Aside from the Final Fantasy series, one of Square's longest running series has been the SaGa series. It started on the Game Boy, and the first few games were released in North America under the Final Fantasy Legend name. On the Super Nintendo, the SaGa series was named Romancing SaGa, and those three games weren't released in North America. The next game in the series was for the Playstation, and was released in North America as SaGa Frontier. Mixing non-linear gameplay, complex gameplay, and odd graphics, SaGa Frontier was almost universally panned.
Not wanting to drop the SaGa series after one bomb, Square took the complaints of gamers everywhere to heart and made a number of changes. The result of their work was SaGa Frontier 2 - a game that was received much more warmly than the first, and more than makes up for its predecessor.
"Mistaking recklessness for courage will only bring you pain."
The world of SaGa Frontier 2 is centered on Anima - the force within all living beings, and of nature itself. Despite being so prevalent, humans were unable to control Anima. This all changed with the discovery of Quells - natural objects that served as a way for humans to control the different types of Anima around them. By using the different types of Anima - flame, water, beast, tone, stone, and tree - humans devised a variety of Spell Arts that used Anima to suit their purposes. However, due to the scarcity of Quells, Spell Arts didn't become widespread until humans discovered the secret to making Tools - artificial Quells that were functional, yet lacked the power or longevity of natural Quells.
The story begins with the birth of Gustave XIII, of the Finney kingdom. Gustave was the successor to the throne - until a tragedy occurred. At the age of seven, Gustave took part in the Firebrand Ceremony to assure his right to the throne. The fate of the kingdom was changed, however, when the Firebrand Ceremony showed that Gustave was one of the rare individuals who lacked the ability to control Anima and use Spell Arts. With this discovery, he was banished from the kingdom.
The other main character is Wil Knights, a digger - a person who adventures to find Quells for money. Wil's quest begins as he searches for information about the cause of his parents' death, but soon develops into a lifelong conflict with an artifact of immeasurable power.
The game takes place over a span of approximately 100 years. The quests of Gustave and Wil intersect a number of times, and the player must finish both to truly finish the game. For this purpose, Square has developed the Multi-Scenario System. The game begins with the birth of Gustave, but after that, the player is given several scenarios to choose from, in both Gustave and Wil's quests. Some scenarios are simply small plot scenes, and others are longer segments that may involve several dungeons. As each scenario is completed, the player is given more scenarios to select as they continue the game. It's an interesting feature, with strengths and weaknesses. It's nice to be able to choose the order in which you complete the game - each quest becomes interesting at different times, and it's nice to be able to focus on one character's quest while the other one sits on the back burner. However, the scenarios aren't always in chronological order, and the only way to check is to check the event log - which contains some spoilers. It's not a huge flaw, as it's generally pretty evident as to when events are occurring, but it would have helped immensely if the dates had been listed on the scenario selection screen.
The plot itself is interesting. Both Gustave and Wil's scenarios are entertaining, and you'll want to follow their exploits - and the adventures of their descendants and friends - to their inevitable conclusions. That said, the plot isn't particularly deep, and the character development of most characters is very slim. Many of the important characters have their own scenario (or several), but you don't learn a lot about them or their motivations in the majority of cases. Some characters are mentioned or appear without an explanation of who they are or why they're relevant. It's a bit like Final Fantasy Tactics in this regard, only the plot's not as deep - and there's no equivalent of the Brave Story for reference information. Like the original SaGa Frontier, SaGa Frontier 2's plot is like a book of short stories that are connected, rather than a full-length epic.
As a bonus for completing the game, you can play through any of the scenarios again, including going directly to the final boss. It's useful for seeing particular plot events again, but it's rather impractical otherwise - you retain all your arts, but none of the characters retain their leveled-up stats, and you lose all of your items as well. As such, playing through advanced scenarios again is all but impossible.
"The more conspicuous the better, for people look for what they cannot see..."
If you've heard only one thing about SaGa Frontier 2, it's probably praise for the game's graphics. It's well deserved - the game is stunningly beautiful. The backgrounds are all hand-painted watercolor pictures, and it's obvious that Square went out of their way to hire extremely talented artists. The variety of locales is well represented in the artwork. Towns all look different, from city streets to a frozen village to a frontier outpost. Dungeons all have their own unique looks, and it's often hard to believe that a place that looks so good could house any evil. Characters are also sprites, and while not as beautiful as the backgrounds, are all well done, and don't look out of place (as in SaGa Frontier).
