SaGa Frontier Remastered Review (Switch)
To everyone’s surprise, Akitoshi Kawazu’s SaGa series has experienced a renaissance over the past few years. As a notoriously niche franchise with a steep learning curve, many titles under its umbrella never saw the light of day in the West (officially) until around the launch of the Nintendo Switch. Since then, we’ve received localizations of Romancing SaGa 2, 3, and SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, which was simply a pipe dream only a few years ago!
On top of that, we’ve seen a repackaging of the original Game Boy “Legend” entries under the Collection of SaGa, and now a full-on remaster of 1997’s SaGa Frontier. What is this alternate timeline we’re living in right now?! Out of all these localizations, re-releases, and remasters, however, SaGa Frontier Remastered is easily the most surprising for one simple reason: despite fan adoration, it was incomplete and, well, a bit of a mess in its original form.
Sandwiched between juggernaut titles like Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, and Parasite Eve, SaGa Frontier had an uphill battle from the start. It was still a financial success, sure, but so was everything else that Square published around that time period. It’s no secret that RPG fans, especially those of the Square variety, were “eatin’ good” back in those days, though so many quality releases certainly played a role in overshadowing the latest in the SaGa series. The franchise’s reputation for obscurity didn’t help either!
Regardless, SaGa Frontier would go on to be one of the most beloved entries in the series. While it remains my personal favorite entry to this day, I’m not here to let my obviously strong nostalgic ties lead newcomers astray either. Simply put, SaGa Frontier Remastered has taken great strides in making itself more accessible (and more enjoyable), but it’s neither perfect (far from it) nor is it for everyone.
To simply say that SaGa Frontier is unique would be an understatement, as every fiber of the game’s being, including its narrative structure, goes against the grain of the traditional JRPG. Capitalizing on the franchise’s now staple choose-your-own-adventure approach to storytelling, SaGa Frontier Remastered’s Free Scenario System lets you experience the stories of seven different protagonists, with a brand-new scenario (for a total of eight) becoming available after the completion of any of the original campaigns. Whatever path you take, you will see that protagonist’s journey to its end before being able to select another one to explore.
These individual stories are quite different from one another – Red, for example, narrowly evades death by becoming the superhero Alkaiser, now aiming to bring down those responsible for slaughtering his family (and almost slaughtering him!). Amelia’s scenario follows a similar path – pursuing the man that killed her fiance and framed her for the murder. The actual depth of these tales varies drastically, as story-specific dialogue is rather limited across the board and some scenarios, like Lute’s, provide very little context before allowing you to take on their respective final boss.
Furthermore, it can be easy at times to lose your way and not know what to do next. Fortunately, SaGa Frontier Remastered features a scenario log that highlights useful story bits – but only to an extent. There are still many moments that may leave you “high and dry” in regards to what to do next (the Koorong terminal for T260G and the entire chasing sequence with Asellus immediately comes to mind). It is for that reason that you should consider starting with Red or Emelia since their stories have the most structure and allow the player to learn the ins and outs of both the game world and its mechanics before jumping into one of the more narratively lax scenarios.
While the individual scenarios are all very much compartmentalized, there is quite a bit of overlap between certain story bits and the characters themselves. Likewise, the new Fuse scenario – case files (or mini scenarios) that unlock for each of the completed protagonists – provides a little bit more depth to each protagonist’s tale, but nothing too crazy. It is nice to have some of the cut content from the original restored here, but the plots overall are still fairly underwhelming by today’s standards. It’s not that the narratives aren’t interesting, but rather how antiquated and limited the writing itself feels under a modern lens. You have to consider that the original SaGa Frontier released in the “this guy are sick” era, and the remaster left the original script virtually untouched outside of the new content.
Tempering your narrative expectations, however, still leaves a lot to enjoy from learning about these characters. Clearing all seven original protagonists then all of Fuse’s content grants access to some neat bonus goodies, as well, but I’ll not be spoiling that here!
