Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered Review (Switch)
While I’ve often said that River City Ransom and Final Fantasy II (IV) were responsible for introducing me to RPGs as a child, the Game Boy’s Makai Toushi SaGa, or The Final Fantasy Legend, was not too far behind them. And even though I’ve been a fan of Square’s oddball series for three decades now, two of its console entries have always eluded my grasp: Unlimited SaGa and Romancing SaGa, the latter of which released on Super Famicom in 1992 before receiving a global remake (Minstrel Song) for the PS2 in 2005.
As of December 1st, fans and newcomers alike can now enjoy the Romancing SaGa trilogy in its entirety on Switch thanks to this new remaster of Minstrel Song. But even though I’m the resident SaGa fanboy here at SwitchRPG, I’ll shoot straight: Despite enjoying my 30 hours thus far, and all the obvious improvements they’ve made, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered still has the series staple “unintuitiveness” that can make it a tough nut to crack for newcomers, especially with some of the complexities (and drawbacks) exclusive to this entry.
Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered begins a bit differently than many other RPGs, even some other SaGa games. Rather than a lore lesson regarding a historical big bad or pre-game global crisis, you instead get a brief summation of events surrounding your chosen starting character, of which there are eight. While there is an overarching narrative to discover that transcends all playable characters – an ancient war between gods now threatens to stir once more – the real emphasis is placed on the journey itself rather than the final destination.
Because of the franchise’s iconic Free Scenario System, you will be able to travel and explore the world as you see fit after completing the chosen character’s prologue. This means that the majority of the adventure will be determined by YOU, from the quests you’ll take, friends you meet, and how you want to build out your party. There are several dozen quests to take on over the course of each character’s journey, some of which are specific to characters or are only available within certain time frames (more on this later). It’s highly unlikely you’ll meet the requirements for every quest naturally because many of them require very specific instructions at certain points in order to fulfill, which is unfortunate but sort of par for the course for earlier SaGa games.
Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered features three separate “ending paths” that funnel players to the shared final boss, and it’s technically possible (but not probable on your own) to experience all three in a single run. When the credits roll, you’ll enjoy very brief cutscenes regarding some of the quests you fulfilled along the way, as well as some main character-specific scenes. But outside of this, the majority of ending scenes can be pretty similar from one character to the next. I’ve only completed the game with two characters, however, but I do know there is a “final ending” of sorts when you manage to clear the game with all eight characters, though I’d wager that the 100+ hour (without NG+) endeavor will not appease those looking for genuinely meaty story bits.
Regardless, my first run with Albert took just under 17 hours (or 22 if you count my ill-fated original run with him), and my Barbara playthrough was over in about 15 with no NG+ carryover, for a combined total of just about 40 hours. At the end of the day, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered is your standard SaGa fare when it comes to narrative – the overarching narrative and individual character stories are okay, but nowhere near compelling enough to confidently market as a “title seller” on their own. While you’ll undoubtedly resonate with some of the game’s characters and enjoy certain events, SaGa games have generally been more about the freedom of exploration, discovery, and of course gameplay, rather than having a truly gripping narrative.
Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered is a turn-based JRPG that heavily emphasizes exploration, paving your own journey, and beating up lots of monsters. For the better part of three decades, the franchise has been the antithesis of linearity and tradition, and this game is no different. You’ll begin your journey by picking a main character, then go on to play through their prologue before picking up (or dismissing) party members of your choice, and experiencing the world in whatever way suits your fancy.
That said, there are limitations to what you can accomplish due to the game’s Event Rank (or ER) system, which is essentially the progression of time that governs what your character can and can’t do at certain points. It is similar to Romancing SaGa 3 in that respect but in a nutshell, the more battles you win, the higher your ER will climb, and as a result the windows of some events may open or close. Because of this, many feel you shouldn’t go out of your way to fight as many enemies as possible despite grinding being a core feature across the series.
There are certainly advantages to avoiding some battles, especially when opting to play with the progression setting set to “normal” (or “fast” after completing the game once) but in general you shouldn’t be afraid to do battle either, particularly when progression is set to “slow.” Normal progression claims to be true to the original Japanese version, while slow progression is more faithful to the original English version and should be your go-to if you aren’t completely sure or just want a more relaxing experience.
