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Monday, July 17, 2017

Unlimited Saga

The ninth game in Square's SaGa series was released to a very hostile reception, especially in light of its low budget after the blockbuster movie-like experiences the company's brand became known for. But is there some merit to be found in Unlimited Saga's gameplay, or is this one heavily-maligned RPG that really is as bad as people say?

Akitoshi Kawazu's SaGa franchise is known to be very divisive, even among die-hard RPG fans; those who love it enjoy its experimental nature and quirky, surreal settings while those who don't are quick to criticize its difficult design and bizarre, often unintuitive mechanics.  This primarily stems from the franchise not drawing much inspiration from other Japanese RPGs like Dragon Quest, but rather on the games that inspired their origins - western tabletop games and relatively obscure computer RPGs like Phantasie and Star Command.  Thus, we end up with a series that puts emphasis on powering up stats individually, earning new skills through repeated use of weapons, breakable equipment, having to negotiate with enemies to end battles early, and so forth, with specific mechanics varying wildly from game to game.

Unlimited Saga is no different in that regard, and in fact probably follows the Tabletop/CRPG format more closely than any prior game in the series. "Towns" in the game are more than a bit reminiscent of the old Wizardry titles, consisting of simple menus to purchase equipment, talk with people, craft items and accept quests.  Dungeons play out like a turn-based board game, having the player follow a series of paths where they may encounter enemies, traps and obstacles like collapsing bridges which temporarily divide the party, requiring them to unite at a later point.  One can also choose to pass turns to recover some of their lost HP (via the incredibly intuitive method of pressing R3), which is often a good idea as one does not regain it over time and skills that restore it are relatively hard to come by.  In fact, the interface in general is rather unintuitive, with the player having to navigate a baffling sequence of menus just to perform basic tasks like checking their status screen, changing equipment or interacting with objects on the field (For one example, changing one's equipment in towns can only be done via the inn menu).

The similarity to tabletop games only becomes more prominent in the emphasis the game places on player skills, which allow the player to do things like crossing certain obstacles in dungeons, disarming traps and locks with greater chances of success, or avoiding some enemy encounters when used at the right time. The game lacks a proper "experience" system, with characters instead gaining and losing skills and stats only at the end of a quest via a panel system.  Basically, each character has seven slots arranged in a honeycomb-like layout, and each panel is placed in one of these slots.  Each point of the grid tends toward a different stat or elemental affinity, with the player gaining greater benefit by putting, for example, weapon skills on the Strength side of the grid and Magic skills on or near that point. Attaching multiple panels of like types next to one another or three in a row across the grid will grant greater benefit, while placing a panel in the center space will boost all stats to a lesser degree.  However, what panels someone gets to pick from has a hefty random element; while it can be influenced to a degree by using certain abilities between one quest completion and the next, there is no guarantee you'll get something you want, and if you happen to have your grid just the way you like it, too bad - you must replace one panel with a new one at the end of each quest.  Further exacerbating the problem are panels with negative effects, such as dealing reduced damage to an enemy or even taking damage yourself if a particular enemy type is attacked; once in place, these can only be replaced with other negative panels (or, if plot related, cannot be replaced at all).  While these negative panels do give large stat boosts and can be used effectively because of this, they're far more likely to be a hindrance to the player at a bad time.  While one can scrape by with panels that make them fearful of, say, plants or insects, one should definitely avoid panels that put the player at a disadvantage from undead enemies, as nearly all of the game's strongest enemies (and major bosses) fall into this category.

Unlimited Saga's most infamous element is the large amount of reliance on random chance - not a roll of the dice in this case, but a spinning of slot machine-like reels that have varying effects depending on the context.  Outside of battle, rolls are often brought up when a player is about to trigger a trap or use a skill - hitting a green orb causes them to successfully use the skill or evade the trap, hitting a red X causes it to trigger, and hitting dynamite causes a critical failure, which often results in more damage or a worse outcome overall.  One's skill in timing button presses usually helps to mitigate some of the difficulty, but if one's panel set is lacking, the slots will often "wander" two or three spaces after the button is pressed, which can land the player on a bad result regardless.

