Unlimited Saga is barely a game.
There is a presumption of interactivity to this medium. Video games are to be played. This interaction calls back to our earliest stages of development where we began to explore the world around us, and certain actions would cause certain related outcomes. When we cry, our parents come. When we tie our shoes, they don't fall off of our feet. These crucial developmental steps help ground us to a reality with object permanence, consequence chains, and ultimately some sort of understanding of how our actions can affect our environment for good or ill.
You have to start at this basic level to talk about how Unlimited Saga fails so fundamentally, because it is a game where nothing you do matters. I spent nearly a full 24 hours over a weekend trying, struggling, endeavoring to make heads or tales of what Unlimited Saga actually is, and my conclusion is that the thing might just inch over the most basic of tests: it is a video game. It was developed by an individual (Akitoshi Kawazu) who had made video games prior to it, published by a company (Square Enix, only lately renamed at time of publication) renowned for their video games, and is playable on a platform (Sony's PlayStation 2) most famous for its extensive library of video games. You input commands to Unlimited Saga with a DualShock 2, a video game controller used to play games such as Final Fantasy X, Devil May Cry, Katamari Damacy, and many others. Said inputs generate outputs in the form of video signals over either composite or component video, which provide a sort of visual feedback to the player. This signal is not compatible, natively, with an oscilloscope or other electro-mechanical means of visualization. Thus, it utilizes conventional video technology and has the broad cultural situation of the video game medium.
It's difficult to know where to start with how badly things have gone here. I'm going to try to frame Unlimited Saga by the thimble of good qualities which may be gleaned from it.
Firstly, the soundtrack is not bad at all. I personally think it is a stretch to call it memorable, but sitting with the game for nearly one whole day of my finite life has fixed the main title track in my memory and now I will have to live with that. It is the least abrasive part of this joyless abscess of an experience. Just as one may find individual stories of heroism and noble sacrifice in the context of a broader tragedy, the music of Unlimited Saga is to be noted while also in no way rescuing it from being among the very worst video games created.
Second, there are sequences of arresting visuals peppered sparingly throughout the game. I touched five of the seven campaigns in this game during my time with it. Each would briefly invoke footage from the game's opening cinematic, a pre-rendered film with a unique and not all-together unappealing visual style. There is certainly some of that Squaresoft overdesign magic at play with character outfits and locations, but this too is not an absolute writeoff. The issue here (there is always an issue) is that I found perhaps five, at most ten, minutes of this nice looking pre-rendered stuff in my time with the game. When you transition from this CGI footage to the bizarre color palettes, poorly scaled sprites, honest-to-god CDi quality static bitmap images and backgrounds, and punishingly repetitive dungeon maps, it just sucks.
You'll note that neither point above have addressed the actual game mechanics at play here. This is where things collapse.
I knew a little about this game going in: that it was some sort of hideous JRPG-board game hybrid built on spinners, that it has a worse Metacritic score than The Guy Game, that it has a trailer for Final Fantasy X-2. Here's something I didn't know: Unlimited Saga shares some DNA with Wizardry or, for a more modern example, the Etrian Odyssey series. The player begins in a town with a shop, and inn, and a big exit sign that basically says "through this gate to the dungeon, good sir." Said inns allow you to save your progress and listen to a handful of local denizens spout information, all driven by menus. Again, all very Etrian-esque. Nevermind that nothing spouted by any of the dozens of NPCs was of any utility over my time with the game, or that the shop inventories are pitfully stocked. Obviously the meat of the game is outside of civilization, so eventually you will pick up a quest from the inn and venture into the wilds.
Said wilds are the worst. Your mission objectives are either of the "go somewhere else" or "find some amount of McGuffins" variety. In the case of the former, you are often not given a clear direction. No problem, just start exploring, right? In theory. In practice, "exploration" here involves moving a static avatar across what feels like fractally generated arrangements of spaces. Not that you can see them at first; that's where the exploration occurs. As you turn the left stick, you will hit upon a small audio and visual cue: continue to hold the stick in that direction, and your token will move to the next space. This already feels tedious, and it comprises maybe one full half of your time with the game.
On each space, a number of things may happen. You may find a trap, which will quickly introduce you to the game's most renowned feature: the wheel. Press X to stop the wheel. Land on a green icon, nothing happens. Land on anything else and take HP damage, maybe LP damage on top for good measure (we'll get there). You may find a chest. Instinctively, you will want to open this chest. To do so, you open a menu, select an option, toggle from the space itself to the chest on another menu, and confirm. This merely attempts to open the chest, the majority of which are trapped and contain nothing. Trapped chests also cause HP and LP damage. Characters can learn skills that allow them to check for traps or open locked chests. Attempting each of these invokes the wheel.
