Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song
The SaGa series is a lot like the Final Fantasy series in a number of ways. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the golden era of Squaresoft and its catalog given the series’ roots being marketed at first as Final Fantasy Legend on the Game Boy. When game designer Akitoshi Kawazu joined Square and helped in the development in the first two Final Fantasy titles, he may not have specifically known that he was going to end up in charge of directing another one of the company’s longest running series when he was made the director of the Legend series.
Romancing SaGa hit the Super Famicom back in 1992, creating a niche in the role-playing genre that was off-beat enough to stall the series from reaching US shores under this name and with its current mechanics until five years later with SaGa Frontier. After the relative success of that game and its sequel, the company got to work on bridging into the next generation of gaming on the Playstation 2 with two more SaGa titles under the banner- Unlimited SaGa and a title simply known as Romancing SaGa.
Being familiar with the infamous reputation of Unlimited SaGa, I recently decided to turn my attention to Romancing SaGa (with the silent subtitle of Minstrel Song, I assume to discern just a bit further between the PS2 version and the original) as it’s been sitting in my collection for some time. The first time I attempted the game, I was lost. I hadn’t gotten the first idea of how to proceed even having been a fan of SaGa Frontier at the time. I’ve grown a bit since then and have had a lot of exposure to the series; I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am for the release of Romancing SaGa 3 coming to us soon. In my excitement and with new information under my belt regarding how to proceed with the series, I decided to give Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song another whirl.Plot
The world of Mardias has been at some kind of peace for a time now. It’s not perfection, nor has it always been. Minstrels and scholars still tell tales of a time when a number of gods waged war upon one another, vying for power and dominion over the others and Mardias itself. The conflict came to an end, however, when a brave soul took it upon himself to retrieve the Fatestones, powerful relics that granted him the strength to take on the gods and bring their fighting to an end at the cost of his life.
Over the next 1000 years, the lands of Mardias have lived in general serenity. There has always been an uneasy feeling that the wars of old could be waged again; history does have a way of repeating itself, after all. A number of kingdoms and people of the land have taken up the mantle to keep the world safe from that recurrence, training armies and learning the secrets of sorcery to understand how to take care of the situation should another war find itself on the horizon. Lately, there have been whispers of one of the nefarious deities throughout the general public, causing that uneasy concern to grow.
With the great hero, Mirsa, who once journeyed for the Fatestones and saved the world from destruction now among the pantheon of the gods of Mardias himself, the time has come for a new hero to forge a path to stop the spread of Saruin’s influence before another war can break out. The louder the whispers become, it seems, the sooner Saruin’s influence will wreak havoc on the world and should he be set free, there may be no one able to stop him.
The beauty of Romancing SaGa’s open-world format is apparent from the start of the game. After passing the title screen, the player is asked to choose the main character from eight, each with their own innate strengths and angle on the story. While I chose reserved woodland ranger, Claudia, other choices include an aspiring knight, Albert, wandering dancer, Barbara, and smart-aleck thief, Jamil, to name a few. Each character has their own introduction to the story before the world opens up before them, and each facilitates how different quests can be interacted with. While the main story remains the same, different allowances and story beats will be shown depending on the character’s connection to them.
Once a character is chosen and their introduction is out of the way, that’s it. The world is your oyster to crack. Every place you go in Romancing SaGa has to be discovered through conversation or meeting characters associated with the place. All of your quests are found by talking to people at pubs or on the streets and are recorded in a ‘Quests’ section in your status screen so that you can see where you’ve gotten with them. The thing to remember about the game, however, is that the world actually does keep moving as you journey. Seeing certain events, participating in battles, and completing quests will push forward an invisible meter called the ‘Event Rank’. When the Event Rank reaches a certain level, it will unlock certain quests and in some cases, lock them out, making them unable to be completed as whoever was behind it may have already done what had to be done or you may have been too slow to retrieve an item that is now lost. It’s not an easy system to get a handle on and it’s a bit unpredictable.
As you travel, you can add any allies willing to help you on your adventure to your party, furthering the customization of the game. Leveling them up brings another level of personalization. Much like Final Fantasy II, characters level up by using the skills you want them to be better with: if you want a magician, teach them magic in town and have them use it in battle, and if you want a brutal tank fighter, through some hefty armor on them and have them swing around a greatsword for a bit. As they continue on, their associated stats will level up quicker and they’ll learn skills that will randomly unlock (called “Glimmers”), making them even better at what they do. The combat mechanics get complex- there are Counters, Surges (which make attacks unavoidable), and Combination attacks that you can stumble over as time goes on.
The Good, The Bad, And…
I suppose starting with the potentially ugly here is the best way to continue. From the gate and the description, Romancing SaGa is not for everyone. The game focuses on a lot of randomized stat growth rather than levels, the battle system is a bit complex, and exploration and talking to the right people about the right things can be a pain if you’re more used to the usual JRPG fare. If you think of the game more like a CRPG like Baldur’s Gate or Pillars of Eternity, you may get more of an idea of how it plays and whether you’ll enjoy it or not. The fact that the game is an RPG from Square Enix tends to create dissonance on this for fans of the genre, creating a solid base of people who dislike the game.
Now, the beauty of the game lies in those same mechanics, one, in particular, being that the world of Mardias feels alive thanks to the Event Rank system. One notorious quest in the game involves trying to time an attack on a large nigh-unbeatable creature before it can awaken and cause chaos. If you manage it correctly, you can catch it in its dwelling, making it easier to dispose of. If you don’t, it will rampage across a section of the map, decimating a number of towns and rising to its full strength, becoming the equivalent of an optional superboss. The forces of evil don’t wait for you to grind and while there are some solid story points you can’t miss and you can always make it to the end of the game if you skip events. The world keeps going, though, with or without you sometimes.