You could theoretically dig yourself into a hole since enemies also scale with the number of battles won, so it’s not necessarily a great idea to stick with any particular area for too long before hitting endgame. The main reason for this is the scarcity of resources and how gearing up works, as completing as many quests possible (and being rewarded gold, jewels, and items) is integral to gearing/powering up quickly rather than simply grinding basic enemies for cash and power. Good old fashioned grinding is more suitable at endgame when the ER is maxed out, but is also viable before then so long as you’re somewhat mindful of the flow of time. This version conveniently adds an “ER wheel” to the main menu that will give you an idea of its progression as you go, which originally had to be done by pestering helpful NPCs in town.
While many quests are available for long stretches of ER, others are only possible to complete within specific windows and some of them are even chained to others that could become unavailable if you miss a step or waste too much time. Although many guides are out there that will give you the best chances of a “world tour” of questing content, I think the uncertainty with each playthrough helps to keep subsequent runs fresh since it’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, to finish everything with a single character. As a result, no two runs are likely to be the same, which is undoubtedly a core strength of the SaGa franchise. That said, a few quests are sure to cause frustration due to obtuse design.
One thing unique to Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered compared to other franchise entries is proficiencies. These are essentially exploration skills that allow you to fully explore certain maps (jumping and climbing), reveal hidden resources (chests, ores, and herbs), safely unlock trap-ridden treasure chests (there are A LOT), and even temporarily evade enemies out in the world. These are unlocked and improved with the two in-game currencies, jewels and gold. The higher proficiency rank, and the more individual characters skilled in the same proficiency, the more effective they will be and more times they’ll be able to be used before having to replenish their charges in town.
While proficiencies sound like a decent system on paper, they’re somewhat of a nightmare in practice. You can only equip up to five proficiencies at a time and although you can swap them in and out at any point, doing so outside of safe zones will cut your current proficiency points (or number of uses) in half each time a change is made. This can be potentially dangerous in areas where climbing or jumping proficiencies are required, since running out of points in those cases may force you to instead use LP (or life points) until you’ve made it back to town. Though PP and LP can easily be replenished in town, LP is a more precious resource since it can permanently kill off characters if you let it reach zero. There are exceptions to this, but it’s generally never a good idea to get dangerously low on LP.
There’s also the uncertainty of what proficiencies you should bring for each new area or dungeon; there’s no definitive way of telling without going there first. I can’t tell you how many times I prematurely left somewhere because I needed to optimize my proficiency loadout, or I was inefficient at spending proficiency points and ran out before I was through (Mt. Tomae and Mt. Scurve come to mind). While the idea of having to pick and choose your dungeon efficiencies sounds like it could add some interesting nuance to exploration, it ultimately feels tedious since you have to change them up so much and generally have to go back to town so that your charges don’t completely tank. Not to mention they’re just tedious to use in general since you have to select them individually every time you want to use them on a map. Moreover, those who want to enjoy the remaster’s included speedup functions will continuously be frustrated by having to slow things back down in order to use enemy evasion proficiencies effectively, as performing them with the speedup on, more often than not, will cause more trouble than it’s worth.
A mainstay of the SaGa series has been its unique turn-based combat, and Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered is no exception. If anything, it goes above and beyond what most games in the series do for one reason: the original Super Famicom release of Romancing SaGa was the debut of its now iconic “sparking” (or glimmering) system. Whereas most games dole out new skills upon level up or through a skill tree system, party members here have a chance of learning (or sparking) new skills right in the heat of combat, which will then be instantly used and permanently added to that character’s skill list for later use.
Different weapon types will spark different skills, encouraging you to diversify your weapon types in order to broaden your combat repertoire. The exception here is spells, which can only be learned by visiting various shops around the world (though spell fusion later does spice things up a bit). But whether it’s a weapon skill or a magic spell, most of them require battle points (or BP) to perform. There’s a base level of BP that each character will enter combat with, and also a base amount they will regenerate each turn. Some attacks may also require durability points (or DP) or even the previously mentioned LP to use, though. You can think of DP as weapon durability, and fortunately it can easily be restored by either a local blacksmith or by renting specific rooms at an inn. The exception here is tempered weapons, but those will be discussed in detail later.
