Be careful what you wish for.
Growing up, I loved Squaresoft. My SNES library was packed with their titles, each played through multiple times. But there were some games tragically out of my reach: JRPGs never translated into English. Why didn’t Squaresoft want to release stunning-looking titles like Seiken Densetsu 3, Bahamut Lagoon, or the Romancing SaGa series in the Western market? It wasn’t until years later that Square Enix realized they had pure nostalgic gold sitting in their vaults, and started to localize these titles. Some, like Trials of Mana (the localized name for Seiken Densetsu 3), were everything that we imagined: incredible 16-bit graphics with brilliant gameplay and engaging plotlines. So imagine my excitement when I discover that Romancing SaGa 3, another of the Super Famicom’s unreleased JRPG heavies, would be getting a remake released on our shores. Was it everything that I wished for?
No. It wasn’t.
In Romancing SaGa 3, you explore a world where every 300 years, an eclipse called the Morastrum kills all newborn children with a single exception. In the previous two cycles, one of the survivors turned into a tyrant; the other becoming a savior of humanity. It’s been just over ten years since the last eclipse, and the world is fearfully waiting to discover if this cycle’s survivor will turn out to be another evil monster or a hero of virtue.
Despite this fantastic central story concept, it rarely comes into play during the game. You start out picking one of eight characters, split evenly male and female. Each character has a unique opening section, with their stories converging soon after the prologue. Rather than a traditional narrative, you set out to make your own plot, going from town to town, solving problems, and more or less stumbling into the main conflict randomly. The idea of an open-world 16-bit JRPG was intriguing to me at first, but soon disappointed. It ends up feeling like an entire game of lightweight side quests and mini-games. This structure also means that it’s easy to miss recruitable characters or potentially exciting events. Multiple playthroughs are necessary to see everything Romancing SaGa 3 has to offer, facilitated in this remake thanks to a newly added New Game + option.
As far as the new official translation goes, it’s okay. It’s a perfectly adequate localization hampered by the fact that the characters and plot are generally not well developed. There are almost two dozen recruitable characters scattered throughout the world, but they rarely have in-depth backstories and feel interchangeable. Even more annoying, some of these characters will forcibly join your party after talking with them once and refuse to leave. Having one of your party slots permanently occupied by an abrasive little girl or a spoony bard tends to put a crimp on party customization.
Romancing SaGa 3 is as heavy on mechanics as Final Fantasy VI is on plot. That’s not a good thing. The complex mechanics are not intuitive or taught anywhere in the game. If you’re someone who never bothers to read the manual, I would reconsider that stance as you’re thrown into the deep end without a single word about how the game’s systems work. At least Final Fantasy had Beginner’s Halls to break down the basics!
Speaking of Square Enix’s other much-loved JRPG series, SaGa and Final Fantasy share much of the same DNA, going back to 1988 with Final Fantasy II. Rather than using a traditional leveling system like in the original, FFII experimented with a system wherein the more you use a skill or weapon in battle, the more it levels up. Likewise, the more damage you take, the higher your HP climbs. This mechanic was (thankfully) dropped in Final Fantasy III, but lived on in the SaGa series. In Romancing SaGa 3, you don’t level up through experience points. Instead, your weapon skill, HP, SP, and MP grow through repeated use. This is an unintuitive way to build your party’s strength, leaving your fate entirely in the hands of the random number generator.
Even more irritating is the glimmer system for learning new skills. In battle, your characters will periodically have an epiphany and learn a random skill. Repeated use of this skill in battle will allow you to master it. At that point, you can assign it to different characters. Skills are broken up between weapon types, so if you’re a bow user, you won’t be able to use a spear attack unless a spear is your secondary weapon. In theory, I can see how this system works. In practice, it’s a mess. You can only have eight skills per character and if you want to learn more, you need to go into the menu to “forget” older ones. That’s fine, but once in battle, there is a good chance that your characters will be “inspired” to relearn the skills that you just told them to forget. Even at the end, early-game abilities were being relearned, automatically taking up a slot. This leads you to feel like you’re not just fighting battles, but that you’re actively fighting against the battle system itself.
The graphics of Romancing SaGa 3 are easily the best part of the game. This was Squaresoft at the height of their 16-bit powers. Every character is instantly identifiable, with large and beautifully animated sprites. Equally impressive are the enemies. Unlike in Final Fantasy games, the boss sprites are fully animated, lending those battles a sense of epicness. Possibly the most “controversial” part of the game for fans of the Super Famicom version will be the environments and menus. They’ve been completely redone in HD and widescreen for the remake. Revamped graphics are a bit of a sore point for fans of classic Squaresoft JRPGs (the fully redesigned graphics of the FFV and FFVI remakes were polarizing, to say the least). There are no worries about that here, as the backgrounds (to my eye) remain faithful to the original, maintaining the same style with an extra bit of detail. Whether through nostalgia goggles or not, Romancing SaGa 3 is absolutely lovely to look at.
It’s also equally lovely to listen to! Romancing SaGa 3 had one of the best soundtracks in the 16-bit era, and it’s just as beautiful today. Square Enix did nothing to update the instrumentation, so you’re getting the original MIDI in all its glory. Even though this was the first time I heard these chiptunes paired with gameplay, I was still impressed with how the complexity and quality of the compositions perfectly underscored the action. Frankly, the final boss theme was the only thing that kept me sane throughout that battle. At times, I wish I could have shut off Romancing SaGa 3 and put the soundtrack on my phone to enjoy away from the game (and I did just that after the game was complete).
As someone who always cursed Squaresoft for their decision not to translate much of their library in the ’90s, it’s difficult for me to admit that they made the right decision by withholding Romancing SaGa 3. In the 16-bit era, before Final Fantasy VII blew open the JRPG floodgates, Romancing SaGa 3 would have been greeted by a North American audience that wasn’t ready for it. The mechanics are far too complex and poorly explained, the storyline is an inscrutable trainwreck, and the characterization is flatter than a squished SNES game box. I can easily picture it sitting on Blockbuster shelves, waiting to be rented, but never was. Thank God Squaresoft decided to release the infinitely more accessible Final Fantasy VI. Otherwise, who knows if JRPGs would have caught on in the mainstream as early as 1997?
Today, things are different. There is a massive audience for mechanics-heavy RPGs, along with folks who love retro gaming. For them, Romancing SaGa 3 might just hit the sweet spot (I’d still recommend Octopath Traveler over it, however). For me, this game was simply a massive disappointment. Despite this turning out to be a “careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, I hope that Square Enix continues to release its library of untranslated games on modern consoles. One tarnished classic certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t other lost masterpieces that will shine just as brightly as they did all the way back in the ‘90s!