Romancing SaGa

Close, but no SaGa.

Square-Enix’s SaGa series, the brainchild of developer Akitoshi Kawazu, who started work on Final Fantasy II, is the eccentric sibling of the company’s other franchises, given offbeat mechanics, learning curves, and high difficulty. While most of the games got positive response in Japan, reception of the series beyond the country has been less forgiving, leading Square-Enix’s North American branch mostly not to bother with translations. One entry that got foreign release was the PlayStation 2 remake of Romancing SaGa, which is more or less what one can expect from the oddball franchise.

When beginning a new game, the player can choose from one of eight different characters, each with their own starting points and stories in the game’s world, which ultimately opens up to players with a greater number of quests completed. Ashen avatars representing different enemy types indicate enemy parties to encounter, with all taking notice and charging the player’s chosen protagonist regardless of their party’s strength, a step down from the vastly-superior visual skirmish systems of past RPGs such as EarthBound. Should other encounter models be nearby when the player contacts one, they will need to fight multiple enemy parties with no rest in between, and no ability to escape.

While proficiencies players can learn from non-player characters in towns grant two skills with which to evade visible monsters, remembering which of them work against which types is difficult. Battles themselves, however, have many things going for them, with the player’s party of up to five characters squaring off against foes, players able to outfit them with up to four usable items, including weapons having limited durability (in most cases except with those whose menu icons have square borders recoverable at inns), a first-aid kit also with finite replenishable uses, or medicines with single uses.

Each weapon characters equip typically have minimal skills to start other than standard attacks, although, mostly when fighting powerful foes, new skills may instantly “spark” and execute. Some of these learnable abilities consume the weapon’s durability points, usually maxing out at thirty, weapons able to break if all durability expires, although, except for the mentioned armaments with square-border menu icons, sleeping at inns for an additional cost can repair them fully. Once the player has inputted commands for all characters, they and the enemy exchange commands depending upon speed, fights ending when all enemies are dead or all characters have run out of hit points.

Should an ally fall in battle, they lose one of about a dozen or so life points (with some skills such as a few martial arts abilities also consuming LP), also replenishable at inns, although fortunately, standard HP-recovering spells and items can bring them back into the fight. Speaking of magic, eight different schools of spells, four opposing the others (the player unable to wield sorcery of antagonistic classes simultaneously), are learnable for a cost, characters unable to share spells, and typically cost one or more LP, although investing skill points, always earned whether in small or large quantity from combat victories, into certain classes can reduce or eliminate cost.

Battle Points, each character having fixed starting and maximum amounts that can gradually increase also through winning battles, dictate which skills they can execute during a turn, each ability other than standard attacks costing BP, although after each round, BP increases for each character by a fixed amount, meaning that characters can defend to both reduce damage and accumulate points to execute more powerful attacks, some of which can form more powerful combination attacks, although unlike the second Frontier game, there is no in-game tracker of combos, nor are there any charts indicating learned and unlearned abilities.

Back to LP, when a character loses all, they become unable to be healed or fight again unless the player sleeps at an inn. Once battles have ended, the participants receive random stat increases, maybe some money (a scarce resource throughout the game, with the bulk of finances coming from quest completion and selling excess items), and skills points players can invest into various classes in towns to increase skill proficiencies. While all characters fully recover HP after battle, this by no means makes the game a cakewalk, and the difficulty is generally above-average, some mechanics possibly necessitating the use of a guide, something no player should really have to do when playing a game.

While combat certainly has its foibles, control fares much worse, one issue being the terrible direction on how to advance the main storyline, which is more or less nonexistent, although there is luckily in-game tracking of quests players may receive at times. Another high point is that the player can quicksave 99% of the time outside battle, and reload this save should they quit the game, die, or soft-reset. A further problem with control, however, is that the voiced dialogue during story scenes is almost always unskippable, certainly a burden for hearing-impaired players, with no scene-skip option, either. The final dungeon also forbids players from backing out, and too is a problem given scenes outside that occur as they trek to the final boss, although standard saves at towns at inns ensure that, most of the time, regardless of the situation, the game is beatable. Even so, the developers could have very well given interaction a once-over.

The overall narrative in Romancing SaGa only fares marginally better, and while characters early on receive some sort of story, maybe even twists in a few instances, the general plotline somewhat fails to unify the game, although there is some sort of backstory to the game itself, and an ending of modest length. The translation doesn’t really hurt the game, although it pales compared to other efforts of Square-Enix’s North American branch, given some rather questionable names for characters such as Eule (spoken as “oi-lay”) and places such as Kjaraht (oddly pronounced “koo-juh-rot” in voiced dialogue). In the end, the plot falters significantly, but isn’t a total writeoff.

An aspect that does significantly better is the soundtrack by Kenji Ito, which has a variety of tracks encompassing different genres, such as the rocky battle theme (which can, though, get somewhat repetitive with the endless fighting the player will do), each character having their own different theme, and the game itself having a central tune with several remixes. The English voicework, however, misses more than hits, although some of the performances are okay. All in all, while the voice acting might not win awards, the music definitely deserved to do so in the game’s time.

Neither great nor bad is the game’s visual style, with character models having cel-shading and bearing slightly-unrealistic proportions similar to early Japanese roleplaying games, which gave the graphics a sort of distinction compared to other PlayStation 2 titles of the title’s time, although the environments largely appear rusty, with blurry and pixilated texturing, and the camera is totally uncontrollable, sometimes affecting the gameplay in regards to the encounter system. There are rare CG full-motion videos, although a few cutscenes make the odd decision to narrate the story with static shots of the in-game graphics. On the whole, an average-looking game.

Finally, completing each character’s quest can take one to two days’ worth of playing time, the player able to undertake repeated New Game Pluses to view all eight allies’ plotlines, with some aspects from prior playthroughs carried over.

Overall, the PS2 remake of Romancing SaGa is, like most of its brethren within the franchise, an odd duck. It definitely has many things going for it such as the general good ideas behind the battle system, the liberalized saving system, the largely-competent translation, the excellent soundtrack, and plentiful lasting appeal. Conversely, one can levy many strikes against it such as the many foibles of combat stemming from the subpar encounter system, interaction issues such as the unskippable voiced dialogue and poor direction on how to proceed with the plotline, the need to play the game more than once to get the most out of the story, the weak voice performances, and graphical follies such as the camera. The game certainly won’t make believers of the franchise nor is a repellent from the series, given its arguable inconsistent quality, but there is some minor entertainment to have.

This review is based on a playthrough starting as Claudia.

The Good:
+Combat is fun sometimes.
+Liberal save system.
+Mostly-good translation.
+Great soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Battle system has issues, stemming from encounter system and beyond.
-Many interface quibbles such as unskippable voiced dialogue.
-Multiple playthroughs necessary to get most of story.
-Weak voicework.
-Camera and visuals have problems.

The Bottom Line:
Has some good ideas, but somewhat falters in execution.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 6/10
Controls: 3/10
Story: 4/10
Localization: 7/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 6/10

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