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…