SaGa Frontier Review (PS1)
Akitoshi Kawazu’s SaGa series has always been a lesser known entity here in the West. Where Final Fantasy opts for linearity and more traditional systems, the SaGa series, more often than not, requires you to belly up to the bar and learn its complex (and often convoluted) mechanics with little or no given context. In many ways, the SaGa games can feel like they are half-finished, and that has been said to have been the actual situation with SaGa Frontier.
However, the same argument is made in regards to other SaGa games, and I think it’s mainly due to its hard-to-approach design and the unfamiliarity that comes with that rather than it actually having anything to do with the budget at all. Simply put, SaGa games are not for everyone, and have a tendency to be designed with only hardcore RPG consumers in mind. SaGa Frontier is no exception, and can be brutally difficult to those not familiar with its inner-workings (RIP new players). But if you can get past the steep learning curve (and some minor annoyances), there’s a beauty to some of its design that’s just not found in many JRPGs.
Even if you grew up during the PS1 heyday, you may have never heard of SaGa Frontier. That is because it had the misfortune of being released right around the same time as Final Fantasy VII. While the two series could not be any different from each other, I’d imagine that the overwhelming success of Final Fantasy VII most certainly had people confused and off-put by this newfangled SaGa Frontier game. Because of that, I will be making quite a few comparisons to the Final Fantasy franchise in order to help bring to light the features in SaGa Frontier.
Instead of a singular, traditional main narrative often found in Final Fantasy, SaGa Frontier uses a Free Scenario System, which cuts you loose in choosing between seven different characters, each with their own unique story (similar to the eight found in Octopath Traveler). But the lax of linearity doesn’t stop there. Within each story, you often are given the immediate freedom of tackling anything within the world, in any order. Because of how difficult combat can be, especially in the beginning, this isn’t always an ideal (or even possible) avenue to pursue, but the principle is appreciated nonetheless. And don’t go into it expecting an Octopath level of writing/translation either. We’re talking about the same generation of “this guy are sick“, and some SaGa games have a tendency to be light on dialogue as it is. Nothing is terrible per se, but don’t go in expecting to be blown away either.
SaGa Frontier handles character progression in a totally alienated way when compared to your typical JRPG. While equipment is handled in very much a traditional sense, your characters do not level up from level 1 to 2, and so on. Instead, individual stat boosts are inherited based on the actions you perform during a fight, among other factors. If you attack with a melee ability, your strength and WP (MP for melee abilities) may go up. The same goes for magic, where it might up your intelligence and JP (MP for magic abilities), et cetera. It is very much the same design as Final Fantasy II (NES), but is far less broken than that system was (ie. attacking yourself for the best stat gains, because that makes sense).
The aforementioned stat gaining system only applies to Humans and, partially, Half-Mystics/Mystics though. You can also recruit Monsters and Mechs that each have their own quirks in relation to progression. If you’ve experienced any previous SaGa game, then you will already be familiar with their nuances. Newcomers to the franchise will certainly have a lot to process, however.
“Sparking” in Saga Frontier refers to the system used in the acquisition of most of your combat abilities. Basically, you have a chance of learning melee abilities mid-combat when performing other melee abilities. Using a sword can spark sword abilities much like hand-to-hand combat sparks martial art techniques. Once again, a SaGa Frontier system is not as straightforward as it seems, because gun, mech, and magic techniques are handled in a slightly different way. But the general premise remains the same across the board; use abilities and weapons in the categories where you want to see growth, and you should see results.
The abilities learned through sparking can, oftentimes, be used in conjunction with your comrade’s abilities to execute what’s known as a combination attack. Think of it as Chrono Trigger’s Combo system on steroids. You can have anywhere from two to all five party members participate in these coordinated attacks, and they are an absolute blast to witness unfold. The ins and outs of exactly how to perform these banded assaults is beyond the scope of this article (seriously, there are lengthy guides written exclusively about the combo system, if that is any indication of its depth). All you need to know that it is an amazing feeling to pull off any size combination and see those damage values explode.
