SaGa Frontier is a game whose original release could best be described as unfortunate. It came not long after Final Fantasy VII had made many new players interested in RPGs, only to give them a game that was almost the exact polar opposite of what FF7 was: non-linear, obtuse, story-light, and filled with gameplay elements that defied genre norms. Many who bought SaGa Frontier on the Squaresoft name alone were blindsided by just how goddamned weird it was when all they wanted was another FF7. The backlash to Frontier would taint the SaGa series’ reputation in the West for years as impenetrable trash. Yet there were still folks who carried the torch for SaGa Frontier, embracing its obliqueness and brutality and singing its praises for years. Those people were no doubt elated when Square-Enix announced a SaGa Frontier remaster on modern platforms, eager to see their much-maligned favorite get a chance to shine once again.
I'd never played Frontier – I'd only heard the “is it good or bad” arguments for years on end – but I did play some of the other SaGa games: specifically, the original Gameboy SaGa games (released here as Final Fantasy Legend) and the Romancing SaGa series. Having now played a good ways into SaGa Frontier Remastered, I can safely say: all of you defenders were right, SaGa Frontier is fantastic, and I love it. But others… well, I'm sure there are still plenty of people who will hate this game. And I totally understand why.
SaGa Frontier takes place in a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid universe where magic, spaceships, robots, and espers all coexist, interplanetary travel is a menu option away, and there's no big evil threat eager to destroy existence (in most of the plots). You choose a hero character at the beginning of the game and follow their character journey to its conclusion while meandering from place to place and discovering strange and interesting things along the way. It's less of a grand, epic adventure and more of a series of interesting little vignettes in a shared universe.
Let's talk a little bit about what's new in the remaster. First off, there's a new playable story scenario with Fuse, the loose cannon space cop who previously was relegated to side-character status, as the primary lead. There are also additional story bits for other characters that were intended for the original PSOne release, but wound up being cut as deadlines loomed. This is obviously a big selling point for longtime SaGa Frontier fans, though for a newcomer like me, it doesn't mean much beyond “hey, more stuff in the game!”
What's less talked about is the various quality-of-life improvements seen throughout SaGa Frontier Remastered. All of the graphics are now in crisp HD resolution, and even though the heavy use of pre-rendered CG for, well, almost everything seriously dates this game, there's also a strange nostalgia that pervades the plasticky 90s computer imagery. Sure, any modern gaming platform could render this stuff in realtime and make it look better, but it's just not the same. The added screen space from HD displays also allows for more to be displayed onscreen at once, making locales easier to explore and helping streamline menu displays.
The best QOL improvements, however, are those that streamline the play experience, and Remastered has those in spades. Load times have been nearly eliminated. The speed of battles and overworld movement can be increased up to 3X, making combat roll by in a breeze and increasing exploration efficiency. Previous and current story beats can be looked up in a menu, which also includes hints about what to do next for the easily stuck. The game auto-saves after entering rooms and completing a battle, immensely decreasing the risk of losing progress to an unlucky fight outcome. And, for completionists, there's a New Game + feature that can carry over elements of your choosing into another scenario, making it easier to check out every character's story.
It's great that all of these features are in Remastered, because they make a lot of the meanness of SaGa Frontier much less frustrating.
I do not exaggerate when I say that SaGa Frontier is extremely rude. This is a game that throws you head-first into the depths of its myriad gameplay systems with only a half-inflated life vest while telling you that you need to learn to swim right now. You might have a lot of experience with JRPGs, but that doesn't matter when the game you're playing actively thumbs its nose at many of the genre's established conventions. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though: Figuring out the nuts and bolts of how SaGa Frontier works to get the most out of the game's combat and exploration can be a very rewarding challenge.
The biggest difference between this and a “standard” JRPG is its open-ended nature. There are objectives you have to complete in order to progress in each character scenario, but oftentimes simply charging headfirst to the next story goalpoint is a very bad idea, because there's a battle waiting that is absolutely going to mop the floor with you. Your time is better spent wandering around, finding recruits, learning skills, and discovering things of interest until you feel confident enough to attempt whatever the next story challenge might be. This will certainly feel aimless and confusing to some players, and it's made worse by both random enemy encounters that can wipe you out in an instant if you're unlucky and points-of-no-return where you can potentially save yourself into an unwinnable situation.
There's a good reason why SaGa Frontier wants you to stray away from the story path: you will get stronger, both in terms of sheer stats and in your understanding of the mechanics. Rather than earning experience points and levels after battle, you gain stats after each fight based on your actions: use magic and you'll get more JP for spells, use guns and your concentration stat will increase, and so on. Using weapon and magic skills regularly can light a spark of inspiration in your characters, allowing them to spontaneously develop new fighting techniques on the spot – which can then be combined with other characters’ learned skills and spells for ultra-damaging combos. (Monster and robot characters have their own unique growth mechanics, as well.) It always feels like you're making some sort of progress when you fight in SaGa Frontier, so no random encounter feels like a total waste of time.
But then you realize that the regular enemies are scaling in strength and damage along with you, because SaGa Frontier will never give you a break. Nothing is predictable: you may have to fight drastically different enemies depending on when you go to a certain area early in the game or after having fought hundreds of random encounters. You might lose a vital party member to permadeath in mid-dungeon. You might accidentally stumble into an area that you can't escape until you beat a very difficult boss, which might be unfeasible in certain situations. That's just how this game rolls. Autosaves and numerous save slots can help alleviate some of the pain, but only if you're diligent about using them properly – and if you don't mind going back to save made hours before where you are now to try and do better. The challenge in SaGa Frontier isn't of the “git gud” variety, where you're expected to learn patterns and reactions – rather, it's the challenge of accepting that you've messed up and may have to give up hours of progress in order to do things better the next time. It might seem like a waste, but it isn't – the knowledge you gain about the game's systems in invaluable – but that doesn't make it any less painful. Whether or not you can accept this kind of challenge will likely determine if you'll actually enjoy SaGa Frontier.
And if you can't, that's fine. Despite more folks being open to RPGs with unique means of progression and exploration, the obtuse, guide-less nature of SaGa Frontier is every bit as divisive now as it was in the late 90s. If you, like me, are intrigued by offbeat game mechanics and are willing to accept failure and making mistakes as part of a learning experience, you'll love the hell out of this game. If not, well, there's plenty of other stuff out there for you. And, love it or hate it, SaGa Frontier succeeds simply by being interesting.