In the movie industry, there has always been a trend towards the grandiose, yet derivative; summer blockbusters that reek of astronomical budgets and pin-up actors. Yet, amid the flood of CG-laden action-epics and trite romance comedies, there’s the art film – that strangely compelling low-budget production that generally goes unnoticed, but manages to strike a chord with the disenchanted movie-goer, even if it is not a pleasant one. Square Enix’s UNLIMITED Saga could best be described as the “art film” of the role-playing world, much like every other game in the series since their introduction in America with SaGa Frontier. UNLIMITED Saga tries to step into the most curious shoes in the genre – attempting to create a series of adventures within the context of reading a storybook. While the game succeeds in various aspects of this dubious synthesis, the experience fails to impress on many fundamental levels.
The story of UNLIMITED Saga begins as a complex web of personal quests for each of the game’s seven main characters. While some of them range from painfully adorable - Judy’s quest to save her grandfather from being imprisoned in a mirror, to the cliché – Ventus’ quest to avenge the death of his brother, they ultimately stem into one main plotline to discover the Seven Wonders and the secret of the legendary Iskandar in order to ulimately save the world. Surprised? Neither was I, but getting there is only half the battle.
The majority of storytelling takes place with static portraits on painted backdrops. While there is the occasional vocal tidbit, usually signifying a character’s inner monologue, they grow tiresome quickly. The lack of animation hurt all chances of any conveyance of emotion, especially after the introduction cinema which was a CG masterpiece. While there are numerous characters throughout each quest, there’s very little to lend to the realization of the world of UNLIMITED Saga, primarily due to the fact that the role of most every NPC is transparent (quest-giver, villain, giver of rhetoric information). The overuse of plot device characters keeps the story from achieving any sense of taking place in a living, breathing world. At the very least, Square Enix delivered a top-notch translation of the game with nary a grammatical hiccup, but even the best editing can’t save an unoriginal tale.
Visually, UNLIMITED Saga is puzzling. Square Enix and Adobe had pioneered a method of seamless 2D-to-3D rendering called “Sketch Motion” which creates 3D models with the visual bravado of a two-dimensional painting. The introduction CG, which features a flawless transition from a static image to a fully-animated scene, gives the player a hint of what Sketch Motion should be. Sadly, the performance in-game isn’t nearly as dramatic. Firstly, the animation quality is atrocious. In combat, each character and enemy has what appears to be less that four frames for every action and suffer from the 2D “spin” when changing direction. To add insult to injury, when scaled out, they suffer from painful aliasing which make them positively dreadful to look at. The only recognizable polygonal aspect of the game is the battlefields, which are passable. Spell effects are luscious displays of lighting and animation, which make the game’s visual pitfalls that much more pronounced. The only saving grace is that, when scaled to original size, characters and enemies are wonderfully painted works of art.
The world of UNLIMITED Saga tries to be the stuff of fairytales, and goes so far as to base every location, every home and every event around marvelously static paintings. Progressing through the game is frighteningly akin to reading a pictoral fairytale – going from illustration to illustration. To go even further, as the game is flower themed, players will find floral imagery behind almost every image in the game. Despite the glaring animation issues, there is no denying that UNLIMITED Saga is pleasing to the eye in small doses, but becomes an eyesore somewhere around your tenth hour of play.
Aurally, UNLIMITED Saga is a testament and an insult to Masashi Hamauzu’s skill as a composer. Many of the tracks in the game are orchestral and cheerful in nature. The complexity and clarity of these pieces are well received, but thrown into the mix are an assortment of drab melodies that sound more like generic rehashes of older Square Soft games. The soundtrack, as a whole, is commendable but lacks a level of originality that Hamauzu-san is known for; his previous work on SaGa Frontier being iconic for its strong orchestration of fantasy and bravado.
The various assortment of character voices in UNLIMITED Saga are of variable quality. Judy sounds as she should be, a vibrant and cheerful little girl-genius, while Armic (the adorably down-and-out Chapa) is entirely overdone – sounding like a retarded janitor overdosed on depressants. Square Enix’s choice to use the voice-overs strategically for internal monologue or for emphasis is commendable, as it does add depth to an otherwise flat experience. The drastic variances in voice characterization leave much to be desired though, but not enough to drastically detract from the game.
