I think it was in one of the early Dragon Quest games where your character plays a slot machine and automatically wins. Whoever was in charge of that decision understood that games don’t have to be antagonistic towards the player. Akitoshi Kawazu never got the message, because every SaGa game is apparently designed to defeat the player. It’s a contest between him and you, and he’ll be damned if he lets you win.
Kawazu will fight kicking and screaming to prevent you from enjoying yourself. He’ll give your character crap equipment and put them against enemies a hundred times as powerful that you can’t possibly defeat. He won’t let you get into the same galaxy as someone who knows where you should go. He’ll hide the things you need to progress in some dark and obscure corner of the world. Kawazu laughs at your pathetic attempts to complete his game. Before you jump, you first have to ask “How high?” You will eat his table scraps and like it or you can find a different game.
So if you’ve been burned by Akitoshi Kawazu’s confusing horribleness before, you’ll be understandably skeptical when I say that SaGa Frontier (yes, you’re supposed to capitalize the G) is actually good. It was rushed out the door to meet a deadline (as indicated by its wealth of incomplete areas and removed content still residing on the disc) and apparently Kawazu didn’t have the time to include the usual terrible SaGa mainstays like breakable weapons, exasperating linearity, and a complete lack of direction. SaGa Frontier still has its moments of obtuseness, but they are nothing compared to the hair-pulling frustration from Kawazu’s other games. If you’re wondering why people in Japan actually like this series, SaGa Frontier is the one entry that you should play.
Upon starting up the game, you’ll see one of seven playable characters. They each play differently and have their own storylines, but they largely take place in the same set of worlds as other characters. You’ll probably do the Arcane/Tarot quest with each character, for instance. Five of the characters have a couple short missions before they get to explore the various Regions, but a lot of players picked Blue or Lute first, both of whom have quests that begin by dropping you in the middle of the world with no clues whatsoever about where you’re supposed to go (or worse, they picked Riki, who is the game’s attempt at a cute mascot as well as the weakest main character in the game). The game world isn’t as gigantic as it appears at first; many Regions contain nothing valuable (Why bother going to Kyo if it’s not part of your character’s plot?) or are useful for one thing and nothing more. On top of this, most of the game’s shops are useless except for buying a couple healing items in Koorong and abusing the trick in the junk shop in Scrap. Money isn’t that valuable in this game; most of the good equipment can be found and skills have to be earned.
Better starting character would be Red, Emelia, or Asellus. They all have a couple story areas at the beginning before the game expects you to start exploring, and all three will teach you the human skills you need. There are four playable races: Humans, Mystics, Mecs, and Monsters. This game is human supremacist, though, as humans get the best opportunities for skills and make up 4.5 of the main characters (Asellus is half-Mystic). There are no levels to gain, but your stats increase depending on your race. Humans build stats depending on what they use in combat (Swords increase strength, guns increase quickness, magic increases JP, everything increases HP). Mystics do the same but in smaller amounts; they need to use one of their three Mystic weapons to absorb enemies for stronger stat increases. Mecs need to get new equipment (and T260G can gain new bodies as part of his quest) but they benefit from equipment in areas that humans and Mystics don’t and can equip, say, eight pieces of armor if they feel like it. Monsters get the short end of the stick and are forced to attempt to absorb enemy monsters (in a different fashion than Mystics) to hopefully get stronger. Monsters also can only equip accessories; no weapons, armor, or items. Don’t use them except early on or if you’re playing as Riki.
Items in SaGa Frontier are strong and useful and should be used sparingly. Interestingly, a character can only use items they’re equipped with (taking up a slot that could be used for weapons or shields) unless they have the backpack item equipped, which grants access to all non-equipped items in your inventory. Notably, healing items also bring the dead back to life without the need for a revive item first; this is a small consolation considering how hard SaGa Frontier’s battles are.
Humans learn skills depending on which type of attacks they use. Use a sword (either basic attacks or sword skills you already know) and you’ll occasionally have a light bulb flash above the character’s head, indicating that they will be performing the new sword skill. Gun and magic skills are learned after battle (with magic only if you have the gift for that particular magic type) and dodge skills are learned spontaneously. Humans are the strongest and most versatile race in the game, and fortunately also the most abundant. Learn them well. Mystics learn magic normally and temporarily gain skills from absorbing monsters. However, since physical attacks are generally better (get Gen and Annie in your party ASAP) , and because Mystics are required to use three of their skill slots (which not only limits their choices but prevents them from getting the JP cost reduction that comes from equipping six magic skills), making them less reliable than plain old humans. Mecs are mostly brute force attackers with few skills. Monsters get lots of skills but are underpowered. Most of the time, you should stick with humans.
