Mercenaries Saga Chronicles Review (Switch)
Mercenaries Saga Chronicles is a collection of three tactical RPGs developed by Rideon Inc. and published by Circle Entertainment. The compilation consists of three games: Will of the White Lions, Order of the Silver Eagle and The Gray Wolves War. Before the Switch release, White Lions was a Japan-only mobile game while the other two were released on the 3DS in multiple markets. Under the Chronicles collection, you get three complete games for the current price of $14.99USD. It’s hard to not appreciate the value that the games appear to give, especially given the price point. But the million dollar question is this: Is Mercenaries Saga Chronicles actually worth playing?
As a quick (but important) aside, I will be comparing Mercenaries Saga Chronicles to Final Fantasy Tactics a lot because the former is clearly heavily influenced by the latter. But please keep in mind that Tactics is a full-fledged retail priced game from a developer that was arguably in their prime while Mercenaries is a series born from the mobile platform and offered at a much lower price (from likely a much smaller developer). It isn’t necessarily fair to draw strict criticisms when comparing the two, especially considering the development backgrounds of each title. But I feel it is necessary in my review to compare and contrast the qualities of each in some cases. With that out of the way, onwards to the review!
On the surface, each game in Mercenaries Saga Chronicles has you following, spoiler alert, a group of mercenaries. In the beginning, most of the ragtag bands are simply seeking out ways to make coin, but eventually find themselves knee-deep in political struggles. More often than not, this leads to an underlying historical battle between Gods and demons. You may or may not find yourself, as the mercenaries, caught in the middle of these plots and ultimately taking part in how they unfold.
Although this may sound like the potential to be a Final Fantasy Tactics caliber storyline, don’t get too excited just yet. Sadly, each story feels pretty similar to each other, and they are all delivered by essentially forgettable characters. In addition, the Will of the Lions specifically is littered with a plethora of translation errors. While a spelling mistake here and there isn’t enough to take me out of a game world, I found myself scratching my head at item and equipment translation issues. Apparently, the latest trends in fashion call for you to wear a belt as an earring (see screenshot.) Historically, I would just laugh at something like this in other games and go about my business. But they are quite prevalent in Will of the Lions, and therefore, are hard to ignore. That’s not to say that a more coherent translation would have saved the generally weak storylines, however. Don’t get me wrong, the storyline’s are not terrible, but don’t expect a strong desire to get too invested in the world.
Visually, Mercenaries Saga Chronicles is a mixed bag. I do appreciate the more realistic approach (similar to FFT), when they could have just as easily went with a Disgaea-like anime appearance (which stylistically I do not prefer in most cases.) Each game has your standard medieval fantasy setting and is backed up, for the most part, by decent quality pixel art. Character portraits are clearly inspired by Tactics and look really well. The only beef I had was the use of generic shadow portraits for characters that didn’t have their own. I would have preferred no portrait at all in those cases, but that is only a minor gripe amongst an otherwise fine display. Many might consider the look of Mercenaries Saga Chronicles as overly simplistic or generic, but it appealed to me overall.
Where the visuals begin to fall by the wayside is in the animation department. The vast majority of ability animations are simply not good, and many of them are victim of copy-pasting across multiple ones. I believe a game like this, both stylistically and mechanically, needs to be backed up by solid animations. Let me explain what I mean with a quick example. Final Fantasy Tactics came out in 1997, right smack dab in the middle of the age where most games were truly embracing full-fledged 3D polygonal graphics. Even then, I can remember people not being overly attracted to the game’s aesthetic due to its pseudo-3D maps with sprite-based characters. Luckily for Tactics, it looked AND felt great. I remember seeing Gafgarion’s Night Sword/Shadowblade ability for the first time and being like “man, that is freaking awesome.” So while the game opted for an arguably simpler design in comparison to other titles of that period, it still managed to appeal to many in part by top notch animations.
