SaGa Frontier Remastered Review
Developer: Square Enix | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: RPG | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Android, iOS | Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Now more than ever, it’s an excellent time to be a fan of role-playing games. Last year alone saw the release of Persona 5 Royal and the perpetually-delayed Final Fantasy VII Remake, wildly different experiences that nonetheless define the modern RPG. But while updates and remakes offer the chance to reimagine a world, remasters give players a chance to bathe in nostalgia. It is an utter delight to play SaGa Frontier Remastered. While not the most intuitive or polished game from its era, this rerelease is a reminder that the Squaresoft of the past was just as forward-thinking and innovative as the Square Enix of today.
Everything New Is Old Again
Players unfamiliar with SaGa Frontier might be shocked to learn how many modern RPG conventions originated in the SaGa series. Multiple protagonists moving through wildly varying stories? Check. A leveling system that relies less on grinding and more on thoughtful exploitation of a novel system? Check again. Hidden storylines and characters that are entirely off the beaten path, only to be found by the most dedicated gamers? SaGa Frontier may not have invented the trope, but it is bursting with secrets, nonetheless so much so that there are dozens of dedicated guides for this 1998 gem. For the curious, SaGa Frontier Remastered is an RPG that’s different from its contemporaries. For avid fans, this remastered version will feel like coming home.
The SaGa line of games has always been the black sheep of Square’s family. But lately, the company has been showing more love to the series. Last fall, the Collection of SaGa: Final Fantasy Legend introduced a whole new generation to the Game Boy’s first RPG, and served as a reminder that not all companies are content to let their legacy properties molder. SaGa Frontier is fondly remembered as one of the original PlayStation’s best RPGs, and playing the remastered version now, 23 years after the game first debuted in the West, it is striking to see just how much this title stands out from the crowd.
From the moment the player first hits the title screen, SaGa Frontier feels unique. While the idea of having more than one protagonist in an RPG is old hat these days, especially with the popularity of Octopath Traveler in recent years, SaGa Frontier’s approach to storytelling still feels fresh and exciting. The brief bits of backstory are intriguing and more than enough to entice players to start a new run. Seeing how these wildly different characters crash into each other’s storylines is half the fun, and while some interactions leave a little to be desired, the way things intertwine feels satisfying.
Choosing a protagonist for a first playthrough is just as exciting now as it was in 1998. Will players start with Red, the character with the most “straightforward” plot? Or dive into the notoriously difficult Riki storyline? Asellus, the half-Mystic/half-Human is intriguing, but player beware: progression in her arc doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying as some of the other characters. In the leadup to this remaster’s release, fans have discussed which storyline to start with, and the best part is: there are no wrong answers. Diehard players of the original might be disappointed that the newest content, a previously cut-for-time scenario featuring the objectively awesome fan-favorite Fuse, is not available at the start. But fortunately, SaGa Frontier Remastered, while retaining its difficulty and mystery, is more player-friendly than ever.
Much of the satisfaction to be found in SaGa Frontier is amplified by multiple playthroughs. Remastered has made this process more painless than it was in the past. Simple quality-of-life improvements bring this classic into the modern era–something as simple as increased movement speed and rapid load times are a boon to a game like this. Being able to speed up overworld movement as well as battle animations makes a world of difference. It is designed to be replayed over and over again, not just to see every main character’s story but to experiment with different equipment and party members, and every small change that saves players time is significant.
Most significant of all is the addition of an in-game manual. Make no mistake: SaGa Frontier features a fully realized version of the oddball progression mechanics from other SaGa games. Unlike leveling up in a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game, growing stronger in SaGa Frontier is deeply complicated. Fortunately, at any point, the player can access different topics from the main menu if they need to brush up on what a particular stat does or how a specific class operates. This simple mechanic is a huge boon, particularly for lapsed fans. There’s even a kind of quest log, where players can check on the story up to that point; hugely helpful, particularly if the player is dipping in and out of multiple character scenarios at once. The ideal way to play is to finish a scenario completely before starting another, but it’s understandable for players to want to flirt with more than one at a time.
It might be heresy to say so, but pausing midway through one scenario to experiment with another should be normalized. The systems in SaGa Frontier are opaque at best, and some character classes and party members are easier to grasp than others. There is no shame in moving from one of the more directionless scenarios to a more straightforward one. SaGa Frontier Remastered may well be the most player-friendly version of the game, but it is by no means beginner-friendly. There’s a steep learning curve that is still very much intact, no matter how many in-game manuals are implemented.
How To Make Friends and Influence People
For players new to SaGa Frontier‘s unique systems, the experience can be overwhelming. For most RPGs, there’s generally the first quest or starting dungeon that players can cut their teeth on, to learn mechanics or the basics of how the equipment works. Not so in SaGa Frontier, and while Remastered gives players the option to read the in-game manual, there is no tutorial section of any kind. Since every scenario is different and takes place in media res, it wouldn’t make sense for there to be a break in the action to teach the player how to play every time they jumped into a new scenario. Fans of the original game, those who scoured GameFAQs and message boards for any scrap of information they could because they couldn’t find a player’s guide, will get along fine. Newcomers might feel a little lost, but don’t be alarmed. Experimentation, including trial and error, is a must.
