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Wolf Kanno's Crazy Ramblings and Incoherent Statements

WK's Top 100 Lost But Not Forgotten: SaGa Frontier 2

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I was having a serious reservation about whether I was going to add this to my Top 100 list or place it here. I decided it would go here for now, but part of me feels it could be like Demon's Souls and make the jump to My Top 100.

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SaGa is a weird franchise. A JRPG series made for enthusiast who feel they've seen it all. From the Gameboy entries where you built a ragtag group filled with robots and monster to climb a tower/tree to visit radically different worlds that span classic medieval settings, to destroyed Tokyo, and even Edo era Japan. The Romancing SaGa series drove it into a new direction with the introduction of randomly sparking techs in battles, to choosing among eight different heroes to go on an open world quest that eventually leads to saving the world. If you go into this franchise expecting Final Fantasy because of the way the game's look, you'll be in for a serious wake up call.
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Granted, even SaGa has its fair share of odd ducks in the franchise with the third Gameboy installment being helmed by a different team, and thus coming across as more conventional than most entries. All the way to the opposite spectrum of Unlimited Saga, which tried so many new elements that the game to this day is still considered to be a franchise killer. SaGa Frontier 2 is another odd man out among the franchise, bearing more in common with the second Romancing SaGa title as opposed to SaGa Frontier 1, which contined on perfecting the "choose among eight characters" style that was introduced in RS1 and refined in RS3. Instead, the weird element of SaGa Frontier 2 is that it is one of the more story driven entries of the series and tells a tale that spans almost a century of time. While it maintains the series tradition of loads of characters, the tale of SaGa Frontier 2 follows two men who end up changing Sandail forever in different ways.
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SaGa Frontier 2 is a generational story spanning close to a hundred years in the land of Sandail. This is a world permeated by a force called Anima which every living thing is said to possess. Anima allows people to use magic, and is best transmuted through natural materials like wood and stone. Ancient civilizations capitalized on this power and developed Quells. These are weapons or artifacts that have an almost unlimited supply of Anima harnessed into it and made of materials that will never deteriorate. Yet said civilizations eventually collapsed for unknown reasons, and left behind the megaliths which still house great Anima power that attract monsters and adventurers alike. Those who make a living combing these old husks in search of Quells are called Diggers, but after centuries, all but the most dangerous of places have been excavated.
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The Kingdom of Finney, led by Gustave XII, has been at war with the region of Otto, led by the Marquis Cantal of Otto. When news breaks out that his wife Sophia has given birth to his first son, he races home to see his new heir, and names him Gustave XIII. At the age of seven, Gustave XIII undergoes the Firebrand Ceremony where the coming heir of the kingdom touches the Firebrand Quell and ignite its Fire Anima to prove they are worthy. Despite being a simple formality, Gustave XIII fails the ceremony and shorty after, its revealed that he was born with no Anima to speak of, making him a rare muggle in a world of wizards. Angered and distraught by the shame, his father disinherits Gustave XIII and has him banished from the kingdom. Unable to cope with the lost of her firstborn, Queen Sophie chooses to go with her son in exile to the Kingdom of Jade. The two live in poverty for several years and Gustave XIII grows to be a restless and angry fellow due to the taunting he receives for his condition. His His reckless behavior and foul temperament only get worst after the preventable death of his mother, and he vows revenge against his father and the world for casting him aside. To channel his anger, he becomes a blacksmith apprentice in hit teens and learns about Steel, a powerful metal that is stronger than most weapons made from natural material, but is shunned by most warriors due to its incompatibility with Anima use. Gustave makes himself a steel sword, and uses his mother's good connections with the Jade family to enter in the service of the Kingdom of Wade, where he begins to plot his political and military ambitions. His story unfolds to show him as a fantasy counterpart to Alexander the Great as he eventually creates one of the largest empires in Sandail's history.
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Meanwhile, the other tale to tell involves a young Digger named Wil Knights, who is now starting on his own in the business. He was raised by his aunt and uncle after the mysterious death of his parents from a expedition to a far off megalith. His journey to strike it rich eventually has him confront the mystery surrounding his parents, their former partner Alexi, and a mysterious Quell known as the Egg. His journey takes him across the lands where he does eventually strike it rich, but soon comes into confrontation with the Egg which proves to be no ordinary Quell. The Egg possesses sentience and may have orchestrated the terrible events surrounding the Knights family life. Eventually his battle with the Egg will be picked up by his descendants including his son Rich, and granddaughter Virginia. The conflict with the Egg eventually crosses over into the historical drama unfolding in Gustave's life, and the entire world of Sandail will eventually become embroiled in a war that has far greater stakes than most people know.
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Interspersed between these two characters are a few smaller tales connected to both characters, though their stories are relegated as small one note chapters. Some of these chapters come in the form of side characters telling their own small personal stories like Nebelstern, stories pertaining to some of Wil's Digger companions, or one involving an assassin named Johan who becomes Gustave XIII's bodyguard. The game has about 22 playable characters, though only Wil and Ginny ever assemble a full party. The game basically takes you to a menu to choose to play through historical events within Sandail's history. Completing these events, and also talking to certain NPCs, will unlock more events to watch as you see the history of these two men unfold. Gustave's story is far more story driven with only a few dungeons, and being incredibly cutscene heavy as you deal with political machinations. His unique element are the returning war battle scenarios from RS3, though in this game they take on a grid style turn based mechanic not unlike the ones seen in Suikoden II, with a little of Suikoden III's design as well.
