If Final Fantasy is like visiting a five star restaurant (bear with me here), replete with expertly and luxuriously prepared courses, the SaGa series, specifically Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song is like a trip to a fast food restaurant. But, on the way to that restaurant your car breaks down. A call for a tow is answered by a friendly lizard man named Guella Ha. At their shop, you manage to prize two sodas from the vending machine for the price of one, but you wander back through the wrong door and tumble into the Netherworld, where Death itself resides. After some tense conversation, Death grants your passage home in exchange for a mote of your life essence. Finally, you instead find yourself at the fast food restaurant, enjoying a delicious cheeseburger.
Still with me? Ok, sorry…
All this is to say that Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song Remastered is an RPG that strives not to wow you with cutting edge graphics and woo you with an emotional, character-driven drama. Here it’s all about the journey, and the story you’ll have to tell. It’s about the setbacks and the mistakes, but it’s also about the discoveries and epiphanies. The game’s trailer proudly declares: “the gods created man, and Man creates his own SaGa.” It’s quite apt.
Undoubtedly, these games are a niche within Square Enix’s library for this reason, and they have a following that I feel derives a lot of pleasure from playing tabletop RPGs or roguelikes. (Read: sickos) They stand apart from others in the company’s library as they’re not heavily authored tales, save for the pieces of lore and characterization you may or may not happen upon. After selecting a character and completing an introductory scenario, you’re let loose to walk the earth — to find distant lands and hidden stories with little to no direction.
Many esoteric mechanics are front-loaded in the game that may not stick even after a thorough study session, but by practice and happenstance. Quests come and go on strict timers, and whether or not you initiate or complete them… much less finding them is all part of exploring this world through trial and error. This world doesn’t revolve around you after all, even if you are a force for change within it. That’s why they remain a fascinating adventure to me.
There’s inherent joy in playing through these games as one of several protagonists, finding areas and quests you had no idea existed in previous playthroughs, rather than trying to mine every sliver of content in a single playthrough. Given time and effort, and a desire for wanderlust, you begin to see the diamond in the rough.
Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song Remastered is an update of the 2005 PlayStation 2 title, which is a remake of the Super Famicom title Romancing SaGa. A remaster of a remake, in short. Fun aside: many of the original design documents of Final Fantasy II point to mechanics that were instead further developed for Romancing SaGa, which is little surprise as they share the same director: Akitoshi Kawazu, though Kawazu has handed off the reins to the Remastered team. Directors of Final Fantasy XVI Hiroshi Takai and Xenoblade Chronicles Tetsuya Takahashi can also trace their lineage back to the original game.
The PS2 remake brings the game into the realm of 3D, with a new art direction helmed by Yusuke Naora, notable for his work on Final Fantasy X in the same era. Many of that game’s color palettes and styles find their way here. The soundtrack by Kenji Ito was also reworked from the ground up, and features many styles and techniques. New tracks have also been added too. Pre-rendered cutscenes by Visual Works (now Image Studio) appear in a boxed format to preserve their aspect ratio, which is the treatment that’s appropriate outside remaking them.
New content has been added to the game, which you can opt to play with or without after starting a new game. As far as I can tell, the new stuff, including new characters you can recruit, is pretty difficult to find — or at least buried in areas I never uncovered. Which… yeah… SaGa. As I mentioned before, events kick off and conclude at different timings, or what the game calls an “Event Rank.” If your rank falls out of the window, that quest will be unavailable or incompletable. Despite this, exploring the world further will open up other quests and opportunities where it never feels like you lose any forward momentum. Discovery is really at the heart of this game, whether it’s pleasant ones or frustrating ones.
Combat is a traditional turn-based affair, but what makes SaGa games unique is also present in Minstrel Song. The skills you use in battle are categorized by the weapon or school of spells you’re using. Want to learn more abilities in that category? Keep using them. New abilities are learned semi-randomly by using basic ones, but the same general principle applies. Various classes are more adept at using different categories of abilities, so you’ll want to enhance the ones you think are neat, and new ones have been added here as well.
If a character falls in battle, they’ll lose Life Points (LP). Should their LP be depleted entirely, they will die and permanently leave the party. Should all party members lose all of their LP it’s game over. There’s a lot more I won’t go into that adds further layers, such as stances and positioning and benedictions, etc., but they are mechanics that are worth discovering and playing with on your own. It’s pretty solid, though I still hold SaGa Scarlet Grace Ambitions combat in the highest regard.
Many of the updates in Minstrel Song Remastered are smart and well-considered, updates that don’t detract from that sense of wanderlust and discovery, but remove some of the unnecessary friction that comes with trial and error. This includes a smart saving system with slots for a quick save, auto save, and a manual save independently, so you can backtrack if you need to regroup after an error if desired. There are many moments when something can take a wrong turn, like… accidentally dismissing a party member you can’t get back, so it’s good to have options.
A universal clock speed boost is also welcome for traveling through large fields or speeding up the turn-based combat, which makes repeating sequences a bit more tolerable. The only setback is that controlling characters in this mode gets a bit unwieldy, especially if you’re trying to avoid encounters. A minimap prevents excessive menu checking, which is very much appreciated. New Game Plus has also been added to the game where you can replay and carry over a laundry list of attributes from your previous file, allowing you to pick exactly what you want to bring. One of the biggest changes is a massive 1000-slot storage locker, which greatly increases the items you can hold on to.
In recent years the SaGa series has had many remasters and ports, and Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song Remastered continues their streak for thoughtful, mindfully crafted updates. It sets a bar that I wish all of Square Enix’s remaster efforts could hit, by preserving the gameplay experience and a coat of paint that enhances the package rather than obscuring it. There are two more titles left in the series on deck for updates: SaGa Frontier 2 and the infamous Unlimited SaGa, and pending their announcement, I’m looking forward to how the remaster team will continue to rejuvenate this series.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 5
Disclaimer: Review code provided by the publisher Square Enix.