Vagrant Story is a game that’s been largely forgotten by the gaming public despite its pedigree as a Square Enix title. It’s not hard to see why; the game is extremely uneven, moving from almost cinematic action to large periods of running about with no clear purpose, and its battle system is extremely complex and unintuitive. Most people who bought it never made it past the first dungeon.
Yet there is one bonus to slogging though: composer Hitoshi Sakimoto’s score. It’s an incredibly dark and baroque piece of music that rumbles with power and mystery even during its most upbeat moments. The music serves as something of a tone poem, taking listeners deep into a haunted city and impressing upon them the danger and beauty inherent in the undertaking.
The score is built around a few key innovations and motifs. The “main theme,” such as it is, is used relatively sparsely, mostly at the beginning and end of the game, with short reprises in the middle. A few other melodic ideas are constant from track to track, but there’s no real leitmotif structure at work. Instead, Sakimoto relies on instrument choice to provide consistency, especially in the form of distant metal-on-metal hits to provide a sense of the echoing depths of the city, and the harp, which might represent the shafts of sunlight peeking through the ruins. There’s also a strong atonal influence in some areas, most notably “Rosencrantz,” whose howling brass seems to be inspired by Elliot Goldenthal.
Standout tracks include the lengthy beginning and ending suites, especially the battle theme that develops near the end of the intro. The melodic “Snowfly Forest” contributes an atmosphere of strangeness in its beauty, and “Undercity” is strongly reminiscent of Danny Elfman in its portrayal of a spooky envirion. The atonal music is best represented by the pulsing, tribal fury of “Tieger and Neesa” as well as the howling “Rosencrantz” and “Abandoned Mines ~ Second Level,” which uses metal hits and a children’s choir to establish a gothic, almost hellish mood.
The album’s PS1-era synth is generally good; echo effects were added to the mix during the mastering process that helps disguise the lack of depth in the recording. Even those who can’t stand synthesized music are in for a treat: the album climaxes with a fully orchestrated rendition of the main theme, played by a full symphony orchestra.
The only minor drawbacks to the album are the fact that many of the best songs, especially battle tunes, don’t loop. This is especially unfortunate in the case of “Dullahan,” “Ogre,” and the two final battle themes. The two remixes at the end of the album are awful and unnecessary; I’d much rather have had more looped tracks.
All in all, Vagrant Story, despite its synthesized nature, is an enormously complex and satisfying musical journey, and comes highly recommended to anyone who can find a copy. Regrettably, though, with the demise of DigiCube and the proliferation of bootleggers (especially on eBay) makes this a difficult feat. Beware the later reissue, though: the album has been remastered, and the echo effects removed, resulting in a much drier and more artificial-sounding recording. Highly recommended for fans of dark and gothic music, as well as fans of Richard Wagner, Danny Elfman, or Elliot Goldenthal, who are looking for a complex and lengthy listen and can tolerate PS1-era synth.