be found on Amazon (physical) and iTunes (digital).
Moods: Eerie, intense, cinematic
Highlights: “A False Memory,” “Undercity,” “Tieger and Neesa”
Final Score: 5 out of 5 Nobuo Uematsu Bandannas