Following on the heels of SaGa Frontier Remastered, Square Enix now brings us Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- Remastered, making good on their promise to continue pulling PS1 and PS2 SaGa titles into the current era. Having this PlayStation 2 JRPG available on PC, Switch, PlayStation 4 & 5, and mobile platforms is quite the boon. But what, exactly, is Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song-? Its origins are a bit murky, so before we get into the game itself, Let’s talk history.
The Saga of Romancing SaGa
The year: 1992. After a successful trilogy of Game Boy titles, the SaGa series was ready to come to a home console. Akitoshi Kawazu, then a young developer with Squaresoft who had worked on battle design for the earliest Final Fantasy titles, appeared ready to move away from the new flagship to create his own line of RPGs. And so he did with Romancing SaGa. Published in Japan only, this Super Famicom title arrived on the heels of Final Fantasy IV and stayed at the top of Famitsu’s sales charts for February 1992. The stark contrast between FFIV and RS was that the former was extremely linear, and the latter was about as freeform as an RPG could get on the limited Super Famicom hardware. This experimental system had its flaws, some of which were addressed in the other entries of the Romancing SaGa trilogy. However, there would be an opportunity to address the game’s flaws further down the road…
The year: 2005. The SaGa series is now up to nine entries, but the most recent (UNLIMITED SaGa) leaves a sour taste in the mouth of many fans. For entry ten, Kawazu and team decided to revisit the entry in the series that made non-linearity a staple. The jump from Romancing SaGa to Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- required rebuilding the game from scratch in a 3D environment, adding new characters, locations, and scenarios, and putting together one of the biggest and most expansive remake soundtracks anyone had seen at the time. In an act that made sense at the time, but going forward has only added to the confusing disambiguation of this game, the North American release dropped the Minstrel Song subtitle. After all, said subtitle delineated the game as a remake in Japan. But the English-speaking audience never had access to the original, so the PS2 remake was released as just Romancing SaGa, without the Minstrel Song. The game would sell 500,000 copies, with only 10% of those sales coming from the North American market. While many critics panned the game for being too obtuse, one reviewer praised it as one of the best JRPGs released that year.
The year: 2022. A full 17 years after the PS2 Minstrel Song release (and 30 years after the Super Famicom original), the aforementioned reviewer (me) is revisiting one of his favorite titles from that era, thanks to the new remaster. Square Enix chose to keep the subtitle in North America this time, so here we are, ready to talk about Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- Remastered.
Monotony be damned
What makes this remaster worthwhile? Usability. Not only is this the greatest positive change for players, but it is also the area where Square Enix allocated most of their resources in this remaster. Consider game saves. Compared to the SFC or PS2 versions, saving the game is a paradise, a cornucopia of options. There’s a running autosave that you can keep on or off, and you can manually load from it independently of other saves. Next, there’s a dedicated quicksave slot that, again, operates separately from the autosave. With the many split decisions and how quickly a battle can go badly in this game, these two existing in tandem are very nice. And finally, there are your standard saves, which you can do at any time outside of dialogue and combat. The only type of save system not implemented is save-states, which would have allowed you to manipulate your way through difficult battles.
Next, there are the regional differences. Did you know that the in-game event system had a different rate in Japan and the US? I didn’t! Like many other SaGa titles after it, the world changes around you based on the number of battles you have fought. Enemies become harder, early-game quests become unavailable, later quests become available (sometimes pending prerequisite flags hit earlier in the game), and all of this is now clearly displayed in the main menu. When starting a new character, the game offers a choice between playing with the slower (US) timer or the normal speed (Japanese) timer. I must say, this was a revelation for me. While that slower timer is very helpful in a first playthrough, I recall my subsequent playthroughs of the PS2 version and thinking, “why hasn’t the Bard opened up the final dungeon for me yet?” Now, playing with a new save file and trying the Japanese “normal” speed for the first time, the pressure was on for me to choose which quests I would, and could, reasonably complete before reaching endgame status.
