If I were to ask you to name some of Square Enix’s well-known franchises, I would get your typical answers like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts, and the Mana series. It is hard not to think of these titles and others since we have either grown up with them or have been around them in different settings. But did you know that there is a Square franchise that has been going on since 1989 and is still ongoing? That franchise is the highly acclaimed SaGa series! …what? Have you never heard of the SaGa series before? That is not surprising since hardly anyone outside of Japan knows about the series. If you have heard of a game called The Final Fantasy Legend, then congrats, you have heard/played a SaGa game! Despite being a big franchise in Japan, players in the West have little interest in it. Rather it is the fault of the design of the games or looking like an uninteresting JRPG, the SaGa games are generally avoided; making so that no one really talks about them. Since no one talks about them, few resources exist that explain what they are. So, I am going to attempt to explain what a SaGa is and try to encourage some to give it a try. I am not an expert on the series (my first playthrough of Romancing SaGa was done in the absolute worst way possible), but I want to talk about my experience with the series, and what it took for me to fully appreciate the series for what it is.
What is SaGa?
Most of my information comes from the SaGa Wikipedia page. The SaGa series started out as Gameboy titles known as Makai Toushi SaGa. Over in the West, we would know this games as The Final Fantasy Legend. Being the first game to sell a million copies for Square, Makai Toushi SaGa would go on to get two more games before the series moved to the Super Nintendo with Romancing SaGa. Romancing SaGa was released in 1992 (in Japan) and really changed what other JRPGs were doing at the time by giving players more freedom than they were accustomed to. This change of style (and difficulty) was probably not going to do well in the West, so the Romancing games never made it outside of Japan. The West wouldn’t get to experience this new frontier until SaGa Frontier released in 1998 for the PlayStation.
SaGa Frontier release was meet with little fanfare. Despite coming from Square, players had mixed feelings about the structure of the game. That didn’t stop Square from releasing SaGa Frontier 2 in the west which received a better reception from reviews. The nail in the coffin came from the lowest rated SaGa game, Unlimited SaGa, that came out in 2003. Due to the difficult nature of the game, the series took a fall in the West. Not even the 2005 remake of Romancing SaGa was enough to convince westerners to play the series. While Japan received remakes and some new games in the series, it wouldn’t be until 2017 that a “new” SaGa game would be released in the west with a remaster of Romancing SaGa II. Since then, remasters of all SaGa games have made their first appearance in the West with the exception of SaGa Frontier 2 and Unlimited SaGa (if you don’t count the mobile game Imperial SaGa.).
So what made Romancing SaGa so different back then? This comes from how nonlinear the game’s story and progression is designed. Coined the Free Scenario system, players are able to choose between one of eight characters to set off in the world and progress how you like. There is no “set” path that you take in the game to reach the end, so players are free to choose how expansive or short their journey could be. Players will spend most of their time finding quests, recruiting new characters, and slowly build up their weapons and armor before the final confrontation. It was different at the time and could be a bit intimidating since most JRPGs at the time had some form of guidance to lead the player through the story.
Another big difference for the series is how you strengthen your characters. The series does not use any form of experience point system to level up your characters. What happens instead is that characters may be rewarded a stat increase to one of their attributes. Think Final Fantasy II but less exploitative. What many new players fail to understand (including me) is that your weapons and armor are what make you stronger in the end. The SaGa games try to discourage you from grinding since the rewards are little. This doesn’t mean that battles are completely useless. Characters who become proficient with their weapons can unlock new moves and skills. You can also learn combination attacks with other characters that can make the difference in battles. These are the true rewards in battle since strong attacks and combinations can make the biggest difference in tougher fights.
This Sounds Interesting, But Why Does It Not Sound Interesting?
The SaGa series has unfortunately never caught on as much in the West. The biggest complaint about the games that I’ve read about is the Free Scenario system. After playing through three of the titles (SaGa: Scarlet Grace, SaGa Frontier, & Romancing SaGa Remastered), it can get pretty confusing on what you need to do, and what decision is the right one. The games like to keep track of what you have done, but there are not a lot of hints to help new players progress in a meaningful way. There are resources available online to help new players, but since the player base is already small, finding specific information can be a challenge on its own. When you think of more linear RPGs, you think of tales about heroes fighting against the forces of evil and saving the world in the end. SaGa is no different from these games, except that it really requires the player to tell their own tale of how these characters got from point A to fighting an angry god who thinks a human can’t beat them for a second time.
