Sunday, July 3, 2022

SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha - Shadow or Light


A Champion Among SaGa

Ever since its monochrome beginnings on Nintendo’s Game Boy system, Square-Enix, at the time Squaresoft’s, SaGa series has been the odd duck among the company’s franchises, given its nonstandard traditions, with its later entries exemplifying its unorthodox disposition. However, the third installment of the franchise, given the misnomer Final Fantasy Legend III during its initial release, was far more traditional in terms of its mechanics, given SaGa creator Akitoshi Kawazu’s decision to devote effort to the first Romancing SaGa on the Super Famicom, although the Japan-only Nintendo DS remake, SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha - Shadow or Light (the subtitle meaning “Champions of Time and Space”), brought the gameplay more in line with the rest of the oddball series.

Shadow or Light features an encounter system similar to the DS SaGa 2 remake, where enemies wander fields and dungeons, and always charge the player regardless of strength. Contacting one aware model indicating an enemy party when another or more are close causes them to “chain”, although unlike in the second SaGa’s remake, the player doesn’t face all adversaries at once, with combat having a far-lesser scale. Rather, the encountered antagonists “queue up”, with an indicator in the lower-right of the DS’s screen indicating the foes of various volumes sitting in line to face the player’s four main characters and one guest ally, and enter battle whenever sufficient space opens up.

Like most Japanese turn-based RPGs released in the original game’s time, SaGa 3 features a traditional setup where the player inputs commands for their party, with their characters and the enemy exchanging commands dependent upon agility. However, in a rarity for an RPG of its kind, the top screen shows who, either among the player’s party or the enemy, will execute their command when, which is incredibly handy, especially when considering things such as healing characters low on health. Commands include doing nothing, attempting to escape, or, which will be the player’s preference most of the time, using one of equipped items or skills, which consume a certain number of action points, restorable at special facilities, health at inns.

Each weapon and spellbook has up to four abilities, one initially available, with the others randomly “sparked” in the middle of battle when using those then accessible, with a character’s base stats occasionally increasing during combat after they execute their commands, as well. During the execution of commands, the player’s characters and the enemy may execute combination attacks with bonus damage, the last participant in a combo occasionally performing a “transcendence” ability native to the weapon whose skill they use in the attack chain. Weapon skills can affect individual enemies, groups of the same enemy type, or in the rare case all adversaries at the forefront of the antagonistic queue

Battles end either when the enemy kills all of the player’s characters, in which case the player can restart or accept a Game Over, or the player wings, after which they acquire money (not a problem so long as players fight frequently), and the opponents may leave behind meat or mechanical parts an ally (except for the current guest member) can consume, which can change their current race (or recover all their health if they don’t). Races include humans, beastmen, espers, cyborgs, mechas, or different types of monsters, each which their own strengths, weaknesses, and affinity for certain types of weapons (and in the case of espers magic), players able to see how racial metamorphosis affect stats before consumption (unless changing to an undiscovered monster form that a red question mark indicates).

Gameplay in the SaGa 3 remake definitely has enough positive moments to make it more than passable, although most bosses, particularly the various phases of the final battle, can have a lot of health, and standard encounters can feel a bit drawn-out (even with attack animations disabled), although what really saves the game mechanics is the easy mode where the use of weapon and magical abilities is completely free, and as long as the player has unlocked healing and revival magic that affects all characters, they won’t have any problem with making it through most of the game. Standard SaGa difficulty is available for those who prefer the franchise’s traditional experience, although the remake is easily the most accessible entry I’ve ever played.

As is the case with other series installments, the SaGa 3 remake allows players to record their progress mostly anywhere outside of battle (and gives a warning in the rare case when they encounter a point of no return, mercifully rare and not the case with the final dungeon), and there are in-game maps that eventually indicate unopened treasure chests. One step down from the DS remake of its numerical predecessor, however, is that the game only indicates excavation points when players first enter a new map of a dungeon or field, eventually disappearing and never reappearing on the maps, although indicative icons are visible when the player reaches said points during navigation on the top screen.

The remake also has an overworld system where dotted lines connect the various towns, fields, and dungeons, with the player able to enter them and explore. A time-traveling airship also quickly becomes available that has various facilities such as different types of shops, many towns having these facilities as well. The dungeon maps on the bottom screen also conveniently indicates the entrance to the current map whence they entered the area, and items that allow instant exit are available. One irritating design choice however is that SaGa 3 limits the different item types the player can carry in the inventory separate to those each character has, though they can put excess items into storage. Regardless, the rerelease generally interfaces decently with players.

As has largely been the case with most new installments of specific Japanese roleplaying game series, the remake of SaGa 3, much like those of its numerical predecessors, occurs in a completely-separate world from other entries, in its case a world where a giant water jug hovers in the air perpetually pouring its fluid into the oceans to raise sea level gradually, with monsters also emerging from said jar. There are past, present, and future periods that the player traverses to solve the world’s various crises, with a few substories as well, some humor, and generally-decent storytelling, although while the primary plotline has good direction, sidequests largely don’t. The original version of the third game also predated Chrono Trigger with a time-travel element to its narrative, so one certainly cannot accuse the remake of plagiarism in that regard.

The soundtrack is enjoyable with a nice variety of tracks, including the return of the central theme of the original SaGa trilogy that plays on the title screen, in the remake’s case a remixed version different from that of its numerical predecessors. There are different battle themes for standard encounters with one enemy party, skirmishes where adversaries queue up to fill in the space that their defeated brethren formerly occupied, different boss types, and of course the endgame conflicts, all solid in spite of often looping. One of the town tracks also contains comical instrumentation in the form of dog woofing and cat meows, and the sound effects don’t detract either. Generally, a nice-sounding game.

The visuals largely remain unchanged from those of the preceding SaGa remake, with character and enemy models having a cel-shaded style, although while the player’s party members aren’t mere reskins of one another and show distinctions when they’re of different races, reskins occur endlessly with the various antagonists they face in battle. The colors are nice, and the environments can be pretty, although jaggies and pixilation are frequent, and in the end, while the graphics have many things going for them, they could have used more polish.

Finally, playtime ranges from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, with plentiful lasting appeal in the form of a New Game+, different difficulties, and plentiful sidequests with percentage indicators for total completion, although one may need to reference the internet to achieve one-hundred percent.

On the whole, one could consider the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 3 to be a fluke in the franchise, given that while it does retain many of the franchise’s unorthodox mechanics, particularly in regards to combat, the easy mode makes it accessible even to those who don’t enjoy games of its kind, and it does have other things going for it such as the decent control, good time-travel plot, and enjoyable soundtrack. Granted, being the best doesn’t wholly equal perfection as it has issues such as a slight degree of sluggishness in battle, the odd inventory limit without combat when doing so solely within would have sufficed, the weak sidequest direction, and the spotty graphics. Regardless, Western gamers definitely missed out on this game, although a fan translation exists for Anglophone players to experience the inarguable crown jewel of the SaGa series.

The Good:
+Refined, accessible mechanics.
+Good control.
+Nice time-travel plot.
+Enjoyable soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Many battles can feel drawn-out even with animations turned off.
-Limited inventory.
-Some poor sidequest direction.
-Graphics often lack polish.

The Bottom Line:
The strongest entry of a series whose quality has largely been lackluster.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 24-48 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

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