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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Tiermaker Funtimes : The SaGa Series games (that I've played)

While SaGa never achieved anywhere near the level of popularity Final Fantasy had, it's been around almost as long, debuting only two years after its sister franchise's first appearance on the Famicom.  It was also the first SaGa game - not a Final Fantasy - that became Square's first title to sell over a million copies worldwide, so it definitely has its place in history.  Over the years it's remained a highly experimental series, with long-time director Akitoshi Kawazu mixing in various gameplay elements from other genres, from large-scale strategy battles to tabletop RPGs to open-ended adventures akin to something like an Ultima title, and the end result is a very diverse and fascinating series, if not always the most impressive in terms of fun factor or presentation.  Regardless, I'm going to look at every SaGa game I've played and give them a ranking.

Makai Toushi SaGa (1990)

The first game in the series, which was localized in the west as "The Final Fantasy Legend" despite being the origin of a totally different franchise.  Still, it was the first RPG on the Game Boy, which was a very hot property in 1989 owing to its affordable price and being packaged in with Tetris, which was (and still is) the height of classic puzzle gaming, so it sold like hotcakes.  It proved to be a pretty cool game for the time, though, letting you build a party out of Humans, Mutants or Monsters and undertake a grand adventure that spanned numerous worlds - a medieval world, a sea world, a futuristic city and more.  Each character type also has their own unique abilities - Humans only power up when you give them medicine, Mutants level up randomly and gain or lose various spells or traits (which would become a defining element of the franchise) and Monsters eat the meat of slain enemies and transform, gaining or losing power based on what you eat.  That's all fun to a point, but it also gives way to frustration - the random element is a constant plague, as your mutants tend to lose useful abilities at the worst possible time and unless you're really on the ball with monster data, you're probably going to end up with a dead weight character at a bad time more than once too.  Random encounters are extremely frequent and enemies get extremely strong in the late stages, so a surprise attack is usually just an instant game over.  Your weapons also degrade with use, requiring constant replacement, which just adds to the grindy nature of everything.  Still, the game had quite a lot of content for an early Game Boy title, as well as some great music by Nobuo Uematsu, so that kept me from quitting.  It's also the only game where you cut God in half with a chainsaw, which is both badass and hilarious.  I'll give it a B.

SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu (1991)

The first game was got somewhat mixed reviews but was a big financial success for Square, so a sequel was inevitable.  Sure enough, a year after the first, we got SaGa 2 (localized as Final Fantasy Legend 2).  While not a lot has changed in terms of core gameplay, the presentation has seen a significant overhaul - there are virtually no "empty tiles" for graphics, characters have more frames of animation in general, and the translation is significantly more polished.  You're also clued in on goings-on with your characters - earning stats, moves changing and such are now displayed on screen after battle so you know what you're getting right away.  There is also a new playable race in Robots, who gain stats based on what they equip - this leads to them being very overpowered in the early stages, though their lack of magic and vulnerability to it makes them more of a liability later on.  This one is somehow even more blisteringly difficult than the original - enemies attack in absolutely huge groups (20+ enemies as you get closer to the end), which makes surviving most battles all but impossible unless you grind for days on end.  You can equip the Magi to your characters to offset this to a degree (giving them higher stats, resistance to elements or status effects, and so forth), but as you eventually lose all of them for story reasons and only one character can equip any given type, it's not something you can rely on too much.  It has quite a lot of content and nuance once again, but the punishing difficulty ensures it's a game I've only ever finished once and have no desire to replay again.  Still, it has a pretty kickass soundtrack by Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematsu, which pushes it into C territory.  The DS remake also gets a C; while it does add some new content and tweaks from later games, it's still the same experience at its core and is, once again, even more bloody difficult, giving the final boss a ridiculously powerful new second form that I just barely squeaked past.

SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha (1993)

Released alongside Romancing SaGa on the Super Famicom, which Akitoshi Kawazu was working on at the time; hence, directing duties for this game were handed over to Kouzi Ide and the game took on a much more traditional style of design, with defined characters as our protagonists, proper experience points, levels and equipment that doesn't degrade with use.  Mutants, Monsters and Robots are still in the game, albeit in a slightly odder fashion - your characters all begin in a base form (Human or Mutant) and transform after battle if they choose to eat meat or install parts from enemies.  One meat turns them into a Beast (giving them some unique moves/traits based on their form), two meats turn them into a Monster (generally more powerful, but unable to use equipment), one part turns them into a Cyborg (similar to a Beast), and two parts turn them into a Robot (who only gain stats by purchasing upgrades at shops).  One can also undo the process at any time by eating meat as a cyborg/robot or installing parts as a beast/monster, which is kind of silly.  Late-game, one can also craft new types of magic via various stones they find throughout the world, allowing for some very powerful combinations.  The plot can also be considered a precursor to Chrono Trigger, as much of it centers on upgrading your time machine to give it more functionality - at first it can only hop back and forth, but later on you'll get to add shops, an inn, a magic combination chamber, and even the ability to fly, which is a pretty cool addition to simply powering up your characters.  Composition this time is handled by Ryuji Sasai (who also worked on Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest) and Chihiro Fujioka (who wrote music for a few obscure Japanese computer games but has since mostly worked as a producer or director).  It's a definite oddball in the series for its more traditional JRPG design, but at the same time, that probably makes it the most fun of the original SaGa trilogy.  I'll give it a B, albeit a higher B than the other two.  The DS remake gets a C; Akitoshi Kawazu directed it and reincorporated many of the traditional SaGa elements, which unfortunately reintroduces a lot of the frustration factor and grinding that make the first two games rather hard to revisit.  Kenji Ito's reworked soundtrack is excellent, though.

Romancing SaGa 2 (1993)

Romancing SaGa 2 attempts to add a new twist to the series norm - rather than playing as a single hero throughout the story, you instead play an entire lineage of emperors and empresses, changing after a number of years pass or your current character dies in battle.  Your successors inherit all the skills of their predecessors, though, so you gradually grow more and more powerful even as your characters constantly reset.  An interesting concept, and it works surprisingly well.  This was also the first game in the series to utilize the now-familiar Life Points system, as well as to introduce formations, letting you arrange your party to get various benefits like boosted attack or higher defense for certain characters (something that the Suikoden series' later entries would also copy).  This comes with a catch, though - if you get attacked from the side or enter a fight while running, your formation will be scrambled, potentially exposing your weaker characters to danger; if you're not confident that you can avoid an enemy, it's often better to just fight them.  You also get to gradually build up an empire, receiving money in taxes to research new weapons, armor and spells, which is pretty fun to see.  It does get a bit grindy and the dungeons rather monotonous, particularly as there are tons of enemies in each room and leaving and returning will cause them all to respawn.  Still, a pretty novel concept that's executed well, if not amazingly deep.  It gets a C. 

Romancing SaGa 3 (1995)

The third and final Super Famicom SaGa game, and it follows in the mold of the first, giving you a choice of eight characters to pick from whose stories gradually intertwine, as well as the ability to recruit numerous other characters along the way.  There's dozens of them to find, and many definitely fall into odd territory - a fairy, a superhero, a giant lobster, a snowman, and an elephant man are some of the crazier ones.  Like the original Romancing SaGa, the game is also largely open-ended - you'll have to do a lot of traveling, talking to NPCs and completing various subquests before the main storyline comes into focus.  There are also large-scale war battles, which is a pretty unique new element, though these are relatively simplistic and get to be tedious after the first few.  It doesn't do a whole lot new, but what's here is given a new level of refinement that probably makes it the most fun of the Super Famicom SaGa games.  This one gets an B.