The stat progression, sparking system, and combination attacks are major influences behind my love for SaGa Frontier. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional leveling or ability gaining system though, because any RPG enthusiast will be comfortable with that design. However, in some ways I prefer the SaGa system since tangible progress (albeit minimal) can be seen after each and every encounter. It’s almost like having the choice of being paid once a week or once a month. At least for me, I’d prefer the smaller chunks (SaGa system) over a lump sum (other systems) most of the time.
Still with me? I told you, SaGa games in general can be a bit of a doozy in terms of their numerous, layered systems. While I don’t think anyone would argue against added, meaningful complexity, the explanation of said systems are where things start to fall apart. This is not uncommon in the realm of SaGa games, but I think it ends up being detrimental to the package rather than a boon. There’s an obvious difference between excessive hand holding and just providing a basic level of understanding to your various systems, and I think that a line can be drawn somewhere in the middle to benefit from both sides of the fence. But SaGa Frontier is actively Forrest Gump-ing away from that fence, as in it does little to explain anything.
That said, SaGa Frontier is very much the type of game that most people would want to play with the accompaniment of a guide. I specifically say “guide” because I don’t think a walkthrough is necessary. While you might find yourself directionally challenged from time to time, it gets easier with subsequent characters once you know the lay of the land. The seven stories, though unique, will tread a lot of the same ground in relation to area visitation.
With enough determination, you’ll have no problem (most of the time) getting back on track. What DOES suck, however, is coming across important plot points that can serve as a “point of no return” in some situations. You should save often, more so than your average RPG, because you’ll find it handy being able to reverse the sands of time if such an event occurs. The “save often” mentality serves dual purposes due to the frequent and abrupt deaths (especially in the early hours) you will experience as well.
The previously mentioned guide will be helpful in understanding things that aren’t organically explained in-game, such as the most powerful melee ability, DSC, requiring you to equip random (but specific) skills in order to use it (how would you ever find that out for yourself), how magic/gun/mech/monster progression works, combination attacks, and, you know, maybe mention the broken state of the game’s economy. And by broken, I mean literally unsalvageable. SaGa Frontier has one of the worst economies I’ve ever seen in a game.
You know how you can sell everything and the kitchen sink in most JRPGs? That’s a big “nope” here. There are specific vendors that only accept certain items, and the majority of items and equipment can’t be sold whatsoever. And the few things that can be sold will only net you a measly amount of cash in return, all but defeating the purpose of selling in the first place. No problem, I can just grind it out, right? Only certain enemies drop money, with most of those dropping only a minimally useful amount. You’re already doing a lot of grinding in this game, but the state of the economy calls for at least 2-3x more to even begin to acquire some of the better items in the game. It makes buying stuff in a game like Dragon Quest look like the concerted effort of buying a candy bar at the store.
What makes the whole money situation hilarious is the fact that the official strategy went as far as to mention one of two economy-related glitches (under the guise of a “trick”) to help compensate for the economic crisis. I am the last person to ever get on board with any sort of glitch or exploit in any game, but SaGa Frontier is just begging you to indulge in its buggy goodness. For the average gamer, unless you have the time of a god or are an expert of the game’s ins and outs, the money glitches are essential to playing the game. It is sad, but true.
These problems, as infuriating as they can be, still don’t deter my admiration for the game as a whole. SaGa Frontier is a quirky, buggy mess at times, but is overshadowed by an engaging combat system, unique (but taste-dependent) art style with the backing of a legit sound track alongside satisfying, impactful sound effects. Discovering new abilities mid-combat and firing off impressive, five-man combination attacks never gets old. Green-eared RPG fans should stay far away though, but more seasoned RPGers looking for something a bit different may find solace within SaGa Frontier. Just don’t forget to save, and, uh, maybe get a guide beforehand.