Moving back to Mercenaries Saga Chronicles, it simply lacks any sort of “oomph” with its animations. You are hardly ever excited about unlocking new abilities due to the absence of any substantial impact and, for lack of a better phrase, coolness factor. The odd framerate doesn’t really do it any favors either, making movement and the little bit of combat animations present incredibly choppy. It appears that the frame limiting factor is the actual number of sprite frames present rather than some technical issue on the backend, but it could be a combination of both aspects. Either way, a more finely-tuned framerate in itself would have gone a long way into making the game more attractive, even without an ability animation overhaul. The truth is that I’m not typically one to care for the level or complexity of graphics in any game. But the combination of bland animations and disjointed framerates leave a little to be desired here.
Mercenaries Saga Chronicles won’t be winning any sort of rewards in the story or graphics department, but how does the gameplay fare? Those with Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics experience will feel right at home, as it plays very much like a standard tactical RPG. Units are moved around on a grid-based map and each side battles each other in a chess-like fashion. The relation of the attacker’s position in comparison to the defender plays a role in how damage is dealt. Attacking from the side or behind typically increases the damage and success of your attacks. The height differences also play a huge factor, and is the aspect of the combat that I probably enjoyed the most.
While many tactical RPGs offer some sort of height advantage, it is usually a minimal bonus at best. There are times in Mercenaries where it could even potentially be too powerful, but is satisfying nonetheless. Oftentimes it is worth commanding even your healing units to attack if they happen to find themselves at a huge advantage over an opposing unit simply due to how powerful the attacks can become when height comes into play.
Each player character has a base class that branches out into two choices at level 10, and two additional choices again at level 20; making a total of seven classes per character (but only four actual combinations.) Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics, you are able to use all abilities from the previously chosen class without utilizing a subjob-like mechanic. But you can only use the abilities from the branched path you chose, not from the entire seven-class tree (though you can swap to another combination any time should that tickle your fancy.) In a nutshell, the class system is designed pretty well outside of one minor issue.
Two of the four class combinations for each character are gated behind puzzle pieces. This item is rarely found in treasure chests and from monster loot (the latter is an even rarer occurrence, in my experience). Although you can view the abilities of each of these classes before committing to the unlock, I just found it an odd way of locking the choices behind a system. It would be one thing if these puzzle piece classes were considered the uber combinations, but many times the non-gated ones are just as good, if not, better than them.
I believe this to be a side effect of Will of the White Lions in particular being a mobile title originally, as the puzzle pieces may have been a purchasable item there. But given that there aren’t any microtransactions in the Switch version, you figure they could have adjusted the feature accordingly. Regardless, this may prove to be irritating to those who want access to all classes right off the bat.
There are two battle modes in Mercenaries Saga Chronicles; story mode and free battle. Both of these, despite being separate systems, are available to use in tandem during your adventure. You can either progress the story through its respective mode, or grind out some money and levels through free battles. Think of free battles as your traditional random encounters, but not random at all (so just…encounters?) As you progress the story and gain levels, dozens of these free battles will unlock. The caveat is that they never change. In Final Fantasy Tactics, you may fight on the same battlefield countless times, but monsters and their placement on the maps are more or less random. In mercenaries, free battles have absolutely nothing random to them outside of the names of the enemy units.
While some may embrace the idea of having the same exact fight ad nauseam as opposed to dealing with random elements, I found it to be a very grating experience. In a game that expects you to grind quite a bit (especially towards the end of the game), my desire to do so diminishes if I have to see the same exact thing every time. One could argue that many JRPGs are victims of offering the same fights over and over during a grind session, and that is true to a certain extent. But in many of those cases, there are typically pools of premade encounters that are chosen at random each time you get into a battle. While that system has its limitations, it still manages to send you various sets of enemies rather than a single selection. Mercenaries Saga Chronicles free battles are literally the exact same every single time you play them, which I have a hard time appreciating.
