Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Old Favorites: SaGa Frontier

Years ago, my brother and I were in the habit of going down to the local video rental store to rent a video-game every weekend. We rented way more games than we purchased in those days. There are a few games we would have saved money on if we had purchased them. One of these is an under-appreciated gem called Saga Frontier. SaGa Frontier is part of Square's SaGa series, and was released as part of the landmark first wave of Square games for the Playstation, which also included Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, and Bushido Blade.

It is hard to explain why I liked SaGa Frontier so much, because the game was rife with serious flaws. Yet, there was a lot that was very unique and fun about it. One of SaGa Frontiers more unique qualities was that it allowed the player to chose to play as one of 7 main characters, each of whom had a unique plot (though some characters had more plot than others). There was also a very large cast of recruitable characters who appeared in some or all of the seven story-lines. The only other game like it is Seiken Densetsu 3 (the third Secret of Mana game), which was never released in the US.

A large part of the game's charm was those characters. All characters in the game were split into 4 mechanically distinct categories: Human, Mystic, Monster, and Robot. Humans could acquire special techniques and learn magic, Monsters could copy the special abilities of monsters killed in battle and transform into more powerful forms, Robots didn't level up but instead increased their stats by equipping weapons, armor, and special parts, and Mystics could both use magic and absorb monsters into their special Mystic weapons and copy the monsters' attack skills. Humans were the easiest to use, an most common of the four, while Mystics were downright rare, and somewhat weak compared to the others.

Which characters you could recruit varied based on who the main character was. For example, T260G, the only Robot main character, recruits a lot of unique Robots in his story. Red recruits a lot of members of IRPO (kinda like Interpol) officers who were fighting the same criminal syndicate that he was trying to get revenge against. However, there were many characters (including three main characters) who could be easily recruited in any story. Unfortunately, there was a hard cap of 15 characters you can recruit, so you have to be picky about which characters you want to get.

The biggest effect of having multiple storylines in the same game was that the developers were forced to keep each storyline fairly short and simple. In particular, Lute's story was so short that it is possible to fight his final boss within an hour of starting his game. Of course, killing his final boss is impossible without gaining a lot of levels. As a result of this, side-questing took up 50-95% of each of the seven stories. However, the game designers went to some effort to keep it interesting. SaGa Frontier was absolutely packed with side-quests and optional dungeons. Part of this was that it was possible to explore an optional dungeon in one plot-line that was a story dungeon in another plot-line. 

In order to make this more interesting, the game designers took the unusual approach of making monsters encounters scaling in every dungeon. All of the monsters in the game were divided into certain categories, such as Plant or Robot. For example, if you ran into a Plant monster on the field map, you would have to fight a group of monsters pulled from that category that were approximately the same strength as the party. This means that the player can explore the dungeons in almost any order, since the monsters are going to always be the right level. However, there are some monster types, such as Aquatic and Giant, that are particularly dangerous, and there are some dungeons where the monsters are always stronger than the party. So certain dungeons and sidequests are always tough, no matter how strong the party is.

Despite the fact that the side-quests are the same in all 7 stories, the game designers did try and keep things interesting. One thing they did was make it so that the player could only go through some of the dungeons on each play-through of the game. The most important side-quests in the game are ones that unlock the ability to learn certain kinds of magic. These are organized into four pairs of two. Each character can only learn one of the two kinds of magic in a pair, and many of the dungeons can only be attempted in the main hero is attempting to learn that magic type. This means that the player can have a slightly different experience in each play-through by varying which magic types they learn, in addition to experimenting with different characters. The side-quests also can be different thanks to the different ways each character experiences the game. For example, one dungeon where the monsters are always way more powerful than the party is the Bio-Lab in Shrike. It can be a brutal dungeon for a party to attempt late in the game. However, it can be fully explored by Red early in his game when he visits Shrike. Red has the ability to transform into the armored super-hero Alkaiser when he is alone, which easily doubles his power. So, he can easily fight off the strong monsters of the Bio-Lab early in his game, master some techniques, and recruit a rare character.

The biggest, most annoying flaw of SaGa Frontier was money. Monsters simply did not drop enough to buy anything. So, I always had to rely on equipment I found in dungeons and save up enough cash to buy gold. Why buy gold? Easy, once you have enough gold to make a decent starting investment, it is possible to exploit a bug in a gold-trading system of the game to produce infinite money. A bug which was intentionally left in there by the testers to do just that. Once you have all the money you need, it is simply a matter of buying up Powered Suits and fancy guns, swords, and bazookas. No player should ever have to rely on a money exploit as I did playing SaGa Frontier.

Still, I did have a ton of fun with the game. I guess a part of it was the very quirky setting and wierd characters. Since when has there been a game with a superhero, an ancient robot still fighting a long forgotten war, a magician hunting down his own twin brother, a half-Mystic raising a rebellion, an ex-supermodel looking for her boyfriend's murderer, a shape-changing monster looking for magic rings, and a wandering minstrel all as its main characters?

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