It’s hard to deny Squaresoft’s track record for good games throughout the years. Ranging from racing games, shooters and fighting titles, many of Square’s “experimental” titles have brought innovative spins to their respective genres, and have usually been quite successful. Obviously, they are most well known for their role-playing games with the indelible Final Fantasy series, a sequence of titles that sets gaming benchmarks with each story in the franchise. However, unbeknownst to most gamers, another well-made set of games from Square toils in the Final Fantasy shadow. Often as deep and involved, with numerous characters, multiple storylines and tons of replay, the SaGa series has always given a different RPG experience to gamers (however niche a group they may be). With Final Fantasy XI still in beta testing, and FFX-2 still multiple months away from shelves, Square Enix’s first title, as a newly formed company, is Unlimited SaGa, the latest in the franchise.
Unlike most games, Unlimited SaGa’s main plot is rather hard to describe, especially because players don’t immediately join it until much later on in the game. The initial backstory essentially revolves around the Seven Wonders of the World. Legends state that the Wonders can be unlocked, granting god-like powers to their liberators and potentially ushering in a Golden (or Dark) age. Obviously, a prize like that sends numerous kingdoms, adventurers and mercenaries scouring the Earth for the secrets to the structures. In the typical open-ended SaGa fashion, players choose from any one of seven adventurers, each with their own specific needs and goals to fulfill. Ranging from a creature seeking to end his village’s drought to a young man looking for his brother’s murderer and a phony fortuneteller, the variety between each persona is rather drastic.
Once a character is chosen, players take each character through towns, shops and taverns, equipping them for their travels, gathering information and undertaking quests. One creative aspect of gameplay is that quests and plots will weave themselves in and out of other character’s stories, adding to the larger than life scale of the game. This interaction ranges from simple conversations to other playable characters joining your party for a time to achieve tasks. For example, one mission for the knight involves shuttling the courier from one place to the next through the wilderness, giving you a chance to slowly build a party. When I say slowly, I do mean it – only by completing each one of the seven character’s stories can a player start to unravel the full plot of the game with a fully formed group, taking on numerous monsters and traps in the process.
As most gamers know by now, one of the largest portions of gameplay in an RPG are the battle sequences that provide opportunities to level up characters, acquire gold and experience, and incrementally cleanse the land of evil, etc. Typically this involves the constant threat of the random attack as a party maneuvers through buildings or the wilderness, providing a heightened sense of tension with every step. Instead of constantly directing your characters through unexplored areas, Unlimited SaGa approaches this integral facet of the genre in a new way with a “game board” concept. Your party is represented by a game piece on a map, which, inexplicably, is broken up into unseen squares. While you won’t roll dice to determine your movement, you’ll hop from square to square, revealing areas of the screen and prompting any number of various effects. This ranges from finding a hidden treasure chest to stumbling into dangerous traps or running into monsters.
While a majority of fights can be avoided by taking alternate routes through levels, inevitably a fight will ensue, forcing your characters to defend themselves. SaGa makes another radical departure in the battle department with the debut of the Reel system. Instead of a simple Attack command that triggers random moves from heroes, players choose individual attacks from a list of learned skills. From there, you can launch your assault or attempt to link hits together for combos. Success of your strikes are based on your of the Reel, which helps determine the amount of damage that you cause. Mistiming the Reel can actually allow monsters the chance to counterattack, dangerously stripping away your hit points. Fortunately, these stats act merely as a buffer between damage and life points, which actually measures a warrior’s ability to continue in a fight.
Confused? If you are, don’t worry -- you’re not alone. In fact, Unlimited SaGa could be one of the most perplexing games out there due to lackluster adventures, poor explanation of gameplay and seemingly endless menu screens. RPG’s are notorious for side quests and minor tasks that aficionados have disdainfully termed “courier” jobs; essentially, ferrying items from one area to another. Considering the disdain that most fans have for these “errands,” should we truly be subjected to a character who IS a courier and HAS to perform this service? While it seems like I’m specifically targeting Ventus, the simple fact remains that every one of the seven characters has at least one adventure that makes you scratch your head and say, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
This question isn’t answered at all by certain features of gameplay, such as fight sequences. Not only is there a poor explanation for features like the Reel system and HP vs. LP in the game, but also the Reels spin so quickly that it can sometimes be impossible to get the desired effect. Inevitably, this has the effect of making a player yearn for the simplistic commands of Final Fantasy, the action of Arc The Lad, or the clever strategy of XenoSaga over the control scheme of Unlimited SaGa. Personally, I love to play RPGs, but the inaccessibility of basic controls puts this title in the echelon of dedicated, hardcore players only. You’re not going to easily pick this game up and start playing. Further driving this point home is the preponderance of menu screens and text fields, many of which seem so cryptic that a tax form looks like a kid’s book. Granted, I’m being a little exaggerated, but accessing an item can sometimes take navigation through two or three menu screens, which is way too many.
Graphically, Unlimited SaGa is a mixed bag of impressive hand drawn characters and limited animation, which can make gameplay feel somewhat unfinished. If you simply observe the character models and background images, the painted watercolor-like presentation presents a rather serene anime experience to the game. Animation, however, is almost exclusively limited to battle sequences, which make you feel like you’re watching a series of paintings instead of a game. This perception remains until you engage in conversations with characters, when the screen quickly fills up with word bubbles that don’t disappear. This is just a sloppy arrangement for text, and detracts from the rest of the game. Interspersed randomly with forgettable voice acting (are forgettable), plot development and presentation is poorly made. It’s a shame that such a good soundtrack is tied to this game. With a sweeping orchestral score that ranges from large, upbeat arrangements to moody environmental pieces, the music provides a sorely needed boost to the lacking gameplay.
It’s always unfortunate when a game that has a lot of premise falls short on delivery; it’s even more tragic when it comes from a company with a solid track record. With its ill-defined gameplay, sloppy graphical execution and unclear combat mechanics, Unlimited SaGa is proof that even experienced developers can slip every now and then. If you’re a hardcore RPGer, you may want to rent the game for the Final Fantasy X-2 trailer, but otherwise, you may want to let this SaGa become a forgotten legend.