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Wil's plot is a bit more straightforward and only gets complicated once you reach the third generation, and start crossing over into Gustave's political mess up plot. With that said, Wil's scenario is also the slowest to take off. His first chapter begins with his first expedition, which has him assemble his first team, and check out his first ruins with little fanfare. While the mystery of the Egg starts making his tale interesting, it sort of resolves itself early before coming back in a vengeance for the last third of his scenario. Between the main plot with the Egg, he just has some minor misadventures that range from pretty boring, to really good ones like his travel north with another Digger named Wil that takes you to your first real Megaltih and first exposure to how crazy and dangerous these places can be. Wil's scenario is more dungeon focus and he gets access to having a full party, and all of the elements of the battle system like magic.
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There is a very heavy Final Fantasy Tactics flavor to Gustave's scenario as he deals with politics and conquering foreign lands in his quest to forge his own kingdom. The only real problem with his scenario is that the plot is a bit muddled. Part of the issue is the stilted writing, which may be due to a poor translation, but experience has also shown me that Kawazu has never been as interested in writing linear story pieces. The biggest issue to this is due to a lot of important details about the narrative being left in the game's Perfect Works book, such as the significance of a few characters in the political scene, the fate of a few characters, and the actual details of what the Egg is. This leads a bit into the second issue of his scenario, which is how characters kind of just come and go in the plot with no real closure when they leave, and no info to catch you up to speed when they first show up. This gets especially annoying midway through the game when the story starts having character following the naming scheme of previous characters, such as the infamous Philippe III, who you would think is related to Philippe I, Gustave's younger brother, but no he's not related to him through Philippe and is rather the son of Marie, Gustave' sister who bows out of the plot pretty early in. This makes some of the succession crisis within the plot a bit confusing as it leaves out details like how Kelvin marries into Gustave's family. This gets really weird around the time you get to Ginny's chapters because with the exception of Roberto, every member of her team including herself is attached to a major player in the plot, but a player may not be able to understand the details such as Gustaf and Primera's lineage. The game really could have used a Datalog to help the player keep the characters and setting straight. With that said, the basics of Gustave's plot are really good, his plot just sometimes reads like a first draft of the story we really should have gotten. Wil's plot is a slower burn and honestly I don't feel it really picks up until you reach the Tycoon Wil scenario. If Gustave's scenario feels like a Matsuno style Tactical title, Wil's plot feels like something straight out of JoJo's Bizarre Adventures, not helped by the whole theme of it being about a generational battle against an immortal enemy that happens to resemble the Stone Mask when it finally evolves into a real body. In fact, my favorite part of Wil's story is the leap to the second generation after Wil retires. We're introduced to a decoy protagonist Eleanor whom is actually the third cross over event with Gustave's scenario as her story is about her gaining intelligence info for Kelvin. She has a team of Diggers helping her including a few who were working for Wil earlier, and one new guy named Rich, who later turns out to be Wil's estranged son. His scenario is where the Knights arc gets more interesting because Rich is a bit more my style of a character compared to boy scout Wil. Rich's scenario of trying to overcome living in his famous father's shadow is more interesting, and the Egg finally transitions from being an artifact of evil the bad guys all want to actually showing off its a sentient presence that controlled all those villains in the first arc makes it more compelling. There is some really twisted stuff in the scenario. Finally Ginny's plot in the third generation serves as a tie in that brings in both scenarios as she fulfills her family's legacy of hunting down the Egg while finally spilling into the political turmoil of Sandail that the Egg itself has embroiled itself into for its master plan. SF2 certainly ends on a much higher note than it begins with. What is disappointing for me is how the plot has the potential to be really epic, and yet it always manages to fall short. It still has some great moments and characters, but its always dogged by a sense of "what if?" concerning the execution. This game honestly could have been a great gateway entry into the franchise.
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SF2's gameplay follows series tradition of being really different. It brings back the weapon breaking mechanics from the Gameboy SaGa entries, though now with the option to repair them at blacksmith shops. It brings back SaGa Frontier 1's combo system where the best way to do high damage is by having your party combo high level techs and spells together. And it still retains the spark commands from the Romancing series, where new moves are learned randomly in battle based on the techs being used and the enemy level. The two new additions to the game are Duel battles and Roles. Roles are the easiest to explain, they are support elements you equip to a party member that offer bonuses to them. They serve as a replacement for the formation system from the Romancing series. These roles can increase a characters speed by 20%, improve their chances to combo abilities with other party members, or lower an enemies spell arts.

