Artwork for the SaGa series always has an unmistakable otherworldly touch. Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song's instruction book depicts timeless watercolor works by Tomomi Kobayashi. So where is all that beautiful art in the game? Since this is a 3D remake of a 2D game, the characters received new designs to fit new limitations. The characters of Minstrel Song appear 'super deformed' (with a large head and small body) in proportion but they lack the cuteness that such designs normally have. In an ironic twist, the visual presentation falls flat because of the graphical upgrades.
Players select from eight characters of differing backgrounds and base classes. As in SaGa tradition, each character's replayable game is the same story from another point of view. Character strengths and classes can change or develop however you like but the start of the game has a bias towards parties with strong melee characters and designated healers.
Being someone who enjoys the rare chance to play as a Dancer in any RPG, I began my first game as Barbara the Entertainer. Barbara has an event scene rendered in Sketch-Motion Animation (the same technique seen in Unlimited: SaGa), showing off her captivating flamenco performance. Finding event scenes like these turns out to be one of the motivating factors for replaying. The challenge with Barbara's short game is the need to build her up before taking on some bosses. Building characters up early in the game is a very easy task. The game encourages players to try their luck against hard monsters, rewards them accordingly, and adjusts the difficulty afterwards. A Quicksave function makes reset needy situations risk free. As with other RPGs that use a difficulty scaling system, raising character strength outside of boss battle preparation is not recommended.
Voices accompany every line of dialogue in the game, building the expectation for a meaningful script. Unfortunately, Barbara's personality and story is non-existent. All the character games focus on completing several unrelated tasks. When your character is strong enough, the final task is offered. Barbara's story is shorter than the rest of the cast, while the other characters are only marginally better. Having not played the original game, I can only guess that the minimalist script is untouched. The world story, usually told through a narrative complete with artwork stills, unfolds similarly for all characters but has little to do with their actual progress. Players who need direction won't appreciate the lack of a greater objective.
Figuring out what to do can be done by revisiting towns and talking to everyone. All towns serve the same basic functions such as resting, talking, recruiting, or shopping. By listening to generic NPC stories about dungeons, wilderness areas, and other towns, the game unlocks the menu option to travel there. Traveling between known locations occurs somewhat like a lame Street Fighter pre-battle screen - where an airplane represents the challenger supposedly moving across the map - except that an arrow represents your party supposedly traveling to the destination. It's also possible to find new areas by walking into them from marked exits found in some areas. Aside from that, there's no real exploration needing to be done. Towns are rarely more than a few screens in size and most buildings cannot be entered.
The highlight of visiting a new area is the possibility of finding another character to add to your party. Getting a new character usually results in opening more possible quests for progression. There are over a dozen possible characters to meet and finding each is a quest in itself. With the disappointing lack in personality amongst the main and sub characters, the only way to differentiate between anyone is by battle strength or costume color. There are a few unique designs but just about all of them reuse animations, making each character a lot less special.
The loveable background music is a mix of newly composed and newly arranged tracks from the original game. Minstrel Song is Kenji Ito's best work ever; there's just about everything: sweeping overtures, heart wrenching melodies, hard rock, folk music, a balanced use of vocals, several different synths, and taking the spotlight are the Spanish inspired tracks. In town areas, the awesome music is constantly obscured by one-dimensional NPC voices when you talk to them. The main cast voices are decent but most NPCs sound outright horrible. I should mention that without all the voices, I would have a harder time getting through the dialogues. The game utilizes a small, bold comical font that is hard to read. Even though I play on a very large television screen, I find myself needing to sit directly in front of it to stop straining my eyes.
Looking away from the text doesn't make things much easier. The game has colorful graphics that are hard to discern and a camera that zooms out as far as possible - reducing characters into clumps of shredded polygons. The camera moves in a fixed position relative to where you are, has no rotate option, and the zoom level never changes. This leaves me walking towards the foreground sometimes, not knowing what lies ahead or where I am going. Triggering a Proficiency to work in field areas can also take several tries. The Proficiency skills are simple tasks such as finding chests or trading with monsters and all of them are not very intuitive. Some require your character to be standing on a very specific spot to activate the option.
Battle is the only exciting part of this game. The camera is slightly better because it encompasses targets or characters, giving you a clear view of what's going on, something reminiscent of flashier mainstream RPGs. Before each battle 'turn' begins, you input all character commands at once. This gives you free time to decide on whether to use combination attacks or have characters act independently. The speed in which your characters and the enemies execute their actions during turns is dependent on several factors. Unlike most turn based RPGs, which force characters into using normal attacks most of the time; the game encourages you to use flashy abilities and magic as frequently as possible. It's a nice way to get use out of all special attacks rather than a select few but the animation sequences can get tiresome. The longer boss battles also have a tendency to trigger many random battle events (various bonuses and boosts to your party's actions), making random luck - rather than strategy - a key factor in getting through the game.
The battle systems are more complex than they need to be. On the surface, having no numerical levels or experience to judge strength on seems like a good thing. This is actually confusing because there is no way of knowing when new abilities will be learnt. Learning abilities and gaining stats is also completely random; it feels as though you didn't earn any of it. There are four major point systems (HP, BP, LP, and DP) two of which are unnecessary and don't make logical sense. The skill systems are also in dire need of simplification. It takes several dialogue windows, purchases, and menu clicks to get essential skills. Then there's the problem of not knowing exactly what to spend on without consulting a guide because money is very tight. All these additions and changes seemingly exist only to differentiate SaGa from Final Fantasy. Not surprising, since the early SaGa games were released in North America as Final Fantasy Legend.
Each time I try to appreciate the game's world, I am reminded of how claustrophobic things can get. The game is about journeying across Mardias but it's more of a journey across different menus. Outside of battle, there's little satisfaction to be gotten from beefing up character skill sets, tempering the best weapons, and finding the best items. The only difference is that in other RPGs, your progress is easily seen. Square-Enix may have reeled in new SaGa fans with Minstrel Song's flashy graphics but only a very select few stayed to endure the game.
Title: Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song
Platform: Playstation 2
Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song