One minor frustration is that when it comes to language selection, you can only pick between English and Japanese. This setting controls both the text and the voice acting. Do you want to play with English text and Japanese voices (or vice versa)? Too bad. Usually, I wouldn’t complain about this, but… well, we’ll get there.
The biggest usability change was also utilized in SaGa Frontier Remastered and Collection of SaGa Final Fantasy Legend: fast-forward.
In combat and exploration, you can now easily set the speed between normal, double, and even triple speed with the touch of a button. Furthermore, you can adjust these settings separately based on context, so if you want combat sped up but field exploration at a normal pace, have at it. For longer treks or in grind-heavy dungeons, I happily opted for 3x, as my characters Sparked and Glimmered their way to new skills and combos. This tool is key in a game designed for heavy replay (and yes, I am seriously considering clearing this game with all eight characters).
Sing for me… but don’t speak
As noted above, the soundtrack to Minstrel Song stands out as one of the best. Period. Not just for SaGa or for composer Kenji Ito. Not just for Square Enix as a publisher. This one is pinnacle JRPG music, every bit as varied and interesting as your favorite Final Fantasy score. The opening vocal theme, “Minuet” by Masayoshi Yamazaki, is an emotional experience. The battle theme, “Passionate Rhythm,” includes bright guitar work and incredible non-lyrical vocals by Kyoko Kishikawa. Dozens of new tunes were composed for the Minstrel Song version as well. Granted, there haven’t been any changes in this 2022 Remaster, but that’s okay with me. This soundtrack already got its great overhaul in 2005; I don’t want to risk a downgrade in quality in an attempt to reboot greatness.
Voice acting, on the other hand?
If you had asked me in 2005, I think I’d have said it’s refreshing to see a JRPG get English voice acting. The quality wasn’t the question, just whether or not it was present. Apparently, that was also the opinion of whatever group worked on the voice acting for this game in 2005. The English voice acting did not age well. At all. The voice actor for the Minstrel character, who does much of the narration, is passable. Everyone else is either painfully monotone or nails-on-chalkboard annoying. As much as I’ve enjoyed playing through this game with Aisha, I never want to hear her speak again. At least I can adjust the voice volume down to 0 in the menu.
But, again, what I can’t do is play the game with English text and Japanese voice. And I desperately wish that I could, because the Japanese VA is fitting for many of the eight protagonists.
The world is the story
One of the reasons I love the SaGa series is that it does a great job of allowing you many paths to character development with some meaningful story rewards. At the same time, the story is told paradoxically through the world. The minor characters, sub-quests, equipment, and even the layout of the world map of Mardias offer details that are every bit as important as, say, Prince Albert’s main questline. The intimate details of an individual matter, but they do not influence the main plot on their own. These things stay separate, and that’s okay. To me, it feels right.
Without spoiling too much, I have to gush about one of my favorite “morality choice” mechanics in this game. While the final battle will always be the game’s endpoint, there is a lengthy dungeon and boss battle prior to the epic showdown. In fact, there are three of those dungeons, but you will only gain access to one in a given playthrough based on decisions made throughout all prior quests. The do-gooders ascend to heaven to get a blessing from the gods. The ne’er-do-wells descend to hell and make a deal with Death incarnate. Many in-between will find their way to a lush garden of paradise to entreat with ancient giants.
In some ways, even the game’s many complex mechanics (stat growth, equipment, class, traits, proficiency) help tell the story. For more on how those things work and why I think they work well, I refer you again to my 2005 review of the PS2 version.
Act your age
If you’re expecting Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- Remastered to stand up to today’s best and brightest RPGs, know that it generally won’t. This is obviously the case for the graphics and the voice acting. When considering the game’s age and retail price point, however, I would argue that Minstrel Song has aged nicely overall. Square Enix have done fans a great favor by making a game this dated play this well and still be so much fun, on nearly every console market available today. Take some time. Play the game. Find out for yourself what makes this deceptively strategic game so much fun to master… er, um, Remaster?