Review: Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song (PS2)



Genre: Turn Based RPG
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes)
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 10/11/05
Official Website: Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song

The SaGa series has kind of gotten a bad reputation in America. The first two games released in the States under the SaGa banner were SaGa Frontier and SaGa Frontier 2, both released on the Playstation, and neither was all that popular. They were released as a second fiddle to other popular games like the Final Fantasy series, Brave Fencer Musashi, and Vagrant Story. Despite the relatively poor sales, Square Enix decided to release their PS2 entry into the SaGa series, Unlimited SaGa, which was a game that could have been so much but turned out to be so little. You can read my review of it from two years ago HERE, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as our review system has changed dramatically, and the game probably would have ended up with a lower score.

There have actually been three other SaGa titles released in the States, though Square decided to call them Final Fantasy Legend I, II and III. These were the first three of the SaGa titles, released in Japan in 1989-1991. In 1992, they released one of the most popular in the series, Romancing SaGa, on the Super Famicom system, and two more titles in the Romancing SaGa series followed in 1993 and 1995 respectively. And despite the lack of love the series has gotten in the States, it is fairly well received in Japan. But Square keeps gambling that it will be another big seller in America. Either that, or they think any game with their name on it will sell like mad (see also: The Bouncer, Driving Emotion Type S).

So their latest attempt at getting over the SaGa series in the States is a remake of the Super Famicom version of Romancing SaGa. The title will likely sell well in Japan, but in America, we don’t have any experience with the Romancing trilogy. But the remake is an entire redesign of the game, and features graphics on par with current generation titles. So now we get to see if it defeats the stigma of poor selling SaGa games in America, and if it washes the bad taste of Unlimited SaGa out of our mouths.

But before we begin, I want to make it known that I intentionally avoided reading or seeing much about this game until I played it for the simple reason that I didn’t want my opinion to be ruined. So now, on with the show.


Story

The overall story takes place on a world called Mardias. Way back in the day, errr, in ancient times, a war was waged between three evil gods (Death, Saruin and Schirach) and the head god, Elore. At the end of the battle, Death and Schirach lost their powers, while Saruin was sealed thanks to 10 fate stones and the sacrifice of a hero. And, as is typical with this type of game, the sealed evil works starts breaking free of his shackles. The monster population increases and generally bad things start to happen all over the world.

And who is there to save the world? Well, you get to decide who. There are 8 different protagonists, and at the beginning of the game, you choose who gets to be the lucky hero (or heroine). The game features 8 different storylines, one for each of the main characters, and as is expected, their paths cross from time to time. Some of the characters are kind of different than your typical archetypes, like the big buff chick Sif and Claudia, the ranger girl. But most of the characters are your standard cliche characters. Take for example Albert, who is your typical spoiled rich boy. He’s the heir to a small, but very strategically important area that has been fought over for many many years. He’s also cliche in that he could be a cast member on Queer Eye. His hair and FAIRY wings says it all. Other characters are a pirate, a thief and an adventurer.

Some people like having 8 branching paths, but I find it annoying. It’s hard to get emotionally attached to a character that you don’t have with you for the entire game. And it’s no fun having to play through with each character just to get the full story. Even though there really isn’t a full story. It’s just a bunch of cliches wrapped up in a (kind of) pretty bow. Keep on reading.
Rating: 5.0

Graphics
A second after the opening cinema started, I distinctly remember saying “Oh HELL no!” I blinked a few times, rubbed my eyes, and was disturbed. What I saw was like a cross between the puppets from Team America and Bratz. And then I started to weep.

Seriously though, why would a company as obsessed with graphics allow characters this ugly to be designed? Why, God, why?!? There’s a lot to be said for wanting to be different. There’s also a lit to be said for something to be dog ass ugly. Style is something that is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t know if anyone could like this style. It seriously looks like most of the characters are homosexual puppets (not that there’s anything wrong with that…the homosexual part I mean).

I’d be able to get past that if the execution were better, but as sad as it is to say, it isn’t. This is Square Enix we’re talking about here, one of the companies that is known for their style over substance philosophy, and they seemingly threw that out the window with this game. It’s not as jaggy as the first year or so of games on the PS2, but it certainly isn’t on par with the more recent titles on the console. There is a good amount of detail in some areas, but little to no detail in others. There is a fair amount of color, and the overall style seems to have a watercolor feel to it like previous SaGa games had, but it seems more washed out here. It certainly doesn’t feel like the game was just made. It feels like it was released early on in the system’s lifespan, back when people didn’t know how to prevent aliasing.

