SaGa Frontier - Staff Retroview  

Tumbling Dice
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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Less than 20 Hours
+ Enormous replay value
+ Greatly varied characters and scenarios
+ Saving anywhere
- Get ready to grind
- Big-time random element
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   First at Squaresoft and then at Square Enix, a director like no other has been working for well over two decades. No matter the ostensible trends of RPGs in the world at large, Akitoshi Kawazu confidently steers his own path, refusing to bury his maverick tendencies in game design. Any game helmed by Kawazu stands out from the crowd, but its popularity is unlikely to match something designed with an eye towards mass appeal. Having only played Final Fantasy II, I was a relative newbie to the wild world of Kawazu, and SaGa Frontier demonstrates the man's unmistakable touch, for better and for worse.

   SaGa Frontier cannot be accused of having too little content, given its seven vastly different characters, each of whom has a unique narrative. Typical RPG shenanigans are quite limited in these stories too, featuring more small-scale scenarios such as the quest to catch a fiancee's murderer in Emelia's story, and the fratricidal need for Blue to kill his brother in order to attain his full potential. These stories don't quite live up to their promise, mostly because the narratives are too compressed to grant the development necessary for each scenario to feel fully explored. The interesting subject matter and variety present is nevertheless commendable.

   The variety of topics encompassed by the septet of main characters unfortunately seems to have been allowed to shrink the amount of time devoted to any one of them. Each of their quests could have encompassed a full game, and their relative brevity required when sharing the limelight with others reduces the impact. Squaresoft's translation doesn't help matters much, for while it's functional enough in imparting the meaning of dialogue, most of the events come across as more bland than they should. The effort is still appreciated, but the result just doesn't fulfill the potential it possessed.

   Akitoshi Kawazu's fingerprints are obvious in the freedom granted to each character, though its price is a frequent lack of direction. By making the entire game world accessible to most characters, any idea of how to progress the plot boils down to aimlessly wandering around until things happen. The open nature of the game's world is unusual among Japanese RPGs, but the lack of any signal for the next event is far too common an occurrence.

Man, Power Rangers got weird in its later incarnations. Man, Power Rangers got weird in its later incarnations.

   When it comes to the gameplay, Kawazu's calling card becomes obvious to all. SaGa Frontier employs a variant of the statistic-building system that he was experimenting with all the way back in Final Fantasy II, as individual aspects go up after battles instead of the common experience point accrual. The system works considerably better than it did when Kawazu first tested it, but a large element of randomness still afflicts the end-of-battle rewards. The unpredictability extends to the special attacks characters learn, for while their chance of repertoire expansion may theoretically be quite high, it can take a long time before certain key abilities are actually grasped. The realm of chance governs a great swathe of this game, and those without a substantial liking for it will not derive much pleasure. The most irritating aspect of the battle fluctuations comes when moves that normally combine for powerful damage suddenly don't at a key time, just because the turn order inexplicably got out of alignment.

   Human characters have almost no limit to what they can equip, allowing those interested in training a variety of fighting styles to do so with no restriction. Training in whatever area of combat suits the player, from firearms to bare hands, takes a while but yields powerful results. The plethora of potential abilities available serves as excellent encouragement to keep fighting in the hope of eking out new powers, and helps keep interest alive during lengthy grinding sessions. The most bothersome aspect of the game's inventory system is its inflexible requirement for things to be sold at exactly one location in the entirety of the game world, which gets tiresome.

   Enemies are visible in the dungeons, but the limited range of sprites used for their avatars generally gives no indication of what the foe will actually be once battle is joined. This contributes to the lopsided difficulty of SaGa Frontier, in which it is a frequent occurrence for unexpectedly robust enemies to devastate a party. In compensation, the game allows players to save at any time, which definitely reduces the risk of massive aggravation should an enemy grouping get lucky. The final bosses of each character will nevertheless demand persistent power acquisition, as this is the only way to survive, so copious grinding is almost a necessity.

Maybe if we knew what the fight was about, an answer would be apparent? Maybe if we knew what the fight was about, an answer would be apparent?

   Breaking with the trend of many Squaresoft titles of the PlayStation years, SaGa Frontier uses old-fashioned sprites instead of 3D models, though the backgrounds are often similar to what was seen in concurrent titles. All the humans in the game have enormous heads that ought to cause major issues in their balance, but their look is distinctive enough to make the game immediately recognizable. Most of the combat animations aren't impressive from a technical perspective, but are quite captivating nevertheless.

   Kenji Ito's score is quite varied and supplies distinct themes for every area within the game. Most of the melodies are quite catchy, and even the ones that aren't remain pleasant to the ear. The standard battle theme is fine without being superlative, but the many final bosses each warrant a unique composition that terrifically emphasizes the scale of these confrontations.

   Finishing any one character's tale in SaGa Frontier won't require a substantial time commitment, not much more than ten hours for each, but seeing everything the game has to offer will multiply that number seven-fold. The question of whether doing so is entirely worthwhile can't be answered except by each individual, since the process of powering up teams in each storyline is not necessarily a nirvana of time use to everyone. I enjoyed certain aspects of the game, and it's certainly not a conventionally forgettable RPG that I'll be hard-pressed to recall in a year's time. The experience of SaGa Frontier did not leave me with an insatiable desire to experience everything Akitoshi Kawazu has ever directed, and I cannot consider myself a member of his fan club at this point.

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