Released in Japan as Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song, this PS2 title is a remake of the original Romancing SaGa released exclusively in Japan for Super Famicom over a decade ago. What was presented to Japanese gamers as a remake is being presented to us as a completely new title to the expansive SaGa series. For US gamers, this presents some apparent positives and negatives.
On the plus side, the hardcore Square fan that wishes more of the older (read: Super Famicom) titles left in Japan would come to America is having his/her request granted. Even better than that, this title is not a “remake” in the same way that Final Fantasy Origins was a remake. In this game, we experience a complete transition from 2D to 3D, as well as full voice acting, additional quests/scenarios, and likely another bonus or two that I cannot even recognize. Which brings us to the downside.
When reviewing a “remade” title, I find it is best to compare the new version to the old to see what improvements have been made, as this should ultimately affect whether the score goes up or down from the original. However, as an American gamer with little knowledge of the Japanese language, I have no ability to play the original Romancing SaGa and see where any changes were made; all I can do is read older reviews and look at screenshots. Furthermore, it is very likely that you don’t know Japanese either, and are hence in the same dilemma as myself. What are we ever to do?
I suggest we simply go ahead and accept the fact that, for us, this is a new game, even though the plot, characters, world, and music were all brought to life around the same time as Final Fantasy IV. This gives us a unique take on a unique game.
One final statement before moving forward to the review proper: this game is not UNLIMITED:SaGa. Yes, the abomination that was the last title in the SaGa series, also on PS2, left a very sour taste in the mouth of all gamers worldwide. But Romancing SaGa is a new game from an old era; let’s give this old/new RPG a chance. Shall we?
Romancing SaGa takes place in the world of Mardias: a bright, vibrant world with beautiful landscapes and breathtaking cities. Graphically, it’s apparent that much work was put into the world of Romancing SaGa. Especially appealing are the towns, the fields, and some of the more elaborate dungeons. However, there are many cave-like dungeons that use the same graphical layout with the occasional change in color or texture; this was a disappointment.
In the case of character designs, one might say that they are an acquired taste; or perhaps it is best to fall back on the clichéd “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Personally, I was immediately captivated by the character sketches presented in the “choose a character” menu when starting a new game. Among the eight characters, I thought that Claudia (the ranger raised by a witch in Mazewood) was the best-looking, so I chose her to be my protagonist the first time around. When the game began, I could see that the in-game characters had a cartoony, super-deformed style to them that the sketches lacked. Gamers may be opposed to such character designs when the industry standard is to make people look as “life-like” as possible; as for me, I thought it added to the overall feel of the world of Mardias.
The “sketch motion” CG originally shown in UNLIMITED:SaGa has returned for Romancing SaGa, specifically for the introduction, the ending, and in key scenes for each of the eight characters. Again, how one would rate this sort of artwork is a matter of personal taste, but I think it is absolutely stunning. I would love to see more game developers branch out and use graphical styles other than an attempt at re-creating realistic characters and environments.
The result of the colorful environments and unique characters is something like the world of a fairy tale. How fitting this is for a game like Romancing SaGa, where it is your job as the gamer to write the story of each character.
One final aspect of Romancing SaGa’s graphics is in regards to battling, where much of the actual gameplay is done. Here too, Romancing SaGa excels in creating a visual masterpiece to feast upon. Among the hundreds of enemies are hundreds of offensive and defensive maneuvers; each on their own look standard, but when performed in a combo, one cannot help but be impressed by what these enemies can do to your party. Likewise, each character in your party holds an arsenal of weapon-related skills and spells; when performed in a combo, the special effects are marvelous. There is nothing more exciting than watching your entire five-person party execute one massive combo attack on an oversized beast, simply because the speed at which each member dashes towards the enemy to hack, slash and blast is fast and furious. To this achievement I say bravo! It looked good in 2D (a la SaGa Frontier), but it looks even better in its 3D incarnation.
