If a game franchise goes on long enough eventually it veers into weird territory. Unfortunately, English-speaking RPG gamers hardly know the Saga series from Square (now Square Enix). You see Square chose to have two major lines of RPG’s: the traditional JRPG Final Fantasy and their more experimental Saga series.
We only got to see glimpses of Saga in renamed Final Fantasy games for the American and European market. Almost all of the GameBoy Final Fantasy games available to me growing up were actually Saga games. The NES Final Fantasy 2 had many of the same systems as the Saga series including growth based on what you did instead of strictly levels and experience.
Most of my English speaking friends got their first taste of Saga on the PlayStation via Saga Frontier. To those familiar with Final Fantasy games Saga Frontier was wildly different. Instead of a single plotline you got to choose multiple characters each with their own unique path. HP was automatically recuperated after the battle. The most the irksome change was the ever rising difficulty level after each battle. Without context Square dropped English speaking RPG players into the Saga system and let them sink or swim.
By the time Romancing Saga for the PlayStation 2 arrived we at least knew what to expect. A few games in and quirky art styles with multiple character storylines were obvious traits. We could expect an RPG system that emphasized usage of skills over strictly experience and level based advancement. Those few gamers who really appreciated the series could now enjoy the best of what Saga has to offer. Besides the replay value of going through each of the character storylines you could also power up the last boss for increased challenge.
For me the next game Unlimited Saga was a no-brainer to pick up. Unfortunately, the gameplay in Unlimited Saga is not an evolution of earlier games but almost an entirely different thing. We’re not talking apples and oranges different: We’re talking apples and mutated armadillo in a pirate outfit different. Up until that point both Final Fantasy and Saga were at their core fundamentally classic JRPG’s. While Final Fantasy was definitely more linear both had a landscape that you could traverse, traditional turn-based battles and occasional cut scenes to progress the storyline.
Unlimited Saga is at its best an electronic single player tabletop RPG. Characters exist as markers like a monopoly piece. Landscapes amount to board-game like sections. Towns are little more than background pictures with various menu choices that lead to more background pictures and complicated menus for upgrading weapons and choosing new adventures. The layout for executing anything in the game is pretty foreign. Even grinding becomes vexing as you only have a certain amount of moves before the whole quest resets.
Unlimited Saga was little understood on its own merits. Those American players who grew to like the series were also disappointed because there was not enough familiarity to hang onto. Japanese players were accustomed to the experimental nature of the Saga series and it achieved reasonable success in Japan reaching number 3 in the sales charts behind Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire.
Moving forward Square went back to milking Final Fantasy and never straying too far from the formula. Unlimited Saga for me marked an end to game companies taking serious risks in game franchise development. While the game may have been hard to love the experimental nature was fresh, bold and worth revisiting.
Get a copy of Unlimited Saga on Ebay.