SaGa Frontier - Reader Re-Retroview  

The Semi-Magnificent Seven
by Jeremy Michael Gallen

60-80 Hours
+ Can save anywhere.
+ Excellent music.
+ Good graphics.
- Virtually impossible without a guide.
- Countless points of no return.
- Paper-thin plot.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   SaGa has always been the dark horse of Square's RPG family, given the franchise's anything-but-conventional gameplay mechanisms. While the first three installments came outside Japan under the phony moniker of Final Fantasy Legend, the Super NES iterations, the Romancing SaGa trilogy, did not (aside from the Playstation 2 remake of the first, which to date is the series' swan song). However, after the success of Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation, Sony decided to localize the newest black sheep in the SaGa series, SaGa Frontier, which again continues the franchise's offbeat, unbalanced traditions.

   As was series tradition beginning in the Romancing SaGa trilogy, enemies are visible wandering the game's various dungeons, where the active character walks into them to begin a battle. Although visible encounter systems tend to be preferable to random encounters, SaGa Frontier actually implements them somewhat poorly, since all enemies, regardless of stats, charge the player, and can sometimes endlessly clog a few areas of dungeons, and in said cases of congestion, the player can be forced into consecutive battles. Thus, it might have been nice if the active character blinked for a few seconds for a chance to retreat and save.

   In battle, the player first selects one of up to three parties of up to five characters each. Depending upon if the player surprised the enemy or the enemy surprised the player (though whether an encounter is a "surprise" one seems random), the player's characters may surround the enemy, the enemy will surround the player's party, or neither will do so. Combat is turn-based, with each character able to use equipped weapons or items or up to eight skills of different types. Characters and enemies take their turns evidently depending upon speed, although turn order can annoyingly vary, and there is no escape option of which to speak.

   Skill and stat advancement are vastly different from that in most other mainstream RPGs, depending upon the class of each character. Human and half-mystic characters can occasionally learn new skills by normally attacking with weapons, their fists, or weapon skills, although what particular skills they'll learn involves a heavy degree of randomization and chance. Mystics and half-mystics have special skills allowing them to absorb skills from monsters, having better magical capability than humans, with the former, however, unable to use or learn physical skills. Both mystics and humans gain various increases in stats like HP, JP (needed to use magic), WP (needed to use physical skills), and so forth, alongside money, after battle depending upon what kinds of commands they performed.

Weird architecture Nightmare Before Christmas called, they want their weird town-thingy back

   Robots and monsters, though, follow different rules of stat and ability advancement. Stats of the former depend upon what kind of equipment they're wearing, with more powerful gear meaning higher stats, with new skills absorbable from mech-type enemies after battle. Monsters, on the other hand, can acquire new skills and forms from other non-mech monsters after battle, with form transformation (which doesn't always happen) naturally affecting a monster's stats, for better or worse. Monsters can only hold up to eight skills, as well, and with maxed-out skill sets, they must choose to give up one skill when absorbing another monster.

   As with most SaGa games, combat has some good ideas albeit flawed execution. For one, difficulty maddeningly fluctuates, with some enemies being easy and others being very hard, and thus, some indication of visible encounter difficulty would have been nice. Characters can also chain together skills in the form of more powerful combo skills, although combo skill execution involves a heavy degree of randomization, and in reality, it's just a lot easier to rely on a certain ultimate skill to finish the most difficult battles, including the final bosses of each character's chapter, which have tens of thousands of HP. It would have been also nice if the stats and skills of various characters carried over between quests, given the recurrence of many. Overall, a decent guide is almost a necessity to make it through battles in SaGa Frontier.

   The game's interface, though, has plenty of things going for it, such as a relatively easy menu system and an always-convenient save-anywhere feature, although there are still a number of issues. For one, all quests have a heavy degree of non-linearity, which some consider a good thing, although players are often left completely in the dark on how to advance the main story of each. As a bonus, each quest has a number of points of no return where the player cannot turn back to heal, build stats and skills, shop for better gear, and so forth, always a terrible idea. In the end, interaction in SaGa Frontier could have easily been better.

   As with any new entry of a long-running franchise, SaGa Frontier borrows heavily from its predecessors, with the unusual mechanisms and heavy non-linearity largely being a retread, alongside a few nods to the original Gameboy SaGa trilogy such as the robot and monster classes. Ultimately, this iteration doesn't do much new, but maybe sport a new coat of paint.

Caption Finally, a game that prevents you from doing so

   SaGa Frontier doesn't really feature any sort of unifying plot, instead sporting seven different characters and separate storylines, though said characters sometimes encounter one another. Development of each varies somewhat, although the story in many instances utterly lacks focus and decently-woven conflict, with the lack of direction on how to advance in each being another problem, as well. Ultimately, even many RPG stories from the 16-bit era feature deeper, better-woven plots.

   Music, however, has always been a high point of the SaGa series, with composer Kenji Ito providing another solid soundtrack, with hardly a bad track, what with many peaceful town themes, energetic battle themes, fitting dungeon themes, and so forth. Few of the sound effects are out of place, as well, and overall, SaGa Frontier is a surefire treat for the ears.

   The visuals are another high point, with plenty of pre-rendered environments alongside two-dimensional character sprites, even if they do look a bit sloppy at times and have hobbit-like proportions. Battles are fluid and well-animated, though, and while there aren't any fancy FMVs or anime cutscenes, the graphics don't leave a whole lot of room for improvement.

   Finally, each of the seven quests takes an average of ten hours to finish (except for Lute's, which can take as little as five), accounting for total gameplay time of somewhere between sixty and eighty hours. In conclusion, SaGa Frontier is a decisively mediocre title that has some good ideas but flawed execution, although it's certainly not without redeeming aspects such as its graphics and especially its music. Masochists might appreciate the grinding, but others would probably be better off buying the soundtrack instead of the game itself.

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