The only place that 3D rears its head is in the battles, and that's simply to provide a 3D landscape for the camera to rotate around during battle. It doesn't look as good as the painted landscapes, but that's to be expected, and it's certainly not bad by any definition. Square realized the strength of the 2D sprites, and the monsters are also 2D, which helps maintain consistency of graphical styles. The number of monsters, however, is limited, and there is a fair amount of palette swapping going on, which detracts slightly.
The actual animation is good, if somewhat limited. The number of characters plays a factor in how they are animated, as most characters only have a few scenes of animation - movement, a few attacks, and so forth. While the characters have their individual weapons represented in battle, there's no real difference between two characters using the same combat move. In-battle graphics are limited - the combat arts are mainly just a variation on a number of slashes or strikes, with different colored lights and effects occurring. It's to be expected - with the number of different characters who enter your party - many briefly - it'd be an unnecessary strain on the development team to customize each character for each possible attack. As such, battles are somewhat minimalist, graphically - they do their job, but aren't spectacular.
The music is good, but nothing spectacular. Many songs are simply variations of the same theme - battle songs in particular. There are quite a number of battle songs, but most happen to be simply remixes of the basic battle theme. Fortunately, it's pretty good, and the variety in battle themes helps balance things out. The songs in general work - there are a variety of town themes, a few different dungeon songs, and they all fit their areas. There's nothing here you're going to want to sing outside of the game, and there's certainly no need to go buy the soundtrack, but as it stands, it's a solid effort - it simply augments the gameplay and the graphics, without going above that.
Similarly, the sound effects are nothing special. There's the standard groups of combat effects - sword slices, bow shots, and so forth. Spells have a little more variety, as do the various combat techniques, but there's nothing here that's going to either grossly offend or excite you either.
Complex Systems, Rewarding Gameplay
The game essentially centers on the combat system, and there are a lot of factors involved. SaGa Frontier 2 does a good job of balancing things and giving you a lot of flexibility, without unnecessarily complicating things.
The character statistics should be mentioned first. The SaGa games have always had a different set of basic stats than many other RPGs, and SaGa Frontier 2 is no different. Rather than simply having HP, there is HP - the typical RPG measurement of health, and LP - an overall measure of the character's health, where characters are lost when they lose all of their LP reserves. HP recharges somewhat between battles and LP can be used within battle to recharge a character's HP totally. The challenge comes in balancing a character's immediate HP needs with a need to keep their LP up in the long-term. For the majority of the game, however, LP doesn't need to be conserved. Each character also has separate SP - Spell Points - and WP - Weapon Points. Each battle technique uses either SP or WP, and characters regain a small number of each during each battle round - fixing one of the main problems with the original SaGa Frontier.
Aside from the above stats, each character has a level of proficiency with each of the 6 different Spell Arts, and a level of proficiency with the 6 weapon types (Swords, Spears, Bows, Axes, Martial Arts, and Staves). Each character has some natural areas of strength, but the player can choose to equip them with whichever pieces of equipment they want.
Stats increase after battle - there are no levels to consider. Instead, each stat - except LP - may increase, randomly, with the chance increasing depending on their actions in battle. If they use a sword, their sword level may increase, as well as their SP or WP (depending on which techniques they used). The downside to this system is that increasing a character's stats is mainly a matter of luck. However, for the vast majority of the game, no specific effort needs to be taken to level up.
There are three specific types of battles - Army, Party, and Duel. The Army battles occur infrequently, and add some strategy to the game - they have specific goals, such as eliminating a particular enemy unit, and the player moves a number of units around a battlefield to accomplish these goals. They're a nice feature, and tend to be simple, if time-consuming.
The Party battles involve anywhere from one to four of your party members, depending on how many are in your party at a time. They're essentially your typical RPG battles - each character selects an attack, spell, or item, and battles play out from there. SaGa Frontier 2 allows combos to occur - specific moves can combine together to cause more damage than would normally occur, and players can make it one of their priorities to emphasize combination attacks. Arts are sometimes learned in battle - both spells and physical techniques - allowing the game to give you more powerful moves as your characters progress. These tend to be the most frequent battles, and while they can grow sometimes tedious, there's enough variety that you won't become bored. Most gamers will also be glad to know that enemies are visible on the map, and most can be avoided if desired.