Where UNLIMITED Saga fails miserably is in how the game actually plays. Gamers can forget everything they’ve learned and enrole in the RPG school of hard-knocks, as they will have to relearn just about every staple of a console role-playing game. Firstly, there is the complete lack of an overworld. Players will navigate from static location to static location via elaborate maps and menus. Outside of combat, the only interaction players will find is via non-talking heads that are selected from a menu. Each dungeon is represented as a map, but paths are only visible once you uncover them. Movement is handled by moving one block at a time, like a board game. The parallel is so great that your character is represented on the map as a small pewter-colored piece. As the player moves to a new block on the map, they can encounter story events, enemies and even traps… do not pass GO… do not collect $200. Players who miss having to select “Stairs” from a menu ala Dragon Warrior will have much to be happy about. Needless to say, I did not care for hours of trolling around static meta-dungeons selecting even the most basic commands from an already impressive gauntlet of menus and I don’t think gamers will either.
RPG fans familiar with the SaGa games will recognize many returning concepts such as LP (Life Points) in addition to HP (Hit Points) as well as learnable combos. In addition to these time honored aspects of the SaGa series, there are a plethora of new and even more complex systems. Firstly, there is the “Reel,” the basic root of all actions in the game. In combat, players can choose from a variety of attacks based on the weapons they have equipped. The number of attacks that can be executed by your party is pre-determined and is consumed by 1 for every action. Once the player has selected enough the actions to consume all of their turn points, they must decide if they want to execute the actions one at a time or hold an action to link to another in the queue. The more actions that are held, the more go into a combo known as an UNLIMITED combo. This is also how the player can find the most powerful group attacks, so experimentation is key. Once the player has decided which route they will take (executing or holding an action) the Reel comes into play. Resembling a roulette wheel, the player will indicate when to stop the rotating menu. The icon the Reel stops at determines certain attributes or success of certain actions. Though there are many times in combat where all the icons on the reel for a specific action are identical, making it nonsensical to even execute the Reel. On the world map, players will encounter a variation on the Reel when a trap is encountered, though this reel determines whether the character(s) manage to evade or succumb to the trap.
UNLIMITED Saga doesn’t just stop with the Reel system, there’s also the tablet system for magic casters, the attribute/elemental graph and the endless trading and training of specific abilities and weapons ranging from the useful to the mundane. Did I mention there were summonable creatures to throw into the mix? I could spend volumes outlining the bevy of gameplay systems, both new and old that are used with aplomb in UNLIMITED Saga – suffice it to say, players will have much to learn before they get very far in their quest to uncover the secrets of the Ancient World. I cannot recommend UNLIMITED Saga to the casual gamer and mastering all of its facets is a daunting task for even the most battle-hardened RPG veteran. The game is truly one of the hardest, most complex games you’ll ever play.
Controlling your menagerie in UNLIMITED Saga is a painful affair as gamers will have to use their intuition/ESP to navigate through monstrous amounts of menus. To add insult to injury, the analog stick is poorly used for navigation on the map. Movement is done via a circle of light above your character head. The player must hold in the direction of one of the locations indicated on the circle to highlight it. Once highlighted, the player must keep pressure on the analog pad in that direction for about 2-3 seconds before the character is moved to the adjacent block. Then there’s the fact that the analog stick can be used in tandem with the digital pad for some menus (such as in combat) but not all, and some are strictly limited to the digital pad, or certain button combinations. UNLIMITED Saga even manages to use the now-rusty L3 and R3 buttons on the Dual Shock 2 extensively. Given that the game has a menu for every possible activity, having to remind yourself which buttons to use and the path you have to take to get to the menu you’re looking for is sheer hell.
There are some productions, that while works of art, cannot be considered entertainment. UNLIMITED Saga tries very hard to break from the norm, but in doing so, has created an experience that is not only needlessly complex, but is unenjoyable in the extreme. Taken from a visual perspective, the game overflows with artistic creativity and flair seldom seen in games today. Sadly, in execution, this does very little to forgive the slipshod animation and painful static nature of what is meant to be an “active” experience. Aurally, the game could have been magnificent, though the inclusion of several blasé tracks and inconsistent voice-over quality were significant detractors. The storyline for many of the characters were captivating, such as Mythe’s quest for the woman in a mysterious painting, but the merging of these seven souls into the main storyline was predictable in the extreme and took away much of the charm of the original quests.
The most disappointing part of the adventure was, without question, the gameplay. Had Square Enix taken a much more traditional route, then UNLIMITED Saga would have been one of the more enjoyable console RPGs this summer. Despite that fatal flaw, which ultimately ruined UNLIMITED Saga, I have to commend Square Enix for trying something new with the aging genre. Let’s hope next time they put a little more forethought into the experience and try to remember that a good game is much more than the sum of its parts.
© 2003 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.
Character Design: Yusuke Naora.
Image Illustration: Tomomi Kobayahi.