Romancing SaGa - Staff Review  

This is NOT Unlimited Saga
by Phillip Clayton

20 to 100+ hours


Rating definitions 

The SaGa series is peculiar. Unlike other Square Enix franchises, there are two separate groups which view this offering: those who extoll the games, and those who believe only a masochist could be interested. This love-hate paradigm is exemplified in the series' popularity in Japan compared to its popularity in North America. The negative energy associated with 2002's Unlimited Saga crossed cultural boundaries, however, and was likely strong enough to create some sort of unholy super-demon if clichéd RPG plotline mechanics worked in real life. When word got around that Romancing SaGa would come to North America, many were surprised, considering the undeniable failure of Unlimited Saga, and that the series as a whole has never done remarkably well here. But if one looks past the series' reputation and actually plays the game before passing judgement, the game can be an absolute blast. That said, the game upholds one of the series' defining aspects in that it will not appeal to everyone.

Romancing SaGa features eight different playable protagonists to choose from, and each character will go through unique trials and tribulations depending on the hero chosen, but the purpose of the main quest is the same around the board: to stop the resurrection of Saruin, an ancient god that was defeated by a legendary hero a thousand years ago. It's easy to assume here that the story was practically pulled from The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Cliches, and that assumption rings true partially. This game is in actuality a remake of a game in the SNES era by the same name that never penetrated North American shores until this incarnation, and these kinds of stories weren't as prevalent at the time. Even still, the story is uninspiring, doesn't offer anything unexpected, or is completely absent. The other sub-stories are equally uninspiring, and generally just serve as a mechanism to get the player to go from one place to another, while strengthening along the way. While the story elements in Romancing SaGa aren't going to satisfy anybody's desire for deep, ground-breaking storytelling, they're not awful enough to make the masses campaign for the writer's head on a pike. After all, most people don't play SaGa games for the story, just as much as people generally don't play Metroid games to see what that dastardly Ridley is up to this time around. The real meat of the game lies in its gameplay.

Compared to previous SaGa titles, it's very easy to understand how the gameplay in Romancing SaGa works. In every town there will be an NPC from the Volunteer Brigade who will let you access the game's tutorial. The tutorials are very easy to understand, and to complement this, tutorials pop up during battle when certain parts of the battle system are used for the first time. For example, if a skill that consumes DP is used for the first time, a tutorial will pop up to give the lowdown. The game's tutorial system is very well done, but there's no reason why the Volunteer Brigade tutorial couldn't have been tucked somewhere in the menu, which would come in handy in the middle of a dungeon.

I have nightmares about this fight I have nightmares about this fight.

As far as battles go, there seems to be an overwhelming amount of pools to keep track of at first glance. The Durability Points (DP) of a weapon are consumed when using certain skills associated with that weapon. Once that weapon's DP reaches zero the weapon will be rendered useless until it's repaired at an inn, or if it's a weapon that has been customized, at a blacksmith. Hit Points (HP) should be pretty self-explanitory, but every battle begins with full HP no matter what. Life Points (LP) are consumed when a characters dies, are attacked when they're dead, by stepping into traps on the map, or when a character uses certain skills with a low level in that skill. When the LP of a character reaches zero, that character is taken out of the party permanently, and if the main character's LP reaches zero, one will be rewarded with a friendly game over screen. Battle Points (BP) are consumed by using spells and most skills. When the battle begins, each character will start out with a certain amount of BP depending on their class and battle experience. They also gain BP after every round of combat depending on their class and experience. As stated earlier, the myriad of pools may seem like a bit too much to keep track of, but it's really not difficult to keep on top of everything, as the information is all displayed conveniently while selecting actions in battle. This can make the screen a little congested, but it's not bothersome enough to be a huge issue.

The turn-based battles are engaging, and can seem expansive when commanding a full five-character party with a half-dozen enemies waiting to be toppled, but it doesn't offer much that hasn't been in previous SaGa titles. Special abilities are learned at random, but it's more likely that characters will learn a new skill or two when they're fighting powerful opponents. Characters and enemies alike are occasionally able to use their special abilities at the same time, resulting in a powerful combo attack. This allows for some fun strategies, such as giving a fast character a class that makes it easier for them to perform combos with the character that acts next, then having them him use a very fast-acting attack at the beginning of the battle, and finally grinning as two characters pull off a combo right off the bat. There's also a chance that characters will pull off a more damaging solo attack, providing they're skilled enough with the weapon they're using.

Something that slightly sullies the battle system is the low number of unique enemies. Look forward to fighting the same type of lizard monsters that were abundant at the 3 hour mark at the 30 hour mark, only with a slightly different palette and a couple new skills. Unfortunately, this makes the game become repetitive faster than it should. Regular encounters in Romancing SaGa aren't too hard usually, but bosses can be difficult, so those who aren't veteran RPGamers should be careful to not lodge a controller in their flat panel. The difficulty seems to vary between protagonists, so it is suggested that people who are having trouble with one character try another storyline.

One notorious quality of previous titles is the tendency to wander into battles that will leave the party mercilessly annihilated. This happens in Romancing SaGa as well, but it's not as prevalent. Furthermore, several boss battles will not result in a full-blown game over when the party is slain, but will instead leave the main character right where he or she was before the battle began, expressing his or her determination to overcome whichever beast lies in his or her way. Except in boss battles and chained enemy battles, fleeing works every time the option is selected, but it will consume an amount of LP equal to the number of people in the party, so it's costly to say the least.