As far as graphics are concerned, Romancing SaGa underwent a most vast transformation from its Super Famicom incarnation to what we have in front of us today. Anyone who is displeased with this game’s artistic qualities is merely desiring something other than what is presented. I knew what to expect from Akitoshi Kawazu (executive producer and SaGa mastermind), and I wasn’t let down. If it weren’t for the repetitive cave-dungeons, the score may have been even higher, but as it is, I’m awarding a 90% to the game’s graphics.
Shall I play a song?
As usual, I’ll be breaking up “sound” into the categories of voice acting and music.
Keeping in line with the standard set for today’s games, every last bit of dialogue is accompanied with full voice acting. While Square has decided not to offer the Japanese audio tracks, we are fortunate to have voice actors that do not make the most classic error in videogame voice acting: over-acting. Too many games have had the girls yell and whine and the guys sound too tough for their own good. In Romancing SaGa, we find the characters talk the way we would imagine they talk: Claudia is soft-spoken, Sif (the female Valhallan warrior) is bold and gruff, Barbara (the traveling dancer) is cheerful without being overly exuberant, and Hawke (the pirate) keeps a cool demeanor and loves to crack a joke or two. Occasionally, an NPC will become the victim of the dreaded over-acting disease, but as far as the eight main characters go (along with many other NPCs that are significant to the plot), the acting is decent.
As for music, I couldn’t be more pleased. Kenji Ito, the composer for the original Super Famicom version, returned to make a much-improved soundtrack. Along with rearranging the original 30-some songs from the original game, Ito wrote enough new songs to double that of the game’s original soundtrack. Furthermore, there are many songs that contain live instruments, some of them including members of the “Black Mages” doing solid work on keyboard, drums, and guitar. As you may have guessed, this means that the battle themes are especially impressive. Beyond that, there are a significant number of battle themes that are used for different occasions. One such song is played only for fighting a particular recurring villain who wears a red cloak. This song features a female vocalist doing some impressive non-lyrical work, and she is accompanied by a classical/Latin guitar: you can imagine the result for yourself, or you can pick up the game (or the soundtrack) to experience the beauty of it all.
Outside of battle themes, there are a few dungeon themes that can be slightly irritating, if only because they are meant to sound scary, and the fear factor wears off after a few of the many dungeon explorations one does in the game. Almost every town has its own unique music, and there are special character and event themes that can be very moving for the gamer who has chosen to engross his or her self in the game’s overarching story.
Finally, there is that eccentric little opening song, “Minuet,” written and performed by Masayoshi Yamazaki. If this song, along with the accompanying opening FMV, doesn’t grab your attention, then it is likely that this game is not for you. For those of you who are, like me, intrigued by this haunting and mesmerizing tune, you might be just the right person to invest some time and money in this fine game.
Considering I haven’t heard a better soundtrack than this one from Square Enix in years, I do not hesitate to give the sound of Romancing SaGa a 94%. Offering Japanese dialogue would have perhaps boosted the score slightly higher, but I generally cannot imagine a better musical score for this game.
Hey, you! You must be a new adventurer.
Now that we have covered the game’s aesthetic qualities, it’s time to analyze the gameplay mechanics. Generally, this is the one place where the SaGa series has always outperformed rival turn-based RPGs. Battles are exhilarating, what with the nature of the combo system and all its intricacies, and exploration is top-notch (especially with the addition of the “proficiencies” system, which includes jumping, climbing, digging up buried treasure, and a slew of other abilities).
The improvement this game makes over nearly every other SaGa game comes in the form of wonderfully coherent tutorials. In every town, you can find a kid from the “volunteer brigade” that will give you a map of the town and access to the in-game tutorial. For further help in understanding the game, one city has within its walls a massive library. Finally, whenever you execute a new type of ability in battle (such as a fulcrum, reverse, surge, or benediction), the game’s narrator (the Minstrel) tells you what it is you’re about to do, and explains how it is you’ve learned to do it. Unlike other games, where you learn how to do moves by gaining experience and/or ability points that are assigned to different skills, the SaGa series has you learning new skills (and new types of skills) at random as you fight different enemies. This may seem chaotic, but it is actually quite fun, and is only frustrating for the perfectionist gamer that wants to learn and know everything in a formal step-by-step manner.