And as sad as it is to say, the best graphics, by far, are the maps and menus in the game. They have a definite hand drawn feel and are very crisp and clean (in the case of the maps) and stylish (the menus). It doesn’t save the game in any way shape or form, because the maps and menus aren’t seen that often. And speaking of which, you cannot move the camera any, which isn’t really a hindrance, but more of an annoyance because you can only see what the game wants you to see, which is something I don’t really like nowadays.

Here are some examples of typical screenshots (plus a map):

I love the desert scenery!

Awful dark in here, eh?

Wow, not a bad looking dragon!

Nice map graphics!

It’s really sad to see a game by a company like Square Enix where the graphics just aren’t what you expect. I don’t mean to say that they’re gawdawful or anything, though the style is. The execution is pretty standard for lesser companies. For Squeenix, the graphics are pretty bad though.
Rating: 5.0

Sound

This is, without a doubt, the best area of the game. First off, the music is actually pretty good. The beginning intro is pretty good, if you close your eyes. It has a definite folky type feel, but it fits with the whole Minstrel theme. The rest of the music is pretty good too. Nothing to write home about, but I don’t recall ever saying “agh, my ears are bleeding”, but then again, my eyes were at the time.

The voice acting was pretty good as well. I could have sworn that I picked out some voices from Animaze in there, but I never could really place them. It certainly wasn’t their best work, but I’ve heard worse voice acting too. MUCH worse.

Overall the sound wasn’t spectacular by any means, but it was a daisy in a garden filled with…corpses. Or something. But sadly, even the sound area is low for a Square game.
Rating: 7.0

Gameplay and Control
After playing for roughly 5 minutes, I was quickly reminded why I DON’T like the SaGa series. The battles are like the turn based fights of old, where you select your attacks, and then execute the turn, and your characters and enemies take turns attacking based on speed. You can equip multiple weapons (if you have them) and each weapon has a different skill. As you attack, occasionally you will get a “glimmer” which is where a lightbulb appears above the character’s head and they learn a new attack. These occur more often with a weapon that the character is more proficient at. Depending on what order your characters attack in, they may perform combo attacks.


Congrats! I have purged my lunch!

One unique thing about the game is that if your characters lose HP, they regain it all at the end of the battle. And if your characters run out of HP, they don’t “die”, they lose a Life Point which can be regained. And you will even occasionally get second chances when you fight bosses so that if all your members dies, all you lose is a life point for each, and then you can try the fight again. At the end of battle, your characters may or may not get a stat increase. You can never tell until it happens because it’s completely random.

And herein is the problem with this game and other games in the series. Everything is random. In most RPGs, if you fight a boss and lose, you can go back and level up. Not so in the SaGa series. You can go HOPE to level up, IF you can find some monsters to fight. If there are no monsters, well, you’re f*cked. Pure and simple. The stat increases are all random and make no sense. Learning new skills is all random too, though LESS random if you’re using a proficient weapon.

Here, I’ll explain my displeasure with an example. I started my game as Albert. His sister says, “Ok, Mom and Dad, we’re gonna go fight monsters.” Daddy says, “Like hell you are! I’m trying to get your ass married off.” Sister says, “Go to hell, I’m gonna take this punk out fighting with me!” Daddy says, “Oh, ho ho, I can’t stop you!” And off you go to fight monsters in a cave. You fight a few bats and stuff until you get to the first boss in the game. I died TWICE fighting this boss. Thankfully it was nice and let me start over in front of him, but it takes absolutely zero skill and is all luck, and the time I DID defeat him, I won with only one person standing.

I’m a control freak. I like having a lot of control over my characters and being able to have control how they improve and everything, but never once do I feel in control while playing this game. I go around, get into fights, hit XXXXXXXXXXXXX. And watch my guys attack. Sometimes they learn skills. Sometimes they get stat increases. Sometimes they die. There is little to no strategy involved with it. THAT is why I don’t like the gameplay in SaGa titles, because it’s the same in all of them that I have played. Sadly, I think there are people who probably LIKE the control. I’m not one of them. It’s not a matter of the control being BAD, it’s a matter of taste, really. And I don’t like the taste of this.
Rating: 5.0

