Game: SaGa Frontier
Year Released: 1998
Japanese video game publisher Square Enix, formerly known as Squaresoft, has made a name for itself with their multiple long-running series of role-playing games. In the U.S., the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games are the most well known Square franchises. However, it may surprise you that worldwide (in Japan, more specifically), there is another Square series that is second only to Final Fantasy in number of installments released. This is the SaGa series, which has been around since 1989 and was most recently seen in 2002 with the PS2 title Unlimited SaGa.
SaGa Frontier, the first game in the series released in the U.S. with its original title, came out in 1998. The first three games had been released as Final Fantasy Legend I-III for the GameBoy in the U.S., even though they were actually unrelated to that franchise. By the time this game came out for the PS1, I was already infatuated with RPGs due to Final Fantasy VII and had a full year to wait until Final Fantasy VIII. When I saw a box with pretty cover art and the Squaresoft name on it, picking it up was a no-brainer. Ten years later, this is still one of my favorite games on the original PlayStation.
While the game shares a lot of elements common to traditional Japanese RPGs, it is apparent right away that SaGa Frontier is actually very different. Instead of playing a single protagonist in a linear story, the player chooses between seven playable leads, each of which has a full story. That’s right; instead of one 40-60 hour playthrough, SaGa Frontier gives the player seven 15-20 hour experiences. Now, to be fair, some characters have better stories than others, and there are a couple of lesser protagonists whose stories are far too repetitive if you have already played through the better ones. Nonetheless, even if you only play through the four best characters’ games, SaGa Frontier is more than worth the time and money spent.
All seven characters exist within the same realm, and have story elements that cross over into each others’ lives. For example, one protagonist is Blue, whose goal in life is to travel the world and destroy his wicked twin brother, Rogue. However, in other stories, Rogue exists as a friend that can be recruited to help you fight, so it becomes difficult to determine which is actually the evil twin. This makes the characters and the backstory much more interesting than your typical amnesiac-protagonist-can’t-remember-why-he’s-fighting RPG storyline.
The visual style of SaGa Frontier is quite different from the Final Fantasy games of the same era, with Square choosing a less realistic and more cartoonish graphical approach. The characters look more like the sprites from the 16-bit RPG era than more developed character models. However, though not as graphically impressive as some of its contemporaries, the game is still quite eyecatching. I actually remember liking that Square did something different with this game, because it made it seem like so much more than just a Final Fantasy clone.
The actual gameplay is where SaGa Frontier shows its JRPG roots. Battles are turn-based, with a combination of different physical and magical attacks being used to defeat enemies. The player can recruit certain characters to join the party during the game, which will not only change the way battles are fought, but will also change the overall experience of the game over multiple plays-through. Different characters learn different abilities as they level up, and up to 15 characters can join your team (although only five can be used at a time during battle), adding another layer of strategy to the game.
If I haven’t made it clear already, SaGa Frontier is a game with tremendous replay value. In addition to having multiple protagonists, the game implements the “New Game Plus” feature commonly found in RPGs. This means that after the game is completed, certain characters retain some of their statistics and items found during the quest the first time around. Also, because there are so many choices to make regarding both team members and storyline, the experience will change accordingly.
The only major problem with SaGa Frontier is the repetitive factor that comes from later quests. The root of this issue seems to be that a couple of characters do not have storylines that are as deep as they should be. The majority of protagonists have complex, intertwining, interesting storylines; however, a couple of characters have quests that just do not feel fully realized, and have the player repeating a lot of the same actions he or she has already done in previous plays-through. It’s a shame, because if all seven characters came with completely fleshed-out stories, this game would be nearly perfect.
Despite its few shortcomings, SaGa Frontier remains one of my all-time favorite RPGs. It may not be anywhere near as popular as the other Squaresoft entries in the genre that came out during the PS1 era, and was probably overshadowed by the Final Fantasy series too much to really become well-known. Still, I believe that this is a title worth playing for any fan of RPGs. If you manage to find yourself a copy, grab it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a unique and interesting gameplay experience that is still fun to play today.