Between the volunteer brigade, the library, and the quick bits of narrated help in battle, this game manages to make a lot more sense than previous SaGa games. Having mastered both SaGa Frontier 1 and 2, I know what I’m talking about. In those games, gameplay mechanics are difficult to understand; I often found myself making terrible (and sometimes irreversible) mistakes in the game because 1) I didn’t know any better and 2) there was nobody in the game to tell me otherwise. Romancing SaGa is much more user-friendly, and it is because of this that the game is overall much more enjoyable.
Due in part to the game’s fundamental non-linearity, the method in which players do anything and get anywhere in the game is through quests. Quests are begun primarily by speaking to different townspeople, though there are exceptions. These quests can be as small and simple as a “fetch quest,” or as large and engrossing as exploring multiple dungeons and conquering countless beasts: even gods. Completing a quest successfully usually results in obtaining large amounts of gold and jewels, along with the occasional piece of equipment, a key item to the story, and access to another, more advanced quest.
Keeping track of quests can be difficult: that’s why there’s a “Notes” menu that keeps track of requests, rumors, stories, completed missions, and failed missions. Like the well-made tutorial system, these informative “notes” allow the player to keep a level head in the midst of the game’s almost overwhelming scope.
Leveling in Romancing SaGa, like in the rest of the SaGa series, is unique indeed. Characters do not receive any sort of experience points. Rather, based on the difficulty of the enemy and the skills the characters used, the characters will have specific statistics increase from battle to battle. For example, if I fight a fairly difficult enemy and have Albert casting offensive spells, Sif doing lunge attacks with a two-handed sword, and Myriam using healing magic, at the end of the battle I wouldn’t be surprised to find everyone’s HP slightly increase, Albert’s intellect increase, Sif’s strength and vitality increase, and Myriam’s compassion increase.
The other aspect of leveling comes in the form of learning different skills and classes. At each town, there is a man standing around that can teach your characters different skills in exchange for jewels. These skills include weapon skills (such as bow, pole arm, or martial arts), spell skills (of which there are ten, such as hydrology or terrology), and proficiency skills (such as gathering or survival). Each of these skills has a maximum level of 5, and going up a level in each one costs exponentially more jewels. Hence, it is easy to create a well-rounded character, but it is difficult to master any one skill.
The most intriguing aspect of the game, I found, is that it is possible to play the game entirely differently a second or third time through. Such promises, made for games such as SaGa Frontier and Fable, did not hold; with only slight variations, one still ended up having to do basically the same thing the second time around. After investing 25 hours to complete the game with Claudia, I went through a second time with Albert and managed to do some very different quests, though I did repeat some of the quests I had done with Claudia as well.
The game’s difficulty is set at a high mark. This game should appeal to the veteran RPG fan, and will probably scare off anyone new to the genre. (As an aside, I’d like to say that I suspect many people who gave this game a lower score did so because they simply didn’t have what it took to get anywhere in the game. With the aid of the tutorial, it is not an impossible or incoherent task: it is simply difficult, and this should be received as a gift and a blessing in an age of FFX clones). If you’re looking for a unique and challenging turn-based RPG, it’s time to let go of your anti-SaGa prejudices and try this game out. I give gameplay a 92%, simply because the battle and exploration were better than most other turn-based RPGs in recent years.
I’m searching for my missing brother.
I experienced a few significant troubles with this game’s control: this should never be the case for a traditional turn-based RPG, but somehow, a few things slipped through the cracks. So, let’s start with the problems.
First of all, the player has no control of the camera. I can understand why the developers made this decision: it allows for the programmers to make a solid presentation of the environment, particularly so that the player doesn’t get lost. However, for a game that prides itself on being open-ended, leaving camera control in the hands of the developers and not the players seems to me like a contradiction.