Thanks in part to the Free Scenario system, the original SaGa Frontier was one of the pioneers of free-form RPG experiences, decades before vast open-world areas became the norm. The player experiences a number of stories, recruits (or ignores) many allies, explores an array of side areas and quests, most of which can be done at any point during any given scenario. Along the way, you are encouraged to grind. A lot. Whereas other RPGs slowly crank up the difficulty knob, SaGa goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of minutes if you’re just following the main story path. Fortunately, character progression is consistently fun and really helps turn those lengthy (and frequent) grinding sessions into an enjoyable endeavor.
Instead of gaining levels in a traditional sense, human party members have a chance of increasing individual stats by a small amount after each fight. Moreover, they can glimmer (or learn) new weapon abilities either mid-combat (when using swords and fists) or upon victory (guns and magic, the latter only if they have first acquired that magic school’s gift). There are three other races besides humans – mystics, mechs, and monsters – each with their own forms of progression.
Mystics, like humans, increase a few stats by fighting, but get the majority of their power through absorbing enemies (and their skills) with their mystic weaponry. Mechs, in addition to collecting data (aka learning abilities) from defeated mech enemies, can equip a lot of gear and receive substantial bonuses that are well beyond the baseline stats available to other races.
Finally, monsters absorb enemies like mystics and mechs but can also change into entirely new beings. If you’ve played any other SaGa game before (or perhaps Final Fantasy II) then you will already be familiar with a lot of these nuances. Newcomers to the franchise will certainly have a lot to process, though. Wherever your experience may lie, one thing is for certain: there’s something immensely satisfying about the drip-feed progression method that the SaGa series embraces, as it makes each and every fight feel meaningful.
The wide array of toolkits provided by the various races paves the way for the game’s most devastating offensive abilities: combos. Battles are turn-based, where each unit on both sides will initiate their turn in an order based on a variety of factors. When performing an assortment of different moves on the opponent, there is a chance that party members will unite their attacks, vastly increasing their damage output when compared to firing off the abilities individually.
The underlying mechanics of combos are deep and well beyond the scope of this review, but just consider it best practice to perform a variety of different attacks on the same targets. Combos are essential, if not required in dispatching many of the more formidable bosses in the game.
Recruiting and Exploring
In between story bits, most protagonists are able to go off the beaten path and take on a variety of sub-objectives or just simply explore the world. This is integral to character progression not only for the grinding and looting opportunities but also in the actual recruitment of characters. There is room for 15+ party members to join each protagonist, though the total amount of recruits available to each may be less than that. You’ll find all sorts of people willing (and some unwilling) to help you, and their conditions for joining vary from protagonist to protagonist.
Even though many characters are shared across multiple scenarios, their reasons for joining may differ, adding a bit of flair and believability to the web of heroes that easily surpasses the connections (or lack thereof) between the heroes of Octopath Traveler, for example. I enjoyed Octopath as much as anyone (I gave it our highest rating upon launch), but it’s no secret that SaGa did the multi-protagonist approach earlier – and much better. One final note about recruiting and exploring in general: save a lot. SaGa Frontier Remastered makes use of multiple save slots, including auto, quick, and manual saves. You’re encouraged to save often considering how easily points-of-no-return and difficult encounters can sneak up on you. You can also flee from most encounters now in the remastered version, but it still won’t save you from the big bads. In any case, save often, flee when necessary, and always tread with caution.
SaGa Frontier Remastered features one of the most satisfying gearing systems in any RPG thanks to its dedication to being unconventional. Those accustomed to being able to throw their wallet at any vendor with reckless abandon are in for a rude awakening, as the game has one of the most stressful economies in existence. Monsters are stingy with money drops, and there are very few vendors willing to buy back goods (and even fewer items that can actually be sold). The player is ultimately forced to play it safe, make sound investments, and scavenge for some goods. Play your cards carefully, and you will still come out on top by the journey’s end – just don’t make brash decisions.
There is plenty of useful gear to be found through grinding and dungeon diving alone, so you can supplement those organic pickups with some vendor goods instead of solely relying on purchased equipment. If it all gets to be too much, though, you can always exploit some well known bugs that remain intact in the remaster (highlighted in my guide) to buy everything you could possibly want (though I’d advise against it). While it may feel bad not having a steady stream of income early on, it ultimately amplifies the incentive for just exploring the world and, well, just playing the game.