Introduction to Series (Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song, PlayStation 2)
From my own experience, I know first hand how playing the games for the first time can be frustrating. My first experience with the series was Romancing SaGa for the PlayStation 2. I immediately became mesmerized by the music and art design. To me in 2020, this felt like returning to a classic era of early PS2 games. It sort of reminded me of playing Radiata Stories for the first time (another great game that needs to be remastered). I started off with Barbara since she seemed like the most normal person out of the bunch (this would be a slightly terrible decision that I wouldn’t realize until later). I set off and received my first quest to rescue a child from a cave. That is when the captivating spell wore off on me and I had to understand how the game works. The cave was a bit difficult for Barbara and her friend Herman to handle by themselves. I scouted the surrounding towns to see if I could recruit someone and found a friendly sorcerer to help out. I went back to the cave and made my way to the end, but there was no child for me to rescue. Upon returning to the child’s mom, I was surprised to see that she had a child accompanying her. She then informed me that another party came along and rescued her child, marking the quest as a failure in my journal. Since I left the cave and didn’t rescue the child quick enough, I lost out on the reward since someone else beat me to it. This is what it means when the game says that it is a breathing world. Events will happen whether you are there or not, so it is best to take on quests when you obtain them.
After a while, I cam across another quest that involved another cave. Without dawdling, I set off to the cave and made may way deep inside. I came across a tough enemy that promptly wiped my entire party out. Since auto-saving was not a feature in this version, I had to start all over again from the town that I was in and redo my progression. If I was playing this when it first came out, I would have the patience to learn from my mistakes. But in the year 2020, a game without an auto-save function or a means to save wherever you want kills the momentum swiftly. This made me put the game away and not attempt to play it anytime soon.
Third Attempt At Series (SaGa: Scarlet Grace – Ambitions, Nintendo Switch)
After failing at my first SaGa game, I wanted to try a different game to see if there was something I was missing. I tried the remaster of Romancing SaGa 2, but it didn’t hold my attention for long. I then came across SaGa: Scarlet Grace – Ambitions. This is technically the newest title from the SaGa team since Unlimited SaGa back in 2002. I was skeptical at first to give it a try, but the art style drew me in again. I am a sucker for storybook ascetics, and this game knows how to make the entire journey feel like a story. While it did take me a while to understand how this game functioned, I did manage to finish the game with one character’s story; making it the first game in the series that I finished. If I had to rate this game on how accessible it is for new players, I would say that this is the second game that I would recommend to them.
I am not going to spend too much time talking about this since I already did that in 2021 (my writing has changed completely since then). Just know that out of the other two games that I have finished, I found the most enjoyment out of this one. While there are choices to be made, I found myself engaged with figuring things out on my own and enjoying the story. The trial and error is there, but it never got too overwhelming that I couldn’t get past an obstacle. It holds up and an easy recommendation from me if you want to try out the series.
The Easiest Game In The Series (SaGa Frontier Remastered)
With one win under my belt, I decided to give another game in the series a try. This was around the time that the remaster for SaGa Frontier was coming out, and my research showed that people enjoyed this one.
Not going to lie, I really wasn’t feeling this one. From what I can tell, Square did a good job of improving this over the original. The one thing that I absolutely do not like is the art style. The game used prerender backgrounds in the original, and they did a good job of keeping that in tact. What I don’t like is how it clashes with the chibi mobile character sprites. I will be the first to admit that I do not like Square’s character designs for mobile ports of their games (Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest). The bright color palette doesn’t match well with the darker tone backgrounds and is just unpleasant to look at for long. The prerender backgrounds also make it hard to navigate some areas since it can be hard to tell if something is accessible or not.
With that out of the way, this is one of the easiest games to start off with. The only times I vaguely struggled were at the very beginning and the final boss for Emilia (I started with her). Other than that, the game went by really fast thanks to how linear and nonlinear it is. You do have free range on deciding where you want to go since all major areas are open to you at any time. The main difference with this game is that each character has a main story that is ongoing at all time. Your journal in this game will tell you specifically what you need to do in order to progress the story. It took a lot of the guesswork out since if I just wanted to do the story, I could just follow along and not worry about other things going on. It makes for one of the easiest games to finish since most stories can be done in less than a week. You still need to worry about finding weapons and armors to strengthen your team, but obtaining these items is less of a challenge in the previous games I’ve played.
It might not be the prettiest game in the series, but SaGa Frontier does a good job of focusing on the narrative of each character’s story. You are still free to go and choose to do the things you want to do, but it never becomes a hassle to get back to the main plot. That alone makes it my top recommendation for new players who want to give the series a shot. The game I would warn people about to do their research beforehand is the latest game that I finished.
Back To Where It Began (Romancing SaGa – Minstrel Song Remastered)
I got excited when I heard that this game was getting remastered (again). The moment I knew that this version was going to be better than the PS2 version was when I learned that you had the ability to save the game ANYWHERE! This made dungeons more forgiving since if my party wiped at any point, I didn’t have to start from the last town again. What is even better is that the auto save function will save after every battle that you do; meaning you can get back to where you were if you encounter a tough fight. This makes the game so much easier to see through the end. However, the game is just as hard as the original. While I found Scarlet Grace enjoyable, I found this title to be my favorite so far in the series. It isn’t the easiest game to figure out on the first go, but is rewarding when you do things right.