The reels are also heavily used within battle, though in a much different fashion.  When a weapon is equipped, a player gains access to a number of basic attack skills with that weapon.  However, as they use them more, they may unlock stronger attack skills, though these cannot simply be picked from the menu - instead, they must spin the reels and hit a blue, red or pink weapon icon among a large plethora of green ones.  Elemental spells spin reels with icons representing the five elements, with the maximum effect only being achieved if the player lands on a slot matching that spell's element.  One is even able to "stack" and activate multiple reels at a time by pressing the circle button, allowing them to chain numerous attacks together for extra damage; however, this comes with two drawbacks.  First is that the player is spinning all of said reels at the same time, each with slightly different timing, and one press of the button stops them all, so unless they have a monstrous amount of skills unlocked they're likely to just get a bunch of weaker attacks.  Second, if an enemy (or enemy group) gets turns whilst the player is doing this, they will also get bonus damage with their own attacks.  Enemies can do team attacks of their own volition as well, which causes combat to quickly devolve into a battle of powerful combinations engineered to deplete the other side's LP.  Paired with the fact that, like most SaGa games, weapons will break after a set number of uses, this quickly adds much to the difficulty factor present in Unlimited Saga.  Managing one's party during fights is an essential part of the strategy as well - any character that doesn't take an action in a particular turn is removed from the field entirely for its duration, and they will recover some of their HP while away, so swapping characters in and out as the situation develops is key to winning many boss fights.

The game works in a crafting system in an attempt to offset weapon wear-and-tear, allowing players to combine weapons and raw materials together in order to restore a weapon's durability or create new equipment that can have higher attack power or durability and can carry over some unlocked skills from its components.  As with many other elements in the game, however, the mechanics of this are not clearly explained in the manual nor anywhere in the game itself, so it quickly turns into a game of trial and error.  Especially when paired with the minuscule amount of money the player is given at the start of the game, and which they can only earn more of by going through dungeons, whether on story missions or just sidequests.  When one also considers that quests can have huge variances in difficulty even at the start of the game, with one quest being almost trivially easy and the next being nearly impossible at your current level and there being no forewarning of this fact whatsoever, Unlimited Saga can quickly become an exercise in frustration.  As a result of this, its limited interface and its overall esoteric design, few have ever had the patience to make their way through the game.  Probably not helping matters was the fact this was one of the few Square games of the era to never receive an official player's guide of any kind; hell, even The Bouncer got a guide from Bradygames, but Unlimited Saga received no such luxury.  The manual included with the game isn't much help either, skimming over several key mechanics and only explaining the most basic skills one finds in any detail.

Of course, one cannot mention Unlimited Saga without also bringing attention to its overall aesthetic.  Unlimited Saga contains oddly low production values for a Square game, with very minimal animation for most elements (even in combat, you'll be seeing the same handful of animations a lot), nearly all cutscenes being composed of little more than still frames, and no rendered dungeons - just flat two-dimensional maps reminiscent of a board game or tabletop RPG.  There are relatively few FMVs in the game, which similarly have only the barest basics in terms of animations, rendered characters and backgrounds.  Voice acting in the game is surprisingly threadbare as well, with only a small handful of recorded lines per character story and the acting ranging from mediocre to laughably campy.  Very out of the norm for a company that practically invented the "cinematic RPG" experience that redefined the entire JRPG genre and dominated the gaming consciousness for the better part of a decade.  Music in the game is at least up to the SaGa series' high standards with some beautifully-composed tracks by Masashi Hamauzu, though curiously absent in many dungeons in favor of simple ambient noise.

Also not aiding matters is the fact that each playable character's quest is a much different undertaking, with some being vastly easier or harder than others and possessing much different mechanics.  Unlimited Saga once again opts for the SaGa Frontier style "Anthology RPG" format, with only a vague backdrop upon which each character has their own short story that rarely overlaps with the others.  Some gain access to exclusive gameplay elements as well, such as Ventus; as a "carrier", he is able to perform essentially limitless delivery quests that give him easy access to money, chests and character upgrades, making his quest a good starting point for beginners.  Kurt has a cursed gauntlet that forever occupies the center slot on his skill grid, stifling his opportunity to earn stat bonuses and forcing him to fight solo battles against progressively stronger enemies every fifteen minutes (in real-time), which effectively puts a strict time limit on his quest.  Armic's quest mostly consists of collecting various materials through completion of quests, though owing to the random nature of the game, this will likely result in having to do a large amount of crafting, searching and manipulating the in-game economy before the story is finally done.  Many of these probably helped contribute to the game's overall perception of difficulty, as some characters can go through the game with relative ease while others require an absolute mastery of its mechanics and a substantial amount of luck to get everything they need to win.

At the end of the day, Unlimited Saga lives up to the series' reputation of being a bizarre, esoteric, confusing and exceptionally challenging experience, which already heavily hampered its appeal in the west.  However, it goes a step even beyond that, with its minimalist visuals, awkward interface, lack of tutorials and punishing gameplay from the get-go only compounding the frustration factor.  Those who can push through the opaque design and threadbare presentation and master the finer points of its mechanics will find a game with quite a bit of content and some surprisingly clever moments, but as it requires dealing with a lot of random chance, trial-and-error and reading a novel's worth of online guides to figure out just how everything works, it's definitely not an experience any but the most die-hard fans of ancient min-maxing savescum-dependent RPGs are bound to enjoy.

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 2
Released: 2003
Recommended version: N/A