SaGa Frontier
  • Genre:
    • RPG
  • Platform:
    • PlayStation
  • Developer:
    • Square
  • Publishers:
    • JP Square
    • US SCEA
  • Released:
    • JP 07/11/1997
    • US 03/31/1998
Score: 70%

This review was published on 10/24/2014.

SaGa Frontier is a role-playing game developed by Square for the Sony PlayStation. It was published by Square in Japan on July 11, 1997, and Sony Computer Entertainment in North America on March 31, 1998. This is the seventh game in the SaGa series and the first one released on the PlayStation. Only three of the previous games were released outside of Japan, and they weren't even called by the SaGa name, instead being labeled as Final Fantasy in the West. SaGa Frontier is the first game to officially bear the SaGa name in North America. Unfortunately, the game wasn't well received by critics in the land of the free. It didn't sell well there, either. In the post Final Fantasy VII world, people were in search of more streamlined RPGs. SaGa Frontier is unintuitive and unfriendly towards newcomers, so it's understandable that the game wasn't popular. It isn't bad, but it has far too many quirks to ignore.

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The story of SaGa Frontier is split across seven scenarios with seven different characters. At the beginning of the game, you pick one of the seven characters to be the protagonist. All scenarios take place in a universe that combines sci-fi, fantasy, and contemporary settings. The possible protagonists are Red, Blue, Emelia, Lute, Asellus, T260G, and Riki. Red is a teenage boy who works on the airship Cygnus by day, but fights crime as a superhero by night. Blue is a magician on a journey to become the ultimate sorcerer. Emelia was framed for the murder of her fiance and joins a secret organization to pursue the true culprit. Asellus was revived from the dead by having mystic blood infused into her human body, forever changing her life. Lute is a bard whose mother kicked him out of the house so that he could find a real job. T260G is an ancient robot in search of his past. Riki is a friendly monster on a mission to save his homeland. The many scenarios of SaGa Frontier add lots of replay value to the game.

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Each scenario has its own story based on the chosen character, so there isn't a unified plot to the game. This is a fairly nonlinear game, not just because the scenarios can be done in any order, but the scenarios themselves allow for a great deal of flexibility. There is a point in every scenario where the whole world becomes available to explore, opening the floodgates to side quests. Said point occurs earlier in some scenarios than others, but it always occurs nonetheless. For the most part, all scenarios feature the same areas, albeit in different orders. Some locations are exclusive to certain scenarios, but those are few and far between. That has the unfortunate consequence of making the game repetitive if you decide to tackle all scenarios. Sadly, the storylines are rushed, with plot events moving too quickly without much explanation in between. There are also places where it feels like the story is missing bits and pieces, like content was cut out from the game. A few scenarios are far too short on their own, as well. The multiple scenario idea is sound, but it would be nice if they were more fleshed out and featured more unique locales.

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When it comes to visuals, SaGa Frontier is a pretty sight. The majority of the game sticks to pre-rendered backgrounds that are pleasing to the eye, though the character sprites do look a mite primitive. While the pre-rendered backgrounds certainly are pretty, they are too dark at times, making it hard to see your surroundings. These graphics get flexed out by the many varied locations the game's world has to offer. Among those locations, you'll see urban cities, industrial factories, and ancient ruins. The world does feel disconnected, though, as there's no map and the areas are only connected through ports. In battle, the graphics go for a mixture of 2-D and 3-D, sporting dynamic camera angles that attempt to make the action more intense. Mixing 2-D and 3-D rarely works on the PS1, but the battle graphics do a good job of hiding the blemishes inherent in that mixture. Still, the battles would have looked better if they were purely 2-D. For the year it came out, SaGa Frontier's graphics aren't half bad.

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There are four playable races with different characteristics in SaGa Frontier; humans, mystics, mecs, and monsters. Humans are versatile jack-of-all trades, mystics are great magic users, mecs are powerful machines, and monsters can change forms by absorbing other monsters. The main difference between the races is how they grow. For instance, humans gain strength when swinging swords, intelligence when casting magic, and quickness when firing guns. Mystics, on the other hand, primarily gain stats from absorbing monsters into their weapons. Mecs and monsters, however, do not gain stats through normal means, instead relying on equipment and transformations. These growth methods always run into the nasty snag of requiring lots of grinding, though. It's not the straightforward kind of grinding, either, since you have to do more than simply kill lots of enemies. This problem isn't unique to SaGa Frontier, as many of the past games suffered from the same issue, but that in no way excuses it. Whether grinding for stats, money, or abilities, you'll be spending the majority of SaGa Frontier grinding.

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On top of the seven main characters, there are a bunch of other minor characters that can be recruited in SaGa Frontier. You can have three groups of five characters each and switch between them prior to a fight. The inactive groups recover their stats while the active groups fight. Neat as that is, the game has a grand total of 38 possible recruits, and you're only able to get fifteen of them. If you exceed the limit, new characters will either replace old ones without your consent, or vanish without a trace. New members will sometimes be forced into your party unexpectedly, further adding to the whole issue. Randomly losing people has the potential to be disastrous, especially if you lose someone that you spent ages building up. There's no reliable way to get rid of unwanted party members, either. It's also difficult to recruit some characters without resorting to a guide, but that problem's nothing when compared to the rest. Having a large cast of characters would be great if recruitment wasn't handled in such a poor manner.

