A funny kind of freedom

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The multitude of adventures that make up Akitoshi Kawazu‘s SaGa series tend to be titles I enjoy from a safe conceptual distance but struggle to actually play; including the focus of this blog post, Romancing SaGa. My hope was that coming back to it post-Baldur’s Gate with a slightly better understanding of the best way to approach these more free-form RPGs would make my time with the game go far more smoothly than it did the first time around.

And it did: Just like Baldur’s Gate 2 and Romancing SaGa’s much closer cousin The Last Remnant there are a lot of mysterious systems, fuzzily-explained progression requirements, and plotlines that are unlikely to make sense on a single run through the game in here. I can also see there’s a lot of content – mandatory and otherwise – that I really don’t need to worry too closely about: The jumbled breadth of the game is there to give me options – to make pursuing alternative play styles and going wherever my own curiosity takes me worthwhile – and not a strict checklist I need to busy myself with methodically clearing. Romancing SaGa is equally free and easy with the people I choose to bring along for the ride: Anyone with a name I happen to find loitering around one of the game’s pubs is there for the taking, and they’ll soundly bop the game’s assortment of smiling vegetation, floating eyeballs, and giant enemy crabs with whatever form of pointy instrument I can afford to give them.

The freedom on offer here would feel bewildering even in many of those dusty old computer games where this sort of anything-goes approach was a relatively standard part of digital role-playing design, but when coupled with Romancing SaGa’s traditional (if charming) JRPG pixel art it comes across as something of a clash of opposing principles, and the first and hardest adjustment players are required to make is to take a game that looks and sounds like a typical “Save the crystals, save the world” JRPG and then treat it as if it’s anything but. The good news is the game gives some warning when you begin that things are not going to follow the usual template, and a short while after choosing your lead’s dominant hand (it makes little difference) and their (absent) parents’ occupations you’re thrust into a world where boats will happily take you to places you’ve never heard of for a small fee and you have no idea of where to start on your quest to… your quest to do anything, actually. So you’ll quickly fall back into the standard “Talk to everyone you can find and then do the quest one of them gives you” routine you’ve performed a million times already in far less ambitious RPGs and wonder what all the fuss was about. The SaGa difference is this: When a villager says “Hey have you heard about…?” or “They say monsters are attacking a town to the north” that’s not static filler text designed to give locations a little flavour but a real event happening right now for you to follow up on. You mustn’t dawdle for too long either – it’s entirely possible to show up in villages too late to help and see them overrun with monsters, or turn up too early and arrive at a town with nobody in particular to talk to and nothing to do. It’s not impossible to game the system – there are only a finite amount of possibilities even in a quest soup like this one – but the magic lies in the way Romancing SaGa refuses to hang around and wait for you to notice something or someone, in the way the consequences of your actions (and inactions) will have a direct impact on the rest of the game like a butterfly flapping its wings.

It’s incredible to see a console RPG from 1992 weave all of these threads together and create significant changes in where you can go and what you can experience based on everything from who you are to who you’re with to choices you made maybe hours earlier, with optional quests leading to more optional quests with multiple alternative endings for each of them – the planning the game went through before anyone even sat down at a computer must’ve been absolutely mind-boggling. As a player it starts off daunting and thoroughly disorientating, fortunately as the game wears on there comes a point when you’ve heard of enough place names to have an idea of where to go when an interesting situation’s mentioned (luckily you can look at all of your maps any time you like) and a tough enough team to take on a dungeon’s worth of enemies. It never feels normal (when has SaGa ever been normal?), but it does eventually feel manageable.