The last type of battle is one-on-one duels. These occur when there's only one person in the party, or you can choose to have one party member duel rather than involve your whole party in a battle. Rather than selecting combat techniques from a menu, however, each turn allows you to select 4 actions for your character. These involve basic weapon attacks (swing, backslash, shoot, beat, punch, etc.) that depend on the weapon equipped, actions that are constant for all weapons (charge, focus, feint, defend), and specific Spell Arts (Stone, Beast, Water). By combining these actions in specific ways, Arts can be used - each Art has a specific sequence of moves - and learned if a character has enough skill. The Duel mode is entertaining in that that it allows you to experiment with a character's abilities, and possibly uncover new moves (or to learn specific moves, if you know the appropriate sequences). It's also good for strengthening individual characters. The only real flaw with Duel mode is that there's no way to list the move sequences for Arts you've already learned, so if you want to use a previously learned Art against a monster, you'll have to remember its sequence.
All characters can use Arts, once learned by one character. This fixes a flaw of the original SaGa Frontier - there's no redundancy in learning the same moves over and over again. Granted, characters with weak weapon skills won't learn advanced techniques, and won't be as strong as skilled warriors, but they're not defenseless if you stick them with a weapon. The same goes with Spell Arts, so spell casters can benefit from the wisdom of others.
Equipment is handled as you'd expect - each character can equip two weapons, or a weapon and a shield - and a combination of 4 pieces of armor and accessories. However, with the exception of pieces of armor, Quells, and steel equipment, each item has a specific number of uses. Weapons and Tools will break after a certain number of uses, and while they can be repaired, it forces the player to balance power with longevity. While the obvious solution would simply be to use steel equipment, there's a catch - steel is powerful, yet severely inhibits a person's use of Spell Arts, as steel repels Anima. It's also quite rare until late in the game. While one can complain about the fact that their weapons will break, it's not usually a factor, and you acquire enough weapons along the way that you won't be stuck using extremely weak equipment.
Finally, members can be assigned specific roles and combat orders. To assist in forming combos, you can order your party members to act in a specific order - you can force your whole party to wait until your healer goes first, if you'd like. This helps with combos, as they generally require moves to occur in a specific order. Roles are much more important. As each character joins the party, they allow you to learn a new Role, which can be assigned to your members. There's a wide variety - WALL will greatly reduce the damage a character takes, Protean will increase the number of SP a character restores each turn, Ace and Bandwagon help in forming combos, and so forth. While roles don't need to be assigned, they can help round out a party and fix weaknesses that may arise.
You may have noticed that the majority of the gameplay revolves around battle, and that's correct. It's not surprising, though, as the SaGa series has always focused more on combat and less on story. Fortunately, combat is entertaining, yet can generally be avoided if you'd rather advance the plot of the game.
It's not perfect, but what is?
There are a few flaws that haven't been mentioned that stick out. Inventory management is simple, but the size of the inventory is too small. You'll run into space problems early and often. Discarding items is simple, but you'll often feel like you're wasting items that you could make use of (and often times you can). Money is scarce, which means that you won't often be able to buy the new items you want. You'll often be subsisting on items you find, which are usually weaker than you'd like.
The game is short, which isn't necessarily a flaw - I was clocked at 27 hours. It should be noted, though, that the difficulty is uneven. You'll progress through many scenarios with no problems, then occasionally run into a boss that's extremely strong. The final scenarios in both quests are extremely difficult - there's an army battle that requires you to do an exact sequence of moves to win, and there's a boss that required me to level up for about 7 hours to beat. Other than that, the game runs smoothly.
Finally, the manual is woefully inadequate. Considering the complexity of the game's systems, the manual just doesn't do enough to help explain all of the facets of the game.
I was one of the few gamers to enjoy the original SaGa Frontier, despite its flaws. I was therefore glad to see that they addressed many of my complaints with the original, and they produced a game that I can recommend. It's short, so it may be better off as a rental, but if you're looking for something different, check it out. If nothing else, it's a testament to 2D and solid gameplay.
|The game looks like a visual storybook with hand drawy, cartoony backdrops.
|The battles are still big and the gameplay is still customizable.