Wednesday, May 4, 2022

SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu - Goddess of Destiny

The Legend of a Relic

Ever since its first three games released on the original Gameboy, given the Final Fantasy misnomer in North America due to that particular series’ greater (but then still niche) popularity in the region, the SaGa series has always been the Final Fantasy franchise’s eccentric cousin, given the offbeat nature of most entries’ gameplay mechanics coupled with above-average difficulty. American gamers would completely miss out on the Romancing trilogy originally for the Super Famicom until generations later, although to date they would out on the remakes of the original SaGa games, that of the very first title for the doomed WonderSwan Color handheld, and the second, SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu – Goddess of Destiny (the Japanese subtitle meaning “Legend of the Relics”) for the Nintendo DS.

Upon starting a new game, the player can customize a protagonist of different types: human, esper, mecha, or monster, and subsequently select three allies from a combination of the aforementioned races. Afterward, the hero or heroine goes on a search for their missing father, having entrusted them with one of many relics, with the gradual collection of these MacGuffins occurring throughout various worlds connected by the Sky Pillar. The story has some good ideas, as well as some positives such as the protagonist and his allies actually interacting, although the idea of interconnected worlds the first SaGa game had done, and there are tropes such as an absentee parent and an underground rebellion in one world, and the plot’s direction isn’t always clear.

As in other SaGa games in the past, there are plenty of good ideas involving the series’ signature offbeat gameplay, with enemies, unlike in the original SaGa 2, visible on whatever overworlds the player traverses and in dungeons. However, unlike games such as EarthBound, the enemy models indicating encounters always charge the player’s visible character, although in some cases, they have fixed patterns of movement and eventually give up chasing the player after a few seconds. It is also possible, should the encounter sprites be close, to “link” these encounters, accounting for more enemies the player must battle.

When combat begins, the player faces a number of enemy parties, their amounts being greater depending upon how many encounter sprites “linked,” and depending upon the direction the player’s character faced before the encounter, either the enemy may gain the initiative or the player will. Regardless, enemies almost always outnumber the player’s characters, although there are a number of ways by which to deal with them. Outside battle, players can equip humans, espers, and mechas with items, with the first and last character types outfittable with various items, although the esper race by default has half its inventory occupied by skills, resistances, and weaknesses, and the monster type having an unchangeable inventory depending upon its current form.

Characters that can alter their inventories have a number of options from which they can choose, with players able to occupy slots with defense-increasing equipment and/or weapons and shields that have a fixed number of uses before disappearing, with the latter’s attack power depending upon how high a character’s strength, or in some cases agility, is. Humans and espers, maybe mechas as well, can also equip spell books or staffs that can affect one or all characters, or one group or all enemies. Espers too can receive “natural” abilities that have fixed usages before the player needs to rest at an inn to recover them, as do monsters in many cases.

The remake, akin to the original, follows the traditional turn-based structure where the player inputs commands for their four-character party (with doing nothing and attempting to escape from battle being options as well), and they and the enemy execute commands largely depending upon agility, although there exists the typical gameplay cliché of enemies sometimes being able to beat the player’s characters to healing, which is definitely pivotal in the sometimes-cheap final boss battle with multiple phases. The player has the option to disable attack animations for their characters and the enemy, although in the case of battles that contain dozens of enemies, they can still take a long time.

The defeat of all the player’s characters, during the first part of the game, gives them the chance to restart the lost battle, which can be advantageous if the initial encounter began with the enemy having the initiative, although the option disappears after a certain plot point. Victory, on the other hand, may result in random stat increases for humans and espers depending upon their combat actions (and very, very rarely, a natural increase to their defense stats), one of the defeated adversaries dropping meat for a monster ally to consume, resulting in a new form (and luckily, if a monster has become a specific enemy at one point, the player can view their stats and skills after consumption), and finally, money.

A new system introduced in the DS SaGa 2 is that of Muses the player can rescue and send to a celestial area, players able to provide them gifts that earn them special points they can use at the Castle of Fates to purchase combination link points of different types that allow characters in combat to chain commands, resulting in increased damage to enemies. The Muses themselves, after providing players a thousand of these points (with the “correct” gifts to Muses netting them five hundred each), may randomly help the player’s party in battle with things such as increased resistance to magic, an additional attack against the enemies, or full restoration of all characters.

The heavy degree of luck and randomization is one of the primary flaws in the mechanics, and as implied, the final boss battle is one of the main exhibitions of the issue, with plentiful difficulty in my experience despite maxing several character stats. Furthermore, players can’t visit the Castle of Fates at will to purchase more linkage uses until the final part of the game. A guide is also necessary to find all the Muses and their respective gifts to get them to assist randomly in combat. Generally, much akin to other entries of the SaGa franchise, there are plenty good ideas, but they don’t always work in practice.

Control, however, actually fares moderately better, with one of the main pluses being the ability to record one’s progress anywhere outside battle, and mercifully, the game gives indication of points of no return, in which case players can save in an alternate slot. The menus are also generally easy, with an in-game measure of playtime as well, although when the player acquires map abilities such as being able to excavate hidden treasure or teleport to a past area, they have to go into the menu to change the current field skill. Moreover, the game only indicates objective points when the player is within range on the lower screen, and generally, interaction has its strong points but could have been better.

The remake is strongest with regards to its soundtrack by Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematsu, with plenty of catchy pieces such as the overworld piece and battle themes, although the quality is somewhat weak at times, and the music in the current area outside combat restarts from the beginning. The visuals have plenty going for them as well, such as the cel-shaded style, although there’s plenty pixilation and many reskinned enemies.

Finally, total playtime ranges from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, with theoretical replayability in the form of a New Game+, although most players likely won’t want to devote additional time to the remake.

On the whole, SaGa 2 for the Nintendo DS is another run-of-the-mill entry of a series that has its share of mostly average-to-bad entries that are largely inaccessible to mainstream gamers. For one, the game mechanics, while the ideas are good, very much falter in execution, the narrative is middling, and the visuals are average. There are some aspects, however, that are genuinely good such as the soundtrack and the always-welcome save-anywhere feature that somewhat balance the remake’s quality. Regardless, it often exemplifies what’s wrong with the Square-Enix series, and while an English fan translation is available for Anglophone players, they definitely shouldn’t prioritize playing it.

This review is based on a single playthrough to the standard ending with a human main character, a female esper, a mecha, and a monster.

The Good:
+Good ideas behind gameplay mechanics.
+You can save your game most anywhere.
+Great soundtrack.
+Has some semblance of lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Lots of luck and randomization involved.
-Average story.
-Middling visuals.
-Not fun enough to go through again.

The Bottom Line:
Another average entry of the Square-Enix series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 2.5/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 24-48 Hours

Overall: 5.5/10 

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