SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha - Shadow or Light

Ever since its inception on Nintendo’s original GameBoy, the, SaGa series has been an odd duck out of Square’s franchises, given their unconventional, sometimes esoteric mechanisms, with this oddity preventing the Super Nintendo titles, the Romancing SaGa series, to be kept in Japan until recent years, the GameBoy titles phonily marketed as the Final Fantasy Legends trilogy before the average gamer became more aware of worldwide gaming media. Square-Enix’s Nintendo DS remake of the third of the GameBoy titles, Saga 3: Jikuu no Hasha – Shadow or Light (with Jikuu no Hasha meaning Champions of Time and Space), would too remain in the Land of the Rising Sun, a shame since it proves to be among the best the franchise offers.

Although the original GameBoy version bore a traditional leveling system through experience acquired by killing enemies in random encounters, the DS incarnation adopts mechanisms making it feel like an actual part of the SaGa series, with random encounters, as in titles since the Super Nintendo era, ditched in favor of visible enemies wandering dungeons and fields. SaGa 3 lamentably doesn’t sport the superior visible encounter systems of other RPGs such as EarthBound, instead favoring enemies charging the player’s visible character when in range, and encountering one of these enemy sets will cause the encounter to have foes from other nearby models indicating other fights.

Fortunately, fights in the third SaGa don’t have the massive scale of those in its predecessor’s remake, although other enemies queue themselves behind the encountered set and enter the fray once the player makes room for them by dispatching their brethren. The tertiary installment follows the traditional turn-based combat structure where the player inputs commands for the four main characters and during most of the game the fifth guest character, and they and the enemy exchange blows in a round. Distinguishing SaGa 3 from other turn-based RPGs with this structure is that before the player confirms command input for all characters, they can see the order in which their characters and the enemy will take their turns, alleviating the frustration typically affiliated with these kinds of battle systems.

Each character can equip a number of weapons, magic spells, and shields that have finite uses, although players can recharge them at certain places, and can also use consumable items during combat. One feature distinguishing SaGa 3 from other entries of the franchise is the presence, before starting a new game, of an easy mode, in which consumable weapons have infinite uses. New weapons typically start out with one available skill, although if a character is proficient in a specific weapon type, using the initial skill will have a chance, during the execution of commands in battle, of unlocking a more powerful skill of its set of four, with a fifth skill that sometimes occurs during combos that frequently happen in battle.

Yet another feature distinguishing the third SaGa from its brethren is that stat increases occur instantaneously in the heat of battle whenever a character executes their command. Winning a battle nets some money and either a piece of meat or robot parts that a character can consume, which can have various effects such as granting them a new trait rendering them more vulnerable to or immune to specific elements, maybe change their race, as well, which includes human, esper, machine, or monster. If a character hasn’t transformed into a specific type of enemy, then a big red question mark indicates thus, although in other instances the player can see how one of them changes, stat-wise and such.

The battle system works well for the most part, with a nice variety of forms into which characters can transform that add a layer of strategy to combat, and the turn order bar, despite the tradition of turn-based battle, is a feature that other turn-based RPGs with similar structure would benefit from. Rarely is grinding necessary, a large step above the DS remake of the second SaGa game, the final boss on easy mode beatable in the player’s first try, although admittedly, playing on normal difficulty (or above, once the player accesses hard mode after beating the game) can be tedious, given the drawn-out nature of the final boss and its various forms.

The interface is generally above solid, with easy menus, a save-anywhere feature, and clear direction on how to advance, although there are little things such as sites to dig for item, once the player obtains the respective component, only flashing a few times before disappearing on the map screen, and despite many items stacking, there is still a limit on inventory space.

Although the DS remake’s narrative has slightly more development than the original GameBoy version’s, it still feels somewhat light on story, with the playable characters not receiving a whole lot of depth, despite being named and supposedly not blank-slate.

Kenji Ito, as always, provides a solid soundtrack, although some tracks are recycled from previous games.

The SaGa 3 remake also recycles its predecessor’s visual style, cel-shaded and still looking nice, despite plentiful bland texturing.

Finally, one can finish the third entry in as little as fifteen hours, given the brevity of the main quest, although there are occasional sidequests that can bolster playing time, alongside plenty replayability in the form of a New Game+ and selectable difficulty levels, a hard mode unlocked after completing the game.

In the end, the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 3 is for the most part a solid reincarnation of the title that North Americans unfortunately missed out on, given things such as a solid battle system that’s far from esoteric despite its uniqueness from the average RPG, solid interaction, a nice soundtrack, and good graphics. It does leave some room for improvement in areas such as the potential hellishness of difficulty modes above easy, the limited inventory space that is inexcusable in modern RPGs, the weak narrative, and some graphical imperfections. Even so, the third entry is perhaps one of the crown jewels of the franchise, despite its shortcomings, and contemporary entries of the series would very much learn something from it.

The Good:
+Solid SaGa gameplay with adjustable difficulty.
+Great control and direction on how to advance.
+Nice soundtrack.
+Good cel-shaded visuals.

The Bad:
-Could be punishing in difficulties above the easiest.
-Limited inventory space.
-Weak narrative.
-Some graphical imperfections.

The Bottom Line:
One of the best of the series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 7/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 15-25+ Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

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