Earlier this month, Square Enix surprised its retro-fanbase with the English release of Romancing SaGa 2 on traditional gaming platforms. For the first time since it launched on the Super Famicom in Japan for 1993, English-speaking players can finally get the core experience of this lost classic without having to hassle with emulators and fan-translations.
Fans of the series are thrilled to finally get an official release from Square Enix, but so too are the developers. Upon the release back on Dec. 15, the original game’s director and producer of the remake, Akitoshi Kawazu, blitzed the gaming media interviews summing up the spirit of his long-neglected series, hoping to urge old-time JRPG fans to take a dive into the past and try it out now that it is available in English. After all, we in the United States are still in love with our memories of Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and many of the other JRPGs of that era, but Japan, having had the opportunity to play the game when it first came out, holds Romancing SaGa 2 in equal regard.
And the best part of this new port is that we finally get to see why!
Just to get this out of the way, this is not the Super Famicom version of Romancing SaGa 2. This port is based on the mobile remake that released on smartphones last year. Don’t let that trick you into thinking it’s of poor quality though. Adding the support of genuine analog buttons makes all the difference, and while the backdrops and maps have been finely tuned to meet sleek, modern JRPG standards, Square Enix thankfully kept the original character sprites intact.
This modern version of Romancing SaGa 2 finds a happy middle ground between old and new, just enough to deliver an authentic experience.
But as for the game itself, Romancing SaGa 2 captures the essence of the SaGa series more perfectly than any other game, enjoying a reputation to this day for being the anti-JRPG, the anti-Final Fantasy to be more specific. Romancing SaGa 2 looks like a Final Fantasy, plays like a Final Fantasy, and has all the common trappings from a classic Final Fantasy game, but the similarities stop at the surface. Every approach that Final Fantasy takes towards creating a captivating RPG experience is turned on its head in Romancing SaGa 2, making it a game that succeeds by not playing by established rules.
A one of a kind gem that dares to be different.
At the center of Romancing SaGa 2, you won’t find a plucky gang of heroes off to save the world, travel to the far reaches of time, or bring an end to a destructive war. Romancing SaGa is a game about building an empire and passing the burden of leadership from generation to generation.
The opening scenario itself might not set it apart much. King Leon rules the tiny country of Avalon and earns the respect of his people by ruling with a firm yet fair hand. His two sons, Gerard and Viktor, are also beloved by the people, but many expect the mighty Viktor will take his father’s place as his heir since Gerard is seen as the weaker of the two. Instead, monsters raid Avalon, killing Viktor and leaving Leon and Gerard to avenge him. They do so, and Leon is tragically killed in the process. Leadership falls onto Gerard to guide his country to glory and to bring about the destruction of Seven Heroes, demons who threaten the land.
Sounds generic enough to you yet?
A year passes and Gerard grows into a respected, strong king who is called upon to settle several territorial disputes. Bringing these conflicts to an end adds new lands, new wealth, and allies to Avalon’s empire. Gerard overseas a glorious generation of expansion… and then dies before getting to kill another one of the Seven Heroes.
Yup, he just dies. Old age, war, whatever. We don’t know. It happens off-screen. Emperors pass away frequently in Romancing SaGa 2 and pass on their knowledge to the next in line as if a new chapter had been turned. It is at this point that the game shows its true colors. Gerard’s story is just one of the hundreds to be told, and with his death comes the passing of leadership to a new emperor and a new band of warriors who must settle more disputes. Gain land, solve regional conflicts, gain wealth, gain allies, repeat, repeat, repeat.
In Romancing SaGa 2, very few characters ever have a unique personality or backstory, and every single one of them is expendable. Even Gerard, should he fall in battle before his time is up, can vanish into history like an average Knight or Monk who winds up in your party, and this is because Romancing SaGa 2 is not a game about drama or inner conflict. It’s a game about the larger picture where the one consistent is the Kingdom of Avalon.
As said before, each generation is tasked with making Avalon just a little stronger than before. This generation can use their time to research new magic or weapons, expand Avalon’s castle grounds, conquest rival kingdoms, or seek out allies to aid in their thousand-year war against the demons that plague the Earth.
As if it needs to be said, don’t get too attached to your emperor’s party members. Permadeath is a thing in Romancing SaGa 2, but unlike Fire Emblem, it’s somewhat supposed to happen here. Grinding away and battling monsters generates money for Avalon to grow, and ultimately, any characters you lose in the process of gaining wealth will not be as valuable in the larger picture. Their deaths allow the next generation that much stronger, be it with new weapons or new abilities.
No matter either. When a character inevitably dies, just return to the castle and scoop up a new one. No questions, no qualms, no backstory, just a new face to fill in the ranks and take down monsters.
In fact, should all of your characters die in battle, that’s Game Over, right? Nope, no such thing in Romancing SaGa 2. When your party is wiped out, you simply pick a new heir, hire new hands, and get right back to work. All progress is saved from fighter to fighter, so the only real downside to this is having to re-equip your new band of fighters and make sure their skills are aligned.
After enough generations have passed and you’ve killed enough demons, a story will eventually find its way back into the game, but for a majority of the game, progress is determined by you and how you best see to make Avalon strong enough to bring down the Seven Heroes.
16-bit JRPGs are often beloved for their fun stories and thrilling characters, but they are all tales of special individuals who unite to accomplish great deeds. In Romancing SaGa 2, no characters are special, and the accomplished deeds are the result of a collaboration by an entire population of ordinary fighters and citizens. This adherence to a larger picture, a constantly growing and evolving kingdom is what makes Romancing SaGa 2 such a beautiful and unconventional 16-bit gem.
Romancing SaGa 2 has the other usual non-conformist convention of other SaGa games as well. No level ups, no experience points or linear storylines. Characters learn abilities randomly through “Sparking” rather than through building up points to use menu screen. As a lifelong of fan of SaGa Frontier, it’s nice to finally see where all of its charming quirks come from.
In the larger picture, Akitoshi Kawazu promised in those millions of interviews to give more support to the SaGa series in the West, and the more the merrier, I say. Romancing SaGa 3‘s mobile remake has a similar project in the works, SaGa: Scarlet Grace never got a localization, and SaGa Frontier still remains elusive to the PS Vita or any mobile platforms.
However, none of this will happen if Romancing SaGa 2 doesn’t do well on the North American market. Thankfully, I can wholeheartedly recommend Romancing SaGa 2 as a great game and not just as a means of supporting a gaming franchise. Thanks to its unique concepts, it transcends the era in which it was created and feels more like a modern experience than most of its peers, including Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI.
While I wish it included the original Super Famicom version, it’s a nice substitute that delivers the original intent of the game. You can pick up Romancing SaGa 2 for the PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, or Nintendo Switch.