When SaGa Frontier first arrived in March 1998, gamers hungry for a new
Square RPG rushed out to buy it -- and then rushed back in record numbers
the next day to return it. The frequently non-linear gameplay struck a
nerve with fans expecting another story-based epic, and the game's name
became almost synonymous with failure. It's easy to jump on that bandwagon
and trash the game for doing things differently, but a more objective
look reveals it may offer much more than the voice of the masses would
have you believe.
Ports provide links to other regions
Certainly, linearity holds less sway in SaGa Frontier than it does in
most RPGs. While you're still constrained to a set course of actions,
veering off the path to complete numerous side quests is both encouraged
and necessary to beat the brutally difficult bosses. Few areas are kept
off limits, so you're basically free to explore any location in your quest
for items and new party members. As the strength of non-boss monsters is
tied directly to your own party's capabilities, you'll rarely have to
worry about stumbling into the wrong place (and even if you do, the handy
one-touch Quicksave makes it easy to get back on your feet).
Exploring and building up your party is truly a great deal of fun in SaGa
Frontier. Not only are the game's various "regions" (ranging from a
high-tech floating city to a network of crystalline caves to an exceedingly
odd interpretation of Hell) diverse and beautifully rendered in CG
backdrops, they're all stocked with dungeons to explore, items to acquire,
and new party members to recruit (only a few characters join you
automatically; most of the 15 party member slots are filled with allies of
your choice). As your HP is recovered after every battle, you can stop
worrying about tedious healing and spend your time concentrating on the
adventure. SaGa Frontier retains all the charm and challenge of old-school
RPGs while managing to eliminate the tedious experience building (you
have no experience levels) and high encounter rates (you can dodge enemies
roving around the map) that plagued RPGs of yore.
The four types of characters grow and learn abilities differently.
Humans can select from a vast pool of weapon techniques (which are learned
spontaneously during battle) and magic spells, and are potentially the
most powerful characters. Mecs, on the other hand, start out powerful,
but can only grow by acquiring additional parts or absorbing programs from
enemy Mecs. Mystics, like humans, cast magic, but they possess no physical
attack techniques. Instead, they absorb enemies into their equipment
to gain new spells and attacks (think Brave Fencer Musashi). The most unpredictible -- and least useful -- of the bunch are Monsters, who can only advance by
eating defeating monsters and changing form completely. Keeping track of all
these factors proves to be a lot less difficult than it seems -- everything
"makes sense," and it doesn't take long to get the hang of things. Different?
Yes. Complex? Yes. Confusing? No.
A tad less intricate -- to put it lightly -- are the seven independent storylines
that can be selected. Except in Asellus's quest (which also features the
first gay couple in an RPG), character development is kept to a minimum,
and the stories are simple and easy to follow. This doesn't mean they're
boring, however: a number of interesting plot twists crop up in each
scenario. The stories also win points for originality. Instead of playing
as the usual idealistic youth saving the world from the Big Bad Empire or
Evil Demon King, you step into the shoes of a recently-unearthed robot
(T260), a superhero fighting an evil syndicate (Red), or even an ex-convict
trying to prove her innocence (Emelia). Though the seven scenarios share
a common world, they're basically separate -- a mysterious organization named
Trinity is often behind events, but always plays second fiddle to another
Meeting the designers
Therein lies a minor flaw with the game -- you never find out exactly what
Trinity is or what it does that makes it evil. An eighth quest that featured
the seven heroes teaming up to fight Trinity would have been a great
addition, though the game doesn't really suffer without it. Completing
all seven games instead opens up the 2nd Divison, a sort of "programmer's
room" where you can chat with the developers, refight any of the final
bosses, and listen to any of the game's excellent music tracks. Although it's only
entertaining for about twenty minutes, the 2nd Divison is still a nifty
celebration of all the game's worlds and characters, and all the trials
you've survived to reach it.
So what made SaGa so unpopular? The shared joy of collective bashing probably explains its failure best, but
the steep learning curve to the game world also shares the blame. The manual
offers only the most basic of gameplay advice, neglecting to mention how to
collect monster abilities and many other important facets.
Additionally, most beginners chose to start with Blue's quest -- and while
it's certainly the easiest quest, it's also by far the most non-linear, not
to mention the most boring. Blue's quest also contains the single worst
ending in RPG history: as soon as you deal enough damage to kill the final boss, the screen freezes with your last attack still visible and "THE END" appears.
If you couldn't stand SaGa Frontier the first time around, or
only tried Blue's miserable adventure, it's certainly worth a fresh look now. Grab a FAQ for some key pointers, start with
T260's quest, and SaGa's unique charms will likely hook you too. No, it
really wasn't that bad.
Retrospective by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA.
|SaGa Frontier FAQ
|66 world shots / 33 battle shots
|Character designs / 7 scenes / 11 character renders