Hailing from the 16-bit Squaresoft golden era of JRPG's, Romancing SaGa 2 looks like a pretty straightforward and otherwise unremarkable game alongside other beloved classics from this period like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Secret of Mana. It's certainly a game that I've missed despite my love for that generation, mostly due to it being locked behind the lack of localization until recently.
Regardless, there is a hidden gem found here with Romancing SaGa 2 that any old school JRPG fan will not want to miss. From the surface, everything seems so average. The combat is simplistic, based on the traditional turn-based system that you remember from predecessors to it like Final Fantasy V. The graphics and music are repetitive and forgettable, too. But when you dig into it, there is something really special to be found.
An Empire State of Mind
Romancing SaGa 2 contains a simple premise of taking down seven legendary heroes who are supposed to be the saviors of the world, but aren't anymore for an unknown reason. However, you don't start out as an orphan or downtrodden protagonist destined for greatness, but rather a member of the royal family of Avalon.
It sets itself apart from other JRPG's of this generation by putting you in the shoes of the ruler of the land with the duty to protect your empire. This boils down to going on quests like retaking an overrun village, killing a goblin king, and the like. Choice is integral to Romancing SaGa 2, allowing you to even occasionally choose which order to complete the main story.
Do you immediately go after one of the seven heroes that's an enemy to the entire world or wait and go on the more personal revenge quest against the monsters that killed someone close to you? The game rewards you for even the optional objectives, granting you comically massive amounts of gold and loot that are then used for furthering your kingdom.
Soon after you start, you can sit on your throne and dole out commands similar to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. You can advise your servants to expand the empire and its cities in various ways using the gold stored up in your treasury. Building one landmark might result in you not having enough gold for a later one, making your choices matter. In fact, you could choose to ignore this feature entirely and just focus on the story at hand.
By far the most impressive usage of choice in Romancing SaGa 2, though, is its generational inheritance system. Far ahead of its time, this game isn't the story of one king taking on the evil villains, but the tale of an entire royal family. That's right, you play through hundreds of years of history of this empire.
Generation after generation, you continue the same overarching narrative as a new ruler on the throne. When it's time for generational change, you directly select the heir you want to take over, and that new protagonist inherits the skills of their predecessor. The system is deep and at the core of what makes Romancing SaGa 2 so unique. For example, one of the first princes I played as was initially weak but became insanely strong (and interesting) once crowned.
It's an intelligent mechanic that keeps the pace moving swiftly and the story from becoming stale despite its more generic aspects. The generation system is so complex, not nearly as simple as the current ruler dying and you picking someone else. If you complete certain objectives in a specific order, you can even skip generations and experience moments that someone else might not.
Even more intriguing is the fact that you can fail major missions and the game will just continue instead of giving you a traditional game over. For instance, losing to one of the seven heroes early on can result in the ruler perishing and the game just continuing with you selecting a new heir with revenge as a core element of their personality.
Like Fire Emblem, permadeath is an important gameplay feature. Every time a party member falls in battle, they lose a life point and when that number reaches zero, they die for good. I had no clue there was permanent death in Romancing SaGa 2, so it was shocking and emotional when it occurred out of nowhere. It made me completely change my gameplay approach, as almost everyone-including the current ruler-can fall at any point in the game.
Unfortunately, controls are extremely frustrating and can lead to far too many turn-based battles even when exploring small areas. While there are thankfully no random encounters, there are way too many enemies onscreen in every location and they move too fast. This is worsened by the unresponsive and strange controls.
Like other JRPG's, you can switch between walking and running. Oddly enough, if you encounter an enemy while running, it will break your current party formation and make fragile characters like mages vulnerable. This can be solved by just walking all the time or fleeing, but enemies move so fast that they will frequently corner you and force you to fight so you will be able to move.
It doesn't help that no matter if you use the D-Pad or thumbstick (at least on Switch), you will find that input lags most of the time. That carries over to battles, too. You will constantly navigate the different tabs of the battle menu, but it is slow and unresponsive, causing you to unnecessarily waste time. I was able to adjust my playstyle to account for the input lag, but it doesn't help the frustration that comes from it.
Underneath a relatively simplistic JRPG design lies a unique and smart game that was far ahead of its time when it first released in 1993. Romancing SaGa 2 eschews the typical story of a hero saving the world in order to tell the tale of an entire empire across several generations.
Allowing you to pick your own heir to the throne and affect direct change across a whole country is impressive, making the story feel like its your own. This is emotionally strengthened by other elements like permadeath. While it can be frustrating to play at times, it is absolutely worth experiencing Romancing SaGa 2; a truly hidden gem in the Square Enix library.
A Nintendo Switch copy of the game was provided by the publisher.