Enemy encounters scale in strength and type based on your party’s stats. The Bio Research Lab consistently has the strongest enemies to fight against, and every character can visit it fairly early on if you want the best opportunity to build up your characters. Beware; however, as you gain experience, the enemies increase in power exponentially, and many of them have skills that can instantly wipe out your party. Yes, even in regular random encounters (though the enemies appear on the field like Chrono Trigger or EarthBound and are not random). Use the quick-save feature a lot and expect to die a lot as you learn the ins and outs of the game.
You know what hit points are, right? (If you’re reading my website, you probably know what a hit points is.) Well, in this game, hit points are only your first line of defense. Against many enemies, they will be quickly depleted, which is where life points/LP come in. A character loses one LP upon death or if struck while dead. And if LP hits 0, that character is unusable until resting (which may be very hard to find if you’re in the middle of a dungeon). If a protagonist or other important storyline character reaches 0 LP, it’s an instant game over. You can’t revive infinitely and items that restore LP are very rare. There’s no permadeath as there was in some earlier SaGa games, which is a welcome respite from the unfairness of the rest of the series.
Another aspect of combat is combos. Some attacks have properties that can launch or receive enemies. This, when done properly, results in combination attacks that deal extra damage to a single target (note: GaleSlash combos with everything). There’s even a boss who can only be harmed by combos, and one hard-to-acquire skill that randomly does a combo itself when used.
The stories in SaGa Frontier are different for each character. They are very basic with some interesting ideas that weren’t followed up on. Most of the Regions have an interesting history to them that you won’t know unless you’ve played every character’s quest or you have the internet. Blue’s story about how he has to meet his other half and kill him in order to become complete and Red’s goofy Super Sentai parody were my favorites. It’s too bad these cool concepts weren’t capitalized on in a game that cared about its plot. Maybe I should be grateful we didn’t end up with another Final Fantasy snoozefest with endless talking heads.
SaGa Frontier’s characters look like squat play-doh figures assembled by Jeffrey Dahmer. They are ugly and stupid and insane. But SaGa Frontier bizarrely has some gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds that clash horribly against the… everything else. The Regions you can visit are striking and lively (which will ease the pain as you run around them wondering where to go next) but the people in them are so hideous. It’s a strange contrast. The only place where the crappy visuals are consistent is in battle, where the background is simple colors moving and blurring while enemies with as few as two frames of animation awkwardly jerk around in place. Though I must admit that some of the 3D effects from skills and spells are pleasant to the eyes.
The game is much better aurally than it is visually, however. The songs range from toe-tapping folksiness to catchy sleaziness to sweeping orchestral themes to plodding, pumping boss tunes and a very Japanese-sounding dungeon. It also has some of the tensest “danger” music I’ve ever heard. It’s a fantastic soundtrack that covers a multitude of genres with competence and flair.
There is a huge amount of dummied content present if you have the means to scour the game’s files. Missing Regions, characters, items, skills, and even an eighth protagonist were all planned and dropped. This is in addition to the game’s wealth of dead ends, areas with finished graphics but no content, and visual/dialogue indicators of new locations that never appear. This may have been one of the leading factors leading to its poor reception.
SaGa Frontier had the severe misfortune of being a Square game released shortly after the ubiquitous Final Fantasy VII. This combined with its high difficulty, user-unfriendly nature (though it was far more accessible than any other SaGa game), and mixed graphical quality led to the game becoming a hiss and a byword amongst gamers. It is (mostly) unfairly maligned as a confusing and unplayable mess, but the final product was a tough and enjoyable JRPG with moments of strange beauty. It’s not a masterpiece but it is underrated. Check it out sometime. And don’t bother with any of the sequels.
P.S.: A friend of mine wrote a FAQ for SaGa Frontier 13 years ago. You can try taking on the game without any guides, but if you get stuck early on (and you probably will) or you just want to look at where to find items and monsters, keep it in mind while you play.