SaGa Frontier

In 1989, Square’s SaGa series saw its debut on the Game Boy with its first installment, Makai Toushi SaGa, the creation of employee Akitoshi Kawazu. Because the sister Final Fantasy franchise then had better name recognition outside Japan, the company’s American branch retitled it and its two portable sequels Final Fantasy Legend. An entire console generation would pass before another SaGa game saw a North American release, what with the lack of official translations at the time for the Romancing SaGa trilogy for the Super Famicom. In 1998, the series got another chance outside Japan with SaGa Frontier, the franchise’s debut on the Sony PlayStation, which is decent but not without flaw.

Like the Romancing SaGa titles, Frontier features visible enemies in dungeons that always charge the player’s party represented by whomever among seven characters they select to play their scenario, regardless of the party’s stats. Outside battle, the player can assemble three parties with five characters each, one of which the player must select after contacting the enemy, with the party’s placement upon the battlefield sometimes dependent upon random chance, the location of characters affecting their use of and their vulnerability to various skills. One initial flaw in the mechanics is that the stats and skills for specific characters that play part across scenarios don’t retain their skills and stats when the player begins a new one.

Frontier follows a traditional turn-based formula where the player selects one of many acquirable commands for each of the five active characters to execute, with a round of random player and enemy turn order occurring afterward, with no ability to view who will execute their command when. Using certain skills may occasionally cause a new skill to spark in the middle of battle, at least in the case of humans and mystics, although mechs acquire new skills from mechanical enemies after the battle is over, and monster characters can select a monster from which to acquire a new skill to replace one of its current skills, sometimes morphing into a different form, although the player has no indication of how the monster character will change.

Each character has a certain amount of HP that always recharges once a player has won a battle, not to mention a certain number of life points that, when depleted, mean the player must rest at an inn to restore that character back to full health. When the enemy has knocked out all five of the player’s active characters (which will cost each a life point, it’s Game Over, although fallen characters can receive recovery from items or healing magic, with new spells occasionally learned after battle depending upon use in combat. After a victory, all characters still standing receive random stat boosts instead of traditional experience for leveling up, similar to but not exactly like the system in Final Fantasy II, with a little money for buying consumable items and equipment gained as well.

The general game mechanics are actually okay, although making the most out of the battle system can be excruciating without use of a guide, and normal enemies generally do a poor job preparing the player for bosses that are significantly tougher and can even have tens of thousands of hit points, made worse by the title’s dependence upon points of no return for fake difficulty and the consequential inability to back out to a recovery point and grind as desired. In fact, victory comes far more easily with the acquisition of a special secret skill, and given the random chance of skill learning in combat, acquiring the skills necessary for this aforementioned special attack can be frustrating. Ultimately, the battle system is functional with help from a guide, but otherwise full of flaws.

Control in Frontier is superficially decent, with an easy menu system and an always convenient save-anywhere feature, although this can be a double-edged sword if the player doesn’t keep a spare save file before encountering one of countless points of no return that can render the game unbeatable if the player’s parties’ stats are too low. There’s also a general poor direction on how to advance the main storyline of each character’s scenario, and in the end, interaction is middling at best.

The stories for each character are actually one of the game’s better aspects, although the poor direction on where to go next in many instances is a mark off. The translation, handled by Sony’s American branch, is also fairly mediocre, with plenty of obvious errors, and overall, the story is actually decent, but the aforementioned flaws can make it lose its appeal at points.

Kenji Ito, as usual, does a nice job with the soundtrack, with decent sound effects as well but some repetition with the main battle theme.

The graphics look good as well, with photorealistic prerendered environments and character sprites with chibi proportions and occasional weird coloring, the only flaws in an otherwise gorgeous game.

Finally, each character’s scenario can take anywhere from five to fifteen hours to complete, with surprisingly good replay value given the endless sidequests and variety of skills to learn. All in all, SaGa Frontier was a decent debut of the series on the Sony PlayStation, what with its interesting but flawed battle system, decent storylines, nice music, and gorgeous graphics. As mentioned, however, the experience isn’t flawless, what with the annoyances in the combat engine, points of no return, and general poor direction on where to go next, but the game in general certainly isn’t a blemish on Square’s record of quality titles.

The Good:
+General mechanics are okay.
+Save anywhere feature.
+Decent stories for each character.
+Nice music and graphics.
+Excellent replay value.

The Bad:
-Schizophrenic difficulty.
-Learning skills can depend upon random chance.
-Some grinding necessary.
-Poor direction on how to advance.
-Weak localization.

The Bottom Line:
A decent debut of the series on the PlayStation.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 6/10
Controls: 5/10
Story: 7/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 4/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Schizophrenic
Playing Time: Less than 15 Hours per Character

Overall: 7/10

This review is based on a single playthrough of Lute’s scenario, with the reviewer in the past having completed all seven.

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