However it has to be said: There are some inescapable flaws dragging this undeniable ambition down, and it often feels like they put so much effort into all the behind-the-scenes machinery that they forgot to pass any knowledge of the game’s inner workings on to the player. The graphics, as lovely as each screenshot may be (this is the WonderSwan version, by the way), are a real problem – utterly failing to communicate anything to the player beyond the most basic “You’re in a castle” “You’re standing in water” level of information. There’s no visual reason why one particular NPC would be the special one that starts off a quest or mentions a new location (which in turn unlocks it on the map for you to venture to) when they look exactly the same as every other “Welcome to RPG Town!” villager you’ve ever seen in your life and even the same as other people in the same room on more than one occasion. The problem isn’t the lack of unique sprites – which would be a wholly unreasonable request to make – it’s that there’s nobody drinking by themselves in the corner of the game’s pubs, nobody hanging around the back of a building looking suspicious, nobody rushing up to you with urgent news when you walk into a specific inn, or doing anything more than mill around or sit on thrones like off-the-peg JRPG set-dressing. That doesn’t mean there are never events starring bespoke sprites or scenes where NPCs do more than wander around a room at random, but for a game that relies on you uncovering information all by yourself in a genre that typically leans more towards carefully guiding players towards a linear goal it needed to make itself more clear.

This lack of discernible feedback can’t help but have a negative effect on your immersion in this ever-changing world: When the whole build up to a new optional event is an interchangeable NPC without even a name of their own saying “I heard there are vampires to the east” (that’s it, that’s the whole conversation) and the result of this is to open up a new spot on the map that literally just says “Vampire”, leading to a cave system teeming with monsters that honestly isn’t different enough from the last cave you just cleared out… it makes it hard to make any real emotional connection or investment in Romancing SaGa’s world.

Here’s another example, coincidentally also involving vampires: At one point I found myself in a village that was supposed to have a quest-giving NPC in it. On entry everything looked normal – there were squat little RPG people bumping into things and none of the buildings looked damaged or showed any sign of trouble. The only change was whenever I spoke to anyone it triggered a fight with a vampire servant enemy, and I had no choice but to kill these not-NPCs. Could I have arrived sooner? Was there another quest I could’ve done (or not done) that would’ve made a difference? Should I have brought a special item with me to purify them? SaGa’s problem is – outside of checking a FAQ – I’ll never know. There was no dialogue from my team expressing any sort of shock at the event or wondering about where to go to uncover more information on this unsolved mystery, so from my point of view I turned up in a place literally called “Village”, killed some vampires with nothing to say, and walked off. The game is both too good and too bad at dynamically changing as you play: It’s only natural to not be aware of everything happening in the world around you so there’s no reason why you would be informed of life-changing events in a small village on another part of the world, but by being so silent the player never has any knowledge things could have been different, or that their own behaviour could’ve changed the outcome. Because you aren’t made aware of the consequences of your [in]actions you aren’t made aware that your actions ever had consequences in the first place, which makes it hard to see how hard Romancing SaGa’s working to keep track of everything you’re doing or to appreciate how many moving pieces are in play at any one moment. To some extent this issue is mitigated today by the internet – most people have at least some awareness of the game’s open-ended play before going in, but when you’re in the thick of it and trying to play as intended it doesn’t feel obvious at all.

With this sticking point taking up valuable brain-space I began to wonder if maybe I was being unfair to Romancing SaGa, that perhaps the sheer ambition of the game is remarkable enough on its own and it’s only because I’ve been spoiled by all the titles that have expanded on the idea since that I’m not so dazzled by this that I’m able to brush aside its other problems. So I took a look at the state of gaming in 1992, the year this came out. That’s fairly early in the Super Famicom’s lifespan, but it’s also the same year the world was graced with the likes of Shin Megami Tensei, E.V.O.: Search for Eden, Ultima Underworld, and Alone in the Dark as well. Going further back we find  ActRaiser, non-Solid Metal Gears, Corporation, and Dungeon Master released years before this – these games aren’t directly comparable to Romancing SaGa, but I view them as evidence that Kawazu’s Super Famicom series-starter wasn’t creatively held back by the hardware of the time and it could’ve been more genre-challenging than it was… couldn’t it? Maybe taking the standard JRPG formula and showing there are other things that can be done with that sort of presentation was a braver decision than making certain it was seen as separate and apart from its stablemates, in the same way that Square calling their first MMO “Final Fantasy XI” instead of cautiously releasing Final Fantasy Online or Final Fantasy Gaiden: Vana’Diel Adventures was.

