The localization team for the new Square Enix amalgamation needs to get its act together, quickly, and decide how the name of this game is supposed to look. It’s disconcerting to sit down, ready to write a review, and discover that there is not only no consensus on the quality of the game, but no consensus on how to write the title of the product. Sure, in Japanese it’s just a handful of funny symbols, so Square Enix’s bigwigs might not have an interest, but the folks on this side of the Pacific should comprehend that here in the Western world we have things called “capital and lowercase letters,” and that they need to tell us which letters are big and which are little. In various publications, I’ve seen Unlimited Saga, Unlimited SaGa, Unlimited: Saga (which throws punctuation into the mix), and even UNLIMITED SaGa which seems to rejoice in its absurd glut of capitalization. The cover art seems to support the option UNLIMITED Saga so I’ll stick with that for now, but take a hint Square Enix: this is the kind of thing you take care of early in the production process. Also, as far as writing things goes, maybe its time for one or the other of your dual personalities to take control. I long for the days of the bold and simple Square and short and quirky Enix. Losing these two great friends of my youth to this bastardly fusion is all too heartbreaking, especially when this new name sounds so crappy.
Enough ranting. UNLIMITED Saga is the most intriguing RPG to grace my Playstation 2 in awhile. It takes place in a sort of storybook world in which seven characters are engaged in personal quests — revenge a brother, free a parent from captivity, that sort of thing. With seven starring roles, there’s a lot of room for the player to find a character he likes and have that character fully explored throughout the game; interesting roles like the primitive tribesman Armic and the inventor Mythe add flair to the cast. The SaGa series has always depended on multiple storylines, but in this title a somewhat more conventional approach is used in which all seven parts of the story coalesce into one epic quest to uncover the Seven Wonders. They need to do this in order — you guessed it — to save the world. This straightforward plot is implemented in a straightforward manner; each NPC you meet will assign you a quest or give you vital information, and from each location the next destination will be obvious. The game is really far too linear; a straight-line plot can still be enchanting when it tells an interesting story, but in this case the player is simply bored.
From that fairly simple plot description, you’re likely expecting a basic, trouble-free RPG experience. No dice. This addition to the SaGa series is perhaps the most difficult and frustrating RPGs I have ever played. Nothing comes easy in this game. In battle, your characters have fairly standard abilities — attack, magic, summons, and so forth — but after inputting any type of selection you spin the “Reel,” a slot-machine wheel with many different combat possibilities on it that will determine the effectiveness of your attack. No doubt, this adds a good bit of variety to combat and some suspense beyond the usual repetitive slash-and-heal procedure. UNLIMITED Saga, however, doesn’t just use the Reel in battle, it also throws this element of chance into the game’s most basic actions. Defusing traps or opening treasure chests in dungeons might set off a variant of the Reel. The other major aspect of Saga’s battle system is a great deal of customizing and monitoring your characters. Developing abilities is a very hands-on activity, and you will spend a lot of time grooming your characters for upcoming fights. If you enjoyed searching for the ideal Junctions in Final Fantasy VIII, you’ll love UNLIMITED Saga, because it’s got three or four simultaneous systems that each rival Junctioning in complexity.
In addition to the time spent crawling through ability and equipment lists, just about everything else in the game is done through menus as well, even moving around in towns. Instead of actually using the analog stick to direct your character to a certain building, you’ll select that building from a menu. The menus are clear and colorful — the Reel is downright flamboyant — but among all this selecting and confirming this sometimes feels more like an anachronistic text adventure than a modern RPG. Dungeons don’t have truly free movement either; instead you’ll walk from square to square on a grid. It’s like the world is a giant game board, and your character is just a playing piece — in fact, your character is a little playing piece: in the dungeon map, your character is represented by a small, metallic-colored figure. It’s somewhat perplexing to realize that the world of UNLIMITED Saga isn’t intended to be engrossing or realistic at all. You’re definitely in control of this world, and determining the fate of your characters, but unlike most RPGs, Saga doesn’t want to put you in the shoes of the lead character. The result is a very distant and fairly bland experience. You won’t feel emotional highs and lows, you won’t feel immersed in the story — UNLIMITED is about the statistical, character development side of the RPG, not the role-playing itself.
The graphics in UNLIMITED Saga contribute heavily to this effect of impressing the player but not drawing him in. This game features some of the most unique visuals I have seen, abandoning true three dimensionality in favor of beautifully drawn flat backgrounds. At times, the effect is truly spectacular, as the scene shifts seamlessly from a flat backdrop, almost like a fine impressionist painting, into a moving, animated fury of action. The enrapturing opening cinematic displays this effect in stunning fashion, but unfortunately the true potential of this theme is not really explored throughout the game. The main problem is that unlike the world and dungeon maps, the battle layout attempts a return to three-dimensionality. Most of the character models are wafer-thin when viewed in profile, like those in the N64 action RPG Paper Mario, and as the camera moves around a battlefield the characters often fail to put their good side to the camera.
There are other problems, however — the animations are extremely sparse, seeming to consist of three to four shaky frames as a character crosses the screen and executes an attack. I don’t think this is really a problem, since the intended theme of the game’s visuals is a rough-animation, pencil drawing effect. Most of the time it looks good. The battles are only a problem because the designers abandoned the two-dimensionality used effectively in the rest of the game; sticking with their original innovative theme would have provided better results. Greater attention to detail would have been nice as well; at times there is frightful aliasing of the character models and backgrounds, and that’s a failure which cannot be attributed to conceptual problems. Also, for the huge number of weapon arts and special attacks you can learn, there’s very few spectacular attack sequences to go with them.
The music in Saga is awesome, rivaling the best soundtracks on the PS2. The friendly, colorful graphics are enhanced by bright and captivating tunes in much the same way as the bright graphics of Kingdom Hearts were matched by its music. Here, however, the orchestration is in a more typical classical style of strings and wind instrumentals. As the plot progresses, there is a pleasant mixture of hesitation and heroic bluster in the themes, timed to match the emotions of the characters. We also get insights into the feelings of the cast through sparse voice overs, which are not used for normal dialogue but only for inner monologues and soliloquies. The quality of the voice acting is questionable, however, with some characters being very much overacted, sounding more like something out of a crass comedy like Family Guy than a serious RPG.
The SaGa sequence has always been Square’s outlet for more outlandish and experimental titles, while traditional efforts were released under the Final Fantasy brand. UNLIMITED Saga continues this tradition. Square also took this chance to make a game that’s much harder than any of the recent Final Fantasies, with some glaringly difficult bosses and quests, even at the start of the game, that are fairly hard to complete. Despite some innovative and promising aspects, especially the different yet pretty graphics, this is not a great title and holds no appeal for the mainstream. Only those who really love manipulating abilities and setting up character skills will find real pleasure in this title. Unlimited? UNLIMTED? SaGa? Saga? To colon or not to colon? By any name, this is a subpar game.