SaGa Frontier (1998)

While I did play the whole trilogy on the Game Boy back when they were relatively new, SaGa Frontier on the PS1 was the game that really made me into a fan.  They took good everything about the Game Boy series and the Romancing titles, ditched nearly all of the stuff I disliked, and made a game that blew me away with its fun factor and design.  Weapons no longer degrade over time (though guns can run out of ammo mid-fight), you have a much greater degree of control over monster and mutant Mystic abilities, and Mecs actually get some unique abilities of their own, so they're not just big bulky tanks (though they are still vulnerable to magic, particularly water and electrical attacks).  One very fun element is the combo system - essentially, if your team uses several compatible moves on the same enemy back-to-back, you'll get a flashy animation where they all do their moves in quick succession, racking up a ton of damage and looking downright awesome in the process (and doing a variety of flashy combos with at least three people involved is actually necessary to defeat one boss).  Rather than one big, overarching story, this one goes for something of an anthology format - there are seven selectable characters, and while they all inhabit the same world and even meet many of the same characters on their journeys, each story is completely independent from the others, which lends quite a bit of variety and longevity.  I even really like the presentation - the excellent soundtrack (Kenji Ito once again), huge variety of characters and CGI backdrops that mesh elements of science fiction, colorful fantasy and even some modern settings like a massive hotel/casino give the world a bizarre charm that's a lot of fun to get lost in.  However, the game is hampered quite a bit by being rushed - several quests (particularly Blue and Asellus's) had large portions of planned plot cut out owing to time constraints, so encountering large leaps in difficulty and having to guess where to go next are both common occurrences.  Stories like T260, Red and Riki's are more complete and show off a ton of imagination, but it really is a shame that they couldn't get all that they wanted to do in there.  Still, when the game shines, it shines, and it remains one of my favorite PS1 RPGs to this day, so it gets an A.  That upcoming remaster that restores all the cut content, though?  That might just get an S.  I'll get back to you once it's released.

SaGa Frontier 2 (2000)

The title would seem to imply that this is a direct followup to the original Frontier in terms of style, but once you play it, you find that it's anything but.  In fact, it's the total opposite in almost every way.  The CGI backdrops and characters are replaced with sprites and hand-painted watercolor backgrounds.  The setting is a medieval fantasy rather than a science-fantasy world, putting emphasis on large-scale war battles and centering on the arcs of two main protagonists rather than a wider variety of characters.  The soundtrack this time is done by Masashi Hamauzu, who appropriately lends the game a more standard orchestral RPG flair.  But perhaps the largest changeup is the gameplay - while the combat system and random stat gains remain staples, the open world element is almost completely gone in favor of a structure that's almost entirely linear - you go from place to place at the whim of a strictly-enforced narrative, with the only real opportunity to explore coming in dungeons.  In fact, if the project weren't confirmably headed by Kawazu once again, I'd swear an entirely different team had taken over the series after seeing this one.  It's still a fun game, with a focus on story and character development rarely seen elsewhere in the series, but it barely fits in with the rest of the franchise in terms of design.  Still, it's worthy of a B.

Unlimited Saga (2003)

The first SaGa title released after the Enix buyout, and also one of their first games to get near-universal scathing reviews from critics and fans alike.  It isn't hard to see why after playing it for only a few minutes - the interface is unintuitive, the presentation as bare-bones as can be (SaGa has never been a big-budget production but this one feels especially cheap, with static maps and sprites and towns consisting mostly of text menus) and it really does a poor job explaining anything to you - the manual is about all you get, and even that fails to expand on some very important concepts like the crafting system or learning magic.  There isn't even a player's guide to bail you out, unlike every other Square Enix game on the PS2, so you were basically just on your own from square one.  It mostly plays like a tabletop game, albeit instead of dice rolls, you get slot machine reels - using attacks, casting spells, avoiding and disarming traps, and virtually every other action you can think of are all now dependent on spinning reels you can stop, though if your skills aren't up to snuff, they'll frequently wander and land you on a bad space anyway.  You can't even select what techniques you want to use, either - they just get placed on a slot on the reel and you have to land on it to use them, which is downright irritating (and makes them all but useless until you've gotten a lot of them).  Still, they were at least trying to make the most of this idea, as ill-concieved as it may have been - there are seven playable stories in the game that overlap at times, quite a few optional quests to undertake, a lot of interesting story and lore to uncover, and even some of the new mechanics are interesting - characters can be swapped in and out of battle mid-fight, and I thought the ability to customize them via the panel system was actually pretty interesting, if somewhat undercooked.  You can even place negative panels that give your character a severe disadvantage in exchange for a rather large stat boost, which is a pretty creative double-edged sword.  Hamauzu also provides the soundtrack again here and does a fantastic job, with some very strong orchestral tunes throughout.  So despite all its problems, Unlimited Saga isn't completely without merit - there are interesting ideas here, but it really needed some more time in the oven and a presentation worthy of the Square name to sell it to fans; an online tutorial or at the very least a Bradygames guide probably wouldn't have been a bad idea either.  I kind of enjoy the game for what it is despite all its problems, but I can't deny that it could have been much better, too.  So I'm giving it a D.