The ideal solution to this problem would have been to either allow random enemies on each map, or simply have each free battle scenario scale in terms of its level. As it stands, you have a single free battle choice per leveling bracket. You can certainly repeat any unlocked free battle as much as you like, but the enemy’s level stops scaling after a certain point. If you don’t like a particular free battle in your current level bracket, you either have to hope you can power through via story mode (which isn’t always a choice) or just suck it up and grind through it. Again, offering randomly generated monsters or scaling the free battles (thus allowing any of the unlocked ones to be repeated regardless of level) would breathe a lot of replayability into these otherwise static maps.
On the topic of maps, those who have grown accustomed to a rotatable battlefield in their tactical RPGs may find Mercenaries Saga Chronicles’ offering a bit jarring. By their offering, I mean that there’s no way to rotate the map whatsoever, which can be troublesome in many situations. Luckily, you aren’t held to your movement choice until after you perform an action, making movement mistakes usually fixable. Even still, it would have been nice to be able to rotate the map at will, even if you’re just doing it to watch an attack animation play out.
Despite my issues with many of the game’s systems thus far, the core combat mechanics are actually well done. I enjoyed almost all of the story fights outside of a few that were poorly designed (the fight where demons slow you every single round was dreadful.) Even though you can blow a chunk of the story missions with ease (especially if you are the grinding type), there are plenty that will give you a run for your money.
New equipment opens up in the shop after every few completed story sections, giving you a nice sense of loot progression. On top of the standard shop inventory, there exists rare and unique equipment, which is typically stronger than their vanilla counterparts. Both the rare blue items and rainbow uniques can be obtained by monster drops and treasure chests, though the uniques are far more uncommon. A handful of uniques are available in exchange for puzzle pieces, but I never found the need to purchase them that way. But even if I did want one, I never found enough puzzle pieces in my playthrough to make the purchase in the first place. Keep in mind that I didn’t grind hours on end, so there could very well exist an avenue for farming puzzle pieces that is beyond the scope of my experience. Regardless, I thought it was worth mentioning for the sake of being thorough.
The shop also offers a few blue items that are randomized each time you clear a story or free battle map, but I would argue that 99% of the time they aren’t worth the investment. More often than not, these pieces are a tier or two lower than your current gear and have horrible modifiers. Finding the occasional piece with decent modifiers does happen, but it’s about as common as water in a desert. Unless you are a low level starting out, you will likely never find anything of use in the shop’s blue gear section. If so many poor modifiers exist for the sake of balance, I would have liked to have seen an emphasis on quality or quantity. You could have cut down the strength of good modifiers (if that’s even an issue) and reduced the overwhelming amount of bad ones to actually make the system somewhat functional while not overpowered.
In the game’s defense, there is a synthesis shop that, at least in theory, is supposed to fix this problem. The shop can combine two blue items into one while keeping modifiers of your choice, but I never found much use in it. This is due to the combination of scarcity in blue items of the appropriate tier, useful modifiers and the cost of the synthesis itself. In its current form, it really serves as a counterproductive process. This feature could see more use when you grind endgame maps, but I can’t say for sure. Nevertheless, it would have been a nice to utilize throughout the game instead of (possibly) just at endgame.
I realize that I have been very (and maybe a bit overly) critical of Mercenaries Saga Chronicles, and I do stand by my statements. However, it’s hard to deny the fact that the series does offer a lot of content for the price. While many of the systems were too flawed to be of long-term enjoyment for myself, others may be able to overlook them and get hours upon hours of enjoyment. Are the games worth the price tag? Absolutely. Are they worth your time? If you are okay with a trio of tactical RPGs at a bargain price that are almost identical, have solid combat but lack the visual flair and storytelling of bigger tactical RPGs, then this game may be for you. Otherwise, you may want to stick to Disgaea until more games in this genre show up on the platform. Here’s to hoping Final Fantasy Tactics comes to the Switch sooner rather than later. Hey, I can dream, right?