I decided to go into playing Square/Enix's Romancing Saga totally blind. I had no prior information about the game except hearing its title and knowing that there had been previous games in the series on Super Nintendo. I did this so I could form my own, unbiased, uninfluenced opinions. After playing the game and getting a good taste of what it had to offer, I then read reviews and message boards regarding it and found that I wound up agreeing with most of the issues brought up in the reviews.
The basic story of Romancing Saga is one we've all unfortunately heard before: 3 evil gods long ago were stripped of their powers and sealed away. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with them, and the strongest of them all just happens to know a way to seep back into the world. Enter the rag-tag bunch from all walks of life (a dancer, a thief, an adventurer, an aristocrat, a barbarian, a pirate, an orphan mage, and a ranger) who rise up and somehow seal away the evil yet again. Actually, nearly every RPG follows the "Evil Rises, Good Strives, Evil is Vanquished" storyline, so if you were expecting something drastically different, you won't find it.
The game begins with you choosing which of the 8 characters you'll start off with. Depending on who you choose, you'll start off in a different part of the world and follow a different story arc throughout the game. There are certain major events that, regardless of who you choose, you'll wind up doing anyway, just in a different order. Depending on your actions, other quests will present themselves as you go on. There is a large number of possible quests, many of which you'll never discover until your second, third, or even fourth playthrough.
The game also mainly employs a series of meters that you need to pay attention to in battle as well as in towns. Here is where the game begins to get a bit cumbersome.
First, you have HP, or Hit Points. If a character runs out of HP in a battle, they get knocked down and are unusable again (unless healed) until the next battle. On a positive note, all HP is refilled at the start of each battle.
Then, there's DP, or Durability Points. Each weapon has a set DP (which can be raised by tempering) that can be consumed before the weapon breaks. Each attack performed with that weapon consumes DP. The stronger the attack, the more DP used. Unless the number next to the attack indicating the amount of DP is yellow, in which case DP might be used. If there's no number, you've gotten strong enough to use that skill without consuming DP. To ix the weapon if it breaks, you go to the blacksmith. Otherwise, DP can be refilled by sleeping in an Inn.
Next, there's BP, or Battle Points. Each character has a set number of BP at the beginning of a battle (which can be altered by stat changes from weapons, armor, etc.) Each attack consumes a number of BP. The stronger the attack, the more BP needed. As each round of battle progresses, you gain a certain amount of BP. Example: Fight starts. Round 1, you start with 8BP. You consume 4BP. Round 2, you start with 4BP plus 3BP for a total of 7BP. You use 6BP. Round 3, you have 1BP plus 3BP again for a total of 4BP. BP refills at the beginning of each battle.
Next is LP, or Life Points. Each character has a set number of LP. When a character loses all HP in battle, they are unusable (unless healed) and lose 1LP. If they get hit while unusable, they lose another LP. Some attacks cosume LP as well. If a character loses all their LP, then they leave your party (a little extreme, there). LP is refilled by sleeping at an Inn.
These four stats are a little overhwelming at first to try to keep track of, especially with multiple characters, but with enough practice you learn well enough, even though it's still a bit much. What is interesting is that there is no conventional "leveling up". The intriguing change is that after each battle, your characters gain a little bit of a stat boost in the areas in which they used skills during the battle. So if I used a dash-type attack and cast a spell, I'd most likely get an agility and magic attack boost at the end. The more you fight, the more you gain in your stats, like a constant mini-leveling. Unfortunately, this was the only refreshing attribute to battle, as we now get to the enemies.
Enemies are where the game gets frustrating. The enemies come in two varieties:
A) easy pickings
B) INDOMITABLE PILLARS OF LIMITLESS POWER AND IMMORTALITY
Example: I start my new game. I wander around the first town for 5 minutes and venture outside. I see a giant triceratops wandering around (the enemies can be seen wandering on the map and can sometimes be avoided). I figure, hey why not? I stroll over and start the battle. In less than a minute I'm looking at a "Game Over" screen. 10 hours (not hyperbole), many many weapons/armor upgrades, and stat boosts later I stroll over to one again. I get pounded into mashed potatos in a minute and a half.
Another example. I engage an enemy, "Gargoyle" let's say. I use two attacks and kill it, dealing, say, 250 damage. In another battle, I find another Gargoyle. I attack it 3 times for 265 damage, but it doesn't die. I do another 110 with 2 more attacks and it still stands. Sometimes the enemies inexplicably seem to have a giant disparity in HP and you never know if you're fighting a wimp or a juggernaut. The game has a "Quicksave" feature which allows you to save anywhere at anytime (not in battle) and I found myself saving after every single battle because I never knew if the next battle would be a snap or impossible. I literally spent 30 minutes one time fighting the same enemy in the same spot, constantly having to reset the game to get a fair fight. And after that I spent another 20 getting past the next one. This adds a tremendous amount of time to gameplay and seriously destroys any sense of progress.
