Let's just get it out of the way - Vagrant Story is a ground-breaking game. A melange of the action, adventure and RPG genres, Square has truly beaten all odds and produced an engaging, seamless epic unlike any other. Despite a few interface and complexity issues, Vagrant Story is a rare and nearly perfected game.
A brutal battle wages between the Knights of the Crimson Blade and the Mullenkamp Cult in the city of Lea Monde. Caught in the middle is Ashley Riot, an agent for the Valendia Knights of Peace's elite Riskbreaker unit. After a chance encounter with the heartless leader of the Mullenkamp Cult, Sydney Losstarot, Ashley finds himself in a life-or-death game of cat and mouse amidst a deeper plot larger than the two of them. What are Sydney's intentions, and how does Ashley play into his master plan? As with Final Fantasy Tactics, which was developed by the same team, the lines between good and evil are endlessly blurred and the story is complex and twisted.
Many have described Vagrant Story as "Medieval Gear Solid," a comparison that both is correct and not correct. While the Metal Gear feel is there thanks to the perspective, attention to detail, and emphasis on cinematics, one never actually has to skulk through shadows, avoid detection, and the like. An odd blend of action, adventure and RPG gameplay, a lot of Vagrant Story's charm lies in the sheer amount of control the player has in playing what is mostly a linear game. Most of the game takes place underneath Lea Monde, where Ashley runs through room after room, slaying monsters and recovering information and keys to aid Sydney's pursuit. You navigate as you would in Metal Gear Solid, guiding the character with the analog pad and rotating the viewpoint with the L and R buttons. Ashley can switch in and out of battle mode, freeing his hands for tasks such as lifting boxes or grabbing edges. While the latter isn't emphasized too heavily, Vagrant Story does have a surprising compunction for box puzzles. While they start off easy, they eventually become fairly fiendish with the addition of a variety of new and different box-types. While navigating the labyrinthine corridors under Lea Monde is all done in real time, battling is a decidedly different affair.
Even with all of the other gameplay elements thrown in, combat is central to Vagrant Story. Perhaps a tribute to one of the interesting things to come out of Parasite Eve, tapping the attack button pauses the game and causes a large wireframe sphere to erupt from Ashley's body. Representing the range of the current weapon, you can target any item within the sphere for an attack. Detailed hit-percentage and damage stats help you plan your attacks more effectively, but attacking some areas can have other effects. For example, if you attack a monster's legs there's a good chance you'll reduce their movement rate by 50 percent.
After defeating the first boss, Ashley will gain the use of chain abilities. These allow Ashley to perform consecutive hits when attacking enemies, with every additional attack benefitting Ashley in ways other than sheer damage. Ashley can ready up to three of these at a time and with the proper timing, chain them until the target keels over. For example, you can restore magic points or life with a carefully-timed chain attack. Learned at the same time as chains, defense abilities allow you to key different kinds of defense. When attacked, tapping the right button could restore half of the damage you just took or reflect it back at the enemy. After gaining enough experience, you'll be presented with a choice as to which new ability you'd like to learn, letting you customize your time with Ashley and develop his abilities to your own play style. Using chain and defense abilities is useful, but builds Ashley's risk level, preventing them from being abused. Essentially a fancy name for fatigue, a high risk level lowers Ashley's ability to to connect with both weapons and spells. While one could theoretically chain attacks together forever, players will think twice before doing so, maintaining a needed element of strategy and balance.