Akitoshi Kawazu has sort of a shaky reputation among RPG fanatics. He gets the occasional hit – if you can indeed call them that – with games like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. More often he makes games that have only a niche following at best. He’s best known for his work on the SaGa series, which hasn’t had a great game in a long time. I suppose you might be able to find a few people who liked SaGa Frontier or Unlimited SaGa, but then some people like pain and insurmountable learning curves.
There’s one game, however, for which I have to really give him credit. Among the first creations that were wholly Kawazu’s was SaGa2 on Game Boy, which we saw as Final Fantasy Legend 2. Its huge variety of settings, equipment, and character types appeal to me just as much as a solid, well told plot and more than magnificent graphics. It has an atmosphere that sparks the imagination, setting ablaze a fire of possibility in my brain that rivals those from Lunar and Skies of Arcadia. The “Kawazu” in it shines through in the sense of aimless adventure and the different atmospheres and themes that you find your way through, yet it does not have the Kawazu-borne total lack of direction. When you combine that with a solid, quick battle system you get a game that was begging for a remake.
Now if I only had a gun that shot chainsaws…
That remake finally arrived in Japan several months ago. It does not disappoint; there is absolutely nothing lacking in this game from the original, nor are there huge re-balances or new mechanics that are integral to completion of the game (FF4 DS, I’m looking at you). The designs are appealing and do not lack for variety, and new optional content – while not particularly interesting – is available for the completionists. There are no new bits of plot, but the mechanics of the game are better explained, and it also retains its snappy (~15 hour) pace.
Graphics were the most changed for the remake. SaGa 2 was redesigned with a more cel-shaded, cartoony look than the FF remakes. This serves the theme of the game perfectly, with the variations from world to world producing similar variations in color and design. Each of the character types has four models, and each model has four color sets – so no overlap need occur even with a party of four robots or four human females. Even more significant is the variation in weaponry – every single weapon in the game has its own unique model. And how many games let you slice through giant spiders with a katana in one battle and fight off oversized bacteria with a tank in the next? Not enough! SaGa 2 DS lets you experience that not only in name but also in stunning* cel-shaded 3D (*may not actually be stunning).
Many of the original core mechanics I like so much are still around. Humans and Mutants level up gradually as they use equipment, sort of like Final Fantasy 2 but less awful. Mutants also gain abilities to use in addition to equipment. Robots can only use equipment, but it impacts their stats directly making them customizable. Monsters can eat meat to morph into another enemy monster type. Although you can only pick your party composition at the start of the game, the different growth types allow for a huge variety of strategies. One of the changes in the remake made monsters suck slightly less – I’d still recommend a monster-free party myself, but then I prefer to have characters that cannot have abilities taken away.
Some mechanic tweaks made their way into the game as well. Battles were converted from totally random into an avoidable visible-encounter style. This is a huge thing for me, since it makes battles readily avoidable but allows you to grind easily where it’s needed. One of the accompanying changes lets you run into multiple enemy sets at once – intentionally or not – giving you a battle that’s often twice as hard (with twice the rewards). It can put you in a worse situation if you try to avoid encounters and fail, but makes grinding go more quickly if you trigger it on purpose. New MAGI types were added as well, some of which allow for more exploration rewards (hidden areas and treasure in dungeons). They aren’t major changes, but they do shake up the standard treasure hunting system enough to make things more interesting.
You can’t read this, which makes it stunning commentary on the human condition.
Side-quests were added to the original as well. The most significant are the Muses, a bunch of demigoddesses that can help you out occasionally in battle, provided you can pay their price (usually various trinkets you dig up in dungeons). I see these as more of a fluff addition than anything; you’re supposed to guess which gifts each will like, and usually they will hop into battles to help you out when you least need it. The Fate Thread system, which allows you to build ‘relationships’ between your characters, is not as interesting as it sounds. Mostly it allows you to combo attacks, but as a side benefit certain relationship-sets (e.g. your robot loves your monster, and everyone else hates them) will trigger sub-events occasionally. These events will often involve a fetch-quest of some kind with a reward. This sort of feature encourages replaying with different strategies, but I think most players would just use the immediate benefits since the sub-events aren’t easy to find.
The original music was among the best on the Game Boy, and the redone tracks retain much of the original feel. All the old music made it back, but only a couple new tracks were added to the game. Although I loved the originals, I would’ve liked to hear more variety (especially if they could’ve gotten Kenji Ito back on the job). Most of the music was done with an orchestral style, so some of the songs really benefited while others seem to have lost something. Overall it’s different, but generally a good different.
I think a lot of remakes can really learn a lot from SaGa 2 DS. It shakes things up enough to merit a good playthrough and encourage exploring of the new features, but it doesn’t try to bog the game down with features that interfere with what you’re really out to do – explore around, beat up bad guys, collect nifty things and find your missing father. As a remake, SaGa 2 is high-quality. For a first-time player, it might be a little intimidating at first, but I think SaGa2 is still a very playable game, although it’s a little more difficult than the standard modern RPG. Hopefully you will find it as much of a treat for the imagination as I do. Square Enix needs to get its act together and localize this damn game so I can buy it again.