You know, up until recently I was operating under the general belief that most of the games that got passed on for an English release back in the day would be left to fan translations forever more. Sure, if there was a full remake like Final Fantasy V ($14.99) or Dragon Quest VI ($14.99) we might see it get brought over, but the originals? And even those exceptions came from big brands, which cut back on some of the risk of presenting an older game to a new audience for the first time. Then, bam: Romancing SaGa 2 ($17.99)! Trials of Mana! Moon Remix RPG!
Not all of those are coming to mobile, but we’re lucky enough to have gotten one of the finest jewels that Square left in Japan back in the 16-bit era: Romancing SaGa 3 ($27.99). This game originally launched on the Super Famicom in 1995, which was right around the same time Square put out Front Mission, Trials of Mana, and Chrono Trigger ($4.99). The year before that it had put out Final Fantasy VI ($14.99) and Live A Live. In short, this was one of Square’s finest eras, a period where the talented developers at the company were cranking out amazing hit after hit in the RPG genre. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Romancing SaGa 3 is the best game from that time, but it easily hangs with that crowd. But while most of Square’s RPGs were headed down the path of being easier and more friendly to the player, Romancing SaGa 3 is quite happy to beat the stuffing out of anyone who underestimates it.
That hasn’t changed in this remake. If anything, it might be even tougher for today’s audience, who are unaccustomed to conventions of the era. The gorgeous sprites may remind you of Final Fantasy VI and lull you into a false sense of confidence. And you know, the early going is pretty smooth. You choose one of eight characters, and as long as you don’t pick two particularly odd characters, you’ll find that the first hour or two of the game is surprisingly orthodox. Sure, the leveling system is a bit weird, with experience points tossed out in favor of designer Akitoshi Kawazu’s signature style of having random stats go up after battles based on usage. But it’s simple enough that you’ll be able to push through even if you play haphazardly. Even the penalty for a character running out of hit points is more lenient than usual for this series. You do have life points, but characters who run out can be recruited again later, and you can easily restore lost life points along the way.
Once you get into the game a bit, though, things get rough. From all angles, really. This game tells you very little and isn’t particularly interested in guiding you. It’s not going to explain anything. It’s incredibly open and non-linear, leaving it up to you to figure out what you have to do next and how to go about doing it. Sub-quests are all over the place, and towns that seemed to have nothing important in them might suddenly trigger something critical once your stats reach a certain threshold. It’s a confusing, disorienting experience compared to the theme park ride that Final Fantasy had already become by this time. And I love it.
This complexity extends to building your party and fighting battles. There are eight main characters, and each one will offer up a little bit more information on the story if you choose them as your principal lead. You can recruit more than 20 different party members, and each of them has their own talents and quirks. How the characters grow in terms of stats and abilities often comes down to random chance, as new skills pop off randomly in battles and get permanently added to that character’s list. Stats go up in very unpredictable ways, making it very unlikely that any two players will have similar party builds even if they choose the same characters. Somehow, you have to balance all of this and make sure you’re able to handle a variety of enemy types and set-ups. If you don’t, the bosses will make mince-meat of you again and again. This is a very unkind game, and I love it.
The story is really cool, with the set-up throwing around apocalypses and destined children before you’ve even taken your first step. While the main story doesn’t change much no matter who you choose, you’ll get a slightly different take on it depending on the character, giving you incentive to play the game a good eight times at least. Luckily, this remake adds in a New Game+ mode that makes that a lot easier to deal with. All of those random bits I was just talking about also help make replays more fun, as you may end up with a very different party build and have to adjust your tactics appropriately. Does the tale told here stand up to Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6? No, not really. But it’s quite interesting in its own way, and it’s a definite step up from earlier SaGa games.
In terms of presentation, the original game looked and sounded great for a 16-bit game and Square Enix has thankfully left it all largely intact with this new version. There are definite touch-ups here, but they’ve been done artfully and with a degree of respect I can only wish the Final Fantasy mobile ports had received. The translation… well, it’s in English. That’s a good thing. It’s not the best stuff I’ve read, and there are some awkward bits here and there, but it’s acceptable. A little better than Romancing SaGa 2, but not much better, if you know what I mean.
I love Romancing SaGa 3 because of its gameplay first and foremost. I find its character growth systems and party building aspects fascinating. I think its lack of guidance and overall opacity is thrilling. The challenging battles test my planning skills, and that’s sometimes just what I want from an RPG. Formations? Sign me up, friend. Mastering skills so that other characters with the same weapon can access them, giving me the smallest bit of agency in my party build? Yeah. Good stuff. Carefully measuring out my resources so that I can leg out a vicious boss who doesn’t play even remotely fair? Mm-hm. Dungeons that are actually there to tenderize you rather than reward you with bits of cheese? Neat.
Is that going to appeal to you? I don’t know. I cannot stress enough that this game is very difficult, and it isn’t going to offer you much help. I’ve heard some people like to play it with a guide and have fun with it that way, and if that’s you, that’s totally cool. I personally think it’s enjoyable to peel back the layers of odd games, and those of you who share my tastes will be in heaven here. It’s probably as approachable as any SaGa games has ever been, but even once you know what you’re doing, it’s tough.
That’s the final gate, really. You will certainly lose battles in this game. You’re going to lose progress now and then. Does that fill you with determination to overcome the challenge, or does that annoy you? If it’s the former, I strongly recommend diving into this treasure. Otherwise, you might have a better time replaying a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game. I think those who have patience and are okay with off-beat games will get an awful lot out of Romancing SaGa 3, and I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s out and accessible for a far wider audience at long last.