VagrantStory was produced by the same team responsible for FinalFantasyTactics, which may or may not tell you anything about the game (it does have FFT's themes of religion, politics, and a dark power), but does imply things about the music. The music is definitely reminiscent of that from FFT, and as in that game the music is nothing outstanding, but nor does it grate (well, okay; VagrantStory's music doesn't grate). At least one negative review on [GameFAQs] complains that there is no background music, but this is not the case. Some areas of the game lack background music, true, but a perky town theme or what-have-you would've really played havoc with the atmosphere of the game.
One notable feature of the game is that the only prerendered CG in the game appears in the intro sequence (the one with the not-entirely-gratuitous scantily-clad female dancer). The story is presented by means of the game's somewhat blocky in-engine models, and they do the job quite handily. The story is one of the game's strong points, demonstrating that there do (or perhaps did) exist people at Square who know how to write and direct (if, perhaps, not how to choose names). The story is relatively simple, focusing on a half-dozen characters and their doings inside the ancient city of Lea Monde [someone else can do the accents if they feel led]...
While the story itself sticks to a relatively small number of threads (at least compared to FFT), it has a number of twists and turns, and is executed very well. For example, the hostage scene at the duke's manor takes place movie-style, interspersed with opening credits and two short player-controlled fight sequences (though oddly enough, the whole bit can be skipped).
"But what about the gameplay?" I can hear you asking. This is indeed where a number of people take issue with the game. Ashley begins his journey into Lea Monde at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft which connects with an abandoned wine cellar. You wander from room to room with a camera trailing behind and usually somewhat above him (you can also look around in a first-person mode, though time stops while you do so). You will encounter various enemies, whereupon you can draw your weapon of choice, entering "combat mode" (the primary differences being that any armor value your shield has is only effective when drawn, your regeneration slows down, and you can't grab edges or anything else) in order to slay them.
Combat is somewhat like a smooth version of ParasiteEve's; when you attack, a wireframe bubble shows you the limits of your attack range, allowing you to select a target. Ashley acquires knowledge of various spells over the course of the game, and these, along with items and certain battle techniques, are conveniently available without having to wade through the menu system. Unlike ParasiteEve, however, combat is not usually mandatory; you can simply run past some enemies, or stand around casting spells without drawing your weapon. (Since both HP and MP regenerate, and do so more quickly in "normal mode", this may be useful).
Central to the combat mechanics of the game are the "chain" and "defense" abilities which Ashley (alone?) has access to. Upon attacking, you can push another button at the moment of striking to "chain" another technique on the end of it. This may be repeated (theoretically) ad nauseam, with the effectiveness of the chain abilities increasing as the chain length grows, but the timing also gets more stringent as the chain grows longer. Similarly, defense abilities are activated at the moment an enemy or spell strikes, and either prevent damage, reflect damage back at the attacker, or nullify some negative status.
Also an integral part (you know what "integral" means, right? ;-) of the combat system is "Risk". This supposedly represents Ashley's level of focus -- the higher the Risk meter, the more distracted he is. Whatever. In practical terms, increasing Risk makes it harder to land hits, increases the amount of damage taken, and increases the likelihood of both Ashley and his enemies getting criticals (something of a double whammy). Risk is also the other reason not to chain indefinitely: all attacks increase Ashley's Risk, and chain and defense abilities are no exception. Risk is measured from 0-100, and a typical weapon attack increases the gauge by one or two. After nine chain hits or so, however, the gauge starts increasing by the usual amount *plus ten* with each new hit, quickly reaching 100. As long as the chain keeps going, this has no direct effect... but once it stops, you may find yourself unable to hit anything. Risk also lowers over time (and more quickly when not in combat). Although it rarely becomes relevant, enemies do also have Risk meters of their own, and can work themselves up to the point where they are unable to hit you, given enough time. Risk is one of the parts of the game with which some people take issue, as it does compound the effects of certain parts of the game...
