Saga Frontier Review

Saga Frontier Review

Saga Frontier is radically different from Champions of Krynn which is why did I choose it to be my second game review.

Saga Frontier is a non-linear, classless JRPG strong on system and short on depth.

To learn more about the game go to the Saga Wikia for screen shots and a more in-depth description or view the faq on GameFAQs to learn more about the game mechanics. Or you can view this Let’s Play by Yahweasel to see the game in action.

The game is actually 7 mini-games in one. You choose from the following characters, each of them has their own scenario:

  • Asellus: A half-mystic trying to escape the clutches of her Mystic creator
  • Blue: A young mage in search of magical mastery
  • Emeilia: A model whose boyfriend is murdered
  • Lute: A care-free bard
  • Red / Alkaiser: A boy who becomes a superhero
  • Riki: A monster
  • T260G: A robot

An eighth character scenario, thought to be about Fuse, was cut from the game. I think it was because they made the other 7 so comprehensive that they didn’t have enough time and budget left to focus on poor Fuse.

Once again I will remind you of my crpg game review criteria, which explains my methodology and how I will be reviewing Saga Frontier.

And now we can move on to the party I used during my review run.

My Playthrough Party

As someone who is most interested in an RPG’s magic system, I chose Blue as my playthrough character. He also has one of the more interesting stories in the game – which isn’t saying much…

Blue is the main character, a human magic user from the ‘Realm’. His goal is to learn all the magic types and then kill his brother in single combat to take the magic he possesses. More on this later.

Here’s an overview of the party I took through the game to do this review:

Main Party

Name Race Sex ‘Role’
Gen Human M Swordsman
Liza Human F Secondary Swordsman
Lute Human M Secondary Swordsman
Mesarthim Mystic F Mystic / Healer
Blue Human M Magic User

Secondary Party

Name Race Sex ‘Role’
Dr. Nusaken Mystic M Fighter / Mage
Roufus Human M Swordsman & Fighting
Emeilia Human F Fighting
Silence Mystic M Fighter / Mage
Mei-Ling Human F Magic User

Last Resort Party

Name Race Sex ‘Role’
Fuse Human M Fighting
Annie Human F Swordsman
Thunder Monster M Monstering
Suzaka Monster M Monstering
Sline Monster M Monstering

In terms of power, human swordsmen and fighters are the most powerful so I included three of those. Then a healer and the main character as the spellcaster.

CRPG System

The RPG system gets 20 points allocated to it instead of 10 and it is here that Saga Frontier shines the most.

There are four main races in Saga Frontier:

  • Humans: The standard race they can learn magic, sword skills and fighting (martial arts) skills. I try to get as many humans as possible
  • Mystics: Can absorb monster attacks and also use spells. Best used as fighter / mages. Some have special types of magic only they can possess
  • Monsters: These take a lot of work and management to make into anything useful, but some players swear by them. Fans of Pokemon may enjoy them more
  • Robots: I never use these. Robots do not belong in fantasy-based RPGs, and I will not change that opinion ever

There is a wide variety of skills and attacks humans (and other races) can learn. Each character is assigned a probability of learning an attack, you can learn anything but it may take so long and require so much grinding that you will probably give up before you do learn it. Added to that some skills are naturally easier for anyone to learn than others, some take lots of persistence to get. On top of that higher tier monsters give you a higher chance to learn new skills than lower tier monsters do.

The monster tier system can be completely overwhelming and confusing to most players, and some might not even notice that it exists. The enemies you fight depend on your location, the monster icon you run into and your current monster tier. As you fight more monsters your monster tier will rise meaning you will face different enemies even though you are in the same location and trigger the same monster icon on the map. This is another innovation in Saga Frontier that was an interesting idea but has a few problems in the implementation. First you could go past tiers and never see certain monsters at all, missing out on the chance of collecting items or learning skills from them. On top of that if you are grinding you may actually make yourself less powerful relatively if you raise the monster tier level and don’t level your characters ‘properly’. That can be counter-intuitive to many JRPG players and can bite you in the rear end if you are not paying attention.

