SaGa Frontier, which we just discussed will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this coming week, is a JRPG of obscene depth and an even more obtuse presentation. With how little information this game gives and how much it asks players to solve for themselves, it better have some serious motivations waiting at the end of all that suffering.
And indeed it does. SaGa Frontier is more than its mishmash of irreverent mechanics and convoluted quest lines. These pieces work hand-in-hand with brilliant settings, weird characters, and one of the best soundtracks in JRPG history, making this game a much larger than the sum of its seemingly impossible pieces that hold it together.
A cast of loosely connected misfits
SaGa Frontier's tale is actually seven separate stories all of which take place in the same planetary system. Before introducing them, we'll give a full-hearted nod to artist Tomomi Kobayashi, one of the great, unsung creative minds in JRPG history. Her art is the foundation of what gives SaGa Frontier and indeed the entire SaGa series the edge that more generic franchises lack.
Red – Red's tale takes is cues from Japanese takusatsu television shows like Kamen Rider. As a young man, Red and his father are attacked by a terrorist group called BlackX, and only Red's life is spared thanks to a superhero turning up and giving him superpowers at the last moment. Under the guise as an airship assistant, Red uses his time "in port" to uncover the secrets of BlackX and thwart their activities wherever they turn up as his alter ego, the mighty Alkaiser!
Of course, he wants to avenge his father as well. (Pro-tip: Red's story is the easiest to break your teeth on and get acquainted with the world of SaGa Frontier)
Blue – Cover-boy Blue is a prodigy magician from the Magic Kingdom. He was separated from his much more social twin brother Rogue at birth, and the two are raised by rival magical regions to become polar opposites. For every spell that Blue learns, Rogue learns its counterpart. If Blue learns Light magic, Rogue learns Dark magic, and so on.
At the peak of their powers, the brothers are destined to duel each other to the death, and only when one perishes will the other stand a chance at defeating the evil controlling their intertwined destiny.
Asellus – Asellus is a young woman from the city of Shrike who unfortunately dies in a freak carriage accident. Very strange for a modern city like Shrike. However, she is saved from death when the carriage's owner, the Mystic Lord Orlogue, replaces her human blood with Mystic blood, granting her immortality.
At the cost of her continued existence, Asellus finds herself trapped far underground in an eternity of servitude for Orlogue, and her human half starts to rebel. A daring escape sets her on the run all while the inner impulses of her two incompatible races combat one another. Meanwhile, the dreadful Mystic servants of Orlogue are always right behind her.
Emelia – Emelia is a fashion model who has it all: wealth, beauty, and a loving fiancé. All of this is taken away in a flash when the love of her life is killed by a shadowy figure. The mysterious being, believed to be the terrorist Joker, flees and leaves Emelia to take the blame.
In prison, Emelia meets up with a resistance group called Gradius who is dedicated to chasing down the very same man named Joker. What is the connection between Joker and Emelia's hubby?
Riki – Riki is a monster from the land of Margmel, and he is tasked with saving his dying world by collecting seven mystic rings. Naive and innocent of the evils that control the realm of humans, Riki finds himself outmatched by society and turns to a gunslinging knockout by the name of Mei-Ling to teach him about the worlds he must overturn.
From there, this is the most "normal" of JRPG tales, very linear and not overly fun since you're forced to use Monsters in your party. Save Riki for last if you don't want to spoil SaGa Frontier for yourself.
T260G – A mech created over a millennia before the game's events, T260G winds up in a junk pile 10,000 years after his spacecraft crashes into a world simply known as Junk. It befriends the local children, but missing data from its files leave T260G without a mission or a purpose for existence. When the local crime lord threatens the children, T260G's true origins, that of an all-powerful combat model built for mass destruction, reveal themselves.
T260G realizes that a cozy life with the children is no longer possible while the threat of her mission objective lurks somewhere in the galaxy. The mech sets off with drunken swordsman Gen to uncover its objectives and complete its prior mission once and for all. (Pro-tip: this is the best of the stories)
Lute – Lute is a carefree youth from Yorkland, a land of lazy people who party, play music, and get drunk off their local brews every day. His adoptive mother, sick of him being a slacker, kicks him out and tells him to find direction in his life. Lute forms a friendship with an airship Captain by the name of Hamilton, and the two set out on an open world adventure with no real goal for purpose… just to level up and be strong enough for a final boss fight.
Along with the seven main characters, one minor character by the name of Fuse was also originally intended to have an eighth story, but like many pieces of SaGa Frontier's original pitch, it was cut due to budgetary and time concerns. Fuse is an IRPO agent whose story was supposed to tie all of the loose ends from each of the seven other tales together.
Call me ill-informed, but I like how open SaGa Frontier is left as it allows for more imagination to fill in the gaps. I don't need an omnipotent narrator telling how to connect the dots. I can do that on my own, thanks.
The game also has other popular characters like Gen, Annie, Rogue, Liza, Roufus, Dr. Nusakan, and Fei-On, but I would rather you get to know these supporting cast members on your own.
Where many paths and errands meet
SaGa Frontier takes place in a distant planetary system with a crazy variety of inhabitable and unique regions. Science clashes with mysticism, technology clashes with nature, the living clash with the undead. It's a setting with very few parallels, and I would argue the thought behind it rivals Final Fantasy VII's and many of Square's more popular games.