Most SquareSoft games of recent vintage have at least one complicated element to them, and VagrantStory is no exception. The equipment system is rather more full-fledged than in some of Square's other games *cough* FinalFantasyEight *cough*; Ashley equips a helmet, armor, boots, two separate gloves, and an accessory, as well as his weapon (and shield, if the weapon isn't two-handed). Each of these equipment slots has a number (well, around 16) of types of armor with which it may be filled, of varying strengths. Each type of armor (save for accessories, which are thankfully uniform) may also be constructed out of one of seven materials (wood, leather, bronze, iron, hagane, silver, or damascus), which also affects the strength of the armor. Shields behave similarly. ButWaitTheresMore? ... each piece of equipment also has a number of attributes, reflecting how well it works against different types of enemies (humans, beasts, undead, phantoms, dragons, and evil) and how well it protects against the various types of damage (physical, fire, water, wind, earth, light, and dark). *These* attributes start at a baseline level depending entirely on the armor's material, but increase and decrease as the armor takes hits; if Ashley is hit for fire damage, the armor may get better against fire. However, these attributes aren't totally independent; whenever an attribute increases, opposite ones may decrease (the trend is, on the whole, upwards).
Weapons work similarly. There are 10 classes of weapons (daggers, swords, great swords, maces and axes, staves, spears, polearms, great maces, great axes, and crossbows), each containing a number of types of blades (somewhat loosely defined in the case of crossbows). Blades may be made of any of the materials for armor save wood and leather, and possess enemy type and elemental attributes as well. A weapon consists of a blade and a grip. Grips add attack power to weapons, and also allow the attachment of some number of gems. Somewhat like the system in DiabloIi, you will run across a number of types of gems, which may be attached to weapons, and do things such as increase power against a certain type of enemies or increase effectiveness against a particular element. Shields may also have gems attached; there are a few which help prevent various status ailments or decrease the chances of enemies hitting you.
Since your weapons and armor improve (somewhat) with use, it stands to reason that swapping up every time you come across a new and better piece of equipment may not be the best idea. Fortunately, there are workshops, where weapons may be disassembled and reassembled, and where equipment may be combined. The combination system adds the final bit of complexity to the equipment system; each class of equipment has a somewhat convoluted upgrade tree. For example, a scimitar and a rapier may be combined to form a short sword. The short sword thus created inherits some of the attributes of both source blades; if the rapier was good against humans, the short sword will be almost as good (or maybe even better, if the scimitar was as well). By combining armor and weapons in this way, it is possible to create better equipment than you would otherwise find (or take the good stuff that you find and MakeItEvenBetter).
With all of these equipment options, however, comes a price. Ashley can change his equipment more or less at will, down to resocketing gems in the middle of a fight. This encourages an inordinately large amount of weapon-swapping. The in-game help, in fact, recommends keeping a separate weapon for each type of enemy or two. Adding on the (orthogonal) elements as well creates even more possibilities. Since, on some bosses, doing the wrong sort of elemental damage means doing almost no damage, it might seem that you'd want to carry 30 or 40 weapons around at a time. For better or worse, Ashley can carry around no more than 8, a fact which has made at least one gamer despair of ever being able to damage certain bosses. The situation is not as bad as it might seem, however, for a couple of reasons: physical damage hurts most anything, and there are spells which temporarily imbue Ashley's weapon with an element (though it is possible to get weapons with elements *so* out of whack that even the spell's effect doesn't change the daamage type of the weapon). It is, however, a pain in the ass to use a single weapon all the time; the game's construction generally leads the weapon to start doing things you don't want it to (elemental damage, for example). This must be balanced against the pain in the ass of swapping weapons for each new fight, and some compromise reached.
Ashley does not level up, per se. As noted in great depth above, you upgrade equipment quite a bit throughout the game. In addition, after each boss fight, Ashley has a random stat increased, and most bosses drop items which improve some stat or other. While these increases are gradual, they are effective; by the end of the game, Ashley can clear many of the early areas with his bare fists.
Magic in VagrantStory is also very useful. Spells are divided, for your sanity, into four categories: recovery, enchantment, offensive, and utility. I've heard tell that it is possible to base an offense around the attack spells, but for various reasons (spells can miss (!), high MP cost, low damage when not using a wizard staff-type weapon) I've never managed, although to be fair I've never given it serious effort, either. Utility spells are (as the name might suggest) quite useful, temporarily boosting stats or lowering enemy stats, detecting traps, and that sort of thing.