I think it’s the sort of game you need to take a step back from to really grasp what it’s trying to do: When you’re in the thick of things there’s a lot of back and forth between a rotating selection of towns, dungeons, and sewers, sailing in identical-yet-different boats to too-similar places to talk to people with not enough to say to really make it all come together. But SaGa is trying to do something new: There are quests that only trigger if you do others first, or if you reach them fast enough, or if you have a particular person with you. There are things that only happen, or people that only appear, based on events you’ve already cleared. Being able to go wherever you please and pursue whatever plot thread available with a team of your own choosing swinging the weapons you gave them and the spells you taught them, is a huge achievement and a great deal of freedom in any gaming era.

Romancing SaGa is bold and genuinely different, but it either hides its strengths too well or fails to make players aware of them in the first place, and as such it comes across as more conservative than the more obviously experimental games that make you really feel like you’re off in uncharted territory, witnessing the rules of gaming being rewritten before your eyes. It’s brilliant and messy and lacking and ambitious and I promise if you stick with it it’ll grow on you – it certainly grew on me. I like it, and I think I’m enjoying it – just not in the usual way I tend enjoy games that look like this. Perhaps that’s the mark of a true Kawazu experience after all…

14 thoughts on “A funny kind of freedom

  1. Mmm, quest soup~

    As a lifelong SaGa addict (they snuck in wearing Final Fantasy clothes, I didn’t stand a chance!), I think you did an excellent job highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of not only this entry in the series, but probably the series as a whole.

    In the end, you’ve got to leave behind a lot of your preconceptions from playing other RPGs and just *roll with it*. And it’s really hard to trust the game to pan out when it’s so different. Accepting the idea that you’re inevitably going to miss out on some quests and events is really hard to do coming from a background of being able to Do It All, for example.

    I think the quirks like the bland-yet-important NPCs can stand out even more when the game is designed the way it is, compared to a typical JPRG, too. Some of the flaws can be genuinely frustrating, and you do wonder what the game would be like if the bumps were smoothed over… but they do add an interesting flavor, those bumps.

    Loving the fact that the WSC version of this game looks a lot like the Gameboy games, by the way :3

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    1. I just want you to know that there is nothing more heart-pounding after writing a post like this than a comment opening with “As a lifelong fan of…” XD

      I’m glad I hit the spot though, and you’re absolutely right – the flaws are flaws, but they’re also SaGa, and it’d almost be a shame to have one without the other.

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  2. I didn’t even know there was a Wonderswan version of this, Square really supported the Wonderswan with a lot of their old games it seems (though I’m still kinda sad that FF3 version was never completed).
    The SaGa series is something I could never really get into. I tried and tried. First game I played was SaGa Frontier 2 when it came out, which was the first SaGa game we even got in Europe, which looked pretty, but always felt kinda weirdly balanced and hard to understand, so I quickly gave up on it (I didn’t have that much time anyway since I rented it).
    Next up was Unlimited SaGa which I guess really is only for the hardcore SaGa enthusiast. I played a little bit of the SaGa 2 remake on DS which wasn’t bad, but still got dropped quickly to play other stuff. I should get back to this one, I think it’ll have the highest chance to be actually enjoyable for me, maybe. At least the soundtrack (of this version and the original) is really good. I bought the OST for the Game Boy version which is to this date probably the only SaGa purchase I fully enjoyed. lol
    I also tried Romancing SaGa 2 when it got its re-release on modern consoles, but found it incredibly dull to play. This time, at least, I tried to put in some effort and played it for several hours, but there doesn’t seem to be anything much interesting about it aside from being “kinda weird”.
    Now, people are saying Scarlet Grace is supposedly very very good. I’ll try to trust them one last time. I did buy the game, but didn’t play it yet. Maybe this will finally be the one? Fingers crossed!

    Oh, but there is one game that*s kinda SaGa that I actually really liked (SaGa fans stop reading here) and that’s The Legend of Legacy. Somehow that obvious SaGa ripoff is the one I could actually enjoy. Maybe that also means there’s hope yet.

