It's pretty rare in this day and age to see a game as old as Romancing SaGa 2 getting ported to modern consoles. The game was originally released only in Japan, so it's pretty nice to see it coming stateside. Romancing SaGa series has some pretty cool history behind it, but let's just hit the highlight for now. Romancing SaGa 2 is actually the fifth game in the SaGa Series. The first three were called Final Fantasy Legend 1-3 on GameBoy. Yes, they put the Final Fantasy name on these first games just to try and get more sales. Romancing SaGa 1 and 2 followed, but stayed only in Japan on Super Famicom.
You begin Romancing SaGa 2 as Leon, the king of Avalon, and start out on a monster extermination mission with your son, Gerard, who's rather weak. Nothing like your other son Victor, who looks to be a warrior ready to take over the kingdom. There's also a tale of seven legendary heroes before the game starts. They saved the world in the past and disappeared, promising they'd return when they were needed again. Ominous!
While you are gone protecting the kingdom, the town is attacked by even more monsters, resulting in several of your soldiers and Victor himself dying. Leon learns that a monster called Kzinssie was responsible. The thing is, Kzinssie is one of the seven heroes! This isn't quite the heroic return that the people were hoping for. After talking to a roaming seer, Leon and Gerard head out to confront Kzinssie. Leon and the seer have a secret weapon: Inheritance Magic. It lets Gerard inherit his father's abilities, like dodging Kzinssie's Soul Steal attack, giving Gerard a real chance to defeat this so-called hero.
While the beginning of the game is focused, the rest of story is very much open-ended. Romancing SaGa 2 isn't about Leon or Gerard, it's about Avalon as a whole and its succession of kings and queens. The ultimate goal is to confront the legendary heroes and take them out one by one. Almost everything in the game is non-linear. It pretty much gives free reigns after the intro, letting you explore the world at your leisure. You'll be exploring new areas and finding scenarios to play. These are unique to the area you are in, but after finishing 3-4 of them, the game will force you to choose a random heir and you'll carry on from there (just several dozen years later).
This system has its pros and cons. The biggest problem is that the story really has no personal connection. After Gerard, every emperor or empress is just a kind of stand-in. The real focus is on expanding the kingdom and completing scenarios. This can be a real deal-breaker for some players, as most role-playing games we grew up with have focused stories instead of open-ended objectives.
On the other hand, it's pretty fun to see the kingdom expand. Many of the scenarios also have multiple ways to accomplish them, which often change the future missions. For example, I dealt with some armed merchants in a town by striking a deal with them and bringing them into the empire. A few generations later, they started rebelling against me. That's what I get for not stomping them out when I had a chance! These generational changes, based on your past actions, are highlights of the story, other than the simple thrill of exploration and discovery.
The gameplay of Romancing SaGa 2 comes off as a classic RPG experience, but there are plenty of quirks here, many of which the game never tells you about. Characters will line up in various formations and take turns exchanging blows with enemies. Pretty standard stuff. As you use weapons though, you level up with them (semi-randomly) and become more proficient with them. You gain HP randomly after battles as well. If you've ever tried the old-school Final Fantasy II battle system, you'll get the idea here. This also applies to learning skills and abilities. Your character will spark techniques randomly mid-battle and learn new skills. It's always awesome when it happens, but again, it's pretty random.
You regain all of your health after every battle. It sure is handy, but each character has also life points, and they don't replenish. If character loses them all, he or she is dead. Losing one of your soldiers is rough, but you can always go back to Avalon and replace them. Lose your Emperor, though, and you're forced to pick another heir. There's really no game over here, just constant progress.
Once you get used to the systems, the game plays pretty well. You'are always getting stronger because your heirs inherit abilities from you and your fighters always start off as strong as you ended in the last generation. Constant progress really is what the game feels like. As you explore, you'll also find and recruit new types of fighters. This adds more variety to the potential party, which you piece together with every new emperor. For example, after helping a nomadic tribe of yak herders, my new heir taught my team the "Mu Palisade" formation, which makes every party member go last in the turn order, but has them also auto-defend until their turn comes up. Very handy for boss fights!
In addition to all the fighting and exploring, the game also has some kingdom management to do whenever you're back home. As emperor, you gain taxes from every territory you control. You can use tax income to build new facilities, commission research on new weapons and armors, or even just take out some pocket money with you on your adventures.
The graphics and presentation are faithful to the 1993 original. In other words, this is a Super Nintendo game all the way through, with some great pixel art in both sprites and background designs. I also liked the flair in presentation. Once each character is selected or levels up, they twirl around and pose. It doesn't sound like much, but these little touches do make the difference. The music is thoroughly old-school as well, with classic-sounding battle themes and village music. While the audio solid, it just isn't quite catchy enough to be memorable.
Romancing SaGa 2 is a very open-ended, so whether or not you're into that kind of freedom will likely make or break the game for you. What it lacks in the focused story, it definitely makes it up in re-playability and choices. You should keep in mind though, this is an old-school experience. There's very little holding your hand here, and the game is rather quirky to boot. For example, certain scenarios only play out when you have a male emperor, or only when you have a certain class available. This can make the game extremely frustrating as you search for something to do next. I definitely referenced a few guides and was pleasantly surprised by the active online community.
If you're looking for a quirky old-school RPG, Romancing SaGa 2 is right up your alley. There's perhaps a reason it never got a release in the west until now; it's far from being a player-friendly. Many of the quirks that make Romancing SaGa 2 so special are things that many modern players aren't most likely to enjoy, so you must be sure what you're signing up for before you lead the Kingdom of Avalon to the glory.
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