Saga Frontier 2
Saga Frontier 2 is a very odd RPG. On the one hand it’s a commendable attempt by Squaresoft to push the boundaries of the standard RPG format. It weaves two separate storylines that can be tackled in non-linear fashion and instead of being about individual characters, it is a brave attempt to tell the story of and entire world during a particularly tempestuous time in its history. One the other hand however, a dull plot and one of the vilest battle systems ever created hamper these lofty ambitions. In the end Saga Frontier 2 proves that trying to do too much can be just as off-putting and boring as not bothering to try very much at all.
There is much that is good about Saga Frontier 2, so I’ll deal with these aspects first. For starters it has lovely and original graphics. Instead of the usual cyber-punk Final Fantasy type backdrops and pre-rendered FMV, Saga Frontier 2 has a flat, watercolour style. The backdrops are painted in soft pastel hues and feel very lyrical and mellow. The characters are chunky and cartoonish with big eyes, feet and hands. The period of the game looks very much like a renaissance era European setting and in places looks and feels very much like having an adventure in a set of classical paintings. It really is a very distinctive looking game and the stirring orchestral scores complement it wonderfully.
The game takes to distinctive routes, you can choose to follow the story of Gustave or of Will. Gustave is an exiled Prince, who was thrown out of the Kingdom of Finney for possessing no magical power (Anima) and his scenario runs concurrently with that of Will who is a young Quell seeker out for fame and fortune. Both men’s fates are closely tied up with the history of this world and as you play though them you will meet many other playable characters. The scenarios also jump forwards and backwards in time and playing certain ones in a certain order unlock a choice of new ones to play. As you complete scenarios you really do feel like you are writing history as you go. A scholar fills in a timeline as you finish each chapter in the tale and the more you play the more you learn and understand what has caused things to come to pass.
Will’s scenario is more battle orientated and Gustaves is more story orientated. The actual gameplay is fairly straightforward. You select a scenario from a World Map screen and then enter it. You wander about talking to people and engage in battles. Unlike other RPGs, you can spot enemies on screen and avoid them if you don’t want to fight. You pick up new playable characters to add to your party, level up and learn new skills and as a huge sweep of history is covered you follow the descendants of the original characters Will and Gustave and see how their lives end up impacting on each other. It sounds pretty good from all this but after a few scenarios are played out the major flaws in the game become painfully apparent.
To begin with, the massive scope of the game, while it sounds attractive in theory, actually works against the game in practice. The large amounts of characters don’t often stay around long enough for you to ever start caring about them. Everyone is reduced to the status of little cog in a larger historical machine and empathy quickly goes out of the window. Also while the non-linearity of the scenario selection feels like great freedom to begin with, again it just has the effect of distancing you from the overall plot. Because it jumps around all over the place, it becomes very confusing, especially if you are switching between Will and Gustaves scenarios regularly.
Halfway into the game you begin to feel like you are stuck in a kind of random RPG plot scenario generator as plots spawn sub-plots which spawn even more sub-sub-plots. The further you go down one path trying to figure things out the more cut off you become from the other direction the story is going in. The overall effect is similar to trying to do a puzzle where all the pieces are identical. You don’t stay in anyone place or time long enough to get a flavour of it. It should have been a finely tuned and delicately structured interactive journey through the history of a whole world, its actually more like a brain achingly complex mind-maze of rapid-fire half-plots and tedious one-note characterisation.
It is also not helped by the atrocious combat system, which makes playing quickly become a chore. Each weapon has associated skills with it and each skill is effective against different types of enemies. The more you use a certain weapon the more skills you will learn. There are elemental types for each attack and the key is matching the strongest attack to the weakest enemy point. You can also approach combat in different ways, either en-masse or one-on-one, the advantages of one-on-one being you have more options and control, but it takes longer to kill an enemy. Group attacks tend to be more out of your hands, as you progress you learn more attack formations, some defensive, some passive, some super-offensive. There is quite a bit of flexibility in how you approach combat.
However, another disadvantage of the multi-character system is that characters often don’t stay around long enough to become really strong. Just as you are getting the hang of a characters skills and weapons a plot twist will demand they leave or die and a new person arrives with skills to be learned all over again. This inability to create really tough fighters means even the lowliest plant type enemy or killer lizard or whatever becomes a huge challenge. You can spend up to twenty minutes trying to take down a feeble little critter and that’s just not fun. So you end up trying to avoid combat as much as possible, only of course to suffer later in the game when you lack of experience begins to bite.
Worst of all, extended battles or fighting sessions are not recommended as your weapons and armour only have limited use before they break! Due to the scenario based nature of the game you can’t just race back to a previously visited city and buy replacements, so you begin to dread areas filled with enemies as you can go through a lot of weapons before they are all defeated. Although the combat system should be praised for its detail and flexibility it ends up feeling over-complicated and counter-intuitive. Countless menus must be accessed to trigger attacks, special skills are learned almost at random and having to countdown how many times you have left before your best weapons are unusable is very, very irritating.
The beginning of the game is also dire and must have put many casual gamers of instantly. While expansive FMV beginnings are not always desirable they at least hook the gamer and give them a fixed starting point. What I’m sure you don’t want to do is hurl them straight into the middle of a battle between to tiny armies over which you have little control, then into a world map screen full of places and names you have no idea about yet. In places as well the script struggles to convey the turbulent emotions and events unfolding in front of you. Thus many of the more poignant moments are rendered flat and lifeless by the lack lustre translations.
In effect what we have here is a game with lofty ambitions and a unique graphical style that is fatally flawed by its own inability to fulfill the enormous task it has set itself. While it tries to take the emphasis off single characters and create an interactive storybook, it fails to keep the players interest engaged though its combination of poor script, horrible battle system and fuzzy, badly thought out plot twists and flat characterisation.