Here is just a sample of the places you'll visit.
Koorong – Koorong is the central transportation hub of this planetary system, meaning you'll come here a lot to get to the less popular destinations.
It's also a planetwide slum with a lot of dark figures and goings-on in the back alleys. The resistance group Gradius, the terrorist group BlackX, rogue Mystics, and wayward robots all find their way to Koorong eventually.
Beneath the slum lies a mystical cavern of crystals and a terrible monster within. Approach at your own caution.
Shrike – Shrike is a lovely, modern-day residential town that's home to Red, Asellus, and the robotics whizzes at Nakajima Robotics. The outskirts of town hold more dangers though, including two ruins with otherworldly purposes and a Bio Research Laboratory with a fair share of skeletons in its closet… literally. Approach with caution, monsters are always two or three levels higher here than any other location in the game.
Yorkland – As mentioned above, this carefree land is home to Lute and is a popular region thanks to the alcohol that it produces. Those who drink too much sometimes wander off and stumble into the swamps outside of town. Some never return, but those fortunate enough to claim to see hallucinations of great wealth.
Devin – Unlike the strict and hardcore region of Magic Kingdom, Devin is a much more easygoing magical realm. Every day is a sunny picnic, and colorful tent vendors galore will happily sell you magical trinkets or tell your fortune.
Arcane and Tarot magic dominate the realm, but this is also where one can find entry into the realm of Space Magic, run by the lord Kylin.
Wakatu – Once a powerful region of swordsman and samurai, Wakatu is now a ghost town, overrun by spirits and haunted by the swordsman who died defending its medieval Japanese-esque castles. Gen is from this region, and he'll take you there only if he feels you are ready to handle yourself in the face its dangers.
Despair – An infamous women-only prison where Emelia is sentenced after being framed as her fiancé's murderer. The eccentric warden built the prison on top of ancient ruins and occasionally promises those who touch its central pillar will be given an immediate pardon.
He goes so far as to make a competition out of it, one your party should certainly take advantage of.
Owmi – A lakeside town with a real European getaway feel. The local lord collects fascinating monsters and keeps them locked away in his basement. What other treasures, or possibly captives, does he have down there?
Manhattan – Interpret this location's name any way you like. This floating city is home to both the planetary system's largest shopping mall and robotics factory. When you're not shopping for robot parts or expensive accessories, a shady corporation also has its headquarters here, and you'll undoubtedly have questions for its executives in one of the characters' quests. Maybe they'll let you in. Maybe you'll have to force your way in.
Luminous – A crystalline town that is home to both Light and Dark magic. Those seeking the power of Light magic must take to within the crystals for its challenge. Those looking to control Dark magic are granted entry into Omble, the Shadow Realm, from one of Luminous' residences.
Shingrow – One of the game's more fascinating locations, the central castle is the birthplace of the region's most popular martial arts tournaments. In the northeast and northwest corners are also two ruins, one which will grant you access to Shingrow's dark underbelly, and the other is of an otherworldly nature. The giant spacecraft crashed landed in Shingrow a millennia ago, and it still might hold some secrets about where it came from.
SaGa Frontier's free roaming structure allows players to visit these and many more areas whenever they please. Getting out and finding quests, completing magic trials, recruiting friendly faces, and seeing all that these areas have to offer is just as important as following any of the storylines.
Half of the fun also comes from finding areas that were clearly intended to be used for material that was left on the cutting floor. Plenty of maps, areas, NPCs, and other hints in this world clearly had been inserted with the intention of a larger purpose. However, with their adventures removed, they remain hollow and full of mystery. I used to love finding these pointless rooms and just wonder what they were supposed to be for or how I would use them to tell my own stories when I was a kid.
SaGa Frontier's open world design isn't overbearing either, limited in scope to that of a normal JRPG. Some describe it as a strange blend of classic JRPG design with a more modern sensibility, meaning I believe it would find a better home among today's indie scene than that of a late '90s PlayStation game.
Because it doesn't adhere to strict sci-fi or fantasy tropes and instead mishmashes countless cultures and genres together, there isn't anything like it in all of video gaming. This setting is a genuine one-of-a-kind.
Kenji Ito's brilliant soundtrack
Is there an irony in calling a soundtrack "unsung?" SaGa Frontier rarely comes up in the discussion for the best soundtrack in the genre, but it has way more consistency and memorable tunes than many of the other games that tend to dominate those discussions.
I won't post them all here, but these are a few of my favorites that I jam into my "writing music" playlists. Composer Kenji Ito is especially good at making relaxing "Town" themes.
And if you need some action chops, he has plenty to choose from there as well.
Hopefully, I've convinced you this weekend that SaGa Frontier is a solid game that's worth checking out. Like I said, you really need an open mind and a lot of patience to let it sink in, something I fear might not be possible in the blazingly fast world of video games these days. It took nearly two decades to break free of its reputation and become an all-time favorite of mine, but now that it is there, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Plenty of games can steal your heart for the standard $60 running time of 15 hours only to be never thought of again. It takes a really special game to still challenge your opinion and demand you look at it in new ways so late into its lifetime. SaGa Frontier is in a unique class of games that defies enough odds and conventions to be brilliant in its own light.
What I wouldn't give to play this game on a Vita.