(And before someone asks: Yes, it's the only game in the series that doesn't use the uppercase "G" in the title.)

Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song (2005)

Released two years after the infamous Unlimited Saga, and as you'd expect, nobody really gave it a chance as a result.  They were missing out, though, as Minstrel Song not only learns from that game's mistakes, but provides a great remake of a game that draws a lot of cues from open-ended western RPGs like Ultima and Elder Scrolls.  While there are eight selectable characters in the game, this ultimately has little effect on much other than their opening quests.  Once you finish those, the game becomes almost entirely open-ended, having you travel the world, get quests and recruit allies, and generally just explore this massive fantasy world.  You do actually have to talk to townspeople quite a bit - not just to unlock quests, but to open new areas to travel to so that you can complete said quests.  They also do quite a good job balancing enemies to your level - I never felt overwhelmed upon entering a new area, and only on a couple occasions did I accidentally stumble into a boss monster that overwhelmed me and forced a reset.  Character customization is quite vast, working on an unconventional class system - you buy skills in package sets, then once you have enough, you can become a class, which grants you bonuses like being able to combine magic or gaining resistance to some types of status effects.  Once you have skills you can also purchase Proficiencies, which allow you to interact with the world in various ways - sneaking past enemies, gathering herbs and ore for crafting purposes, disarming traps, finding locked chests, climbing walls, and so forth.  You can change these up at any time in town, but get a limited number of actions per dungeon, so using them with some discretion is always wise.  This remake also incorporates a lot of elements from across the series, picking and choosing the best of all of them.  Weapons degrade with use, but do so more slowly as your skill with them increases (letting you use many of your techniques at little or no cost).  Combos return, as do more in-battle abilities like Reverses, Fulcrums and Surge Reverses that let you rack up the damage.  Kenji Ito also returns after a two game absence, bringing his hard-rocking sound to the game alongside the mellow tracks for towns and pubs, and it all sounds excellent.  Basically, it combines the western-style free roaming and gradual plot/lore revelations with a Japanese-style combat system, and it actually does a remarkably good job at both.  A very underrated SaGa game if ever there was one, it gets a B from me.

SaGa: Scarlet Grace Ambitions (2019)

The first new game in the series to see a western release in over fourteen years, so with that, you'd expect there to be a lot of confidence behind this one.  Well, it didn't sell great even in Japan (rather surprising for a SaGa game), but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good game.  On the contrary; Scarlet Grace is one of the best games in the series.  While it has a fairly mundane-looking flat map, battles are definitely very flashy, with large 3D characters duking it out.  Each turn you get a number of "BP" to spend, with more powerful attacks generally costing more, and each character is placed on a timeline and can be moved up or down it by using or being hit by certain moves.  Defeating a foe knocks a character off the timeline entirely, and if this causes two or more characters' turns to touch together on the timeline, they get a Unite Attack, which deals extra damage and makes their attacks cost less on the next turn.  This makes combat very dynamic and fun to watch and honestly ends up being one of the game's best components.  There are also quite a few optional quests to undertake, and upgrading weapons is handled by a crafting system (though thankfully, a much more straightforward and less grindy one than Unlimited).  There's quite a lot of land and lore to explore too, though oddly no dungeons to venture through (apparently cut for time constraints).  Still, the game is a lot of fun and has managed to get quite a few fans back on board with SaGa after they abandoned it in droves years ago, so it gets high marks from me.  An A for Ambitions.