Duels are the real new mechanic in the game, and one you'll either love or hate. When your party engages with an enemy unit, you can opt to have one party member tackle one of the monsters in a one-on-one duel. Instead of having just access to your normal skills, you choose which weapon to fight with every round and combine the move set of the weapon in a series of combos. Certain combos have a high chance of sparking new techs, and each tech and spell in the game has a certain combo to activate them in duels. On the one hand, it's an easier way to control getting a specific tech or spell, but the spark rules are still in place, so just because you know the combo doesn't mean it will guarantee the tech to spark. In fact many of the higher tier techs for weapons and spell arts utilize the same combo setups of earlier techs, so you can just as likely have them activate the weaker tech instead of sparking the one you want. Duel battles are the only means of acquiring the Hybrid Arts, which are weapon techs that also incorporate magic into the move such as Cyclone Slash. What is interesting is that some enemies can be quite a handful facing them with a party while, the enemy is a bit of pushover in a duel, so there is a bit of strategy in using duels to avoid unnecessary hard battles.
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Two other new elements to the game is how LP works and how magic is acquired. LP still mostly works on the same principle as older entries where having the LP of a character depleted removes the character from the party. Unlike previous games, it doesn't outright kill them, but rather just makes them unavailable for the duration of the scenario. Assuming they return in later scenarios they can still be recruited again. What's new is that LP can be used in battle to restore a character's full health. There are no healing items in the game, and only a few healing spells. This mechanic can be used in regular battles, but is mostly used in duels since healing is very difficult with the combo system. To compensate for this new reliance on it, characters tend to have pretty generous LP pools compared to previous installments.