Like previous titles, character growth in Romancing SaGa is unique as there are no actual numerical level values to keep track of. HP and stats increase depending on what happens during battle. Say that in one battle Sif is using physical attacks and Myruim is using spells, while poor Jamil is taking the brunt of enemy abuse. Sif's STR would likely increase, Myrium's INT would likely increase, and Jamil would likely get an HP boost after battle. In every town there are NPCs who will allow adventurers to train in a class, switch classes, or learn proficiencies. Classes bear a certain skillset, and when it's leveled up, that characters' prowess when using abilities or proficiencies governed by those skills increases. It is also required that some classes be leveled up a bit to gain access to more advanced classes. The class titles themselves will grant specific bonuses such as the ability to act quickly in battle or lower BP consumption. This system can be a bit cumbersome at times because different towns will offer different classes, and it can be difficult to remember which town has which class if the player wants something specific. Training classes requires a special form of currency called jewels which are gained primarily through quests. They can also be found by successfully using proficiencies or through battle, but it takes a lot longer to get a decent amount through these methods.

A very  unique wardrobe, for a very unique game. A very unique wardrobe, for a very unique game.

Proficiencies are skills that are used on the map. These can allow many things, such as picking medicinal herbs from the ground, jumping across pits, finding hidden treasure chests, or avoiding detection by enemies, to name a few. They can be leveled up when the level of their corresponding skill is trained in town. The game only allows five proficiencies equipped at a time, and they can only be equipped when in town or in another similarly safe area. When preparing for a quest in a cave, it should be obvious that one may need the "find ore" and "mining" proficiencies to dig up some materials to use in weapon customization, but it's infinitely irritating to spend 20 minutes battling through a dungeon, only to have to turn back to town due to a missing proficiency that wasn't obviously needed for the quest. Or, if the proficiency is actually equipped, the very top of a mountain could host a wall that requires a proficiency level higher than currently available to reach the summit above. Luckily, traveling from one end of the world to the other usually just takes a few seconds when on the world map.

One aspect of Romancing SaGa that will be predominately love-hate is the game's openendedness. Players are able to progress through the game as they choose, and the second playthrough of the game, even with a character that's already been through the game once, can be very different than the first. Quests are given by various people in towns. When going through the game a second time, it'll be required that some of the same quests be completed again, but the pathway to the final battle is generally different by a moderate margin. Some of the more important quests are given by kings and nobles, but some are triggered by talking with regular-looking NPCs. At times, figuring out what to do next isn't going to be blatantly obvious, which can be something of a double-edged sword. It can be very refreshing to progress through a game where brain power is required to figure out where to go, instead of being led along a narrow path. But some will grow greatly annoyed with wandering about and talking to random NPCs aimlessly, while wondering just what the hell they're supposed to do next. A few of the game's characters seem to have this problem at the very beginning of their scenarios, which is sure to turn people away from the game right out of the gate.

Playing through the game may be a different experience with each character, but there's one thing that will remain the same: the high quality of the game's soundtrack. Naturally, there are some pieces that are forgettable or grow old after a while, but those are few and far between. There's a wide array of boss battle themes to help keep things fresh in that regard, but there is only one main battle theme, which can eventually get a tad annoying after listening to it 500 times. Romancing SaGa's soundtrack is very slightly marred by a glitch that can distort the music, but this bug is extremely rare, so it's not a huge issue. All in all, the music does a very good job of enhancing the game's atmosphere, and stands as one of the best video game soundtracks of the year.

The voice acting, however, was not done as well. While not Shining Force III-quality, it ranges from awful to good, with the majority of it just being mediocre. Though, most of the bad voice acting comes from actors who sound nonchalant, or like they were trying to have some fun by impersonating famous fictional characters. With the game being fully voice acted, it's not surprising to see lots of hits and misses, but more effort could've been made nevertheless.

Sketch Motion CG in all its glory. Sketch Motion CG in all its glory.

The game's localization itself is good, aside from a few very minor grammar and syntax issues, but there are no monumental flubs. Comparatively, the controls are also well done. It doesn't take long for the control scheme to feel natural and navigating the various menus is simple, but that isn't to say that other aspects of the controls aren't flawed. The biggest problem lies in the small proficiency "activation area" a character has to be in to use a proficiency. If one is trying to get away from a pack of rabid enemies by jumping across a pit or climbing an incline, they'll have to be very quick and precise in their positioning to activate it in time. It is also disappointing that there's no option to adjust the camera, as camera angles can be somewhat bad at times, but this isn't a major distraction.

Like many other parts of the game, the visuals in Romancing SaGa are unique. The world of Mardias is bright and colorful, and the design seems to be more focused towards just making something that's pretty, rather than accurately reflecting real life. The super-deformed character models are no different, and they seem to fit perfectly in their world. The game's CG sequences are done in Sketch Motion style, as seen previously in Unlimited Saga. These sequences are a stark contrast to the super-realistic CG animations that Square Enix is known for; scenes are akin to a living, breathing watercolor painting. On the opposite side of things, a good number of enemy models can be bland, and this is only enhanced by the low number of unique enemies in the game.

Romancing SaGa is by no stretch of the imagination a bad game. In fact, it's likely that many will derive countless hours of entertainment out of it. Even still, if it hasn't been sprinkled around this review enough already, the game will not appeal to everyone, but not because of a bevy of bad design issues. None of the game's problems are large enough to call it a bad game, but a lot of people simply won't care for it in the same way that a lot of people don't care for mayonnaise on their sandwiches. With that in mind, it's a good idea to try a rental before making a full-price commitment. Veteran RPGamers who are able to look past the series' history and give the game a chance may be rewarded with a uniquely engrossing adventure with a style all its own and replay value that is unlimited., not that kind of unlimited.

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