I've always had a soft spot for the SaGa series; it always ignored whatever the RPG trends were at the time and did its own thing. I, of course, love Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest - but when the market was flooded with clones of those games (*cough* Legend of Dragoon *cough*) that type of gameplay can start to run a little dry.
This is why the SaGa series has retained a moderately sized group of hardcore fans over the years. I say the word "hardcore" because the learning curve of these games is fairly high; even to veteran RPG players the mechanics can seem strange and counter-intuitive. It definitely has an indie sensibility to it, which is very impressive given that it came from a major developer back in the late 90's. Everything you’ve learned from playing standard RPG’s has to be thrown out the window (which is more easily said than done). This feeling is also not helped by the fact that many core mechanics of the game are simply not explained; and some things that turn out to be crucial, like Roles, can be easily missed out on. These are games that requires reading lengthy explanations of it's many different mechanics before you even begin - because there's no tutorial or in-game hints of any kind.
These mechanics are pretty much the same in every SaGa game, but SaGa Frontier 2 changes one important element: it does away with the ‘free scenario system’. In previous games you could select between 7 or 8 characters and complete their individual quest lines. But at the same time the world was your oyster - you could go anywhere and do anything. The world map does not have any artificial barriers that prevent you from advancing to different locations, it's similar to the Elder Scrolls series in this respect. This was a very liberating but sometimes frustrating experience as you very often had little direction for where to go or what to do. But that sandbox style was replaced by a timeline scenario system in SF2. There are two main characters whose individual story-lines unfold concurrently in the game’s history. You select a scenario at some point in the timeline, complete it, and the next chronological chapter opens up. The story in all spans over 2 generations of families, so at the beginning of the game you will be playing one character and by the end you might be playing that characters grandchild.
This change gives the game a lot more direction than previous SaGa titles did (which might be welcomed by some gamers), but it does so at the cost of freedom. Once a scenario in the timeline is completed you cannot go back to it – sometimes for good. So if there was a piece of equipment you wanted to buy or a dungeon you wanted to revisit you were out of luck. This type of storytelling might be good for a gameplay system that was designed for it, but it feels very out of place in a SaGa game. The mechanics of the series were based around the idea that you had complete freedom, so when you take those same mechanics and try to fit them in a restrictive game world you get some very odd outcomes. For example, every time you use a weapon or item in battle it degrades it. And after a while the item will permanently break unless you repair it. But repairing items is very expensive and often not worthwhile, especially early in the game where currency is hard to come by. You add that to a game with a very non-intuitive and complex battle system and you can find yourself in a scenario with broken weapons and not enough money to buy new ones (if the shop even carries that kind).
All SaGa games are built around experimentation and reiteration; there are no experience points or auto-learned spells. You gain stats after battles depending on which skills you used and how tough the enemies were. This is also the way you 'spark' a new ability, you literally learn new spells in the middle of battle as you try different combinations of attacks. From those you can spark new group-combo attacks with other party members, and then even larger group combos from the previous ones. There is a ton of meta-experimenting going on. However, all of this is damaged by the fact that you cannot indefinitely experiment like in previous games. Only towards the end of the game are you in a position to freely skill up your party without having to worry about breaking items or running out of money. Making basic weapon and Anima types not degrade is what should have been done to accommodate the new storytelling style.
Fortunately, these mistakes cannot fully dismantle the fun SaGa Frontier’s battle system. Learning new arts, discovering game changing combos, and seeing skills/techs skill up after every battle can be more rewarding than receiving the standardized experience points. These things are also crucial to the gameplay; you can be stuck on a particular boss and just by learning one new combo you can turn the tide in your favor. This is because the relative damage between different skills and combos is many orders of magnitude higher than in most RPG’s - there is no linear pattern to the power of spells or abilities. Once again you need to unlearn the standard RPG orthodoxies in order to succeed.
In addition to normal group battles a lot of the time you have the option of dueling an enemy. The purpose of this is not very apparent at first but after a while you’ll notice it’s a much faster way of sparking new skills. You have a plethora of different actions (such as basic attack, large attack, focus, charge, etc.) and you can input four of them per turn. Each one you select will guide you to other actions in order to form combination attacks and spells. Experimenting with this system is part of the fun, sometimes you’ll discover something useless and other times a new devastating art.