Magic is also a bit different in this game. In earlier games you could simply purchase magic from shops and train a character in their use. While the game still retains affinity mechanics, magic is now tied to your equipment. All your gear is made from different natural materials and which ones you have equipped dictates which elemental spells you can use. A wooden staff grants you access to Wood spells, Obsidian to fire, stone to well stone, and then a few items that access water, tone, and beast. Magic still uses SP to be cast, but it will also deteriorate your equipment much like using a weapon normally. Thankfully it can also be repaired by a blacksmith, and most items have a fairly generous number of uses. This also makes Quells really useful because these items will never break, and all of them grant some elemental affinity. Another newish mechanic is WP and SP regen. All party members have a default WP and SP regen which allows them to restore a portion of both stats every round of combat. Certain equipment will boost SP regeneration, especially Quells, but Steel equipment will actually reduce SP regeneration for a trade in higher physical defense. Its an interesting balancing mechanic which makes a few one-note party members rather exceptional such as Diana, Ginny's mom, who only appears for one dungeon but sports the highest WP regen of any character in the game. It also grants some interesting customization options, because characters like Cordelia and Primiera either be outfitted with Steel gear to imrpove their defense and turn them into a pure melee character at the cost of making their magic skills situational at best, or you could opt for a more balance approach to keep them as a Red Mage type character wearing weaker but more magic friendly gear.
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If this all sounds incredibly complicated... well it is. There is a lot of information to keep track of. While SF2 does a better job than most SaGa titles of giving you the necessary information, it still follows the series tradition of failing to give good item and equipment descriptions. I highly recommend getting a guide if you choose to play this entry. The game also follows the series tradition of being fairly easy to coast through most of the game before hitting a serious difficulty spike toward the end. Not that the early sections don't have issues, especially in Wil's scenario where the game isn't afraid to throw a few seriously tough enemies at you on his first mission. But compared to the end game boss gauntlets, the early chapters feel pretty easy. The game never gives you a real tutorial for any of these mechanics either, so getting the hang of all the new mechanics and shifting party can be really daunting to players more familiar with having more control over all of their mechanics. The gameplay is incredibly rewarding once you get the hang of it, it's just getting past that initial high learning curve that may cause issues.
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The two other big changes in this game from its predecessors are the graphics and music. The graphics use a gorgeous water color style not too different from the one used in Legend of Mana which Kawazu was also working on at the same time as this game. The graphics lend to the game's heavy Germanic vibe by giving it a very fairy tale vibe to the whole experience. The set pieces are absolutely gorgeous, I only wish the character animations were better as they feel a bit janky in places. I've mentioned before how this game is the opposite of Wind Waker where that title always looks ho hum in screenshots but becomes absolutely breathtaking in motion. This game looks incredibly in screenshots but is pretty awful in motion. Tech and spell arts looks impressive though. The weird pseudo 3d sprites for duels also look really off, not helped by the game using character modeling similar to FFTactics and to a lesser extent, FFVII with weird body proportions. Not helping things either is that the game can sometimes be rather poor in giving directions. The maps have a very PS1 era pre-rendered linear format to them, so while it may seem like you can move anywhere, you'll quickly find you can't, and getting lost can be a bit easier than you think despite a room having only three ways in. It just becomes difficult to discern what is an actual door you can use versus ones that are there for show.

The music is a bit weird here too as this game marks the first time Kenji Ito had not scored the game, and being one of only a handful of SaGa titles he didn't write the score for with only the original SaGa 1, and Unlimited Saga being the other two. Instead this game's soundtrack was handled by Masashi Hamauzu who had previously worked on Chocobo Mystery Dungeon and Tobal no. 1 and would later help score Final fantasy X with Nobuo Uematsu and Junya Nakano, and later Final Fantasy XIII. He would also work on the score for Unlimited Saga of which he has the distinction of creating the only thing most people would agree is actually good about that game. Hamauza's style marks a departure from Kenji Ito's more hard rock influenced scores in that it combines elements of large orchestral percussion with synth pieces worked in. The game also makes liberal use of his favorite instrument the piano. SF2's score is fairly good, though not as toe tapping as Ito's scores. The soundtrack is surprisingly peaceful and mellow, in fact it really feels like it has more in common with Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura's scores for the Mana franchise than something you would hear from earlier SaGa games which swayed back and forth between hard rock and fantasy epic. One interesting note is that in fitting with the game's heavy Eastern Europe influence, all of the tracks are named in German, which is made more interesting by the fact Hamauzu was born and raised in Germany initially. Just a little shout out.