There's yet another stat/meter to keep track of. There are three major merchant companies in each town, each with their own level of "Clout". Depending on what/how much you buy/sell at each, your Clout level raises enabling you to buy better items at cheaper amounts at that particular vendor. Interesting idea, but poor execution. The moment you start buying from one, you need to stay deadlocked into buying just from that vendor because if you don't, you waste Clout on another vendor, keeping you from getting what you need from the first. The game even instructs you to choose one merchant and stick with them. This is a MAJOR problem when the vendor you've chosen doesn't have the item you desperately need and you have to pay an exorbitant amount at another vendor to get it (if it hasn't sold out, which can happen randomly at any vendor at any time). This brings us to the gold issue.
In almost every RPG, the player sometimes asks themselves after a battle "What the hell was a Forest Spider doing with 200g?" Romancing Saga solves this problem by making gold as scarce as possible. Some battles will net you between 1 and 50 gold, although at least half will give you no gold at all. However, the vendors still have prices that range from 100 to 5000, leaving you to battle for hours and hours on end to afford one piece of very needed armor for one character. And that's only if your Clout at that vendor is high enough that you get a good discount. I found myself drastically underpowered and underprotected throughout my playing experience.
Moving on, after each battle you also often recieve a number of jewels. These jewels can be used at a Skill Trainer to switch the class of a party member, to teach them new battle skills, and to teach them Proficiencies. Proficiencies (another stat to track) are special abilities that a character can use while traveling on the map such as "Find Chests" and "Jump" and "Climb". You can level up these abilities by learning skills that are associated with them, spending jewels as you do so. Unfortunately, you fall into the same situation with jewels as you do gold. Anyway, you get limited use of these abilites (refilled by an Inn) and you can only equip these abilities in a town or safe place. This becomes a gigantic frustration, as when I spent over an hour getting through a small part of a cave to find that I needed the Climb skill to progress. After much fighting and saving, I finally acquired the skill. I trekked back and found that my Climb skill wasn't at level 3, so I couldn't Climb the wall. Hours later, after raising the skill, I finally climb the wall and find that there's a gap I can't get over. I need the "Jump" skill. A major flaw is that you have no idea what skills you'll need for an area until you've spent a long time getting there. When you do get there, you find you need something else entirely. Very unprepared.
Moving along to the story. Romancing Saga is just about as far from a linear RPG as an RPG can get. When I started my game, I was dropped in a city and just roamed around. I talked to people and was given no clue what to do. I have no problem with that, being held by the hand can be a bit condescending, but, after speaking with a minstrel and hearing the story about the 3 Evil Gods, I was left with no direction. So I fought, saved gold and jewels, boosted my stats... And there was no story. Nothing. I don't want a huge sign-post pointing my way, but there was no clue from anyone as to what I was to do. Very shortly after starting, I was given access to practically the entire world and with no clue as to where I needed to go (if I needed to leave at all), I stumbled blindly from city to city. See, each event will only occur if you trigger it. And the majority of the time, the only way to trigger it is to read that piece of paper in the pub, or find that one person in the town to speak with that will set things in motion. If you're unaware of that, you may spend 5 hours roaming with no progress at all and less of an idea what needs to be done than before. As I read message boards, some people were commenting that "to Americans, they don't like a non-linear RPG because they're too dumb to do anything on their own. They need to be spoonfed a story and left a trail of breadcrumbs. They haven't played real RPGs". I paraphrase. Non-linear is a nice way to go, but there should be some indication of a story, of what the purpose is. In Romancing Saga, there's one major question that is never answered until something blaringly obvious happens, and that question is "So... wait, why am I doing this?"
Not to totally rip into the game, it does have some good points. The concept of the fighting system is an intriguing one, if not executed poorly. The designs of the cities and general ambience of locations is very nice and the music, while not terribly memorable, is what you would expect from a Square/Enix game: pleasant and fitting to the mood. The ability to discover many new things by playing through it again adds a great deal of replay value. The post-battle stat boosts are actually quite nice and enjoyable and give you the only real sense of progress you'll get from the game. The title sequence is delivered very nicely with a pretty song and interesting messy/faded/stylized/paint wipe transitions. Some battle combos (while almost totally out of your control) are neat to look at, but are mostly out of your control so using them at critical times is often just a stroke of luck.
Overall, Romancing Saga has a lot to offer, most of it being cumbersome and poorly executed. The frustration of the battles, the complication of the many meters and stats to keep track of, the sometimes impossible monsters, the sudden need for skills you don't have, the extreme amount of times to collect gold and jewels to attain items with exorbitant costs, and the overall lack of motivation to do damn near anything makes the gaming experience a harsh and unfavorable one. In time, I may give it another shot, knowing full well what to expect. Unfortunately, what I expect is generally a let down. For more information on Square/Enix's Romancing saga, click here to go to their page.