Review – Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song
Experiencing the death and rebirth cycle of classic video games is an incredibly trippy headspace to be in. I adore the idea that developers and publishers want to make sure that the tales told decades before can still be enjoyed by modern audiences, but there’s always a caveat built in. You’ve got the “straight port” approach, and that can be a dangerous minefield. Sure, it captures exactly what the original game was, but that means flaws, both graphical and mechanical, can exist throughout: even the Super Mario 3D All-Stars was hamstrung by some glitches that could make Super Mario 64 a mess.
You’ve got the “QOL update” version, where a game is essentially the game thing but a little bit here and there is peppered in to make sure that it’s better for every new player. Look no further than the remakes of Chrono Trigger than to see what it’s like for a great 16-bit title to get a new dungeon, some menu updates but mostly still be the same title. Excellent work, Square.
In this case, which is Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song, it’s a complete redux while still trying to keep the original intact. A Nintendo Switch port of a Playstation 2 update of a Super Famicom release, you’ve really got to peel back the layers and see exactly where we started, where we went, and where we are now. One of the originals of the SaGa titles, Romancing SaGa holds many of the trademarks of the series that polarize fans across the JRPG landscape. You’ve got a general plotline that may or may not be important to you, the player.
In this case, there’s eight stones that are keeping an ancient evil sealed away, and some jerks are trying to gather them to set the evil free and make the whole place a mess. You, distinctly not a jerk, are doing your own thing (fleeing your usurped home, fighting vicious monsters that threaten your village, etc.) and just happen to end up saving these stones to keep evil locked up tight. Nice!
The plot, as you can see, is purposely vague, and that’s because Romancing SaGa is a multi-angled game in which you choose one of eight protagonists to lead the charge. Choosing one sets you on a path that will, ultimately, bring you to the same conclusionary ending, though how you get there is wildly different from each character. For some, the way is pretty clean.
Albert, for example, takes steps with assistance at almost every turn, having NPCs join your team and finding plenty of money and respite. Sif, on the other hand, feels like her story immediately throws you into the deep end of an open-ended game where combative mobs are stupidly powerful compared to you, and you just start dying repeatedly and tragically. There’s apparently a bonus ending if you finish the game with all eight characters, but that’s legitimately an investment of many, many hours that I simply could not bring myself to justify.
In some ways, the scope of Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song is truly impressive. Much like Live A Live, being able to approach a world setting with any number of leads gives players a much broader playfield, with plenty of options and ideas to work with. However, unlike Live A Live, all of Romancing SaGa takes place in the same world at the same time, so you’ll have leads overlap into others’ stories and help them along as well. Additionally, there’s more of a “find out as you go” appeal that’s significantly lacking in Final Fantasy and other SNES games at the time. You end up finding so many sidequests within Romancing SaGa by simply looking around and talking to people, and it’s really up to you to listen and decide how to move forward in order to get the plot on track. It’s got an almost pen-and-paper feel to it, especially when it comes to elements of combat and exploration.
Traditionally, I despise breakable weapons, but Romancing SaGa manages to handle it well and even make it worthwhile to invest in upkeep. You have clear, numerical ideas of how your weapon is handling, and can even pay a blacksmith to increase durability at the expense of damage, and vice versa. Weapons can use up more of their constitution using stronger and different attacks, and, if a weapon becomes completely broken, you don’t just lose it.
It’s a broken weapon, and, yes, it costs a little more to repair it than just to re-temper the durability, but neither is a flagrant expense. In a game where your HP and skill points magically reset after each battle, this was the balance needed to not make the entire ordeal feel too easy and grindy. Plus, if you happen upon a weapon that you especially love, you don’t need to break into panic sweats trying to remember if you can do this last overhead smash attack or if you should change weapons before losing your best buddy.
Also, I adored the way skills were added to the weapons. With Romancing SaGa, you’ll suddenly have a flash of inspiration (called a Glimmer) and realize “Hey, what if I hit them THIS way?” and boom, new skills unlocked. It’s both exciting and incredibly satisfying for your character to come up with a move on the fly, and it matches with how the leveling system works in general. Instead of having a cohesive idea of “this many more EXP and I’ll be level 20 and maybe get more HP,” you just randomly get stats added after so many fights.
