Square Enix’s mid-to-late 1990’s output is one of the strongest runs by a single publisher I can remember. From the iconic Final Fantasy releases to cult hits such as Parasite Eve and Brave Fencer Musashi, it seemed like top-notch titles were dropping every few months. Smack dab in the middle of that was the PSX debut of the SaGa franchise. Akitoshia Kawazu’s cult series flourished in Japan but has struggled to find an audience here in North America. Perhaps sensing there was still untapped potential, the series is being born anew with the release of SaGa Frontier Remastered.
Originally released after Final Fantasy VII blew up the charts, SaGa Frontier must have been quite the surprise for those unaware of its origins. Square chose to follow up its mega-smash with an esoteric, brutally uncompromising RPG that was unlike anything else on the market. It’s a game that refuses to hold your hand, hardly explains any of the complicated systems in it, and can be soul-crushingly tough if the wrong decisions are made. I avoided it when it first came out, due to both my young age and the mediocre reviews it garnered. Having now played through it, I can safely say that its unique take on the genre is still worth experiencing today.
Right from the get-go, you can see how open-ended the RPG is. Upon booting up the game for the first time, you are given a choice to select one of seven protagonists, with each of these characters having their own unique arc. Perhaps you want to help a model get vengeance on the person who murdered her fiance? Or maybe you’d be interested in helping a robot complete its designated job? Everyone loves robots, right? Regardless of which you choose first, there is a plethora of story content here to uncover, and while the stars of the game may link up during separate campaigns, in order to get the complete picture, you’ll need to clear each character’s distinct storyline.
That being said, I’m of mixed mind when it comes to Saga Frontier‘s storytelling. I think its universe is absolutely fascinating, and since you are pretty much given free rein to explore, I suggest doing so. By traveling to the game’s various worlds, you’ll uncover plenty of weird and funny stories. With so much going on at one time, I was surprised at the amount of depth given to the adventure. However, some of the more important details from a character’s journey can be poorly relayed. Whether they’re barely explained or whatever explanation you are given is borderline incoherent, it can be tough following a story thread at times. A newly added journal in the main menu helps give you the gist of things, but additional clarity would have been appreciated.
I don’t want to say you get thrown to the wolves once you do select a character, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth. While you’re supposed to be accomplishing whatever main tasks are placed in front of you, you could easily waste hours just messing around the SaGa‘s expansive universe. It’s important to make these detours as well — they are key to not only finding new party members but also uncovering new skills for your party to make use of. Of course, there are also plenty of other locations that serve almost no purpose other than trying to kill you. Even then, though, they are good for grinding away at your stats.
Grinding tends to get a bad rap, but thankfully in this instance, it lets you experience the best aspect of SaGa Frontier. The turn-based combat the game is built around is excellently designed and well worth experimenting with. Characters can have a variety of abilities at their disposal, depending on how they are equipped. Some are more proficient with swords, while others are specifically built to use magic. There are both basic attacks as well as special ones that use up specific points each character has. Weapon attacks use up WP, while spells and the like use up JP. And while health may regenerate from battle to battle, these special points do not, so you need to be careful as to how often you use them.
Personally, my favorite aspect of the combat engine is how you go about learning new moves. Depending on what class of character you use, the exact process will vary. For the traditional warriors, using a regular attack will occasionally open up new specials. Mystics can use specific attacks to absorb enemies and learn new skills, while monsters can also absorb them to learn. Once you have a suite of various attacks for each party member, you can stumble onto special combo attacks that can cause massive damage. It’s a system designed to make you experiment with different tactics, rather than constantly pushing you towards using the same ones over and over again. One final, interesting wrinkle is that you can only have a select amount of specials on hand at once. If you wish to learn new ones, you need to eliminate, or seal away, ones you already unlocked. Do you play it safe with what you got? Or drop one skill and hope something better arises?
Outside of combat, one of the strongest aspects of SaGa Frontier that has stood the test of time is the open-world traversal. This is something that had to have felt pretty alien in 1998, and it still feels a little off-kilter in 2021. It’s not solely because you have so much to explore, but there’s also the fact that you are given little to no direction as to where to go. Yes, this can be frustrating to deal with at times, but stumbling upon something important gives the game a sense of wonder that other similar titles frequently lack.
Following the trend set by other re-releases, SaGa Frontier Remastered is more than just a simple remaster. Square Enix has gone in and added brand new content to the game, the biggest of these additions taking the form of an entirely new protagonist for players to use. Fuse was supposed to be playable in the original release but ended up being cut out of the final product. Now, he unlocks once you have finished one of the other character’s campaigns. There’s also plenty of quality of life improvements. Helpful directions have been added so you won’t get too lost in a dungeon, and you can also now flee from battles, which was apparently not something you could do in the original. Finally, new game plus has been added, which makes tackling different campaigns a much more palatable experience.
Decades after its original release, Tomomi Kobayashi’s character design and artwork are still worthy of higher praise — the main heroes and enemies look exceptionally good. Admittedly, the environment artwork and backgrounds could have benefited from a bit more attention, as they can sometimes look a little awkward and distracted as your characters move across them. The original soundtrack has made the cut, which is great because it’s so excellently composed and arranged. Be warned, a few earworms are bound to latch onto you for quite some time. Better yet, original composer Kenji Ito returned to contribute new tracks to Fuse’s campaign; another example of the effort Square Enix has put into the remastering process.
20 years later, and SaGa Frontier Remastered is just as off-beat and original as it was upon release. The combat engine is convoluted and difficult to understand, but incredibly enjoyable once you put the work into it, and the open-world design is remarkably well done. To top it off, Square Enix has done an excellent job of bringing the title into the modern era. From the beautiful sprite work to the added extra content, the studio has added plenty of content to an already cherished game. There are still issues to be had — particularly how poorly explained some of the mechanics can be — but it’s still a great release that newcomers and veterans alike should be able to enjoy. We can only hope this will lead to later installments in the series getting the same excellent treatment.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Square Enix.
Still marching to the beat of its own drum, SaGa Frontier Remastered is an example of a remaster done right. The oddity and creativity of the original has been excellently preserved, while the new additions and improved visuals round out the package.