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May 2024

SaGa Emerald Beyond

Platform(s): Android, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, iOS
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: April 25, 2024


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PS5 Review - 'SaGa Emerald Beyond'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 24, 2024 @ 5:00 a.m. PDT

SaGa Emerald Beyond is a brand new entry in the SaGa franchise offers player freedom, strategic combat, singing robots and vampires!

One of Square Enix's longest running franchises, the SaGa series has existed in some form for several decades. Each game in the series tends to be relatively stand-alone and united by only a few things: a sense of nonlinearity, complex mechanics, and a raw dedication to not explaining these things so players can figure out things on their own. This makes the games difficult to get into at times, but it also means they're unlike anything else on the market. SaGa: Emerald Beyond is the latest entry in the franchise, and it's more accessible than ever, but it's still the same strange, charming and frustrating SaGa it has always been.

SaGa: Emerald Beyond is the story of several protagonists that are connected by their ability to travel between different worlds in pursuit of a goal. Tsunanori Mido is a puppet-wielding hero who needs to find special spirits to power up his puppets, Amaya Aisling is a witch seeking lost powers, The Dismal King Siugnas is a vampire who was dethroned and is seeking power to get revenge, Diva 5 is a singing android whose voice and memories were stolen, and Bonnie Blair and Formina Franklin are a buddy cop duo who travel between worlds seeking mysterious triangles.

You're not going to get a clear picture of the story in Emerald Beyond in a single playthrough. Characters have different plot paths depending on how you handle things, and story events may be referenced in one path but shown in another. Missing clues and flags can lead to early unsatisfying endings, and occasionally, you'll only get a real idea of how the world functions when you've seen alternate versions of it. Even "good" endings can be downers, and occasionally, your heroes seem callous or cruel.

I like it, but you can easily stumble into a bad situation. For example, when doing Amaya's storyline, I prioritized the wrong thing and found my quest ending early in a way that seemed sudden and surprising. Doing it again in a different way led to an entirely different path that had its own flaws. I didn't fully get the story of Amaya until I was working on storylines for other characters.

What carries Emerald Beyond is its humor and charm; it's a frequently funny and bizarre game. You might run into an alien-obsessed reporter, a series of scarecrows with a single personality trait each, a weirdly obsessive ax-wielding maid who loves death metal, a literal werewolf, a sailor raised by pirates trying to do the right thing, or a cat. Yes, just a cat. All of them have their own weird stories, and many of them can join your party, leading to some of the strangest groups I've ever had in an RPG. At one point, my party was comprised of the buddy cops, a singing robot, the aforementioned death-metal maid, and Queen Guinevere, with my side party being an undead robot and three different cats.

Combat in Emerald Beyond is an evolution of the combat in Scarlet Grace. Combat takes place on a timeline. Both sides have a limited number of BP that it can spend to engage in an action on that timeline, with BP shared among all party members. More powerful skills and abilities cost more BP, so you may have to decide between attacking with several characters or doing one big attack with one character. Once both sides have set up their timelines, a round of combat starts, and combat continues until one side falls.

It sounds simple, but it rapidly gets more complex. Each ability takes up a certain number of spaces on the timeline. If two characters' lines are touching, they engage in a United Attack where they attack consecutively for increased damage. The more lined up, the more damage you do, and if you engage in a long enough combo, you can gain a free "overdrive" combo for even more damage. However, the same thing applies to enemies, which means you need to aim for combos while preventing enemies from getting their own combos. As if that weren't enough, if any unit has two free spaces on either side of them, they can engage in a Showstopper attack; this means they can do a combo with themselves, so even if you're only facing one foe, you need to be careful of them getting enough free space to do a combo.

It only gets more complex from there. Moves can have different attributes that impact the timeline. Units can have defensive abilities that nullify attacks, Interrupt or Pursuit attacks that trigger in response to an enemy's action, Quell attacks that can stop the previous attacks, magic attacks that take multiple rounds to cast, Distract attacks that make magic attacks take longer to cast, and more. Units learn new attacks in battle and can equip multiple types of weapons, and those weapons can have hidden techniques. If you have a specific skill, some weapon types can be dual-wielded. It's a lot.

