Sunday, April 5, 2020

Makai Toushi SaGa

A Shallow SaGa

The original Final Fantasy II saw its release on the Family Computer, or Famicom (Japan’s equivalent of the Nintendo Entertainment System, NES for short) in 1988, though it wouldn’t see an official release outside Japan for over a decade as part of a PlayStation compilation with its remade predecessor, and commenced the series tradition of reinvention in the gameplay department. Among the sequel’s chief designers was Akitoshi Kawazu, responsible for the game’s oddball growth system that ditched the roleplaying game tradition of experience-based character growth in favor of battle system activity-based development.

Given that the first Final Fantasy sequel polarized critics and players with its nontradition, Square would give Kawazu his own franchise to reinvent the wheel even more so, its first release titled Makai Toushi SaGa (“Warrior in the Tower of the Demon World”). Despite being part of a distinct franchise, Squaresoft America would disguise it as an entry of the more-known Final Fantasy series entitled The Final Fantasy Legend, which would see retrospective as one of the allegedly-finer RPGs on the original Game Boy. The first SaGa game would see a remake on the doomed Japanese-only handheld, the WonderSwan Color, which sports minor improvements over the initial incarnation.

Upon starting a new game, players can choose a protagonist of three different races: humans, espers, and monsters, with a male/female selection for the first two. In the main town at the base of the eponymous tower, the player can create three companions of any of the races and genders if available, with each having different stat progression, with the varieties in party composure adding some replayability to the game. The player empowers humans through the use of buyable and consumable items that increase maximum hit points, strength, and agility, with consumables for the first stat having a cap at two hundred, four hundred, and six hundred throughout the game.

Humans and espers can equip armor to boost defense, in addition to weapons and magic books with a fixed number of uses, with the strength, agility, and mana stats dictating their effectiveness in combat. While humans have full inventories, espers have half this volume, with the other halves of their capacities reserved for innate abilities and skills with fixed numbers of uses that they may randomly receive after battles end. A few passive skills grant strength and weaknesses to certain forms of attack, while some consumable abilities can actually be useful, particularly those that damage all enemies.

Monsters, on the other hand, have fixed skills sets and cannot equip items, with enemies occasionally dropping meat that they can consume to morph into different forms, one improvement over the Game Boy version being that the player can see how the monster will transform before eating the meat (although the remake doesn’t show how their health will increase or decrease after consumption). Players enter battles themselves randomly on the various overworlds and within dungeons, although the rate vacillates wildly, from one per step to hardly any at all, making the game’s save-anywhere feature a godsend.

Fights have up to three types of enemies that may or may not stack, the player selecting commands for their characters, who exchange turns with the enemy likely depending upon agility. One downside is that characters have to use a command, and cannot pass their turns at all, with defense against attacks coming in the form of shields with fixed numbers of usage, and definitely not sure to please those who wish to conserve item use. Weapons may occasionally have passive effect, with one kind of sword, for instance, allowing the equipping character to counterattack when taking damage.

Victory nets the player, in addition to the occasional meat a monster can consume, money to purchase items and equipment from shops. Espers may occasionally receive increases in maximum health, strength, agility, defense, and mana, in addition to skill transformations, which may or may not be for the better, and can necessitate liberal use of the game’s soft-reset function if they lose abilities the player values. Late into the game, should the player grind often, armor could become obsolete for espers since their stats, in addition to those of humans, cap at ninety-nine points, thus freeing slots for more magic books and weapons, the same going for humans with a late-game piece of armor.

All in all, the battle system has some good ideas and can definitely be fun to mess around with, although there are issues that players need to consider before investing their time into the game, such as the random nature of esper development, in addition to the need to scroll through command dialogue whilst characters and the enemy execute their turns and consequential sluggish pace of combat. There’s also one overworld containing frequent random encounters with a boss enemy initially impervious to attack, the escape option not always working against it. Along with the need to soft-reset often given the random nature of the game mechanics, gameplay is at best middling.

Fortunately, the save-anywhere feature (except in the middle of battle) relieves the tension of combat, and the game menus are straightforward. However, there’s sometimes poor direction on how to advance, which can leave players lost for significant time. Moreover, while the inventory limit on what humans and espers can carry into combat adds to the effectiveness of the game mechanics, the remake, like the Game Boy version, limits the number of items players can have unequipped, sometimes forcing them to dispose items. Maps for certain areas such as the overworlds would have been nice as well, and overall, the game doesn’t interact as well with players as it could have.

Aside from the nice idea behind the narrative about a mysterious tower connecting various parallel worlds, the story is otherwise unengaging, with the player’s customizable party being blank-slate, although there are occasional dialogue differences depending upon which races and genders of characters the player has, adding some replayability with regards to the storyline. Furthermore, there are areas where multiple nonplayer characters have exactly the same dialogue, and the aforementioned poor direction doesn’t help. There’s also scarce development and a Mega Man-esque endgame revisiting of past bosses, and in the end, players shouldn’t come expecting an epic plot.

Perhaps the first SaGa game’s strongest link is composer Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack, beginning with “Heartful Tears,” which plays during the narrative sequence players see before the title screen and many sad moments throughout the storyline. Other notable tracks include the main overworld theme, the normal and boss battle themes, the victory music, and the tower track. Granted, more musical variety with regards to the standard battle theme would have been welcome, and the music sounds no different than it did on the Game Boy, but the aurals are the game’s high point.

The visuals, though, could have used more polish. The colors, environments, and enemy designs look nice, but the battle graphics are perhaps the laziest portion, with plenty antagonistic palette swapping, foes themselves inanimate and just flash to indicate command execution, and fights have a first-person perspective akin to most mainline Dragon Quest games. The character sprites outside battle are also small and have chibi proportions, and there aren’t any kind of artistic cutscenes. In the end, the game isn’t a graphical eyesore, but is visually inferior to other titles o the WonderSwan Color’s generation.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough can take as little as six hours, or up to twelve if the player needs to grind, with little in the way of sidequests to enhance lasting appeal, but there’s a surprisingly-high amount of lasting appeal, given the potential composure of the player’s party, not to mention dialogue differences depending upon their characters.

In conclusion, Makai Toushi SaGa certainly has plenty going for it, such as the general good ideas behind the battle system, the save-anywhere and soft-reset features, the nice soundtrack, and a great number of reasons to come back from more. However, players can expect to use the soft-reset feature liberally, given the randomization in battle, and there are other issues such as the limited inventory, scarce storyline, and subpar visuals. Unless players find an interest in gaming history with regards to the origin of the SaGa games, there really aren’t very many reasons to play the remake, which is nonetheless better than the original game, but that’s not saying much.

This review is based on a playthrough with a male human protagonist, female human, male esper, and monster.

The Good:
+Battle system has good ideas.
+Save-anywhere feature and soft-reset.
+Nice music.
+Some replayability.

The Bad:
-Prepare to reset often.
-Limited inventory.
-Scarce storyline.
-Subpar graphics.

The Bottom Line:
An average remake.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: WonderSwan Color
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 2.5/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 2.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 6-12+ Hours

Overall: 5.0/10

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