I don’t know what has been in the water at Square Enix the last few years, but I’m happy for it. The 8-bit and 16-bit Final Fantasy games can only be re-released and/or remade so many times, I suppose. We’ve received localizations of classic games I never thought we would see like Romancing SaGa 2 and Romancing SaGa 3. We’ve seen the latest SaGa, SaGa Scarlet Grace, get a release on new platforms and in new regions. Even the classic Game Boy games that kicked off the SaGa series (unbeknownst to those of us in the West at the time) got reissued on the Nintendo Switch. And now things come full circle, after a fashion. SaGa Frontier Remastered ($19.99) sees the very first game in the series that was localized under its original title make a return, hopefully to a warmer reception than last time.
What happened last time? Well, it’s complicated. To start with, SaGa Frontier is a SaGa game, with all that implies. It’s a very, very quirky series by nature, often confusing players with esoteric rules and non-standard systems. SaGa Frontier was the seventh game in the series, and as such it was built with the idea that the players would have a basic understanding of the off-beat nature that characterized SaGa. It’s considerably harder to get into than almost all of its predecessors. Western players didn’t have that context, of course. We missed out on the three Romancing SaGa games, and while the Game Boy games had their devotees they were also a bit closer to a familiar JRPG structure.
The biggest problem for poor old SaGa Frontier is that it was the first SquareSoft JRPG released after Final Fantasy 7 in the West. That game was something of a lightning rod for the genre in the West, pulling in people who had never touched a console RPG before. As “first" JRPGs go, Final Fantasy 7 was a great one. An exciting story, dazzling (for the time) 3D visuals, plenty of action-packed mini-games, generally forgiving difficulty, and easily understood mechanics. As “second" JRPGs go, SaGa Frontier was… less than ideal. There are seven different protagonists (eight in Remastered, but we’ll get to that) each with their own story, and no guidance as to which one a player should choose to start with. Some gorgeous art, but decidedly plainer than Final Fantasy 7. Difficulty spikes all over the place, and even some places where you can get stuck if you didn’t level properly beforehand. Bizarre, opaque mechanics from top to bottom.
Almost everyone who had found their love for the genre through Final Fantasy 7 bounced off of SaGa Frontier hard. The game got what would become the usual SaGa treatment from the West; it was seen as an annoying, confusing mess. Written off as not worth the time or money. The black sheep of the SquareSoft PlayStation RPG catalog. To quote one review from the time, a “depressing misfire". Over in Japan? It sold over a million copies, ended up being the 15th best-selling game on the original PlayStation, and was beloved. It was even included in the PlayStation Classic mini-console in Japan. Clearly, perspective affected people’s opinions of this game. So where is SaGa Frontier now?
To begin, let’s address what this remaster brings to the table, because it is relatively substantial. The biggest thing is the inclusion of an eighth main character, complete with his own storyline. Fuse was meant to be in the original game, but had to be cut along with one other character for time and disc space reasons. His scenario was a somewhat important one, as it would see him bob in and out of the other characters’ stories, tying the tales together. His implementation here is quite different from other characters. He basically has his own route for each of the other seven characters, giving you an alternate take on their stories. This helps flesh out the rest of the cast, and I suppose if there were any great purpose a new story in a remaster could accomplish, that is one of the better ones. Aside from Fuse, some smaller bits of content that were originally cut from the stories of a couple of characters has been restored.
Other additions include graphical touch-ups, turbo mode, improved equipment menus, and a few real game-changers like New Game+, a story synopsis that helps you figure out what you should be doing, and the ability to run from battles. New Game+ makes it a lot easier to play through the game with all of the characters, as each subsequent run will make you more powerful for the next. The story synopsis can help give direction to a rather aimless game, and the ability to run from battles can cut down on a lot of the combat. I caution you not to rely too heavily on these last two additions, as they will leave you in poor condition for some of the game’s challenges. All of these improvements are welcome and add up to a significantly better experience. SaGa Frontier Remastered is without question the best way to play this game.
Okay, but how about that game? Should you play it? Is it brilliant or is it bad? TELL ME, MAN OF THE FUTURE! I will answer your questions with a few questions of my own. Have you played a SaGa game before? Did you like it? Are you open to unconventional games? Are you fine with frustrating games? Do you get a kick of learning complicated systems so that you can break the game over your knee? If you’re hitting me with a bunch of “yes" answers, go for it. This is your jam. Eight characters, each one giving you about ten hours of gameplay, adding up to eighty hours of Kawazu Madness. The battle system and way characters develop will be familiar to anyone who has gone a few rounds with a SaGa game before, but beyond that this is a wildly experimental game in a series not known for playing it safe.
I like SaGa Frontier, but I’ve found myself growing increasingly fond of the oddities as I get older. I’ve played so many normal JRPGs. So, so many. When I get a big ol’ Kawazu Banana Cream Pie thrown in my face, it excites me rather than irritates me. It wasn’t always that way, but that’s how it is now. I like that I don’t know what’s going on immediately. I enjoy poking at the mechanics to figure out what works. I still don’t like it when I get painted into a nasty corner, and that does happen in a couple of places in SaGa Frontier, but I see it as a small price to pay for the more pleasant surprises that come with the irritations. You may not see things the way I do. I do not begrudge you for that. I once was you. This game is expensive. Don’t buy it just because I’m jumping around like a hyper-caffeinated squirrel. If you’ve tried a SaGa game before and didn’t like it, head for the hills immediately. There are SaGa games that may change your mind. This is not one of them.
The now-familiar SaGa systems that this game uses are enjoyable to me. Stats level up the more I use them? Sure. Learning new moves in the middle of a battle out of pure chance? Spark me up, friend. As for the presentation, I think the game actually looks gorgeous, and to an extent always did. The music? Hoo boy, don’t even get me started. Kenji Ito brought the fire, as he always does. I think the scenario system is a very cool concept, and while I’m not overly fond of every character (Lute, get in the corner and think about what you’ve done), I’m fond of enough of them that the “free scenario" set-up works. Each character’s story has a short enough run time that the game as a whole feels like a collection of mini-RPGs, and I absolutely love the new character’s angle on things. This game is a chaotic mess, but it’s my kind of chaotic mess. One of the characters is a superhero! What’s up with that? I love it. Start with Emilia, by the way. Thank me later.
Should you buy SaGa Frontier Remastered? I… I don’t know, to be honest. It is an immensely flawed game with so many rough edges you’ll sometimes feel like you’re juggling angry badgers covered in Captain Crunch. But there’s a real appeal to it, a method to its mess, and you can feel the heart that went into all of it, even the parts that don’t work. Especially the parts that don’t work. All I can really say is that if you’ve enjoyed a SaGa game in the past, you’re in the right place to get what this game is laying down. If you want a weird RPG, this could be your new obsession. If you just came off of playing Final Fantasy 7 and want something like it, stop now. Cease your attack. Go buy Final Fantasy 9 or something. SaGa Frontier Remastered, even with all of its improvements, isn’t here for the approval of the masses. It wants to make a couple of very good friends, even if it ticks off the rest of the room in doing so. You might be one of those friends. The odds aren’t in your favor, but when has SaGa ever cared about the safe bet?