SaGa Frontier II

   Square's initial announcement of a sequel SaGa Frontier didn't turn very many heads in North America. Though a massive success in Japan, SaGa Frontier's creative gameplay elements received a cold reception from North American audiences unwilling to accept anything out of the ordinary. As more information surfaced on the sequel, however, gamers realized it was a different beast entirely -- SaGa Frontier 1 was based mostly on the Game Boy SaGa games, but SaGa Frontier 2 draws its inspiration from the more recent Super Famicom Romancing SaGa trilogy. The result is a pair of games that are nearly polar opposites: where SF1 was futuristic, battle-oriented, and relatively relaxed in letting players explore, SaGa Frontier 2 is medieval, story-oriented, and extraordinarily linear.

   The two games share a few things in common, though, such as their skill systems. Much like SaGa Frontier, characters receive new weapon techniques on the fly. Using a generic attack sometimes prompts a character to unleash a brand new technique. The skill is then added to your collection and can be used by all the characters in the game (a change from SF1, where each party member had to learn all the abilities on his or her own). Techniques are divided into six types: Martial, Sword, Axe, Spear, Staff, and Bow; a high proficiency level with the appropriate category is a prerequisite to learning the higher-level skills. (Boosting your weapon skill level also raises a character's raw attack power with that type of weapon.) Characters come already skilled with one or two weapon types, so it's highly unlikely that you'll need to go out of your way to train them -- and given how frequently people join and leave your party, investing much effort into powering up individual characters is a waste of time anyway.

Running Slash Duo Attack!
Yes, combos are still useless

   Magic is handled a bit differently than it was in SaGa Frontier 1. Spells are now divided into six Anima categories -- Tree, Stone, Fire, Water, Tone, and Beast -- and almost every weapon and accessory is associated with one of the six types. To cast a spell, you must have all of the encompassed Anima available somewhere in the caster's equipment. (Most spells are a combination of several different elements -- Bushfire, for example, requires both Tree and Fire.) And as with weapons, there are six different skill levels to gain experience in. It's a simple but effective system, and ensures that characters will have to divvy up magic duties -- no character stays in your party long enough to attain a high skill level in all six areas.

   One battle addition is less welcome, however. Almost all weapons wear out after a set number of uses (only "story" items are exempt). These limits are often extremely restricting; powerful weapons tend to wear out after a mere 15 to 20 strikes. Items can be repaired for an exorbitant cost at certain stores, but money is so hard to come by that you can rarely afford this luxury -- especially when you could buy a new weapon for nearly the same price. With weapon upgrades so spendy -- and fleeting -- you'll probably play through most of the game with basic, low-level items that you collected from dead monsters. Given that your weapon use is already limited by your WP (Weapon Points), consumable weapons just add a needless layer of micromanagement to the game.

RPG characters and their phallic symbols -- on the next Jerry Springer!

   Conventional battles aren't your only method of battle; before many encounters, you can elect to pit one of your characters in head-to-head combat against a single monster. These duels use a system similar to Legend of Legaia: each round, you select from various attacks ("Slash," "Charge," "Cleave," etc.) to form a chain of four moves. All of the weapon techniques have a corresponding chain of moves in duel mode that activates that move -- for example, the "Slash," "Backslash," "Cleave" chain casts "Slice and Dice." Between battles, you can check the duel mode chains for skills you've already learned, but there's no way to consult this list during a duel, a rather glaring oversight that makes duels much more of a chore than they should have been. On the other hand, new skills can also be learned during duels -- if you guess the right chain of moves, the skill will instantly be added to your list. In general, duels are a convenient way to smash through weaker enemies (or to level up a specific character), but are far from a major part of the game.

