Ah, back to the good old days when many Squaresoft RPGs were denied release in the USA. In 1991, Square took the SaGa series (better known as the Final Fantasy Legend in the US) and upgraded the sequels into Super Famicom games. The first Romancing SaGa is what set the standard for the series for the next 3 games to follow. The SaGa series has always been known to be overly difficult and extremely non-linear. It's no big surprise that they were never localized for release in America due to these reasons. SaGa Frontier has a lot of similar gameplay to its predecessors and the fact that it never became overly popular seems to prove this. However, the SaGa series was second only to Final Fantasy in Japan, and in 1995, Squaresoft released one of its final Super Famicom efforts, Romancing SaGa 3.
Romancing SaGa 3 just so happens to be my personal favorite RPG of all time. When I first imported the cart a few years back, I had some trouble getting started. Now that the game has been translated for use on SNES emulators, the storyline and strong gameplay emerge to English exclusive audiences for the first time. I've played this game to death and it never gets old. But enough banter about this, on to the review.
The story line isn't that spectacular. Once, every 500 years, there's an eclipse that wipes out all newborn life except for one single child. This child will either grow up to be the Devil King, or the Holy King. The game starts about 10 years after the last Death Eclipse. You have a choice of 8 playable characters who are all introduced in the opening scenario. The opening is pretty much the same for all characters, but have slight variations depending on whom you choose.
On a stormy night, Mikhail, the Marquis of Loanne is away, fighting monsters for the pioneers. The Baron Godwyn is plotting to take over the throne and kidnap Princess Monica. Monica overhears the plot and runs to her friend Katrina for help. Katrina helps her escape the castle on a horse. There is a cool cut scene with Monica riding the horse through the woods. Soon, the storm intensifies, the horse stops abruptly and refuses to go any further. Monica reaches a camp of settlers who consist of several other main characters from the game. The rest of the characters end up joining together to escort Monica to her brothers camp in order to warn him of the rebellion. This really sets a mood for the game and gets things flowing right away.
After the introduction however, the plot weakens quite a bit and the rest of the game consists of closing the Abyss Gates and defeating the final boss. There are a TON of sub-quests in this game. Most are optional, some are not. But the amount of sub-quests you take on is directly proportional to how much of the story you open up. I'd give the story an 80% but I'm going to jump it up to 85% due to the opening scenario alone.
Gameplay is where the SaGa series has always shined the brightest. Romancing SaGa 3 introduces commander mode, and Army Battles to play around with as well as the traditional battle mode found in the rest of the SaGa series. Everything about the SaGa battle engine is quite unique seeing how it's all turn based. The traditional battle mode consists of up to 5 characters, all of who can be recruited out of upwards of 25-30 found throughout the SaGa world. All enemies can be seen as icons running throughout the dungeons of the game. Touching one starts a battle. The characters all jump in from the right and are given battle options right from the moment the battle music starts.
This game runs off of weapon abilities and magic abilities rather than, attack, magic, defend, or run. A weapon ability is always learned at random; depending on the level your weapon is at, and what move you are using, you never know when or where you'll learn a new tech. Learning a new tech is indicated by an arc lamp appearing over the characters' head and that move will be moved into your ability list. Abilities can be equipped or un-equipped as the player chooses, but in order to re-equip abilities, or pass them on to other characters, a move must be mastered.
Techniques are mastered simply by using them over and over again. Once mastered, techs can be distributed to any playable character as the player sees fit. Magic techs must be purchased, but are a vital part of completing this game. A player who tries to go through the game solely with weapon techs are going to find themselves in big trouble near the end of the game where magic is required to kind of balance things out.
Commander mode adds a new twist for players who get sick of constant button pushing. Up to 6 playable characters can join your party at any given time. Some of these characters will teach you new battle formations that can be used to make your party perform actions faster, regenerate HP at the end of every round, or offer defensive poses to lessen damage from enemy attacks. When used in commander mode, these formations can also be used to perform combo attacks using 2-5 members of the party. By strategically placing certain magic or weapons users, multi-techs can be learned at random and can do some serious damage to the enemy party.
By taking the main character out of your battle party, the game automatically goes into commander mode. You are given the options of selecting from various multi-techs or simply fight. Depending on the options chosen in a sub menu, your characters can be directed to perform strong attacks, normal attacks, or to act fast to get in a turn before the enemy can.
Most battles (including boss fights) allow the player to run away if problems start to arise. The main character is left free to use potions found in the "backpack" on the characters participating in battle. It sounds much more confusing than it actually is, but the best way to describe it would be to call it a really suped-up auto-battle.
All stat raising is done at random at the end of battle, so this game does require a lot of fighting. The game makes it easy to level up, because the enemies get stronger as you do. This keeps the game flowing at an even pace and prevents your characters from becoming gods right off the bat. I would give this a perfect score, but there are some awkward moments navigating through the menus.
As far as non-battle gameplay, Romancing SaGa 3 also shines in several aspects. Locations on the overworld don't appear, unless you hear about them within a town or castle. It can be something as simple as "There is a town in the west called Podol". When you head back onto the overworld and go west, a town appears on the map. Finding new areas requires the player to visit with everyone in town and gather as much information as they possibly can. One person may open up a town, then heading to that town allows you to open up two other towns or possibly a dungeon, which allows you to… well, I think you get the drift. It's all very clever because even the most ordinary person you see on the street can help you to open up a new area. Talking to everyone is vital. I give gameplay 98%.
My favorite part of the review is the music. This game has one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard. The main battle theme never gets old and just so happens to be among my favorite tunes in the game. When in a battle with an Abyss Gate Guardian, the voice-like sound effects that start the introduction to the battle theme are haunting and you will realize right off the bat that you are in for a serious battle. The SaGa victory theme is simple, but very well done. I can't really say everything about how good the music is. Some themes are overplayed a bit so I'm going to place it at a 95%, and that's simply due to somewhat of a lack of variety. It has an awesome soundtrack and can easily compete with most FF titles.
The Graphics are similar to those of Final Fantasy VI. Somewhat simple, but they work. There are some very good spell effects, particularly in commander mode. Things are easy to see, and enemies have a lot of detail. They don't quite live up to everything that the SNES is capable of so I'm going to round them off at 89%. There just isn't too much to talk about in that aspect. They match the quality of standard SNES RPG graphics.
This game is definitely a worthy purchase at an import store. The ROM has been translated for those of you who are interested in taking the illegal route. If you love good gameplay, great music, and one heck of a challenge, then Romancing SaGa 3 should be right up your alley. If you'd rather stick to plodding through linear games and you like to have the plot spoon-fed to you, I recommend Final Fantasy 9 or Grandia. This stellar series is directed towards a dying breed, which is unfortunate because there is a lot to love about this game. Sadly, this series is disappearing into the light of some of the newer releases that have exploded this genre from a few devoted players to mainstream. SaGa outshone most other games from its time and deserves a look if anything. Overall, I give the game a 91%.