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Battles aren't encountered randomly, but they're still turn-based. There's a twist, however. The twist in question is the ability to perform combos. When two or more characters perform attacks immediately following one another, the moves will link to create combos. A total of five attacks can be linked to create a massive combo that your whole party participates in. Combos do way more damage than regular attacks, and the bigger the combo, the bigger the damage multiplier. If this seems somewhat unfair, don't worry; enemies can also combo you. Not all attacks can be linked together, however, so experimentation is needed to discover new combinations. This is cool and all, but enemies can very easily interrupt your combos if their turns come before yours. The other issue is that the turn order of your own party isn't set in stone, and characters going in the wrong order can foil your combo plans. Unpredictability aside, combos do make the battles far more exciting, because not only are they fun to watch, they also take lots of strategic planning to pull off. You can't run away from battles, though, and that sucks.

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In addition to HP, characters have something else that keeps them tethered to the world of the living known as Life Points, or LP for short. As per usual, characters fall in battle when they run out of HP, but they can be revived via healing items or restorative magic, and they also automatically revive to full health after the fight ends. However, characters lose one LP every time they're defeated, and can't be revived in or out of battle if they have no LP left. They won't be dead forever, of course. It will simply be more bothersome to bring them back, as you'll have to locate an inn or something to restore them to full health. Basically, LP limits the amount of times you can revive people through normal means. The two irritating things about LP is that, some enemies can directly affect LP without having to lower HP first, and enemies can continue attacking fallen comrades to further drain LP. In the grand scheme of things, the LP mechanic doesn't change a whole lot, but it's slightly more annoying than the norm.

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Enemy encounters in SaGa Frontier feature a form of scaling. The difficulty of monsters encountered is based on the quantity of battles you've won, so the more fights you do, the harder they become. There are some major oversights to this system. The biggest problem is that enemies will get stronger regardless of how powerful your party actually is, which can leave you in a nearly impossible situation if you aren't careful. You might be in an area with easy monsters, only to have them suddenly upgrade to something you can't handle. Simply fighting a large amount of battles won't necessarily make you stronger, even though it does make the enemies stronger. Instead of being rewarded for tolerating so many battles, you're penalized. There is a roof limit to how strong monsters will get, so it's possible to eventually out grind them, but this takes an ungodly amount of time. Strangely, bosses don't scale in the same way. That oddity can result in boss fights being ridiculously easy, despite the surrounding enemies being super hard. Inversely, if you rush through the game without fighting too much, the enemies will be rather weak, and bosses will mop the floor with you. The flawed scaled difficulty is the worst aspect of SaGa Frontier.

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Abilities are divided into techs and magic, which use WP and JP, respectively. All races learn abilities differently, and many abilities are unique to certain races. Humans are the most straightforward, learning techs by using them and also using different weapons. Mystics and monsters both learn abilities by absorbing monsters, and mecs obtain abilities by downloading data from enemy robots. Also, some weapons come with abilities attached to them. There are a vast amount of abilities in the game, most of which are offensive in nature. For example, gale slash is a useful ability that allows sword users to hit all enemies for massive damage. Only a few abilities can be equipped at a time, but they can be swapped out with other learned abilities outside of battle. The coolest thing is ability mastery, which occurs if you stick to pure physical or pure magical. Achieving mastery reduces the cost of all abilities, making some cost zero. One annoyance is how humans won't learn certain skills if you don't leave a skill slot open. A far bigger annoyance is how long it can take to get the desired ability. Because learning abilities is randomized, it can take forever to get what you want. Abilities are handled pretty well in SaGa Frontier, barring some annoyances.

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The gift of magic can be obtained in SaGa Frontier. There are many categories of magic, known as schools of magic, and they include stuff like light, shadow, arcane, rune, etc. Every school of magic has an opposing type, such as how light opposes shadow, arcane opposes rune, and so on. Characters that have magic of one type can't use spells from an opposing type. Additionally, characters must earn the gift of a particular school of magic by tackling certain quests in the story, and only then can they learn spells of that type. Without the appropriate gift, characters must buy spells at shops, and not all magic is buyable. Obviously, it's not possible to mix opposing gifts. Here's where the problem kicks in: some of the quests to get the gifts can only be done once, and any characters that weren't with you at the time of the quest's completion, will never be able to acquire that gift. It's not a big deal overall, as magic isn't too useful, but this is still a stupid way of doing things.

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A new frontier of incompleteness awaits you in SaGa Frontier. This game is the very definition of unsung potential. It's clear that SaGa Frontier was meant to be a much larger game. The many mysteriously unused areas and undeveloped plot lines are evident of this. How good the game is depends entirely on which scenario you choose to play. Not all scenarios are created equal, and some are better than others. The constant need to grind and lopsided difficulty are also serious issues that will scare most people away, rightly so. What the game does right is its nonlinear game play. Many of the scenarios give you a nice amount of freedom and there are plenty of worthwhile side quests. There's a good game to be had here, but you have to dig deep to find it; perhaps a little too deep.

Word Count: 2,205

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