Mist Valley
help i'm in mist valley and it's full of mist

   A few turn-based strategic battles also pop up from time to time. In these, you move teams of four characters about a small grid-based battle map. Some teams include one of your party members and three generic soldiers; other simply consist of four generic soldiers. Bumping into an enemy team brings up a standard battle scene, where the two parties carry out one round of attacks. The team that sustained more damage is then forced to retreat, a system similar to Ogre Battle. Teams regenerate one lost soldiers per round; the only way to finish them off is to eradicate the entire troop in one turn. Since you're only given one round per battle, and consequently can't win by attrition, these battles are actually some of the most challenging in the game. Though rather blatantly ripping off Suikoden's army battles (three battle systems; now where did that idea come from?), SaGa handles them in a more intuitive way by making some effort to integrate the system with the rest of the game.

   SaGa Frontier II follows the story of two characters, exiled prince Gustave XIII and adventurer Wil Knights (and, later, their descendents), and their exploits throughout history. Each character's quest is divided into a number of brief "scenarios" accessed from a world map; in general, beating one scenario opens the next chronological one in that character's story. However, if you advance one character's story beyond the other's, additional scenarios from the "other" character's story start popping up. Since the scenarios aren't marked with dates on the map, trying to figure out which one comes next -- and consequently, trying to keep track of the story -- is an unnecessary headache. (The game does include a timeline for the entire story, but it's filled with unavoidable spoilers.) Sadly, the potentials of this system are never really met; it could have added much more if the scenarios had presented a wider selection of perspectives on the events.

 RPGing for the MTV generation
The Cliffs Notes approach to story development

   Even more disappointing is the make-up of many of the scenarios. Many of Gustave's scenarios are non-interactive cut scenes; while these could potentially be interesting, the dialog is extremely stilted and bland, making it hard to care about any of the characters or their troubles. Most of the scenes are also overly terse; even death scenes of major characters never extend beyond five to ten lines. The story itself is fairly interesting, but there just isn't very much to it.

   The other, combat-oriented scenarios (in both Gustave's and Wil's quests) consist of an initial town followed by a dungeon. Leave the town and you're tossed into the dungeon, frequently with no way to return. You're never given a chance to return to previous areas to visit stores, build up your characters, or hunt for items you missed. While not a critical flaw, these restraints grow frustrating when you accidentally complete a scenario and find yourself with no way to ever return and collect treasure. Gamers who insist on being allowed to explore anywhere may want to pass on SaGa Frontier 2 as a result.

But where is Larissa?

   One other nuisance comes in the form of the poorly-designed menu screens. There's no way to see whether equipment in a store is better to worse than what you've got, an inexcusable oversight in this day and age. Attack and defense statistics are also missing from character status screens, meaning you have to individually examine every piece of armor and total up each character's defense when you want to see who is most deserving of a new defensive item. Finally, the numbers used to display numerical statistics on the status screens are awfully tiny and make for difficult reading.

 The Big Bridge?
Graphics this good should physically not exist

   Of course, no review of SaGa Frontier 2 would be complete without a mention of the almost painfully brilliant hand-painted backdrops -- if it's not the best-looking game ever, SF2 certainly comes close. Every single screen, even completely trivial ones, is rendered in such anal-retentive detail and color that it's impossible to resist stopping and just staring at them. An extraordinary diversity of locales appears; you'll visit everything from icy peaks and abandoned ruins to tropical beaches and bustling cities, and nary a single screen of them is boring to look at. The music, by relative newcomer Masashi Hamauzu (Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon), is equally excellent. Indeed, the only slight audio-visual flaw is the blandness of the special attacks, most of which consist of the attacker running up to an opponent and causing various patterns of colored lights to appear.

   Despite its flaws, SaGa Frontier 2 manages to stay consistently entertaining. The addictive battles and skill system override any minor frustrations caused by the overly rigid game structure. Though a tad on the short side -- completing all the scenarios shouldn't take you any more than 20 hours -- SaGa Frontier 2 is fun while it lasts, and certainly makes for terrific eye candy. It may not be a classic, but there's plenty of worse ways to spend your gaming dollar.

Review by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA.
SaGa Frontier 2
Developer Square
Publisher Square EA
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Release Date  04.01.99
Final Fantasy VIII and SaGa Frontier 2 announced for European release
12 intro screenshots / 63 additional English screenshots
World map
Soundtrack packaging / Strategy guides