The game doesn't do the traditional "healing" mechanic. Healing skills are insanely rare and are more of a self-heal ability. Combat boils down to defeating enemies as quickly as possible. Being defeated in battle loses you a Life Point (LP), and if your character loses all their LPs, bad things happen. LPs can be replenished relatively easily, and some units even use LP as fuel for attacks, adding an extra layer of balance to the combat. Even if you lose a fight, you can restart it at a small LP cost, and there are even fights you can lose without a game over.

This is where the variety of different player species comes into play. While humans are the most common units in the game, they're far from the only ones. Humans are defined by their ability to "Glimmer" new techniques in battle and learn custom techs only humans can use. Ephemerals can Glimmer and evolve in battle but have low LP, but if they reach minimum LP, they reincarnate with new skills and abilities. Mechs can't learn skills but unlock new abilities based on what they have equipped. Monsters learn skills by beating other monsters. Vampires can enthrall allies to learn new skills and improve their own LP, and Thralls can be promoted into Knights, who function as pseudo-vampires.

The key is that it's a ton of fun. There are so many elements to keep straight, and when you pull off a lengthy combo of chain attacks, interrupts, delays and monster abilities, you feel like a genius. On the other hand, when you make a mistake and accidentally defeat the one enemy who was stopping a boss from getting a Showstopper technique and wiping out your party, you feel like an idiot. Despite a relatively small number of enemy types, the combat is challenging enough to remain exciting and engaging because almost enemies function under the same rules as your own party.

As mentioned before, Emerald Beyond is divided into various worlds to explore, each with its own story. The "Emerald Wave" scan function shows mandatory and optional paths in addition to small text dialogue that hints at what you'll face. Sometimes it's dialogue, sometimes it's puzzles, and sometimes it's a fight. Don't mistake this for linearity, though. Each area has its own plotline that is often impacted by what you do in the area. You may have to choose one path over another or figure out the correct order of places to go. There are some adventure game elements to it, and sometimes, it feels like we're playing something like Phoenix Wright rather than a standard RPG.

To add to that, there's not just one path for worlds. Revisiting worlds might lead to the same path, or it might lead to something entirely different. One time I went to a pirate world, and it was a standard adventure, but the next time, it was a spooky ghost pirate story. I went to a world ruled by an evil emperor, and the emperor's identity seemed to change every time. In one adventure, someone was a villain and in the next adventure, they were a hero. Generally, the basic ideas and relationships are the same, but the details behind them are different. Even the order you play through the protagonists seems to impact things. When I tried one group before I finished Diva 5's adventure, they recruited a cute little robot. When I tried it afterward, they recruited Diva 5 herself.

While the randomness is fun, it has a negative impact in that you're forced to sit through a lot of the same scenes for each different character, with some minor dialogue differences. Generally, if a character has to go to a world, it has some unique elements for them, but even a lot of those unique elements tend to overlap with the standard plotlines.

This is probably going to be the biggest barrier to enjoyment. If you don't mind that or you enjoy puzzling out the clues to find branching paths and deviations, then you'll be fine. However, if the idea of repeating content multiple times sounds frustrating, you'll probably get bored after a couple of characters, despite the extremely strong combat system being a lot of fun.

It doesn't help that Emerald Beyond is clearly a very low-budget game. The presentation is largely told through simple pop-up-style cut scenes on storybook-styled maps, of which there are only a handful. The battle models for allies and enemies are basic, and a number of them are recycled (if updated) from Scarlet Grace. It is certainly charming, but it's feels odd to play a game in 2024 where characters' mouths don't move when they speak during a close-up.

The soundtrack is excellent. The ridiculously good songs do a lot to keep things feeling exciting and engaging. The voice acting may be the most mixed bag I've ever encountered. Some voice acting is excellent, and some is genuinely awful. Scottish robot Diva-5 gains a lot from her acting, while Mido sounds awkward to the point of distraction.

SaGa: Emerald Beyond is easily one of the most accessible and easy-to-play SaGa games ever released, making it a solid evolution over SaGa: Scarlet Graces with an improved combat system and more focused area design. At heart, it's still a SaGa game, and that means it is frequently obscure, often confusing, and is unashamed of making you miss content without explaining why. Combine that with the low-budget visuals, and it seems like it's destined to be a love-it-or-hate-it game. Despite that, if you're curious about SaGa, Emerald Beyond is probably the best place to start to see if the eccentric series is right for you.

Score: 8.0/10

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