I imagine my first time with Unlimited Saga will sound familiar to a lot of people: The nigh-impenetrable tangle of opaque gameplay systems busily working away behind the scenes of the title’s unconventional area roaming and menu based towns made for an experience that seemed determined to keep me held at an uncomfortable distance, and I struggled immensely to either enjoy or understand the game. Soon after that frustrating trial I put the disc back in its box, left it to gather dust, and then finally returned to the shop I bought it from so I could trade it in for… who knows what but it would’ve been something I ended up played for longer than I did Unlimited Saga.
And it’s unfortunate encounters like this, where I previously couldn’t see any way to even tolerate a game at all, that I look forward to coming back to the most: I’m either about to indulge in a self-justified moan about a terrible game, my fresh revisit only confirming my earlier grievances, or I will finally get to see the magic I missed the first time around and find myself with if not a new forever-favourite then at least another fun title to add to my enormous backlog. So which was this going to be?
As with all Squaresoft games of this era the opening minutes of the game give a bombastic first impression, the game’s “Sketch Motion” technology bestowing detailed pre-rendered 3D models with painterly textures and seamlessly blending large hand-drawn battle sprites with extravagant spell effects and constantly shifting camera angles. Whether gazing at individual pencil lines on portraits bursting with personality or appreciating the artistically exaggerated smear frames on a battle animation the game is never anything less than sincerely breathtaking, the frequent use of hazy watercolour pinks, blues, and soft edges giving this SaGa the feel of a grandiose collection of enchanted fairy tales, a new wonder waiting on every gilded page.
Yet for all the appreciation you can have for intricate illustrations and polygonal architecture so carefully wrapped in visible brushstrokes there still comes a point where you have to actually play Unlimited Saga and… actually I was completely fine and had a wonderful time with it, getting quite far with Laura (up to the elemental gears quests, if anyone remembers those) before taking a break and switching to the adorably fuzzy Armic’s item collecting expedition. The board game-esque area exploration allows for a degree of abstraction and uncertainty; allowing hidden treasures, pursuing monsters, and deadly traps to appear anywhere without warning – and also without making you physically roam up hill and down dale scouring the land for shiny things or wearily sighing as you once again spot an enemy silhouette or spiked ceiling trap off in the distance. The artwork displayed in the top-left corner at each node shows you exactly what sort of terrain you’re standing in, your imagination left to gorge on delicate vignettes of grassy hills on sunny days, flower-filled fields that stretch to the horizon, perilous hedge mazes in the dead of night, and waterlogged passageways, the normally brown path ahead turning blue to match the soggy properties of the area. The 3D battlefields that spring from these places are equally beautiful, offering glimpses into lush glades decorated with warm shafts of light, rocky mountain paths, and the deck of a grand ship, its sails lazily shifting in the sea breeze. It’s a setting that happens around rather than to you: a place where other main characters may leave their mark on the world without any need for your help, where some village shops are only interested in trading goods for other items you’ve collected along the way no matter how many gold coins are weighing down your pockets, where a building existing doesn’t mean an unrelated character is allowed access to it just because they’re the “hero” this time around. By standard JRPG measures Unlimited Saga’s often strange and awkward but I honestly feel the game wants you to interact with the world as it’s presented, in playing a role, rather than expecting all shrines and services to exists solely for the benefit of any wandering warriors that may happen to pass through. And it’s thanks to this line of old fashioned role-play thinking – beyond Dragon Quest, Wizardry, and Phantasy Star and right back to Monster Manuals and scribbled character sheets – that you have the opportunity to do more with your party than fight, choose where to fight, or select Dialogue Option B from time to time; here characters can learn how to swim through flooded waterways, to confidently make their way through uncharted cave systems, to listen out for monsters before they draw near or mercilessly harangue shopkeepers into lowering the prices of their wares. The slight distance between what you can see and what you can do allows for far greater flexibility and interaction than would otherwise be believable, you just need to use your imagination to bridge the gap between the two – just as you would with a pen and paper game.
And the truth is I still don’t understand how a lot of it works.
