Pretty Colors, Pretty Lame – SaGa Frontier 2 Review

SagaFrontier2Illustration01
Oh, SaGa Frontier 2, why did I have such faith in you?

Maybe because SF2 is the last (I think) of those games from that era when I didn’t play games to completion; I played them to “SHINY NEW GAME RELEASED MUST PLAY NOW!”

To be fair, this game is terrible.

“But, Emperor…” you (not you you; I’m sure you’re a very nice person) whine, “it’s so – pretty! And the story! And the- the- stuff!”

Yes, it is a pretty game. Just look at that drawing at the top of this post; freakin’ gorgeous. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care about graphics, and the hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds of SF2 are the best part of this game. Similar techniques are used in Legend of Mana, and represent a (successful) attempt to show that games in the PS1 era didn’t need to be 3D to be pretty. … Of course, the PS1 had been out for about five years then, but better late than never.

The game has some memorable character models, perhaps best exemplified by Gustave’s eclectic outfit choices over the course of his life. Still, I found the graphics were sometimes blurry or otherwise instinct, and so some of the finer details were lost. This mars what otherwise would have been a gorgeous game, detracting from its beset feature.

Now, onto the meat of it…
This game is confusing. There is no tutorial, and no help screen to explain most of the terms. What are chips? What’s with the number next to WP and SP? How do you learn new moves? What’s the best way to learn new moves? What’s “Perfect Timing”? What happens to equipment when I switch between characters? When somebody goes away? I’m really only scratching the surface of questions you ought to be asking from the start of the game. I had to spend hours of research just to understand how the game’s basic mechanics worked, and it’s the kind of game where you really need that information unless you’re comfortable restarting a few times.

You are? Hah, no, you’re not. This isn’t Might & Magic or a rogue-like. You may recognize those as games with very light (or no) story; the kinds of games where you can jump in, die, and cover the past 30 minutes of gameplay in about 5 minutes. By contrast, SF2 is very story-oriented, or it’s meant to be anyway. It’s also a classic JRPG, where battles are going to take a lot of time, and you’ll be slogging through story. So, messed up? Well, hope you don’t mind losing all the tension you built up as you replay the last 10 hours. And if you think that’d be fine, well, I almost envy your naivete. Games need to balance their difficulty against the needs of the story, and SF2 does a poor job of it. By the time I had figured out how to actually play the damn game, I had lost my initial interest. Still, after a break, I slogged through it.

And the story – oh my god, it’s not that great. So, you have two different story paths you’re following: The legend of Gustave the king, and the Knights family. Superficially, these are pretty cool. The former follows the rise to power of an outcast, and the latter is a bunch of adventures. But in practice, they’re kinda lame. You will learn almost nothing about most of the characters in a game that is entirely driven by the personal motivations of its protagonists – this is inexcusable. Heck, the game actually skips over most of the lives of several characters. My favorite example is Johan the Assassin. Johan is, well, an assassin. He leaves his assassin organization because… well, I have no idea. We see the training he did to get in, but we don’t know why he leaves. He shows up in two chapters. The first is just him moving across a bunch of maps as he remembers his training, and getting picked up by Gustave at the end of the chapter. The second time he shows up is to die in a series of battles where you play as him, and him alone. Spoilers? Don’t care. You barely know the guy.

Now, there is an Ultimania guide that goes into massively more detail about the game, to my understanding. Ultimania is a series of guide books released in Japan which massively expand on the content of the games. They’re cool for getting the details that didn’t make it into the game, and packed with tons of information. But they’re in Japanese, and, more to the point, you shouldn’t have to read a 300 page book to find out salient and important facts about the video game you’re playing.

Because SF2 is so hard to get into, and its story is so disjointed, it fails to be a good game. It’s pretty as a painting, but you can get the whole picture just by doing an image search.