True romance

I’ve got a piece up at Beneath the Tangles giving a rundown on some of the 2017 JRPGs I played. Which makes this as good a place as ever to note that my attempt at playing Phantasy Star II crashed and burned some time ago: the dungeon design evolved from merely being sadistic to some sort of strange, chthonic architecture where even maps are almost useless. It broke me.

So the dubious slot of “derpy old-school JRPG I chip away at” has been taken up again by Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song.

I say again because, if it’s possible to have a favourite game you never finish, Minstrel Song is that game for me. A copy has been lying around my house for almost a decade now, and on an occasional whim I throw it back on and play to some point that breaks my patience. But every time, I get a little better and come to a deeper appreciation for it.

It’s a 2005 remake of the 1992 Super Famicom game, Romancing SaGa – the SaGa series being the brainchild of one Akitoshi Kawazu. To play a Kawazu game is to enter into some bizarro world where the normal ‘rules’ of JRPGs no longer apply.

The game’s graphics are…kinda weird and ugly, but the art made by Tomomi Kobayashi, the original character designer, is really cool

For starters, Minstrel Song isn’t big on plot – there’s some low-key fantasy yarn about how you’re going to eventually take down the Dark Lord Saruin or whatever, but for the most part, the game drops you in an open, sandbox-ish world that you explore at your own leisure, looking for quests.

But, you see, these quests happen on a calendar of sorts: there’s an Event Rank which gradually advances, determining which quests are available as the game winds towards an endgame state. Said Event Rank is advanced by winning battles, so if you waste your time fighting random mooks, you may find that you’ve missed 90% of the game.

Incidentally this Event Rank thing operates invisibly and is not (to my knowledge) explained in game.

You don’t have any experience points or skill trees or whathaveyou: characters semi-randomly get upgrades to stats they frequently use, and in combat have a chance of randomly learning new abilities on the fly depending on the equipment they’re using. The chances of both increase in proportion to the strength of the opponent, which, combined with the whole Event Rank thing, means that the typical RPG grindfest is the suboptimal way to play.

Characters have two different kinds of health: HP and LP. HP seems to function normally at first. Losing all of it will KO a character. But you always begin a battle with full HP – it’s the LP that functions as the character’s “real” health: losing all your HP will result in LP damage, and too much of that will result in getting booted out of the party. Add the aspect of there not really being any consumable items in the usual sense of the word, and you have a situation where dungeon crawling is more about surviving the moment-to-moment situation than long term resource management and survival.

There’s also a magic system, an arcane skill/job system, and other invisible things operating underneath the hood.

All this can be very frustrating to take in if you’re not prepared for it. But once you learn to intuit what the game asks of you, it becomes very liberating: the focus is shifted away from following a story and building overpowered characters, and towards having your own adventure with the tools at your disposal. It’s a clever, quiet subversion of how RPGs are supposed to work. And at least this time around things do seem to be clicking in a way that they haven’t. I may yet hit a brick wall, but seeing the end credits now feels like a real possibility.

Did I mention that I really like Kobayashi’s art?

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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