That leads me to another area of frustration with the RPG system in Saga Frontier, items. The game has a very limited inventory system which could have been implemented much, much better had they tweaked a few things. The type and number of equipment slots available for a character is determined by their race:

  • Humans: They get 4 weapon/accessory item slots and 4 armor slots
  • Mystics: They get the same equipment choices as humans
  • Monsters: They get 4 accessory (not weapon) slots only, their armor comes from their current monster form
  • Robots: They get 8 slots for weapons, armor and accessories. That’s all I spent the time figuring out

From the above you can see that some thought was put into the types of equipment characters can get. Unfortunately that same amount of care and thought was not put into the economic side of equipment, the money and equipment drops from monsters is always much less than is needed to equip your party at any time. Add to that well known glitches that you can take advantage of to essentially generate unlimited money and the desire to use said glitches can be very strong. For my current review playthrough I ignored them but in the past I have often broken down and used them instead of wasting 30-40 hours generating the necessary amount of cash to properly equip my party.

Here are the main points that stand out to me about the various systems in Saga Frontier:

  • The system is classless – what you do determines your stats and abilities, not the classes you take
  • Humans are the best race (Mystics, Monsters and Robots are the other 3) as they can learn the sword/fighting skills which are the most powerful
  • Learning new skills or spells requires open skill slots and goes quicker if you have 6+/8 slots dedicated to physical OR magical learning. That was a nice design touch, it forces players to choose and works against those who want to be masters of everything
  • Mystics can absorb monsters gaining their stats. They get three slots of this as well as 4 spell slots which are never enough. They are best used as fighter / mages
  • Monsters and Robots were useless to me, they might get useful if you spend the time to learn about them and work hard to build them up. Plus Robots don’t fit in fantasy RPGs to me
  • Gold is in extreme short supply, and most people end up using 2-3 ‘cheats’. In my review I didn’t use them and I never had enough money or gear. This balance issue was a big negative to me
  • The spell system was interesting but poorly implemented. It could have been so much more, there is a lot of promise in how they setup the individual types of magic and the quests to get the gift allowing usage of more powerful spells within a school. Marks for effort and ingenuity even if the implementation was uneven
  • You could build characters good at everything but it is very time consuming and monsters become more powerful as you do so so you are basically penalized for grinding too much
  • The incredibly rich and complex RPG system is barely explained at all in the manual, you either have to learn through trial and error or use one of the many guides available online

Verdict: 19 / 20

The Broken Staff CRPG system ultimately chose to go the class route for a number of reasons. But if I were to design a classless system I would definitely use Saga Frontier as a starting point and make sure to take in some of the great design decisions they made. There are lots of warts in the system, but the overall design is unique and wonderful.

I replay this old PS1 game once in a while just to experience the wonders of this system.

After starting on the highpoint of the game, it can only go down (to gameplay) from here.

Gameplay

The game takes place in our modern world, so it would fit in the Urban fantasy genre. There are high-tech elements along with magic as you travel through a number of realms or dimenions.

As I mentioned earlier the mixture of robots and magic just doesn’t do it for me. I prefer fantasy and sci-fi to be separate. But it is typical in JRPGs so I had to grit my teeth whenever seeing robots and other high-tech gadgets in Saga.

To travel between the realms you either take some boat or spaceship, or you would use a magic map and teleportation spell only available to Blue. Another reason why I like that character so much. He’s the only one who gets that map.

Here’s an example of a combat screen in my playthrough, the infamous battle of the twins:

Above: Blue about to face-off in a spell battle to the death with Rouge, his twin brother. There can only be one Master of Magic.

The main draw of the game is that it is extremely non-linear. You can pretty much go and do whatever you want. That’s the plus. The negative is that there is very little to actually do. There is exploration, combat… and and…

Another highlight of my SF experience, the combat gameplay was generally very positive. Most battles were easy, but there were enough challenging ones to keep you on your toes.

Other than exploring and fighting there wasn’t a lot else to do though, and the story is generally very very thin.

Verdict: 12 / 20

Fun Factor

I had lots of fun in the beginning through middle-game of each of my playthroughs in Saga Frontier. Then I almost always hit a wall near the end game for each character where is just became way less fun and more of a grind to finish.

It’s the type of game I am eager to start but rarely will I complete a walkthrough for each character. After playing through many times I think I have finished Blue’s scenario 3X, Asellus’ once and maybe Red’s once. I just can’t be bothered to play any of the other characters, they just don’t do it for me.

Verdict: 6 / 10

Re-playability

This game has lots of replay value if you also remember that you may not finish a given replay.

One of the main reasons to initially replay the game is to try out the different stories of the different protagonists. On top of that certain NPC are only available to certain main characters, so if there is an NPC you want to get, you have to play with one of the protagonists that can actually recruit them.