SaGa Frontier Remastered features a very unique aesthetic that is further glorified by the HD overhaul. Out in the field, 2D sprites traverse pre-rendered backgrounds, both of which have had their fidelity increased dramatically. The enhancements follow you into the battlefield where an over-the-shoulder perspective highlights the often larger-than-life enemy sprites and animations. The previously mentioned combos end up being some of the most weighty, visually satisfying experiences you’ll have in any RPG thanks to an assortment of animations and their appropriately weighty sound effects.
The UI has been cleaned up, as well, and the font has been enhanced in order to improve readability both on the dock and in handheld mode. Collectively, these changes have vastly improved the visual experience, amplifying the game’s original claymation-esque vibes while never losing sight of what made it special in the first place.
Kenji Ito’s soundtrack, on the other hand, has been relatively untouched save for some additional pieces to fill out the newest content. Frankly, I’m fine with this because the original work has aged well. While I wouldn’t have been against newer versions of this classic soundtrack, as-is, it already represents some of Ito’s finest work.
Kenji Ito has capitalized on SaGa Frontier Remastered’s eclectic zone palette by pairing them with a variety of different music styles: catchy techno beats, inspiring boss battle themes, mysterious dungeon-crawling tunes, regionally-appropriate pieces (the ruined Eastern-inspired village of Wakatu, for example), and everything in between. Although Ito’s work in Final Fantasy Legend II will likely always be my favorite of his, SaGa Frontier is an extremely close second to it.
While the original SaGa Frontier was quite rough around the edges, the remastered version has included some new content, features, and quality-of-life additions that have polished it up substantially. Story-wise, additional content has been added to Asellus’s tale in addition to the aforementioned Fuse scenario. However, the most important addition for newcomers and rusty veterans will be the in-game compendium (not to be confused with the scenario log) which provides a lot of basic information about the game’s many mechanical layers. This and the scenario log alone will vastly improve the experience for new players (though not completely negate the potential for needing/wanting an external guide at certain points).
On top of that, the equipment screen has been expanded to show many more details about pieces of gear that may have not been immediately obvious in the original game. A history of performed combos has also been introduced that provides an easy reference to the last few successful coordinated attacks you performed (only available as a reference outside of combat, though).
New Game Plus has been added and is highly customizable, allowing you to carry over certain bits of data from existing saves to new ones. While this is pretty standard fare in terms of RPGs today, and appreciated to an extent here, I’m not sure it is a great fit to the overall SaGa experience. With how certain party members only join certain protagonists, it means that even if you carry over the “levels” of characters from a previously beaten scenario, you’ll likely still have to power up other characters that weren’t available in the other tale. More importantly, SaGa Frontier Remastered is the type of game that embraces grinding, and diluting that leaves less of an incentive (in my eyes) to even play it.
Still, New Game Plus does have some advantages. Its highly customizable nature means that you could just carry over items and/or money and keep the essence of character progression somewhat intact (though this would still worsen the overall experience in my opinion). That said, I found the feature extremely useful in clearing Fuse’s content since there’s so much overlap and a lot of repetition there. I still feel very strongly about the grind being an integral part of the overall SaGa experience, but this new feature certainly has some situational merits.
I still find it hard to believe, even after knowing about it for months and putting over 50 hours into it, that SaGa Frontier Remastered is a thing, and I’m so happy that it is. The best part of it all is how well it actually turned out, considering far too many releases these days are filed under the “cash grab” category. This is a remaster done right and is far more than a simple remaster. SaGa Frontier Remastered is the new gold standard for remasters and is proof that the return of any RPG – no matter how quirky, old, or niche – is possible.
All that said, and despite its best efforts, the core of SaGa Frontier Remastered is still very much a product of its time. The grind, while engaging and consistently rewarding, is the name of the game here, and there simply isn’t enough quality story content to recommend it on that alone. There is a lot of character overlap between the scenarios, which is great, but that also applies to most of the areas used within the game, meaning you’ll retread the same stomping grounds over and over (albeit with some minor nuances). It’s definitely NOT for everyone, but if you enjoy nonlinear gameplay, grinding, and don’t mind a little “jank” along the way, then there’s a lot to appreciate and enjoy about SaGa Frontier Remastered.