Faced with a tough boss fight or enemy encounter, even the most nontraditional Final Fantasy games ultimately give players the option to just grind it out. It might take time, but at the end of the day, a party of level 99 characters is going to be able to overcome anything in their path. Not so in SaGa Frontier. For starters, party members don’t really have levels to speak of. They don’t gain experience points in the traditional sense, and some characters don’t even learn new skills on their own. In SaGa Frontier, every character has its own class, and every class gains power and techniques in a different way. It’s a growth system that feels experimental and modern, just as fresh now as it was more than two decades ago.
Take Mecs, the robot class. Rather than gaining stats through victories in battle, a Mec will remain static unless given new equipment. As far as abilities go, those are absorbed by defeating other Mecs in battle and are limited by the amount of intelligence the Mec currently has, which is influenced by what circuit board the Mec has equipped. It’s a roundabout way of saying that the best way to build an effective Mec is to outfit them with every spare accessory in the inventory, defeat other powerful Mecs in battle, and keep an eye out for NPC engineers who can swap out the chassis.
Humans are the most straightforward class to improve and are easily customizable. Drawing from Final Fantasy II, the best way to improve a human character’s skills is to constantly use those skills in battle. Is your character a swordsman? Keep using sword attacks to spark new abilities, and use those abilities to unlock further skills. Eventually, if your character has a natural aptitude, they’ll have access to some of the most powerful attacks in the game. There’s deep satisfaction to be felt in developing Mastery of a category; abilities cost less WP (think of it like MP, a consumable resource not easily replenished) and more powerful abilities can even be combo-ed with those of other party members for truly devastating damage. Once players key in to how to unlock more skills, it becomes second nature.
But while Humans can develop techniques through simple repetition, the Monster and Mystic classes require planning and precision. Monsters can absorb abilities from defeated Monster-class enemies, and can even transform into those creatures themselves. It’s entirely possible to defeat an early-game miniboss (say, the Sphinx outside of Sei’s Tomb in Red’s scenario) then absorb the form of that miniboss to carry through the rest of the game. Alternately, it’s an easy mistake to defeat a monster and accidentally absorb that monster’s form, reverting that party member to be weaker than it was at the start of a battle. Mystics and Half-Mystics can absorb monster abilities as well, but can only hold a few at a time. There are near-endless combinations of abilities and techniques to be mastered, and part of the thrill of returning to SaGa Frontier is the rush that comes from a deeper understanding of the mechanics.
Grinding is a blessing and a curse in SaGa Frontier. Human characters generally gain stats after victory in battle, but the more battles fought and won, the faster enemies scale to match the player. There are some behind-the-scenes calculations going on determining the Battle Rank of the enemy, influenced by almost every battle fought and won. It’s entirely possible to spend a little too long in one area farming abilities and improving character stats, only to reach a boss fight and be vastly outclassed. The key to victory lies in stringing together powerful combo attacks, but that can only be done when enough characters know enough powerful techniques. Most bosses have hit points in the tens of thousands, and unless the player has at least an inkling of how to deal heavy damage quickly, they will eventually be ground down in a war of attrition.
Learning the ins and outs of SaGa Frontier‘s many quirks is overwhelming at first, especially since the game doesn’t provide much if any direction. But players can get by with a little help from their friends, in the form of an excellent cast of characters. Though the number of recruitable party members varies per scenario, it’s easy to have a party of ten or twelve characters, of which five at a time can participate in battle. Some characters will join the party simply by running into them in the right place at the right time, while others require a little more effort to find and recruit. Optional dungeons abound, and sometimes the reward is a new character that provides exciting new options in combat.
Combat in turn-based RPGs, has a tendency to grow stale over the course of dozens of hours. In Remastered, things stay fresh throughout. A new scenario is never more than a few hours away, less so if the player toggles the increased speed liberally. Being able to change up the party on the fly still feels amazing, a cross between Chrono Cross and Suikoden. Seeing certain party members show up in different scenarios never gets old, and though much of the storytelling must be inferred, there is just enough characterization to grow attached and develop favorites. SaGa Frontier still feels incredibly unique, and to its credit, holds up incredibly well for its age. It’s a modern classic, due to how the game lets players experiment and customize to their heart’s content.
No Wrong Answers
At its heart, SaGa Frontier Remastered is an RPG about freedom. Most scenarios center around characters trying to find a way to cement their identity, whether through seeking revenge, engaging in self-expression, or breaking the shackles of confinement. It’s more gorgeous-looking than ever, though purists might disagree with the smoothed-over look of the character sprites. An excellent gallery available from the main menu lets players view the sumptuous artwork from Tomomi Kobayashi whenever they wish. Kenji Ito’s music is a standout, and Remastered features a music player not unlike the one in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. First-time players and veterans alike can agree that these additions are a must-have in remasters like this one. Best of all, upon starting a new file, players are given the choice on how they want to experience the game: with improvements and new content, or without. If the player wants to play the game as close to the original experience as possible (say, minus the updated translations; “hip-hop hairdo”, anyone?) that option is on the table.
SaGa Frontier might not have the same clout as any given Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game but for fans of nonlinear storytelling, genuinely interesting customization options, and utterly unique art direction and design, SaGa Frontier Remastered is a worthy addition to any RPG gamer’s library.