Second, using proficiencies on the map (especially climbing and jumping) went from simple to problematic in many cases. When a proficiency is available for use, the option to use it by pressing the circle button appears on the screen. However, it only appears for a second, and the slightest movement after the queue’s appearance can cause the option to disappear just as quickly. I cannot count the number of times I was running toward a pit, ready to jump across it, with about five enemies chasing me, and when the option to jump came, I hit circle but apparently I had moved out of the range of the proficiency activation, and thus had to face a chain of five battles. Two words: not cool.
On the plus side (and this is an extreme plus), menu navigation is always simple, making good use of the L and R buttons. Making selections in battle is also user-friendly, though there is enough complexity to keep me from calling it “simple.”
With a little work, the programmers could have tightened up the control issues, but it’s too late now. I have to say that the control is mediocre, having encountered some of the typical problems I’ve seen in countless PS2-era RPGs. 80%.
The gods created man, but man creates his own SaGa.
That’s the ad slogan used for the game (at least for the Japanese version). Taking place in a polytheistic world of gods, demons, and powerful beasts, mankind sits low on the chain of power. Yet, it is in the tales of Romancing SaGa that we see man rise up to face the challenge of a god hell-bent on destroying and enslaving mankind. That god’s name is Saruin.
And, no matter which of the eight characters you choose, and no matter what paths you take through the game (be they good, neutral, or evil), Saruin is the one you must face at the end of the game. There is no exception.
However, within the time-frame given to you, the protagonist, the story unfolds in many different ways. Each of the eight characters will see the same overarching plot for the game presented, and this can be repetitive (especially because this part of the story involves a lot of politics and kingdom affairs and doesn’t contain much character development). However, each character also has his/her own past and future to be discovered. Key sections of the story are told in panels that look like storyboards, or comic strips. Each character has his/her own secrets, and each one has the potential to become the hero that defeats Saruin.
However, at the end of the day, the storyline is hackneyed. I noticed that there are a number of similarities between this game’s plot and the plot of Lord of the Rings. I would even go so far as to say that the artistic directors of Romancing SaGa took cues from the movies (especially Two Towers, and especially Helm’s Deep). Beyond that, each individual character’s storyline is short, so events key to the character’s development are few and far-between, even for a game that takes no more than 30 hours to beat.
A word of caution before judging the game’s plot too harshly: have you ever read Erik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas? If you take the time to do so (which you should), you will find these short stories, telling the tales of the heroes (and villains) of old. There are many characters, each presented with a bit of development, but at the end of the day, they are nothing more than elaborate fairy tales. One should not expect thrilling plot twists or heart-wrenchingly tragic love stories: it’s a Saga, and that’s what it’s meant to be. So it is with Romancing SaGa.
Even so, I would have liked to have seen some more variation in the different characters’ endings. Some of the near-end events are quite different depending on how the player chooses to navigate the game’s various quests, but the end itself turns out to be the same for every character.
Also, I will quickly mention my favorite part of the game’s storyline: a lengthy dialogue between the hero and the Creator of the world that includes some weighty theological subjects. I was pleased to see these deep topics given treatment in a game that people expect to have a “shallow” scenario.
Story gets a 79%. Though it turned out to be the worst aspect of the game, it was still somewhat well executed. Just one of these eight characters has more development than, say, the one and only protagonist of worse RPGs (here’s lookin’ at you, LotR: the Third Age).
The elusive goal to create that glorious open-ended RPG with a solid plot and freedom to make decisions will probably never be reached. Some games have gotten fairly close, others have failed miserably. Romancing SaGa does a decent job at making a game that is worth playing multiple times. Having completed the game with two of the eight characters, I can safely say that I know there are secrets to the world of Mardias that I would probably not be able to unravel without having completed the game another few times (and likely searching for some information on a walkthrough as well).
Are you jaded, disillusioned by today’s RPG market? Sick of Final Fantasy and its many clones? Are you willing to try something new, interesting, and well-executed? Then I cannot recommend this game to you any more highly than I already have. It’s certainly not perfect, and it definitely will not appeal to every RPG fan out there. But as for me and like-minded gamers, we can delight in this unique and aesthetically appealing work of art. I award Romancing SaGa a well-deserved 87%, and I will stand by this score even as other reviewers bash this game and throw it to the curb.