Saga Frontier is the latest game in the Romancing Saga series from Squaresoft. Some of the previous Saga games were released in North America on the Gameboy under the title Final Fantasy Legends.
What sets these games apart from your standard console Role-Playing Game is that they are non-linear. There are multiple paths through the game to your final destination depending on where you choose to explore. There are almost no limitations on where you can go and at which time.
"Pull over and ask for directions!"
Saga Frontier gives you 7 different characters to choose from, each with their own adventured. Blue is a magician destined to kill his twin brother in order to reach his full potential. Emelia is a former model out to avenge the murder of her fiancé, a crime for which she was wrongfully accused. T260G is a robot on a journey to recover its lost functions and accomplish its forgotten directive. Riki is a monster on a quest for the legendary rings that can save his homeworld. Red is a normal human that has been endowed with superhuman abilities. He is seeking vengeance for the death of his father at the hands of the Black X syndicate. Asellus is a half human/mystic searching to find her true identity as either a human or a mystic. Lute is a wandering bard in search of adventure.
There are many supporting characters to be found that will aid them in their quests, most of whom cross over between adventures in some way. Certain requirements must be met in order for some of them to join, while other you only need to find. With 30 different regions to explore you can spend hours searching, finding allies, and attempting to uncover the story.
One drawback to such freedom is that you can get easily frustrated. Some adventures are a bit more linear and lead you along, while others give you almost no leads whatsoever. You could spend a day or two finding nothing that could move the story along or you could stumble across your final destination after a half-hour of playtime. If this happens you had better hope you saved wisely earlier on or you'll be starting over.
The non-linearity also hurts the depth of the storyline. It is very hard to get into a story, or to have a focused story when there really is no focus in the gameplay. And Square didn't bother to add much of a plot anyway. Most of the stories are very shallow and there is very little text throughout. Side characters receive no development at all, and side stories that concern the main characters are given little chance to grow. A good example of that is Red's romantic involvement with one member of the Cygnus crew. It is brought up three or four times, but nothing ever comes of it. With all the space on a CD, and the relatively low cost of making them, they could've easily expanded the stories and delved further into many of the side plot opportunities. There was a tremendous amount story potential that simply went unexplored.
"I feel so flat!"
The graphics in Saga Frontier consist of sprite characters on pre-rendered backgrounds. The sprites are fairly large and well detailed. The exploration animations are nothing special, but the battle animations are excellent. Some of the attack techniques are a joy to watch, such as Sky Twister and Rolling Cradle. Considering the Playstation's RAM limitations, they did a commendable job. They also incorporate polygons into some of the attacks for some very interesting effects. The Gold Hand attack is an excellent combination of sprite movement with a polygonal light effect.
The backgrounds are clean and they do their job. They aren't as detailed as the ones in FFVII or Resident Evil 2, but they really weren't intended to be. Saga Frontier is a much more light-hearted game in both content and appearance. The backgrounds reflect that attitude with simpler, more colorful structures and landscapes. Each region is given a unique look and feel, from the grungy and urban Koorong to the colorful and rural Yorkland.
While both the sprites and the backgrounds are visually stimulating, there is a problem with them. They simply do not go together. As much as they tried to simplify the backgrounds down to the level of the sprites, the sprites still looked like they were pasted on. They are much too flat and pastel to fit comfortably within the environments. They would have been better off using hand drawn background art that could have easily met the sprites on the same level. Or they could have rendered the sprites like those in Wild Arms and reached a balance that way. Separately they are excellent, but together they are uncomfortable.
The music in the game is, well, rather bland. Some of the tunes are catchy and fit their surrounding to a tee. But most of them feel out of place or just uninspired. It's not a bad soundtrack in a general sense, just average. And very weak when compared to the complex and moving compositions found in most Squaresoft RPG's. And the battle music annoyed me rather quickly, which is not good. If I have the volume down and a CD playing in my stereo while I'm playing an RPG, then something's not right. I expect a little more from a company that prides itself in that area.
You hit 'em high and I'll hit 'em low!"
