Release Date: October 11, 2005
Squaresoft became known in the US for the Final Fantasy series, which was so overwhelmingly popular they slapped its name on completely unrelated titles when they were localized. In Japan, though, the series that put Squaresoft on the map was SaGa. Quirky, inconsistent, but consistently innovative, the SaGa brand has had a hard time finding an audience in American gamers. The two SaGa Frontier games for the PlayStation got a decent reception, but Unlimited SaGa for the PS2 received low review scores and absolute contempt from American gamers. The latest game, called simply Romancing SaGa, is a remake of the original 16-bit SaGa game that launched the franchise in Japan. This title has never been released in the US before in any form, and fans never even got around to making a translation patch for the original 16-bit game. With Romancing SaGa for the PS2, American RPG fans will get their first look at one of the greatest classics of Japan's 16-bit era.
From the first lines of dialogue to the menu-driven combat, there can be no doubt that this game started life as a 16-bit RPG. Some of the differences are really refreshing (when's the last time you played a turn-based RPG that gave you more than three characters?), and it is remarkable how well the game's largely untouched plot has held up. Romancing SaGa is the story of an epic world where evil is held in check by eight Fatestones that must be gathered by eight chosen heroes who slowly come to realize their true identities over time. In the meantime, they explore a gigantic world that's remarkably well-designed. Certain regions have unique languages, while others are home to multiple races. There's a bit of D&D influence all around, especially in the class names, but it feels less like a generic fantasy kingdom than even most modern RPGs.
The beginning of the game is different for each of the eight playable characters. Going through all of them would take an immense amount of time, so this preview took a look at the first four: Albert the young nobleman, Aisha the barbarian princess, Gray the mysterious warrior, and Claudia the ranger. Albert's storyline begins with his sister becoming engaged to Prince Neidhart, but his keep falling to an attack by monsters the next day. When he tries to escape with his sister, the two are separated. In Aisha's story, Neidhart appears to rescue her from powerful monsters, leading her to become an adventurer so she can see more of the wider world Neidhart represents. Gray's storyline begins when he, along with a few fellow mercenaries, head to the plains town of Jelton to try and strike it rich by raiding gold from dinosaur nests. Claudia's storyline is the one that held our attention the longest, as it begins with her saving one of the royal guards of Melvir from monsters in her forest home of Mazewood. The guard invites her to go to Melvir to find him again, and so she sets out with her companions Brau (a bear) and Sylvan (a wolf).
If you're starting to detect an overwhelmingly common theme in these stories, it's not just you. Aside from each character's personal quest, the game is entirely non-linear. Once you're past the first hour or so of gameplay, you can start doing whatever you like. This includes traveling through the world to find new characters to recruit, taking up unrelated quests, or just exploring as you see fit. The freedom is so total that it can actually be hard to figure out what to do next with certain characters, and sometimes brutally easy to get in over your head.
Combat progresses along the same basic lines as the original game, but the interface appears to be different and there seem to be more gameplay options open to the player. Each character has a certain set of weapon and defense skills, determined by their character class and how they've trained. At the beginning of each round, each character on both sides can take one action. The player characters will have their options constrained by their number of battle points currently available, which slowly increases every round. Simple attacks take no BP, while more damaging moves will require you to spend more.
In addition to this, some special attacks consume Durability Points, a stat associated with weapons. When all of a weapon's durability points are gone, then the weapon breaks and can no longer be used. Restoring DP involves either paying an extra fee at the Inn, or taking your weapon to a blacksmith for reforging. Similarly, some attacks will consume Life Points, a stat associated with characters. Every time a character uses an attack that consumes LP, or is reduced to 0 HP, that character loses a Life Point. When their Life Points reach zero, that character will die permanently. Fortunately, it's very easy to avoid losing Life Points and they can be restored by a free stay at the Inn.
Managing all of these various stats and picking attacks wisely is pretty much what combat comes down to. It can be a little dull early in the game, but picks up later on when you have more options open to you and more characters to pick from.
Graphically, Romancing SaGa is a beautiful game. While the poly counts are nothing to boast about, characters have expressive faces, the attack animations are beautiful, and the world itself looks fantastic. There are no traditional cut-scenes in Romancing SaGa, with story sequences instead using some paint-like shading techniques to give the impression of viewing a moving comic book. The game's score is outstanding, mostly consisting of improved arrangements of the original 16-bit songs. The musical style the score uses is very much in the vein of traditional video-game music, with sweeping faux-orchestral background music mixed with bouts of pure techno and new age.
There's definitely not a lot of RPGs that play like Romancing SaGa on the market these days, so PS2 owners and Square-Enix fanatics will definitely want to give this one a try when it comes out. The game manages to balance the retro gameplay and new graphics in interesting ways, and the music simply has to be heard. Romancing SaGa will be in stores in early October.
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