Which just means this SaGa’s exactly as arcane and obtuse as intended, the game not actually trying to make me feel stupid or miserable but more encouraging me to deal with unforeseen problems, new characters, and lucky streaks as they naturally occur on the journey, to roll with those reels and use whatever I happen to find or can afford, to explore and experiment and see what happens when I stroll outside or take on a mysterious subquest instead of fussing and fretting over optimal builds or being offered the “freedom” to choose between immediately taking the right path or going down the other one with a treasure chest at the end first. There’s no doubt it’s a hard thing to adjust to when games have trained players since forever to believe that the more control and knowledge they have the more successful they’ll be, but I can honestly say by caring less about playing “correctly” and instead satisfying myself with progress of any sort I’ve been able to see and do more in the game than I ever did when I was making a concerted and wrong-headed effort to possess a designer’s-level understanding of the game. And yes, there’s a nonzero chance I’ll come unstuck at a later point thanks to the blind stumbling of my “If I can move on then I guess I’m doing OK” attitude and I’m fine with that because by that point I’ll have listened to lots of fabulous music from Masashi Hamauzu’s stunning soundtrack and had a lot of fun poking around a very beautiful game. As there are seven characters to
fail play as – that’s seven different quests unfolding in one world and seven different sets of gameplay priorities too – and I am not short of real or virtual PlayStation 2 memory card space maybe I’ll keep a save for each and flit between them, a delicious chocolate box of RPG tales at my fingertips, or pehaps I’ll try them all and then stick with just one until the very end, or I’ll put the game down incomplete in every way with a smile – it’s been fun, Unlimited Saga, but that’s enough.
However for all my talk of taking things as they come and doing my best with what I’m given… I just can’t help myself. I reach a point where I’m doing OK but I’m also sure I’m messing up the placement of these post-adventure character panels and abilities aren’t sparking as often as I’ve convinced myself they would do for everyone else so I’ve got the manual out, all thirty-one full colour pages of it (closing with a full page advert for Final Fantasy XI‘s very first expansion, Rise of the Zilart, which made my whole body want to crumble into the ancient dust it obviously is), to try and make some sense of it all. The good news is the (Japanese) manual isn’t unhelpful – it contains a lot of useful information laid out clearly in charts and tables accompanied by plenty of relevant screenshots – but the bad news is it didn’t really teach me anything I wasn’t mostly aware of already. Hmm. Still longing for hard data and enlightenment I decided to browse the English guides on good old GameFAQs and… wow! I found everything I ever wanted to know and more within seconds. I would say “as you’d expect” but we should never take the hard work and huge efforts of these voluntary FAQ writers for granted: it really is incredible we have this vast unified community resource at our fingertips hosting everything from quick menu translations for games two people may have heard of to multiple in-depth guides on one single aspect of a popular release, and it didn’t take more than a few clicks before I was reading multiple guides on Unlimited Saga’s most inscrutable systems.
Funnily enough it didn’t feel like I gained any greater understanding by doing this. Instead it felt like a game stripped bare, like an antique grandfather clock reduced to a horologist’s spread of individual gears and springs. I may have gained the ability to inspect every individual piece in microscopic detail but it’s a very different object to the assembled whole I was amateurishly enjoying before. And it’s at this point I realise I really don’t want to know exactly what changes if characters are damp or hot or heavy (yes, these things can matter) – I want to have an adventure.
And lucky me gets seven of them on one disc.
It’s entirely fair to say that even a seasoned RPG fan with a mind so open its practically spilling out of their ears is still going to find Unlimited Saga more than a little weir- no, that’s not it. The game’s not weird, it’s just different, and that’s why we all struggle with it. We’re used to “inventive RPG design” meaning “A slightly different ATB bar” or “Maybe I’ll have to sort out my own stat upgrades”, not something that expects us to put as much effort into learning as many new systems as we would when we’re working our way through a brand-new board game, popping out hundreds of tiny cardboard tokens, shuffling three decks of cards, and checking the rulebook three times a turn. Unlimited Saga is a game happy to shrug off decades of familiar baggage and ask players one simple question:
Do you want to play another RPG, or would you like to try our role-playing game?