SaGa Frontier 2 is a game of two tales. On the one hand, this game really has a lot to offer to JRPG fans who may be interested in jumping into the series proper, but would rather wade in a pool that still places a lot of emphasis on why most people like the genre such as good characters and a strong narrative. Yet it fails to stick the landing on most accounts. The plot is actually really good and I really ended up loving Gustave XIII who comes across as a very complicated figure. He's no hero, but he's hardly a villain either. He's given a very hard hand in life, but winds up using his disadvantage to change the rules and with it the world. He does some unscrupulous things like cozy up to a child king so he can eventually usurp him, he kills his half brother, and he personally leads a purge of a local and mostly peaceful cult when some of their members are discovered to be in connection to a political assassination Gustave isn't happy with. Yet he also does some pretty good things as well such as building a rather prosperous kingdom of his own, buries the hatchet between his surviving siblings, mediates a deal between pirates to bring them into an honest living as merchants, and shelters the ex-assassin Johan. What I also love is how his situation is so interesting among JRPG protagonists as he lacks any magic ability but in addition to discovering how useful steel can be, it also lets him see the world in a way others can't. The character of Johan is part of an assassin's guild who use the power of anima to cloak their presence from others to carry out their assassinations, but their skill has no effect on Gustave since he can't sense anima to begin with. Eventually Gustave the Steel shares a legacy not too dissimilar to Alexander the Great from real world history, including the fate of his empire. It was just interesting to go through the story of a character who felt so human. Likewise, the Knights family generational story has its own highlights and the wealth of the most fun party members. I genuinely missed Narcisse and Tyler when they both retired from old age, and I managed to keep Cordelia alive to become Wil's future bride. Rich was still one of my favorite parts as it was interesting watching him run away from his family's legacy only to be dragged back in, and basically served as a hero who prevented the Egg from starting to really upset the world balance by another fifteen years. The game has a pretty good staff, I just wish more of them had more screen time and I wish I knew the fate of some of the other cast mates such as Gustave's childhood friend Flynn who just kind of disappears from the plot altogether after a certain point.
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The gameplay is fun, if a little overly complex in places, but I really enjoyed it once I got past the learning curve. Of anything, SaGa Frontier 2 was a game I really wanted to love, but it turned into a real uphill battle for me as I dealt with all of these minor issues that kept piling up one after another. I did eventually come around to really enjoying this game, but it's a hard sell. I feel a bit bad for this game because I feel the first SaGa Frontier got a little more love and attention riding the coattails of FFVII's success and the explosion of JRPGs on the market, whereas SF2 came out later when the market had become more saturated and when I felt like a lot of people introduced to the genre by FF had decided to just stick to FF. It sort of just slipped by most people like a lot games by SE released in 99-2000. I had always been intrigued by it from what I read, but it was almost a decade later before I would get a copy of the game for myself, and nearly another decade before I would actually get around to playing it. Yet despite all of my gripes, this game has really stayed with me since I finished it. I always keep in mind the games that do that. There is something really magical about the whole experience despite the issues. For now, I'm leaving it here on the blog, but if I get around to playing a NG+ with it, maybe I'll end up elevating it higher. It will probably help that I will finally know what I'm doing as opposed to the first time.

Updated 05-04-2021 at 10:25 AM by Wolf Kanno

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