That’s a simple, perhaps even positive, way to describe how it leaves you to your own devices to figure out how nearly everything in the game actually works. From how to advance the story to how to learn new skills, few things in SaGa Frontier Remastered are explained, fewer still are elaborated upon, and you will learn through repeated experimentation and failures.
Sometimes, this open structure works against it. But I couldn’t help but be captivated by it.
Originally released in 1997, SaGa Frontier is one of many weird RPGs released during the PlayStation era that sought to experiment with the genre’s conventions. In this case, that meant the ‘Free Scenario System’, wherein you chose one of seven playable characters that each had their own narrative that was set amongst a disparate collection of worlds.
The protagonists are a diverse bunch, each with wildly different stories to follow. Emilia is a former model who was wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of her fiancé and is now searching for the real culprit. Blue is a young mage who searches for magic while preparing for a future fight against his twin, the winner of whom will receive sacred magic. T260 is a robot that must recover its memory and complete its secret mission. Some characters’ stories are linear, others more open in design, but each has the freedom to explore the entire world after a short introduction, allowing you to uncover new party members, quests, and occasionally new endings.
While I found most of the stories interesting, they are told with a surprising amount of brevity that frequently left me wanting more. Dialogue is short and clipped all around, with few interactions between characters. Often, you’ll be wondering what exactly you have to do next. There is a story section in the menu that summarizes what is going on but following it too closely will leave you unprepared for new areas because it ignores the element that makes SaGa Frontier Remastered shine — exploration.
The lack of instruction in SaGa Frontier forces you to discover nearly everything along your journey, be it new locations to new battle mechanics. This focus is at times frustrating — I would have loved to have known how to earn new skills earlier than I did, for example — but without it, I would not have come to learn as much as I did about the world and its systems. Discovering new party members in some random corner of the world, finding out the best ways to make money, slowly traversing a ruin not knowing what’s on the other side; these are the moments that made me appreciate the lack of instruction.
Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the battle system. Combat is turn-based, with a variety of attacks and spells to choose from. There is no traditional experience or level up system, as stats and abilities are improved by repeatedly performing certain actions. Skills, to answer my earlier anecdote, are earned randomly mid-battle when facing tougher enemies and fulfilling unexplained conditions. Human, robot, and monster party members all feature different mechanics to get used to. In a word, combat is dense.
Which is why learning how it functions is exhilarating. With the right knowledge, you can make party combinations that laugh in the face of the game’s attempt at balance. Not that there is a lot of balance in SaGa Frontier, as bosses will routinely catch you unprepared and demolish you. But mastering the various mechanics in battle is fun when you can tinker and craft characters to become powerhouses, particularly with the vast array of potential builds at your disposal.
When SaGa Frontier is constrained, it’s at its weakest. There are some stories that feature extended segments where you are stuck in a location for reasons, preventing you from exploring the world. Elsewhere, you’ll be locked out of content if you unknowingly cross into an area that you didn’t know would remove certain characters or side quests from the map. And there aren’t a lot of side quests in SaGa Frontier – as delightful as it is to explore different areas, I do wish there were more activities that fleshed out the worlds themselves. As the dialogue is so perfunctory, I wished that there were more colour added to the game to fill in the gaps.
At the very least, many of the cracks found in the original release of SaGa Frontier have been repaired in the new remaster. This includes an eighth main character, Fuse, who sheds light on the narratives of the other seven main characters. There are also additional scenes for many of the existing stories; Asellus, in particular, has many new bits of dialogue that weren’t present in the original. And these additions are on top of improvements that make the remaster that much more playable like turbo speed modes for both exploration and combat, New Game+, and the ability to flee from every battle.
SaGa Frontier Remastered is a strange game to recommend. Odds are most people will bounce off of it because of its unconventional structure and commitment to explaining little. And yet it’s precisely because of its weird nature that I find it so compelling to play. SaGa Frontier Remastered is a perfect example of a cult classic, as there are only a few other games that are as unique and as polished as this.