The battle engine in Saga is by far its best feature. Battles do not occur randomly as they do in most traditional RPG's. Your enemies are visible on the screen and battles will only take place if physical contact is made with the enemy. The number of battles that you face in the course of the game and how quickly you gain levels is left up to your discretion for the most part.
When you enter into a battle, the fun begins. There are 3 classes of characters in the game; humans, robots and monsters. Humans can use magic, techniques, and weapons. Robots, or Mecs, can also use weapons, and they can gain special abilities from other Mecs that they defeat. Monsters can't use weapons, but are capable of absorbing abilities and even the appearance of other monster that they defeat.
When the battle screen comes up, you choose a pre-made team of 5 characters and set their positions. It's best to have a variety of classes in your pre-made teams, and to place them according to the amount of damage they can take. During battles, your human characters can learn new techniques and spells by using the ones that they begin with. Each new magic or fighting skill that is learned is added to that character's list of techniques. But there is a limit to how many techniques you can take into battle with you, and you can only learn new skills if you have an open slot on your battle list. Be sure to check all of these things before entering a battle.
The absolute coolest feature adding the most depth to battles is the Combination System. Depending on which attacks your characters use, and in what order on a single enemy, you can trigger a second, third, fourth or fifth level combination attack. A fifth level combo means that all 5 characters in your party will attack in a connected sequence and inflict extreme damage. Combination triggers could depend on the height of the related attacks, enemy weaknesses, or compatibility of techniques. And not only do they cause major damage to your opponent but they look awesome. Most of the attacks and spells look incredible enough on there own, but when they are done in sequence, it's a sight to see. And considering how many different attacks a character can have the possible combinations boggle the mind. An innovative feature that enhances the gameplay, not just a cool looking gimmick.
The only serious problem the gameplay suffers from is a lack of balance. This is partially an effect of the non-linearity. It is also a problem created by the "run" option and its consequences. Depending on whether you run or walk into a battle will determine the difficulty of that battle. A good idea, but it is poorly executed. It's one thing to have a tough battle that could kill you if you don't fight your best fight. It's another thing if the enemy wipes out your entire party before you even get a chance to do anything. It goes the other way as well. Some of the battles, even near the end of a game, are mind numbingly easy. The balance between easy and difficult battles is way off kilter. It's almost as if there is no middle ground, and your character's levels have no effect on the enemy levels.
The only "saving" grace is the quick save option that the game has. It is a great option and more games should incorporate it. By pressing the left shoulder and triangle buttons you can perform a quick save that will mark your position, but not be a permanent save. If you turn the power off, the quick save is lost. So you have to remember to make a permanent save before shutting down the system. The quick save comes in handy of you end up facing an opponent that is impossible to beat at your current level and it is impossible to escape from the scenario that took you to that opponent. If you use the quick save during that scenario, you can always go back to your permanent save from before you began. Otherwise you would have to start over from the beginning or from an even earlier permanent save, or spend days trying to level up in the same area to be able to defeat the opponent. If it weren't for this feature, I would have been forced to start a few games over after putting quite a few hours into them.
"Wow, Déjà vu!"
Initially, I enjoyed playing Saga Frontier immensely. The characters, battles and regions to explore were all wonderfully immersing and it was a lot of fun to play. But when I got around to the third or fourth character's adventure, it became a chore to continue. The same supporting cast, the same weapons, techniques, spells, cities, music and side quests really began to wear on my attempts to experience a new adventure each time. And with plots so shallow that they were almost non-existent, it began to feel like I was playing the exact same game 7 times. If the characters had more depth and some major differences in the scope of their adventures, this game could have been one of the greatest ever. Instead it feels tedious and unfinished.
The concept was fantastic, having 7 unique adventures in one game. But unique is the important word in that sales pitch, and "unique" is where the concept fell apart. Square was running up to the ball, ready to kick a sure game winning field goal. But at the last second Mr. Greed pulled the ball away and Square ended up flat on their backs. As much as I love Square's games, it takes quite a bit more than their name on the box to make it special. I enjoyed Saga to an extent. It is a fun game to play, but only in moderation. I can only recommend it half-heartedly because it is possible to love it, and it is possible to hate it. Or you could be like me and only just like it, while you wonder what happened to the rest of it.