The original Romancing SaGa also birthed the combo system, which dynamically chains multiple skills from the party together at a far greater power than would be possible as separate attacks. Mostly science but partially luck, combos are absolutely essential to winning more difficult encounters and are always exciting to behold. Also different in this game are reverses, fulcrums, and other types of special attacks that will occasionally replace regular skills with a more powerful version and add subtle differences in their animations.
Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered does feature one more unique combat mechanic, though it isn’t a series staple. Every single individual weapon, as well as martial arts, can be configured to perform in one of three (at first; more added later) modes: attack, defense, or trick. Individual weapon skills are also filed under one of these three types, though they don’t have to be used exclusively in that mode, meaning a weapon configured for defense can still use attack and trick-based weapon skills. The caveat here is that weapon skills outside of the currently equipped weapon’s current mode are less efficient. That said, there are huge advantages to changing a weapon’s mode depending on certain situations.
Attack mode has the potential to deal the most damage, defense mode can drastically increase your general survivability, and trick mode can allow for attacks to be used more frequently before enemy turns. I say “potential” and “can” because enemies are also attuned to one of the three aforementioned modes, and there’s a sort of rock-paper-scissors effect that’s also at play. In general, however, the difference isn’t so drastic that you are pigeonholed into a specific meta, though it cannot be understated just how useful the defense mode can be as you draw closer to the endgame.
With all three features in play – sparking, combos, and weapon modes – Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered brings an unexpected level of freshness to combat that I wasn’t really expecting as a lifelong SaGa fan. Although I don’t think it’s the best combat system in the franchise – that crown goes to SaGa: Scarlet Grace, for sure – it’s still really well done.
In terms of character progression, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered features one of the more nuanced and robust combinations of mechanics in the series, though the complexity does come at a cost. For starters, the game uses its tried-and-true stat raising feature that will periodically increase individual stats of characters after a fight, rather than loading it all behind a traditional level up system. While stat raise frequency is generally affected by the difference in power between the character and enemies, as well as the types of commands used in combat, you’ll also receive enough stat raises to lesser used aspects (ie. magic stats for a melee damage dealer) so that they can competently use some magic in a pinch, or even be built as a full-on battlemage hybrid. Even still, some characters are far better suited for specific roles, but nothing is stopping you from developing any character how you want.
The real governing factor of each character’s power is their chosen class and subsequent specialties. Most characters have access to a few dozen classes, which can be unlocked with jewels. Classes typically come with specific strengths, like martial arts or longsword proficiency, and generally a unique passive, such as increased combo occurrence or improved incoming attack deflection. Unlocked classes can be swapped between at any point, and you can even focus on improving skills beyond the scope of your current class. Achieving level three in any class will allow you to then individually purchase skills to train for your entire party, which is a great way to save jewels since you’ll likely never use all the skills that a class inherently comes with.
While the first couple levels of each class don’t cost a ton of jewels, you won’t be able to really specialize deeply into more than one per character unless you go absolutely crazy on farming jewels. Though there is nothing stopping you from maxing out every single class and skill, the sheer amount of jewels required for mastering one class, let alone all of them, is daunting to say the least. But this limitation does play into the replayability factor of the game, since you can always take the knowledge learned from one run into the next one, whether to improve on the choices made prior, or to try a completely new style of class. There’s also a lot of skill overlap between classes, so it’s not really the end of the world if you invest a bunch in one and end up wanting to try another.
Since non-spellcasting combat skills are directly tied to a character’s chosen weapon, they play an important role in customizing your characters. Most weapons fall into either blunt, piercing, or slashing categories, and certain enemies are strong/weak against each type. And as previously mentioned, every weapon type has unique skills that can be “sparked,” though some skills do cross over multiple weapon types (Hawke Blade can be used by one-handed axe and certain sword wielders, for example).
Additionally, most every weapon can be improved through tempering at the blacksmith. This feature alone has complexities far beyond the scope of this review, but it more or less allows you to fine tune weapons to your desired tastes, whether that be improved attack power or bonuses to durability. There’s an ebb and flow to this system, however, since raising one value will more often than not decrease the value elsewhere. There are exceptions, of course, but there are definitely reasons to consider diving deep into tempering since you can vastly improve certain weapons if you play your cards right.
