Header illustration courtesy of Square-Enix
On its surface, Romancing SaGa looks like any other game from its era. Open world RPGs were nothing new by 1992 and series like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy had allowed players to wander, explore, and build their party for years. Though its shared DNA with Final Fantasy makes Romancing SaGa appear indistinguishable at first, closer examination shows that in the end, it it would ultimately influence RPGs in a major way. The problem, though, is that Romancing SaGa just isn't very good.
Romancing SaGa was the fourth game in the SaGa series, developed and published by Square, coming after three Game Boy games that were localized in North America as the Final Fantasy Legend series. Released on January 28, 1992 in Japan, it wouldn't come out in North America for 13 years—and like that 13 year length, the story behind Romancing SaGa is a long saga; a tale of two games, one of incredible innovations and great ideas, and one of intense frustration and poor execution.
The SaGa games approached character progression in a much less linear manner than their parent series did, and didn't contain many traditional Final Fantasy elements. But for the most part, the label made sense: The SaGa games felt very much like spinoffs that benefitted from the Final Fantasy branding. Romancing SaGa, though, departed radically from the previous SaGa games, marking it as a fitting transition into what became a truly different series.
If Romancing SaGa has any analog in the Final Fantasy series, it's Final Fantasy II, one of the series' lesser known and least liked games. They have designer Akitoshi Kawazu in common, and while his urge to radicalize the Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG framework was visible in Final Fantasy II, it was fully realized with Romancing SaGa.
You're tasked with stopping the rise of the evil demon Saruin and retrieving ten powerful objects called Fatestones—a solid (if standard) setup for a JRPG. But immediately, Romancing SaGa finds a way to differentiate. The game begins with a choice of which class to play, but you'll quickly realize that you aren't only choosing a character type, you're choosing a unique character. Each of the eight selectable characters have entirely different stories, play styles, regions, and party members. For me, as a first time player, this realization was freeing and exciting, promising narrative depth and incredibly different experiences: "Romancing SaGa offere not only one or two unique scenarios (which other games had done by 1992), but eight!" I told myself. It's an incredibly epic idea—in the literal sense, similar to the the tradition of great interwoven stories and myths.
Unfortunately, Romancing SaGa is unable to live up to this ambition. While choosing a different character at the onset provides a different opening scenes, the path to the end of the game beyond that is a pretty similar one, devoid of compelling plot points or exciting events to guide progress. And even if the end goal of the game was clear (it's not, and this may be its largest fault), the journey to complete it isn't a particularly emotionally satisfying one, and finding out how to go about it is a monumental task unto itself.
It also fails to weave together the stories of the various selectable characters. While the characters you didn't choose do make their way into your story, they only serve as mechanical additions, never really changing how the story unfolds. Their individual stories don't become interwoven; instead, your chosen character overrides the others', rendering their potential personality into mute servitude.
Romancing SaGa's greatest weakness is its lack of direction, but it's also the game's greatest strength. Players can choose locations from a world map, each with their own climates, people, and quests, and there's an incredible number of places to travel to. Once a character's unique opening sequence is over, the world opens, and players are free to figure out how to save it... Or to find some fairies, climb the top of a mountain to find a legendary feather, or just generally wander .
That's not immediately obvious, though: Exploring most of the areas available at the start can lead to the perception that there's just not that much to do. But in actuality, obtuse conversations, which are triggered by finding the other playable characters in any number of potential city inns they may or may not be in or completing a task for another character somewhere else, will actually lead to more locations being unlocked. It's a strange system that, yet again, is not explained or made clear. It leads to a lot of frustration, too, as a quest can require you to travel somewhere that's not yet accessible.
All of this unneeded opacity breaks down the sheer novelty of exploring world into a chore, and the final reward isn't exciting. So even in its most novel idea, in allowing a truly free world full of diverse towns and characters, Romancing SaGa shoots itself in the foot by limiting its scope.
If I sound conflicted, it's because I am. The world of Romancing SaGa is impressively reactive, especially for 1992. The game is based on triggers, whether it be a conversation, quest completion, or leveling status, but you never know what will change or where. At best, it gives you a sense of there being much more out there while you work on the task at hand. At worst, you have no idea of where to go and what to do. Quests you might have been able to tackle can mysteriously disappear because your character is too high a level, instead of scaling. When an RPG doesn't encourage grinding, I'm lost.
In fact, even leveling is a mix of fascinating and frustrating in Romancing SaGa. Characters don't steadily gain experience like they do in Final Fantasy; in fact, there isn't an experience system at all. Instead, characters just sporadically receive stat boosts after completing battles, and the logic isn't routine. The same applies to learning new spells and abilities. There isn't a concrete system explained anywhere in the game (or accompanying materials); there must be an algorithm in place somewhere, but the message is just that good things will come to those who fight. It's so unique, but it's so unpredictable that it gets in the way.
When Romancing SaGa was eventually localized into English in 2005's PS2 remake, it provided the developers an opportunity to clean up all their past mistakes and do the original game's great ideas justice. Instead, they made it all the more confusing. The PS2 remake created a fleshed out, 3D world, but failed to streamline the game in a way that underscored its most admirable and unique qualities.
It added more story scenarios to make the characters a little more likable and motivated, but nothing in the game's guidance (or lack thereof) does the same. Skills needed to progress through dungeons are hard to track down, and not having one led me to being stuck in a dungeon, with no way forward or back. No concessions were made for the modern player, and frankly, that's what remakes should do, especially ones built from the ground up like Romancing SaGa.
A massive playable cast, a world that didn't just funnel players from area to area but was truly open, and a twist on the traditional leveling scheme are all things that should have set Romancing SaGa apart. But it didn't go the extra mile to make its sense of freedom accessible, or even interesting on a more structural or narrative level. Because of that, Romancing SaGa's innovations didn't make their way into the gaming landscape as they should have.
In spite of its missteps, Romancing Saga represented a shift in game design, shaping the idea of the "immersive" and expansive games that foster stories created by the players. Unfortunately, because of those missteps, not many people realized it. It may have received greater recognition in Japan, but its inability to execute its great ideas consistently may have kept it from release in North America. Therefore, we don't necessarily attribute many of modern video gaming's most familiar elements—interwoven stories, free roaming exploration, progress based on play style—to Romancing Saga. And I'm still not sure we should, but at the very least, we can recognize it for laying some of the groundwork.