  • You are eager to start each playthrough
  • You will want to try out all the characters
  • You will want to learn and master the game system, which is amazing
  • You will want to try for an ultimate party for each playthrough, which may cause you to stop and restart the same scenario multiple times as you learn more about the system

I have replayed this game many, many times. But as I mentioned before I have only finished a scenario 4-5 times and I have never finished all either of them at one time.

Verdict: 6 / 10

User Interface

The user interface of Saga Frontier does not stand out in either a negative or positive light.

Here’s what I found:

  • It is a console game, so you will be using a joypad unless you use an emulator then you can use the keyboard/mouse combination of your choice
  • The actually gameplay is very simple so you won’t have a hard time learning the interface
  • The one negative that stands out is that some of the backgrounds make it hard to find out where exits or main items are found. The exit for the Gold Card cavern is one that stands out in a bad way

So average marks for interface, neither great nor horrible. I prefer putting my CD in my computer and using an emulator so I can use the mouse and keyboard, but maybe that’s my PC gamer bias taking over.

Verdict: 5 / 10

Story

There isn’t one single story, there are 7 separate stories in Saga Frontier.

I mentioned at the beginning there are 7 characters you can choose from. To me the two real interesting ones are Blue and Asellus. If you have the game make sure you give those two a try.

Story is definitely not a strength of Saga Frontier, there is just enough there to get you to want to explore the sparse and small game universe.

What I would add to help is a number of small, randomly available events of quests which any protagonist can access. Have a list of 30-50 possible mini-quests and for each playthrough make 15 of those available to the player. That would add some randomness and replayability to the game while also making it less empty and boring. hey could have also added standard hack-n-slash quests from Diablo-type games or MMOs. Kill 3 purple slimes or collect five pink rat tails to get this piece of equipment. Either of those options would have made the game more polished and interesting.

Verdict: 2 / 10

Modability

The console version of the game is not moddable except for cheat codes. You can open up a Debug Room letting you recruit any NPC you want and modify the skills a character can learn. Beyond that there is no modding Saga Frontier, it shows its age in modability just like in the graphics department.

One area where PC games usually shine over their console equivalents is modability. Here is yet another example.

Verdict: 1 / 10

Graphics & Sound

The graphics are cartoony and bright. They are not terrible but they definitely show their age. Some of the hand drawn scene backgrounds are hard to navigate as well, which can make some levels a pain.

The music in the game is passable, not as good as other Square Games but definitely a step up from some of the older PC RPGs.

You will not want to play Saga Frontier because of the graphics. You will want to play because of the RPG system and gameplay.

Verdict: 2 / 10

Design Lessons

Based on the above ratings, I think I can draw six design considerations:

1. Classless RPG systems are possible, can avoid ‘Masters of Everything’ characters and can be well done if designed properly. Just make sure to avoid some of the flaws I’ve outlined above.
2. System and gameplay can make old RPGs still accessible and survive the test of time. Saga Frontier is a great example of this.
3. Similarly even ‘dumbed down’ JRPGs can have complex, enjoyable game systems. Never completely ignore a genre because of pre-conceived notions or you could miss great learning opportunities.
4. Non-linnear games suffer if there isn’t enough content for players to enjoy, the gameworld can feel empty and ‘made-up’. Going anywhere and doing whatever you want doesn’t work if you can’t do anything, let alone anything you want.
5. Study the technical system overview document linked above to get real in-depth knowledge of how Saga Frontier works from a systems perspective, the details and combination of many innovations makes this an incredibly good system to learn from.
6. While graphics are not a super priority to me, if the level design makes navigation difficult it detracts from the game. Levels should be as clear as possible.

Now that we’ve reviewed the game and drawn some lessons from its design failures and triumphs we can recap.

Rating & Final Impressions

Here are all the scores listed together:

Criteria Score
CRPG System 19 / 20
Gameplay 12 / 20
Fun Factor 6 / 10
Re-playability 6 / 10
User Interface 5 / 10
Story 2 / 10
Modability 1 / 10
Graphics & Sound 2 / 10
Total 53 / 100

Final Verdict: Awesome innovation and incredible systems design can be destroyed by barren gameworlds and lackluster stories. Saga Frontier is a game every game developer should play both for its positive and negative lessons.

I am a big fan of non-linear, open gameworlds. But if there is not enough to do they feel empty and unalive.

Now I turn it over to you. What do you think? Did I get the scoring right? What are your favourite Saga Frontier moments? I am looking forward to getting other perspectives about this classic game.

Greg Caughill

Greg Caughill

Greg Caughill is the owner and creative director of Broken Staff Studios.