Weapon tempering does come with some disadvantages though, the most important one being that the tempered item will no longer be easily repairable at inns, forcing you to spend a lot more money and resources at the blacksmith in order to repair them at low durability. This is more of an endgame concern though since you don’t even really need to temper weapons at all if you’re just wanting to roll the credits. That said, there are distinct advantages to at least tempering armor since they are far less complex (no durability to worry about) and they definitely help to squeeze out the most potential from your gear.
When In Doubt, Ask A…Kid?
If all of this is a bit overwhelming, worry not. Fortunately, there is a kid in every town that is essentially an in-game knowledge base. They will outline most basics of the game, and even periodically add new topics as your ER increases. They also provide maps for towns, but this really should have been done by default rather than making it one other thing for the player to do.
Either way, these young lads and lasses are extremely useful to have around, but they aren’t a substitute for hands-on experience. And even then, the SaGa series is notorious for very little handholding – I even struggled here on my first character as a franchise veteran! If you aren’t keen on the adventurer/nomad’s life and some aimless wandering at times, things can get pretty frustrating. But once you have a solid grasp on how things work, there’s a sense of freedom and control over your own destiny that isn’t captured in every RPG, especially ones with bones as old as this one.
Presentation, Performance, and Sound
Although Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered has been sharpened up with finer visual detail, it’s unlikely to be everyone’s cup of tea. Outside of improved textures and better sprites, it still very much comes off as an early 3D experience and I feel a lot of this has to do with the on-rails camera. Despite the 3D world, you cannot directly control the camera and it sort of shifts around on its own as you move across a map. This can be particularly disorienting when you are in one of the labyrinth-like dungeons with a bunch of narrow, windy paths as the camera won’t always be in the same position as you’re moving through the area.
It’s also very easy to aggro and be ambushed by enemies outside of your line of sight, especially when playing on 2x or 3x speed. SaGa Frontier Remastered didn’t have this problem since the out-of-combat backgrounds were static. Furthermore, making earlier 3D look appealing is tricky unless you have a really unique art style, and while the sprites look good, the backdrops aren’t as great. There’s also some slowdown to contend with at times – not sure whether that is specific to the Switch version or not, but there’s no reason why a PS2-era game should have any issues running on a Nintendo Switch.
On the other hand, it’s hard to fault these kinds of issues when the game only costs $24.99USD, an insane price point considering how much content it provides. Regardless, I do fancy the character design in Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered and SaGa games never fail to impress in terms of flashy combat animations. The iconic light bulb emote when sparking never gets old, and combo attacks always provide adequate feedback in terms of visuals, sound, and power. The character art is sort of in between chibi and more realistic (relatively speaking) design, but the end result is charming. The voice acting is only “okay,” but you shouldn’t be expecting much here anyway. I would like to know how they got Andy Serkis to reprise his Gollum voice for the lead Geckling in their hidden jungle village, though.
If there is one constant in every SaGa game, if not solid combat, it is the works of composer Kenji Ito. He never disappoints, and the more I listen to the soundtrack of Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered, the more I adore it. Ito-san is a master at battle music, and I’m particularly fond of how he injected the same melody into multiple towns, but arranged them all in unique ways to fit each one’s respective style and culture. From Rosalia’s Window is probably my favorite town theme, and even if you hate all of the above, you can’t help but chant along to his jolly pirate theme.
While not as polished (or intuitive) as 2021’s SaGa Frontier Remastered, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered still provides a break from genre traditions and a world that can be explored your own way. This completes the Romancing SaGa trilogy on the Nintendo Switch, though it is probably the most obtuse of the bunch (which would make sense since it is the oldest). However, the changes and additions made here should appeal to fans and newcomers alike, from enhanced visuals, new characters to recruit, supercharged bosses to defeat, and plenty more to discover and enjoy. Like most SaGa games, it is light on meaningful story content, but the sheer amount of variety you can experience across multiple playthroughs and the satisfying combat system are more than enough to give it a consideration.
That said, it does feature more complexities (notably proficiencies, unlocking classes and skills efficiently, and to a lesser extent, weapon tempering) than other SaGa games and as a result, is not the ideal starting point for newcomers to the franchise. For that, you’re better off approaching one of the SaGa games on Game Boy, or SaGa Frontier Remastered. Regardless, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered is worth checking out if you want a break from the mold and at only $24.99USD for a potentially 100+ hour experience, there’s very little risk.