There are then the monsters, which often do not trigger combat. Wandering around in a maze will often spot these on a space, yet you will be allowed to transverse said space unharried. Which isn't to say the spaces you have already visited won't suddenly have traps or chests the second time, but the monsters do remain consistent. Due to forces I do not understand, sometimes landing on these spaces with monsters trigger combat. Combat is not your friend. Yourself and your foes all have HP as a sort of scratch damage over LP, which are a fixed resource without which you will die. Combat practically consists of chaining five different attacks together, hitting confirm, and exchanging damage with foes. Each individual attack uses a wheel, which contains up to four different classes of attack. Progressively stronger attacks occur with less frequency on the wheel, so you are incentivized to become adept at stopping a wheel on the "good" attacks. You can also select to chain together attacks, which often does not work for no discernable reason. Attacks play out in low framerate 2D sprite animations. One of my favorite parts of this game is that there is no animation for missing these attacks. Five characters will just pound the piss out of an enemy, only for a cheeky "MISS" to pop up at the end. The stronger attacks don't seem to do much more damage than the weaker ones, you can hold two weapons and use bare handed techniques so there are at any point half a dozen potential ways to just hit a bad guy, and the amount of HP on enemies seems random. Also, weapons have finite uses and can break mid-combat. It's abysmal.
This staggeringly bad core combat is then compounded with some "beginner's trap"-style foes and the aforementioned directionless exploration into a true Gotterdammerung of bad video game-ness. All five of my attempts to play through even one of the seven story arcs in this game ended with me slowly bleeding out all of my LP stuck on dungeon boards with no readily apparent means of healing damage between cities.
There is something like a story here, a dime store take on Rashomon where multiple characters seem bound together by some sort of festival and a jerk monarch figure. There's also scads of weapons, blacksmiths to customize weapons, an opaque skill hexagon which tweeks character skill modifiers, clearly some crunch. There are 500kb FAQs for this game. There are forum threads extolling the virtues, incredibly, of grinding in this game. There exists a genuine fan base for Unlimited SaGa, and in going into this game blind I desperately hoped to find what they had. I'm perfectly willing to accept that I had a worse experience for not engaging with the doorstops written to help folks like myself through this game. But I do think it reflects poorly upon a game to lean so heavily on external documentation. I also don't think a better grasp of when to use which attacks or skills would have blunted the game's larger, more existential failings.
In the author's estimation, Unlimited Saga is a game where you wander empty and sterile menu-driven cities wherein nothing happens and nothing is learned, then venture forth on Bataan death march-style gauntlets through glacially paced and hideous dungeon mazes where everything works to kill you in the most slow, uninteresting manner possible. Your only duty here is to propel this action forward. Only in this slim sense indeed is Unlimited Saga interactive. This is not a game to be played.
It brings me no joy to get into this sort of semantic argument. I think "video games" as a concept should be an enormous container for all sorts of experiences, for all sorts of people. I love this medium, and I love exploring it. I love being surprised, even if its simply by how bad a game is (still looking at you, Rally-X). Calling into question whether or not something is a video game in the first place is entering a rhetorical space in which I am not personally comfortable. But I spent hours and hours with Unlimited Saga and in my experience nothing I did mattered. To play the game was to confirm or deny empty choices, move pieces around endless boards, and allow things to happen to me. It was Candy Land. Is Candy Land a game? Do you play Candy Land? This is an unresolved question in the boardgaming world, and I think it is as apt here for the same reasons.
Related is the question, is this "the worst game"? The answer is almost universally no. "The worst game" is something that three people played on a Newgrounds page in the early 2000s, or something put together in the last fifteen minutes of a game jam, or Custer's Revenge. Hardcore Gaming 101 presently has The Fabulous Wanda as "the worst game", on similar arguments I have leveled here against Unlimited Saga. It is not for me to make that call. But I can say this: Unlimited Saga is my least favorite game, and I sincerely hope that nothing I play afterward will make me feel so miserable, empty, and defeated. Unlimited Saga is a monument to futility. It smiles at your pain. It points to a black-hearted nihilism where nothing you say or do will ever matter, that your actions are forever divorced from any outcomes, that you are alone and dependent on mechanisms you will never understand, and that your death will be as random and meaningless as your life. It is a despicable, hateful, abominable video game which you should avoid at all costs. I am truly sorry to have dredged it from its putrid muck and cast it into your lives.
A final point: this score is listed as one star, a limit of this website. I would prefer to not give this game even that mark, and will call upon Roger Ebert's review of The Human Centipede to explain my reasoning:
I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.
-Minus as many stars as there are in the universe, and the universe is infinite.