"Romancing SaGa 2 is equal parts fascinating and frustrating."
Fans have been clamouring to see Romancing SaGa 2 in the West on consoles for years — released back on the SNES in Japan in 1993, it took until the 2016 mobile remake to reach us, but that wasn't enough. Fast forward to the close of 2017 — we finally got our wish 24 years after the game originally came out, and it's now on pretty much every modern console. While Romancing SaGa 2 is hardly a crowd-pleaser like Final Fantasy, it's far more experimental and has a few little quirks that should be celebrated. Make no mistakes about this game though; it might have a new coat of paint, but it is still rooted in 1993 and is not for the faint-hearted.
The game pits you against the Seven Heroes, once saviours of the world who have returned to wreak havoc on the people, as you chart one dynasty's struggle to put an end to their reign of terror. While the narrative never goes beyond this basic principle, you're not in it to watch your characters develop relationships or grow as people, rather to expand your kingdom and watch as the world changes around you. You are writing your own history, and it's up to you who accompanies you and what you choose to do. This bare-bones approach to storytelling works to its advantage a lot of the time, but sometimes you have to wonder what it's all for? The story is delivered through very few short dialogue sections which are easily brushed over or missed, and after limping through a dungeon or falling against a boss several times, there's little reward. Something as simple as citizens acknowledging your triumph, or even remembering the previous ruler's successes would've been a nice touch to make everything worthwhile.
There are parts of this that work though — because you're writing your own story, you have relative freedom to do whatever you want. As long as a particular town or dungeon appears on the map, you can go there. To open up new areas you need to talk to your chancellor or the residents of one of the many villages to find out what you need to do. I loved having the freedom to choose what village to visit or quest to tackle next, and it's something you don't see very often today. Some of your decisions can impact the world for better or worse: if you ignore one town for too long, they can lose a war and their scenario takes an entirely different path; you can choose to climb a volcano to save an island, but ignoring the danger leads to some dire consequences; you can even fall in love with a mermaid and ignore your duties as Emperor! It's a refreshing experience, and because it can alter the fate of the world, it's something that kept me on my toes at all times.
Unfortunately, it's very easy to get lost. While finding your way around and crafting your own adventure can be fun, Romancing SaGa 2 is incredibly obtuse. Don't rely on the game to provide you with tutorials or give you hints on where to go next all the time, because you'll mostly be on your own. Sometimes your chancellor will make you aware of issues occurring in other nations, but other times you'll have to explore the world yourself and make some wild guesses. One particular quest that drove me nuts was creating the mermaid potion — I had to scour the world in search of three ingredients with no idea where to find them and visit every town in search of the tiniest hint, often to no avail. The controls don't help with this matter either, as they're awkward and fiddly. I found trying to dodge enemies a nightmare, especially when I was flustered and lost. It didn't make a difference whether I was using the Vita's D-pad or control stick, and I frequently found myself walking into enemies by accident. I often got to the stage where I was rushing through quests just to get them out of the way.
Romancing SaGa 2's individuality doesn't just come from its free story structure as there's myriad unique skills and systems to discover. The most notable of these is the inheritance system; after completing a few quests and beating a few bosses as one emperor, the game will skip forward to a future generation, and all of your previous ruler's skills will be passed on. This means all the hard work you put into one ruler won't be lost. Each generation is stronger than the last, so you really feel yourself getting better as the game progresses. You can also expand your kingdom by building new areas, such as a magic school to teach your characters spells, or a garden to help raise more money, and you see these improve after each and every time skip which I found really rewarding. These little additions made Romancing SaGa 2 stand out amongst other RPGs in 1993, and they still do today.
This game is really at its best when it's transparent in its explanations and goals, but as we've already discussed that's not always the case. As well as not telling you where to go, Romancing SaGa 2 struggles to explain how most skills work. Most of these neat little systems are tucked away and you have to root around your kingdom to find out how they work, or sometimes just find out by chance. One example is the skill sparking system: to learn a skill you have to trigger it by fighting enemies with a particular weapon, so if you're fighting with a spear you might learn a spear skill. I say might
because the success rate seems to be completely random, and while some party members are better at learning certain skills than others, the game never goes out of its way to tell you. The magic school allows you to create more powerful magic, but to do so you have to use a particular element over and over again, talk to one of the researchers to see if they can develop any new magic, and wait until the next generation to see if you can reap the benefits. The adventure quickly became a guessing game, which I struggled with. I'm not asking for someone to come and hold my hand, but at times it was nearly impossible to play this game without using a walkthrough.
This leads me to the overall difficulty, because Romancing SaGa 2 is hard. Characters don't level up in the traditional sense — you build experience on weapon and magic types to make them stronger. Enemies scale up with you, but most boss fights have a set amount of health and stats that don't change depending on your level, but rather the decisions you make. The Seven Heroes have multiple forms, and these change based on factors such as when you fight them, who you've killed before, or even what you've already done. Most of them will take multiple attempts to kill, and some have mechanics which, if you're not prepared, serve to send you away bruised and humiliated.
Not only that, most mobs of enemies have the ability to wipe out your entire party in one fell swoop, meaning you have to be on your toes at all times. That's frustrating enough on its own, not to mention that each character can only die a certain number of times before they're permanently dead. Despite this, I found it hugely satisfying every time I beat one of the Seven Heroes and felt like I could conquer anything, but I was quickly put back into place by the next set of enemies I faced. I died a lot, but it's something I learnt from, and I went back and revisited those fights with new skills, new equipment, and a better understanding of the mechanics.
While it's great that we've finally got this game on consoles, this is really just a straight-up port of the 2016 mobile version. Most of the sprite work has been spruced up, and some of the bosses look amazing, especially the Seven Heroes. They move in unique ways and each has a horrifying design that only gets more detailed and gory the stronger they become. But the pixelated character sprites in particular clash with the bright and vibrant backgrounds, which have been redrawn and rendered for mobile devices. They're much better than Square's Final Fantasy V and VI efforts, but the contrast is a little jarring. The music from the SNES version has stayed intact, and you can tell why because it's really fantastic to listen to. From the relaxing town themes to the thrilling boss themes, the soundtrack is great. My particular favourites are Boss Battle and the Seven Heroes' battle themes because they convey a sense of urgency and fueled my desire to overcome each and every obstacle the game threw at me.
Romancing SaGa 2 is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. I've barely scratched the surface with some of the novel features this game offers you, so if you're thinking of playing it for the first time, I really encourage you to do so as there's a lot to love about this SNES remaster. Yet I also want this review to act as a warning on the difficult journey ahead, and while I've enjoyed my time with it for the most part, the obtuse nature and tough gameplay weren't always for me. I'm still struggling against the final boss now, and each and every time I fail brings me closer to giving up due to its relentless difficulty. If you love this series, you know what to expect and you'll enjoy every second. If this is your first SaGa, please don't go in blind: I didn't, and I'm glad I took the time to do some research and go through the game prepared.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.