It wasn’t until I was halfway through my first playthrough that I realized that I had been playing the game the wrong way. I had been making my way through the game using very little resources that the game provides (I ordered a guide book, but it didn’t come in until I finished the game). When preparing for the final battle, I realized that my team’s weapons, armor, and spells were inadequate and made the final fight a struggle (until I booted an old file and redid my loadout). To anyone who wants to try this game, there are a few things that you absolutely need to know.
- DO NOT FIGHT/GRIND AT THE BEGINNING! This sounds odd since you are playing an JRPG. In order for your characters to get stronger, you need to fight enemies and increase your stats. That would be the case for most games, but Romancing SaGa semi punishes you for fighting every enemy you encounter. The game features a clock that keeps track of which events are available and have expired, but it also keeps track of how tough enemies will be. For each notch you progress on the clock, the enemies get tougher. The clock will only increase if you are constantly fighting, but it is also important to get to a certain point in order to progress to the final fight. New players are encouraged to avoid battles as much as possible in order to obtain better gear before doing necessary fights. This is something that the game doesn’t tell you and I only realized halfway through the game (when I was kicking everyone’s ass). The remastered version of the game allows you to slow the clock down if you would like to ease yourself into the game before cranking up the difficulty for future playthroughs.
- Pay attention to your weapon modes and classes. Another mechanic that I completely ignored were classes and weapon modes. Classes have their benefits for characters to become proficient with different weapons, magic, and field skills. What I didn’t know was that classes have unique abilities that are valuable when given to the right person. I had everyone in their beginning classes for the longest time until it dawned on me that I should change them. Along with this, some jobs work best when using weapons in a certain mode. Modes consist of attack, defense, and trick. If there was ever a reason why some of my characters would die instantly was because everyone was just in attack mode and I never considered giving them different weapons with different styles to compensate for certain fights. Which brings me to my next point…
- Study how enemies fight. Enemies have their own modes that are weak to different styles. Attack beats trick, defense beats attack, and trick beats defense. This was the one thing that I never paid attention to in battles, but it would have saved me a whole lot of time in certain fights. The helper in every town mentions this, but in a game with so many convoluted rules it just meant nothing to me at the time. You will need to observe your opponent to determine which type it is, but it gets easy to tell while fighting.
- Do not neglect quests. Quests give you good items. Items that will help turn the tide when you need it the most. Since your equipment will build your character, pay attention to what you find or what you could get.
- Use the blacksmith. Blacksmiths can change the mode of your weapon for a small fee. This is helpful if you want to have different weapons with different modes available at all times. Blacksmiths can also strengthen your common weapons to give them an extra umph.
- Do quests as soon as you get them. Once you hear about something, go ahead and start working on them. The rank clock also acts as a sudo event clock as well. Some quests will be unsolved if you take too long to complete them, or if the event clock reaches a certain point. I lost out at obtaining one of the fatestones since I waited until the last moment to get it.
- Do not start with Barbara. I love Barbara. Her character and journey was fun to experience. According to the guide book, Barbara has no tutorial to the game and just throws the player into the world to have at it. I never started the game with another character, so I did not know this. Most of my struggles may have been eased if I knew about this. The guide recommends starting with Albert since his tutorial does a good job of easing new players into the game.
These are my tips for anyone who wants to play this game. It can get confusing on how to go about things and to avoid unnecessary fights, but at its core, the game is rewarding for playing smart. Most obstacles in JRPGs can be solved by getting your characters to a certain level and winning by sheer force. Romancing SaGa doesn’t allow you to do that unless you’ve earned the right to do it. Even still, you will come across fights that you just can’t win with brute force alone. You have to change your tactics up a bit. Use certain techniques that will give you an edge. Learn how to anticipate how enemies behave and learn from your mistakes. It is a game of wits at the end of the day, and it is set to a difficulty level that I haven’t experienced in most JRPGs that I’ve played.
I hope this little post has been helpful in understanding these games. It is difficult to get someone interested in these types of games due to how difficult it is at first. My aim for this post was just to show that even if the game sounds confusing, it really isn’t once you understand how to play it. I would suggest finding the aspect of it that appeals to you the most. I probably would have given up on the series if the art, music, combat, and the feeling of playing an old school JRPG didn’t appeal to me. Chances are, none of this appeals to you and that is fine. I just wanted to spread the word about these games since no one seems to know that they are about. Hopefully this little reference was enough to give a general picture. Also please remember that I am still learning about these games as well and not a specialist on this series at all. Like I mentioned, I played these games in the worst way possible, but have learned with the bits and pieces that I’ve found.
Funny you mentioning those pre-rendered backgrounds in Square games. It was not being able to tell where I was supposed to go and the (non-stop)random enemy encounters that prevented me from ever getting past the church in the slums in FF7. 😅
It was only in the past 4-5 years that I’d even heard of the Saga games, but knew nothing about them. I was confused seeing Final Fantasy Legends being included with the Saga collection on the Switch.
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The one saving grace is that there are no random encounters in the games (unsure about Romancing 2 & 3). If I had to deal with random encounters in these games I probably would have a different opinion on them.
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Random encounters is one element of old school JRPGs that I DO NOT miss.
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