SaGa Frontier is perhaps the most Josh RPG I’ve ever played.
By which I don’t mean that it’s the best, but rather that I find myself resonating with it in a very rare manner which isn’t easily communicable. A lot of people played games like Earthbound and Undertale and found them instantly becoming objects of sentimental affection; I picked them up and found them to be merely quirky and enjoyable. Similarly, it seems a lot of people played SaGa Frontier and found it to be a quirky, unfinished game that they moved on from, but in playing it I’ve found it already becoming that object of sentimental affection, the sort that already feels like it was already there, as if I had somehow phased into an alternate dimension where that is the case.
“All this is very interesting,” said Aeschylus, his feline eyes narrowing. “But what exactly do you mean by that? How is it the most Josh game.”
“I’m not quite sure where to begin, really,” I said, “but let’s start with its timing: it’s a Squaresoft game from 1997. That was a time when Square, and, indeed, a lot of video game developers, were kinda drunk on the potential of optical media, and still very unused to it. So you have this kitchen-sink mentality where all these ideas are thrown together to see what happens. I’ve always enjoyed this approach, because it gives these games a surprising, gonzo surrealism that later, more streamlined would lack.
“SaGa Frontier makes this into an absolute principle. That it’s a hodge-podge of different ideas that aren’t even supposed to mesh. The setting, for instance, consists of a bunch of different areas called “Regions” which you need a spaceship to travel between. The Regions themselves are all over the place thematically, from futuristic cityscapes to Feudal Japan, and so forth. And the game is pretty coy about what the Regions actually are: are they parallel dimensions? Planets? I don’t know.”
“Wait, this sounds familiar. Isn’t that what Kingdom Hearts did, except with Disney themed worlds?”
“Oh!” I exclaimed, swishing my tail in nervous excitement. “I guess that’s true, now that I think about it. Some ideas from here may have trickled down into the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
“But anyway, this same diversity applies to the characters. Like some of the other SaGa entries, you have to pick one of several characters to play as. Each of them here has their own quest which often tends to fall into a completely different genre. Red, for instance, is a sentai-style superhero seeking to expose the evil corporation that destroyed his family; whereas Blue is a man seeking to become the greatest magician in the world, but is convinced in his pride that to do this he has to kill his twin brother. Then there’s the spy lady, the robot trying to find its place in the world, etc, etc. But not only do these stories fall into different genres, they’re also the kind you don’t often see JRPGs playing with.”
“Do these stories tie together at all?”
“Not really, though you’ll find yourself crossing paths with the other characters every now and then. In fact, the game’s incomplete-”
“But I find that almost adds to it, in a paradoxical way. One of the things I’ve found about RPGs is that the characters always matter to me way more than the plot; or rather, the plot is a vehicle for allowing me to hang out with the characters. Usually, when I lose interest in an RPG’s story, it’s because I find the characters to be annoying or boring. SaGa Frontier’s cast is pretty strong all around – not because they’re exceptionally deep or anything, but because they’re fun characters to have an adventure with. Knowing that the game is unfinished skews things even more in that direction: I’m less interested in the goal than I am in just hanging out with these people.
“Take Lute, for instance. He’s just this chill guy hanging out in a pub playing his…Lute. He’ll always join you, not because he has any stake in what’s going on, but simply because your story sounds interesting to him. So I’ve made it a point to always recruit him if I have the opportunity, just because I want having someone that laid back in my party. And I’ve been told that his story is the most laid-back of them all: you just go around doing side quests until you’re ready to fight the final boss (hey that sounds kinda like Breath of the Wild). I haven’t played it yet, and I think I’m going to save it for last – after having him follow around all the other characters on their own adventures, he gets to have his own.”
“I don’t really see what’s so special about him; he just sounds like an underwritten slacker hippy kind of guy.”
“I mean, that’s true, but the point is that the game gives me the space to connect with these characters in my own way; it doesn’t say ‘this is how you should feel about Lute, this is why he’s important.’”
“I still don’t really get it.”
“You don’t have to, it’s ok.”
“So…how does it actually play?”
“Well, a lot of the typical SaGa conventions apply. It’s heavily focused on turn-based combat, but with a lot of quirky features. There’s the standard HP/LP division. A Character’s Life Points (LP) are the real measure of how healthy they are, but they only lose those if they run out of Hit Points (HP) in combat and get knocked unconscious. HP and status effects are reset after every battle, so you only have to keep an eye on your LP.
“I really like this approach, because it takes a lot of the inter-battle tedium out of the picture. As much as I enjoyed Phantasy Star IV, I didn’t like how after almost every battle I had to open the menu to heal my characters so that they’d be ready for the next round. I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again. The SaGa games are more like ‘ok, you’re going to be fighting a lot, so don’t worry about that stuff’.”
“That sounds kinda like Final Fantasy XIII.”
“Yeah, I think it’s an idea that FFXIII was smart to make use of; if only it didn’t surround its combat with hours upon hours of nonsensical narrative gobbledeegook.”
“You prefer nonsensical gameplay gobbledeegook.”
“Yes, and SaGa Frontier is full of it: there are four different races, which not only have different attributes but have completely different skill progression systems. And, this being a SaGa game, you learn new abilities in a semi-random fashion in the middle of battle based on what weapon you’re using, character affinities and how tough the enemy is. And then there’s a whole combo system which is never properly explained. To say nothing about how the game frequently just plops you into its world and has you figure out where you’re supposed to go next.”
“That sounds kind of obtuse.”
“It is, but look at a game like Bloodborne: the game doesn’t even explain how to level up your character. You have to figure out that you need something in your inventory that enables you to talk with the doll in the dream world who can level up your character. And the covenant system in Dark Souls is completely undocumented. Those games are full of a lot of obtuse mechanics that are going to intimidate a new player, and yet they’re popular and critically acclaimed.
“I think the issue is that when it comes to a Square-style JRPG, we have different expectations: we want a very cinematic, Final Fantasy-ish experience that puts production values at the forefront. SaGa games have never been about that, but in the west they’ve often been unfairly compared to Final Fantasy and found lacking.
“So SaGa games are for people looking for an esoteric, uncompromising gameplay experience, like Dark Souls.”
“So SaGa games are the Dark Souls of Square-Enix.”
“So, aesthetically what are we dealing with?”
“It’s kinda ugly-good.”
“Well, it has those bad mid-90s pre-rendered backgrounds that look especially unflattering on modern television screens, but one of the things I’ve found is that those visuals are highly nostalgic for me; I went through my formative years looking at jpegs like those.
“The sprite-work, however, is genuinely great, with a lot of character. And, even if you don’t see much of it in the game, Tomomi Kobayashi’s illustration work for SaGa Frontier is incredible. In fact, I think she’s my favourite illustrator working in video games. Her work is amazing. And Kenji Ito’s soundtrack is one of the best soundtracks – I’d rank it alongside the likes of Chrono Trigger.”
“It’s true though. Actually, the game itself reminds me of Chrono Trigger a lot.”
“It’s difficult to pin down, really. The games are pretty close together, chronologically, and so the sprite-work has a bit of a similar feel to it. But there’s also something about the generally fun, quirky spirit of the cast and story which Square has had trouble recapturing. Actually, let me put it this way: it feels like the halfway-point between the fun, let’s have an adventure’ style of Chrono Trigger, and the surreal, experimental style of Chrono Cross.”
“So you probably feel like you’ve been missing out on this all these years, huh?”
“Not really; I think if I had played this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have understood it, and would have given up early on. I feel like I needed the decades of experience to shape me into the sort of person who could be on the game’s own wavelength. Only in 2018 could SaGa Frontier become a Josh game.”