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    1. They apparently had a Secret of Mana remake in the works for the system too D:

      Sounds like you’ve been on a real SaGa saga (Sorry… couldn’t resist)! I’ve had very much the same problem getting into the series as you though, so I’m sure with time and patience you’ll find the one that makes the whole series click for you :D

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  3. As I already said on twitter, but I tend to find the Kawazu games very interesting to play, but usually also not all that fun.

    Admittedly I played Final Fantasy II and Makai Toushi SaGa and that’s about it, so only early examples of his ouvre. It will however always be funny to me that SaGa gives you 3 different character races (4 for the sequel), all of them improving in different ways, and not a single one of them goes with the tradtitional leveling up by grinding exp system.

    About the Romancing SaGas I usually heard horror stories of people trying them out, getting completely lost in them, and eventually not knowing how to progress them further. Some even with an FAQ at hand didn’t understand why certain things wouldn’t trigger for them. Though I think they played the second or third game usually.

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    1. Nothing wrong with playing either of those two games at all! I really enjoy the original GB SaGa especially :D

      The thing with Romancing SaGa is understanding that it’s OK to get lost, and not knowing where it go next isn’t a failure on your part. It’s not easy, but if I can adapt the I bet anyone can!

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      1. I just think that maybe that’s why I didn’t have as much fun with Kawazu games so far. I assume his newer games, like let’s say your often hyped The Last Remnant, are somewhat less archaic and obtuse than two such old games.

        I played the WSC version of the first SaGa, actually. Not that there is much difference in gameplay. I honestly really don’t like the look of the GB versions. Dunno what it is exactly. Every once in a while I think about giving the DS remakes of the other two a go, but that’s one of those “I should play this game soon”s that then never happen because there are too many “I should play this game soon”s.

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      2. The Last Remnant’s still plenty weird (it has the “Love” stat, same as this!) but yes, it’s far more approachable :D

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  4. While I was reading this entry, I understood all your points. Everytime I’ve tried to enter into Romancing subSa-Ga (no pun intended) faced the same issues. Lack of direction, and trying to tackle the game as a common JRPG from 16bit era.
    Were you able to beat the game? In case you did, it is possible to play so badly that you will face a game over situation making you start a new game to have a new chance of beating the game?
    I’m asking cause when I was playing Romancing Saga 2 on Switch, I was doing so bad that the enemies were getting much stronger than me, so I stopped being afraid of breaking the balance between them and me (and didn’t wanted to look a walkthrough, this was personal!)
    Ignoring my banter, It was a really nice lecture. I’m sad of not knowing japanese as I’m more interested visually on the Wonderswan version than SNES/PS2 ones.

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    1. I didn’t play long enough to beat the game, but I was comfortably steamrolling over everything short of optional boss battles so I’d be surprised if anything was going to significantly change between where I’ve paused it for now and the end. Thank you for reading!

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  5. The original SaGa was my first RPG, and as a result, one of my all-time favorites. While it did seem to capture the spirit that the series would eventually embody (encounters are random, except sometimes enemies appear visible on the map as well, and sometimes they are important NPCs, just to really screw you over), there was just enough structure to it to keep you interested. The same holds for 2 and 3, whose remakes I highly recommend.

    Sadly I never got into the Romancing or Frontier titles. I would wander off too far, have many exciting battles, only to fall flat in my face, underpowered with seemingly nowhere to go. There is still that appeal of a completely open and unhinged experience, but I feel like the Metal Max games (which also predate the Romancing series) do that so much better.

    I’m glad you mentioned the lackluster graphics and world building. It’s interesting that the company that brought games with shine and polish like Final Fantasy could turn out something that visually looked like so many of those (rightfully) forgotten 16-bit RPGs.

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    1. Wow, what a game to start RPG’ing with! :O

      I do have the DS remake of SaGa2 here already (and I liked what I did play of it), it’s just a question of finding the time….

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