That said, the lack of guidance can be frustrating at points. Given that you can’t necessarily just explore and trip into the final dungeon since you have to wait for the Event Rank to unlock it and (as a free tip) keep checking in with the wandering Minstrel who shows up in each town to find your way into the endgame, the real problem arises with what to do once you feel like you’ve done everything you can. Some of the quests are repeatable and eventually, just by wandering and chatting, you’ll find something to do to push it forward. I haven’t heard of one person who hasn’t run into the issue of just running around, hoping something would progress somewhere. Sometimes, the quest notes don’t do much to help either. While I enjoyed the game, if you don’t have the patience to wander around throughout the same locales over and over to see if you missed something, the game can understandably be off-putting and feel unnecessarily unfair.
Slowly but surely, Kenji Ito is becoming a favorite composer of mine, and Romancing SaGa’s soundtrack may have solidified him into my top three video game composers at this point. The music in this game is now one of my favorites on the Playstation 2. Even the worst tracks are “a little weak” at best. The sound effects are also spot-on with every sword strike and spell cast lending to the fervor of the battles throughout the game. The audio design in this game is exceptional with the only weak point being that the voice acting can be a bit over the top at times.
The graphics in the game are A-plus work, too, with every locale and character feeling like they were painted in watercolor then digitized to work into the game. While all of the art is beautiful, though, the game doesn’t seem to be able to decide on a distinct style for cutscenes as some are framed in white with stills depicting the ongoing action while some are beautifully drawn line art and watercolor. Plenty of them are also just the models in the environment they are in, even some of the important ones. The game is gorgeous, if not a bit fragmented in its approach.
So long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Romancing SaGa is a masterpiece and a fresh new experience in comparison to plenty of other turn-based RPGs. The world of Mardias feels vast, even though you only get to explore sections of it, and the freedom of choice and direction are refreshing. If those sound like obstacles to you in an RPG, it may be worth passing by any of the SaGa games, really.
Even if they sound like alluring concepts, though, it wouldn’t hurt to keep a walkthrough close. The game can teeter from a walk in the park to abnormally hard as a result of this freedom and for those of us on a time budget, even the 30 or so hours spent with a guide handy in the game are precious. On top of that, completing the game with a character unlocks bonuses so that you can play through with the other seven as you would like, opening the game up to easily be over 200 hours worth of gameplay for stalwart completionists who fall in love with it.
If you do decide to take the chance, though, the game is beautiful and a testament to what a fantastic company could do with the hardware of their system and a dedication to achieving greatness with a remake even if we didn’t get the original. The font may be a bit tough to read and the sentence structure and syntax is a bit off, but Romancing SaGa is a love letter to the JRPG genre that is worth a try if you can get your hands on it.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers
Whatever your journey winds up being in Romancing SaGa, the game does something incredibly well that I couldn’t go into much detail regarding in the initial review because it can get a bit plot point heavy, and I hate taking chances of ruining a game- especially if I recommend it.
From the beginning, you get the sense of your character’s place in the world. For me, it involved Claudia making her way out into the world outside of her home, the Mazewood, and finding her place in it. Her introduction sets her up perfectly as a character who knows very little outside of her forest and she even comes with two predetermined party members, Sylvan and Brau, a wolf and bear who have been her companions since she was young. When she eventually leaves the Mazewood, her preliminary tale appears to be over. She has been established. She has plot points that will uncover some of her secrets as the game goes on, but her introduction feels self-contained.
There is no mention of Saruin, however. In fact, there is no mention of any of the gods for some time until the well-known tale about Saruin and the other gods fighting comes up through conversation and a bit of exploration. The actual conflict that the game builds to is not mentioned outright- for a time.
I imagine this is about the same for each other character, but as Claudia, I started out with small tasks here and there: finding reagents or a book for someone, stopping some thieves from dipping into the royal treasury, clearing out some creatures from a cavern. It’s all typical role-playing “beginner” quests. The first time there is any mention of something greater, it revolves around a missing girl, presumed to have run away from home. When she is found, a small group of people is attempting to capture her under the name of Saruin. It’s foreboding, but easy to handle and the next few quests I fell into had no mention of this god or any other ones being involved. It feels like a strange isolated incident until there is another quest involving a group who nearly succeeds in sacrificing someone to Saruin. Then, you find some creatures who are wreaking havoc, Saruin’s name coming up in conversation at some point or another during the quest. It all feels negligible until it’s not.
Before you know it, a group of pirates is attacking a major city with creatures of Saruin in tow. A creature who stole souls in his name reappears in the wild, corpses suddenly appearing as a result. The plot builds in such a way that you can see the oncoming adversary’s influence growing, and you truly feel like you’re just throwing sandbags against the tide to stop it from flooding the world before you can put an end to it. It’s a major reason I fell in love with Romancing SaGa, despite its format and structure being tough to master. The scope of the story grows from microcosmic to planetary gradually and organically rather than just throwing an end game objective at the player from the beginning and waiting for them to run the course to the finish line.
Of course, Romancing SaGa clearly has the same thing in mind. No matter what, if you reach the end, you’ll face off against Saruin to save the world. It’s the illusion of the trappings around it that really makes the game a special offering to genre fans.