A new and crucial feature added to Saga Frontier 2 is being able to equip any character with an art learned by another character. This was a necessary change since you switch party members so often; but this constant switching can become an annoyance because all the statistical advancements you made on your characters are gone. The arbitrary rearranging of characters makes it all seem pointless until you get to the final party members. The game does not let you see this coming either, there are no hints of when a big timeline change is about to happen. One minute you’ll be fighting with your regular group and the next minute you will be playing an entirely new batch of characters with half the hp and weapon stats as your previous one. Any sense of advancement is completely killed by this, and can leave you feeling demoralized at the prospect of skilling up yet again. Stats should have been carried over between timelines in order to create better flow in the game.
The designers also took some liberty with the visuals of the game. But where they failed in other respects they shined in this department. SaGa Frontier 2 is simply beautiful to look at, sometimes you just want to stop and absorb the scenery around you. A snapshot of this game could literally be hung on the wall with other works of art, they are that good. It’s a perfect mix of watercolors, hand-drawn backgrounds, and sprite-based characters. It showed that 2D was alive and well and you didn’t need clunky 3D graphics to amaze someone visually. I’ve always thought that PS1 RPG’s always looked better in 2D, and it wasn’t until 2 generations of consoles later could you finally have 3D textures that were as high res as pre-rendered backgrounds. The integration of the sprite characters was done much better this time as well. In the first SaGa Frontier the characters seemed disconnected from the environment and it was much harder to know where you could and could not go. There is the occasional problem in this game of determining what is foreground or background, but most of time it’s not an issue. The general aesthetics of the game are pleasing and it mostly makes up for its shortcomings.
Unfortunately, the weakest part of the game is the story - which has never been the strong point of the series to begin with. The timeline scenarios are hit and miss; there is the occasional one that makes you think it could be going somewhere interesting but they often lead to dead ends. Most of the time you will be reading incoherent text that borderlines on parody - almost like you’re reading the cliff notes version of Shakespeare or something. That can be generalized for the pace of the story as well. At one point one of the characters, who is a commoner, is able to overthrow a king overnight. The background and reasons for this event goes untold and leaves you thinking “wait…what?”. There are a few isolated stories that do leave you wanting more, but there is much more of the former than the latter. The sound and music are better than average for the most part, there are some stand-out tracks (like Rosenkrantz) and I didn’t find any of the sound effects to be annoying. Other than that there really isn’t anything worth mentioning; it’s your standard Squaresoft-type soundtrack of the late 90's.
The difficulty of this game is extremely erratic. In a single area you will find enemies that can barely touch you and some that will one-shot your entire party; I am not exaggerating. You have to learn that areas do not have a linear increase in monster difficulty like most RPG's. This makes the Quicksave feature an essential part of the game and something I wish other RPG’s would add. It allows you to save your game to the Playstation’s internal RAM; which is instantaneous. So having your party wiped out is not a huge deal (and believe me it will happen often) as your saved state can be loaded in seconds. You learn which enemies to avoid and which to engage; the tougher enemies can be taken on later and give you a better chance of learning new arts. The only enemies which seem to progress logically are the bosses; they usually are a good gauge of where you should be. I should add that there are two extremely difficult parts of the game near the end. One is the final strategy battle which is nothing but pure luck. Even if you make the perfect moves you still have maybe a one in ten chance of succeeding. It will induce controller throwing even to people with the most mild manners, so be warned. The other difficult part is the final boss of the game,This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t permanently stuck in the final dungeon. Make sure you have a saved game slot that is prior to entering the northern continent because if your party isn’t up to snuff you will have to start the game over from scratch – I’m not kidding.
This game is an odd mix of bad design decisions, beautiful graphics, disorganized storytelling, complicated gameplay mechanics, and a fun battle system. So is the game worth playing? Well if you’ve read this far you probably know if you’re the sort of person who will enjoy it or not. It’s definitely not for everyone and will often times leave you scratching your head; but there is a great game buried beneath its strange exterior.