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Ahead of It's Time - SaGa Frontier

Ahead of It's Time

Blue, one of the 7 heroes of the 7 storylines, gets cover duty.

Release Date: March 24th, 1997

First thing: Fuck you SaGa Frontier 2 and your beautiful watercolor painting graphics. You made it a pain in my ass to find screens for SaGa. Because people wanted to post screens of you. Because you're pretty. And generally a better game, too. Jackass.

Welcome to the second review in my series. My first review was Legend of Mana. The next reviews are Gunstar Heroes, followed by The Lost Vikings.

SaGa is oozing originality. Absolutely oozing it. Which makes it a damn shame that some of these mechanics lack polish. From the 7 stories, to LP, to the massive variety of environments, to the "monster" system, to quicksave, to the general leveling. This game has more originality in 1/7th of itself than most games do in an entire trilogy.

SaGa "suffers" from the same affliction as Legend. It was too open and non-linear. But it also suffers from a few new ones. And not in a good way. Let's get the big one out of the way.

SaGa Frontier has enemy scaling.

Yes. That most hated aspect of Oblivion, Final Fantasy 8, and a few other RPGs. Now, this may turn you off immediately, but I beg you to read on, at the very least. I will touch on this later, I assure you!

140 hours of gameplay. HOLY. FUCK.

If you read the captions to the first pictures, you should have an inkling about how the game's structure. There are 7 characters to choose from, each with their own unique storyline. Blue, a mage sent to kill his evil twin, Rouge. Red, a superhero (with secret identity!) tackling an evil corporation. Emelia, a prison escapee seeking revenge. Riki, a monster collecting magic rings to save his people. T260G, an amnesiac robot searching for his purpose with the aid of a drunken swordsman. Asellus, a half-mystic (think vampires) struggling with her identity. And Lute, a musician looking for adventure with his ogre friend, Thunder. Beat all seven plots for a treat. Sadly, I have never managed to beat all of them. I will not lie to you. Actually, I only beat ONE of them. I am reviewing a game that I have not completely finished! But I still sunk over 100 hours into it. And I sorta beat it, if you count one character as beaten. So, fuck it. I'm qualified! As for Red's secret identity, he can't transform in battle until all humans and monsters are KO'd. I guess he reprograms the robots or something, despite his lacking intellect. I thought it a nice touch, as he's usually the last one standing in such scenarios, anyway. Also, these stories rarely interconnect, with one major exception. Rouge, Blue's twin, is recruit-able by some of the other characters, and functions exactly like Blue. And he says nothing. In fact, the entire game lacks in characterization for nearly all but the main squad of 7 and their close friends. There are dozens of recruit-able characters, each with very little to say beyond a presentation of a general personality and name. One of the characters is a random Slime monster than never says or does anything, and is never commented on. This is not a game you play for the deep characterization. But there is a lot of variety in what's here. From a creepy back-alley doctor, to an experimental monster, to a skeleton king, to a space dragon, to a mystic time lord, to a fucking phoenix.

CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER! No, really. This is the character select screen.

Now, I'm going to explain the systems mentioned earlier. LP stands for "Life Points". SaGa is one of those RPGs that restores you to full health after every battle. But LP is important. Every time you are KO'd in battle you lose 1 LP. Enemies can still target the corpse in battle, to drain another LP. If a character loses all LP, they die. Forever. Perma-death. If the hero runs out of LP, it's Game Over. Restoring LP is near impossible, as it utilizes "Life Candy", and incredibly rare item that I found maybe once per character. The variety of environments is prevalent the moment you get to your first town port. You get a list of a large number of locations to visit. Each with their own quests and characters. Some quests overlap between characters, like the magic "gift" quests. (More on those later!) The game can be confusing about where to go at times, but the areas themselves are rather small, and enemies are visible on the field and can be avoided, alleviating some frustration while searching for your goal. Why some later Squaresoft titles STILL insisted on random battles is beyond my understanding. Quicksave isn't quite as simple as hitting a key. But it's functional, and allows you to save outside of town. One warning, though. Upon reloading it, it is immediately deleted. And it uses a memory block. In fact, each normal save uses 2. And with 7 characters, that's 14 blocks. PS1 cards had 16 blocks. This game requires an entire memory card!

Art of Asellus, the only story I managed to beat.

Onto the combat and leveling, the most important part of any RPG for me. I can handle a bad story and characters, but if these don't interest me, I'm out of there. This is a very interesting system, with no clear "levels". After every battle, humans randomly level in a stat, monsters transform into myriad forms with massively different stats after absorbing a dead enemy to learn a new skill, and for robots...nothing happens. As mentioned, HP regenerates after every fight. WP and JP, do not. WP is used for physical skills, JP for magic. Inns are generally free, and restore these. Learning new skills comes with practice. Use a gun, learn gun skills. Use fists, learn fist skills. Also, fists do not suck. The ultimate move is learn via good old fisticuffs. Magic works the same way, to a point. You can learn the base spells after buying only the first. But then you need to obtain the "gift" for it via a quest, and obtaining the gift for one type makes you unable to get the gift for another. Light magic requires you to go through a mirror puzzle labyrinth, Shadow magic to face shadows of yourselves, Rune and Tarot each require treks to 4 locations. Blue and Rouge have exclusive access to Mind magic's counterpart, Realm. Combination attacks can be randomly triggered by the party, with certain attacks more likely to combo than others. Speaking of higher tendencies, some characters are better at learning skills with certain weapons types than others. Monsters learn skills via absorbing enemies, with a cap to the number of skills to ensure they don't become over-powered. Time for the enemy scaling...

I am obviously a villain of some sort!

Enemy scaling is SaGa Frontier is very poorly implemented. Balance can shift between you being over-powered, to you being slaughtered in as little as an half-hour. Combine this with the fact that SaGa is a rather hard game to begin with, and permadeath, to make a recipe for disaster. In Riki's story, you are even forced into a fight with a group of Magma Slimes, which take away LP with every attack, regardless of damage, and Riki has the lowest LP of any main character. That's where I gave up in his story. This game isn't the hardest RPG out there by a long-shot, but save often and be ready for some frustration. Oh, and many of the bosses aren't scaled to you. They're often tougher. There's your kick in the groin.

It IS a cafeteria, Emelia.

Unlike Legend, I can't really recommend SaGa to most people. The game is ludicrously long, full of unbalanced difficulty, and I couldn't even manage to beat more than 1 story in 100 hours. The game suffers from incredibly poor direction and over-non-linearity. I didn't even think that phrase possible. Repetitive side-quests for each character, like the magic gifts, also drag it down. Overly difficult bosses that aren't scaled to you mean that you can easily find yourself overwhelmed when you do track down your goal. Especially Lute, the most story-free and non-linear character. Oh dear god...Lute can be in the final dungeon of his "story" within 30 minutes, getting raped by everything.

If you are willing to suffer to play something truly original, give SaGa a try. It's about $20 for a used copy online. But please, keep a guide or FAQ handy. If you like the sound of the combat, play that bitch-ass, pretty, overall-better SaGa Frontier 2 I mentioned. Combat is the same, with a linear narrative and pretty graphics. I'm sure to review that game someday, too. It was pretty Ahead of It's Time in other ways. It was also my first encounter with bitch-ass weapon degradation.

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About Onyx Oblivionone of us since 8:09 AM on 07.14.2010