Replayability
Since playing through the game as one character only gives you part of the story, you pretty much have to play through multiple times if you want more of the story. In addition, if you play through the game as a character you’ve already played through once, it will unlock new quests and other parts of the story. So given these facts, the game has a lot of replayability, but on the other hand, it’s a ham-fisted way of MAKING you replay the game to get more enjoyment out of it. And really, would you even want to play the game through more than once?
Rating: 7.0

Balance
This game’s difficulty is all based on random things. Your stat increases are all random. Learning new skills is random. And surviving many battles is all random too. The only skill involved in the game is deciding which attack to attack with and even then you aren’t guaranteed anything because your attack order, while based on speed, also contains some random elements. I can’t justify giving this a decent Balance score because of these random elements that permeate every part of this game. In addition, when your very first dungeon has enemies that you can kill in one hit and a boss that can kill most of your party in two turns (and your character in one), that’s not balance. That’s just foolish.
Rating: 3.0

Originality

There is little in the way of originality in this game. First off, it’s a remake of a game on the Super Famicom, which is strike one. In addition, it uses a combat system almost identical to SaGa Frontier 2 and Unlimited SaGa (which is probably the same combat system in the original), which is strike two. And the story system is basically the same as Unlimited SaGa as well (multiple characters with crossing paths and such). Strike three, you’re out. Sure, Unlimited SaGa was created AFTER the original Romancing SaGa, but we never got this title here, so as far as I’m concerned, Romancing came out second. And as much as I hate to say it, Unlimited was better.
Rating: 3.0

Addictiveness
Ugh, no, make it stop, make the pain go away! Here’s how I felt: I started up a game, played to the boss, got killed, and was about to turn the game off in disgust when it let me actually get a second crack at him. I got no satisfaction from defeating him though. My first goal: get to a save point and turn the damn game off. And after that, I had to physically force myself to turn the game back on. After banging my head against the wall a few times, and biting my arm, I was finally able to do it. And I DIDN’T want to play the game anymore. Turning the game off is the most fun I had with it. Turning game off addictiveness: 10!!!!!!
Rating: 1.0

Appeal Factor
This stumps me. I don’t know WHO this game would appeal to. Unlimited SaGa was widely regarded as a bad game, which would make most sane gamers stay away from anything with SaGa in the title. I am not sane, unfortunately, which is why you are reading these words written by me now. It may appeal to fans of Bratz, which may be a good thing because they will kill themselves after playing this game. Other than that, it will really only appeal to diehard SaGa fans. I don’t know anyone like that though.
Rating: 2.0


You mean before or after I kill myself?

Miscellaneous
In the “haven’t I played this before” category, I get a real feeling of deja vu playing this game. It took me a while to pin it down, but I think I have. See, this game is a remake of a Super Famicom game, right? Unlimited SaGa was made several games after the original, but before the remake. So Unlimited SaGa plays a lot like this game. The difference is that Unlimited tried to be innovative. I personally really liked how the map system worked in Unlimited. I thought it was very cool. Romancing SaGa is a very standard and very bland walk from point A to point B, fight monsters on the way and kill a boss. Nothing special. Unlimited had really beautiful watercolor graphics. Romancing SaGa had ugly, kind of jaggy puppet graphics. As much as I hate to say it, with the exception of Sound, Unlimited SaGa is better than Romancing SaGa in every way. And before people bitch about this being a remake, I want to say that they should have f*cking left it the way it was. They’re releasing Final Fantasy IV, V and VI on every damn system with the same basic graphics. Why? Because they know they can sell them that way. It’s cash in the bank. They have to work a little harder for this money, but the problem is, they didn’t work hard enough.
Rating: 3.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 5.0
Graphics: 5.0
Sound: 7.0
Gameplay and Control: 5.0
Replayability: 7.0
Balance: 3.0
Originality: 3.0
Addictiveness: 1.0
Appeal Factor: 2.0
Miscellaneous: 3.0

Average: 4.1

Short Attention Span Summary
I’ve been (rightfully) accused of being a Square fanboy. Everytime they release a new game, I play it, in hopes that it will renew my faith in the company. And lately, it hasn’t happened. The SaGa series has been one I’ve never really liked, and now I can say, without any doubt in my mind, that I will NEVER play a SaGa game again. It’s sad when the best parts about the game are the pretty good voice acting and the fact that you HAVE to play it multiple times to get the full effect (even though you will hate life afterwards). What’s even more sad is that I liked Unlimited SaGa much more than I liked this game. Goodbye SaGa series. I won’t miss your stinkyness.