Romance is dead.
Square/Enix used to be a bastion of consistency (when it was just Square, at least), but has of late turned into something of a role-playing hydra – you never really know which head will rear. Will their latest, Romancing SaGa, be another Vagrant Story, a sharp-toothed monster mesmerizing players with a siren's song of depth and immersion, or will it turn out to be a cross-eyed numbskull like Fullmetal Alchemist?
A little of both, it turns out. This remake of a SNES game promises limitless adventuring, but forgets to include a point. The result is a game rife with cool ideas but lacking the necessary fiber to hold them together.
The plot is like old gum - easy to chew, but lacking flavor. In the distant past, three evil gods fought over control of the world. One of them, Saruin, was defeated by a hero using ten magical stones. Now, that evil presence is sneaking its way into the world again. Wasn't this covered in The Lord of the Rings? And why can't anybody ever seal away evil correctly? Anyway, it's up to today's heroes to put it back down. Keep in mind that this story is twelve years old, and what was passable then doesn't cut the mustard now.
It's also pretty non-existent, bailing out almost immediately in favor of free-form gameplay. Depending upon which of the eight initial characters you choose, you'll play the same game in a different order, minus universal plot events. The starting location merely determines which classes, abilities, characters, locations, and quests you have access to first, based on your initial character choice.
But no matter who you choose, you'll be confused. Frequently, Romancing SaGa leaves you with no goals or specific direction, robbing you of the desire to explore and progress. Mostly, you'll wander from NPC to NPC hoping for a chat to send you on another side quest. The bland, ambiguous story doesn't come up nearly enough to keep you interested, so completing repetitive missions through dull dungeons and caves is the mainstay of the game.
. Non-plot aside, you still get monsters to slay and levels to gain. This is where Romancing SaGa takes a bit of a stroll from traditional RPG mechanics. Instead of random monster battles, you'll actually see enemies creeping about the world and can avoid them as such. You also don't gain experience or "level up" through fighting. Each of your stats increases individually, based loosely on your action. Swing swords and you'll gain strength; use magic and you'll gain spell power. It's a lot like Final Fantasy II.
In lieu of strict leveling up, you can spend jewels gained in battle on various skill and class upgrades in town. Skill levels affect the power of spells and weapons, but switching classes merely offers you a different lean in battle strategy (i.e., more critical hits). Proficiencies are also purchased in town, and add a bit of a spin to your endless wandering by allowing you to jump chasms to access new areas, find hidden chests, pick herbs, etc. The downside is that you'll need certain proficiencies to complete certain quests, but you don't find that out until you're at the foot of the mountain, suddenly aware that you lack the skill level to climb to the top. Frustration ensues when you have to go all the way back to town to change proficiencies or collect enough jewels to raise the appropriate skill.
While the field activities of Romancing SaGa are unimaginative, the turn-based battle system is oddly complex and innovative. In addition to HP, which is filled at the start of every battle, you get a bunch of other Ps, like BP, LP, and DP. BP (battle points) are spent to pull off more advanced strikes and cast spells. Characters gain a specific amount of BP per round, which dictates your entire battle strategy. Take a few weak swings, save up BP, and unleash your super moves. But you need to exercise caution, because using more powerful strikes burns up DP (durability points) and makes your weapons fall apart faster. You'll lose LP (life points) when you're knocked out, attacked while you're down, or fleeing from battle. Run out of LP and that character will leave your party. This sounds confusing, but becomes second nature quickly.
The same goes for weapons and spells. You'll learn more strikes with a weapon simply by attacking with it. The more you swing your axe, the better you will get with it. Magic is divided into ten schools. Each school has an opposite, and no character can wield opposing magics. That means if you have skill points in Pyrology, you can't access Hydrology, or vice-versa. Considering you have total control over who learns what, the customization options add tasty bits of meat to the rest of this emaciated experience.
All the features in the world can't save the game from its total lack of cohesion, though. A role-playing game depends enormously on how much fun it is to, you know, role-play, and without any sort of inspiration or motivation, you'll find yourself playing for very, very shorts burst. It's an outline for a good game, a skeleton.
Its aesthetics hardly flesh it out. The environments are large and varied, but the camera is fully automated, forcing you to do a lot of wandering just to see what's over there. This gets even trickier in dungeons, with boring textures and similar camera drudgery. The battle camera is overly attentive, focusing on whoever is being issued commands or attacking. It's cool to see the model detail close up, but ends up wrecking the flow as the camera flashes from angle to angle just a bit too quickly.
The style of Romancing SaGa is typical Square, with neo-Medieval garb, oversized craniums and big eyes. The bobbleheads are probably meant to be cutesy and endearing, but come off more like creepy marionettes. On the other hand, the towns are lush and pretty, especially the overly polished Crystal City.
Square doesn't usually flunk in its audio, and they get it right again here with catchy battle tunes and generally unobtrusive background melodies. The voice-acting, though, could use some work. The overly simplistic sweetness of everyone's voice makes me wonder who directed the speech and why they made the actors read lines to a six-year-old. This would be easily dismissed, but the fact that every NPC has a voice and they're all equally bad means that it's not a matter of budget or oversight, just bad execution. Thankfully, word bubbles are included and you can skip most of the voice-overs by pressing a button.
With some genuinely good ideas joined at the hip with just as many flaws, Romancing SaGa feels like a poor rendition of a kickass plan. This could have easily been a great tribute to its SNES predecessor, had it paid any heed to what makes the tedium of an RPG tolerable…and that lies squarely in the saga that this game fails to describe.