The SaGa series is somewhat notorious for eschewing the norms of JRPG design, and SaGa Frontier back in 1998 was no different. It was a truly perplexing game, throwing out a lot of mechanics that were shared among games like Wild Arms, Final Fantasy VI, Breath of Fire III, and more, opting to do its own unique approach to the art of JRPGs. A tough nut to crack, SaGa Frontier had multiple systems and mechanics that it let the player use and abuse in esoteric ways, and this remaster aims to let a nostalgic JRPG reach a new audience.
In SaGa Frontier Remastered, players are almost immediately dropped onto a character select screen from which you can pick your chosen protagonist and follow their storyline. Eight separate adventures await the player, and this isn’t like Octopath Traveler where they all eventually meet up and work toward a common goal: Each chosen protagonist makes a party out of dozens of unique characters, and in some may be vitally important to the story progression of one story, but may barely say a word in another tale. SaGa Frontier is a very open game by JRPG standards, but the Free Scenario System in the game allows for unique player experiences by changing what events you see, and when, based on what the player chooses to do.
The Free Scenario System gives players an extensive amount of freedom in how you approach the campaigns of the eight protagonists, though the stories presented in SaGa Frontier Remastered aren’t exactly in-depth rollercoasters that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The individual tales do intersect sometimes, and while most of the story lines you interact with aren’t novel-level because they need to be simple enough to weave in and out of different character scenarios due to the order of events scene or choices made by the player. Some of the character’s stories are much more non-linear, as well, as the eight protagonists all begin in different locations your experience can vary wildly.
Beginning with the magician named Blue may have you wandering around, exploring different areas, and recruiting allies before even getting heavily invested in the battle system; meanwhile Red’s campaign you will be thrown into battles within minutes of selecting the character. Each character you can choose from has their own mission that they need to fulfill, though there are many optional side quests you can complete, and loads of exploration can be done in the mostly-open world, and intersecting story events can be completely blocked off by completing certain tasks in different orders (some even precluding other story routes with little to no warning- this is a PSX-era JRPG, after all), so player experience with the game can change pretty wildly.
New in the Remastered version is a character named Fuse who was originally cut from the PSX title, and new additions have been made all throughout the game to make this character more integrated with the game as a whole. Due to this fact, SaGa Frontier Remastered offers you the ability to play the original release with updated graphics, forgoing Fuse’s additions, or to play the Remastered scenarios that will have Fuse’s extras sprinkled in. Content that originally didn’t make it into the 1998 Playstation release is also included in the Remastered version, so at least three events involving the character Asellus were restored (including one that gives access to a new party member for her, that previously you needed to use a Game Shark code to get them into her party).
The battle system is actually pretty close to standard, as it’s a turn-based combat system with some minimal resource management. You select your attacks from a menu, and if the selected action is a special attack, like a skill or a spell, it can cost WP or JP to activate or cast. Firing a gun also costs ammunition, as well. Heavily utilizing your special attacks seems to be the most ideal way to get through encounters, as the basic attack is so weak that it’s really only used when you’re running low on resources. Sometimes characters will combine their attacks into very powerful combination attacks, which you can manipulate to an extent by using the right moves.
The largest change SaGa Frontier made in terms of combat was the fact that battles don’t provide the playable characters with experience points- your individual stats increase with use. Using your weapons over and again may eventually produce a glimmer in combat- a spark of imagination that gives your character the idea for a new skill or spell in battle. The incremental leveling of individual stats and learning new techniques through iterative use or through gifts means that you’ll always be improving at a clip, and since enemies in normal encounters “level” with you, it’s important to keep an eye on your stats and what new skills you may be aiming to use.
Boss encounters can range from pushovers to mile-high walls depending on your level of preparation. Boss stats are static, unlike the normal enemy encounters, and running into a boss while under prepared can easily lead to a complete party wipe and the need to completely re-evaluate your strategy. SaGa Frontier Remastered is just like the original game in this respect: It is still very difficult, and can be unforgiving at times. Back in ‘98, we had to look up guides on dial up Internet to learn what skills best performed combos with one another, or which characters could learn Lifesprinkler or perform DSC, and that kind of esoteric, extra-game research can help a player in a difficult spot get the most out of SaGa Frontier Remastered.
This remaster does improve upon the original in a wide variety of ways- the first and most readily apparent of which is the fact that the visuals are substantially improved. Other improvements like multiple save slots and autosaves, shortcuts for a quicksave, and even the ability to speed the game up to make grinding more convenient, or to let you backtrack faster. You can even toggle map exit icons on and off, so you can know exactly what will trigger a screen transition on the various pre-rendered backgrounds, and detailed equipment stats are revealed for the player to view, which was a massive annoyance with the original release years ago.
SaGa Frontier, back in 1998, was not a game for everyone. The core foundation of the remaster is still intact, with some extremely deft attempts to modernize some aspects of the game for convenience, but the difficulty level is still quite high, especially in comparison with most modern JRPGs. The improvements made to the graphics and the restoration of cut content, including one whole character scenario, makes this the definitive version of a game that was hard to get into some 23 years ago. There are still tons of routes and quests that can be locked off via non-foreshadowed points of no return, as well as missable items, events, and more, so SaGa Frontier renounces some JRPG tropes, but turns others up to 11.
Overall, players who enjoy replaying a game to see different events (the scenarios all have differing story lengths, but most playthroughs shouldn’t take but 8-10 hours), or enjoy the archaic nature of classic JRPGs will really find a lot to love in SaGa Frontier Remastered, as the game really does a lot to challenge the player, and by the end of the game you’re rewarded for building a strong party by destroying enemies that would have steamrolled you just hours before. Players who want a more linear experience, fear missing out on things, or for whom having lots of choices can cause anxiety, SaGa Frontier Remastered is likely not the game for you, as SaGa Frontier is all about giving the player options, differing experiences, essentially dropping you into the sandbox and telling you to find the story.
Developers: Square Enix
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Steam