People probably have worked out, to the second, how many enemies you need to slay in order to get certain boosts, but I didn’t and I didn’t care. It was exciting to wonder if Hawk the pirate was going to get more defense this battle or if I was just doomed to die. Being able to see the enemies on the overworld, engage in combat and having no idea what the outcome would give me was always a minor thrill.
Combat, however, is very rarely enough to hang your hat on in a JRPG, and Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song tries to bring in storytelling elements in order to maintain interest beyond just hacking and slashing. In fact, the titular Minstrel even exists in each storyline to give direction for the protagonists, trying to guide you towards the ultimate goal (something that was missing in the original Super Famicom version). But it doesn’t really work, per say. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy II, you’d know that having a bunch of characters work in the general direction of a quest doesn’t really pan out, especially in that era.
Romancing SaGa leans into it even more, letting players “feel out” what they’re supposed to be doing next. This idea works well in open world games (Breath of the Wild couldn’t have done this better), but this is neither open nor even a complete world. You have limitations on where you can go, but you don’t always know where to go within, leaving you to spin in circles at time, fighting enemies because what else can you do until you stumble upon the solution?
The directionless way of the story also leads to some confusion as to what to do in order to progress in certain ways. For example, the majority of monsters will drop Jewels, which are used for class upgrades. When you find a trainer who can up your class, they’ll also give you the option to train up a totally different class, which means incorporating additional skills and feats into your current characters.
Yet there’s limitations to simply swapping certain skills in and out, and you actually need to choose some feats before even beginning the game, which can lock your character into a singular direction. It didn’t take long before I found a cave where you needed to jump over a chasm to get to a treasure chest, and wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t know how to jump.
There are moments of Romacing SaGa that feels like playing Dungeons and Dragons with a particularly spiteful DM who doesn’t mention that you should learn to speak Elvish until your whole party is surrounded in an Elven village. Sure, maybe we could have just taken a stab and learned the language, but I clearly wanted to be a Gnomish tinker, Gregory, so maybe don’t be a dick because we all wanted to play at my house and not your dank basement?
This aimlessness is only further hampered by the middling upgrade the game has received. While Minstrel’s Song might have been cutting edge for the PS2, certain choices seem weird and backwards on today’s systems. The forced 3D map with no camera control leaves you confused on which way you might be going, which is even more stressful in a game that gives little directionality for the plot. All characters are voiced, but pushing the A button skips the text too quickly, ending the current dialogue and jumping onto the next before you can finish reading.
Autorunning seems fun, but you have no control and it also feels pointless when you really have nowhere to go. Speeding along combat helps when the enemies are straightforward, but any resistances are covered up by a blur of text that can leave you beating your head in frustration to understand why blows aren’t landing. In short, most of the upgraded “features” seem to highlight what the PS2 could do, and all of these things are inferior to what your average 3D Switch game can display, even a game from a much smaller studio.
The worst part, for me, is that the game feels wildly ugly. Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song is using 3D textured sprites like the PS2 version, but with higher assets to help keep things looking a bit better. I only know they look better because I checked the PS2 version and saw that it was objectively worse, which is saying something. You get a glimpse into how the original game looked during the cutscenes, which are, no joke, just bordered versions of the PS2 versions. When I see the original Super Famicom pixel sprites and then compare them to these almost cartoonishy proportioned versions, I feel saddened. Sure, it would have been a lot more effort to do a 2.5D remake, but maybe it’s worthwhile to totally rework something instead of finding a middle ground of “update but not upgrade.”
This, naturally, is in stark contrast to the score, on which Kenji Ito did amazing work. The music of Romancing SaGa evokes so much of the anachronistic livelihood of the JRPG palette that I felt full just hearing all the different tracks. Beautifully orchestral moments with intermixes of guitar and electronica gave a broad scope to what was happening in the world, even as I did my best to try and ignore the grating voice choices for a majority of the characters. The dichotomy of it all almost gave me Carpal Tunnel from quickly unplugging my headphones when the swelling music got stabbed by the grating voice of some NPC trying to welcome me to their town. Thankfully, this soundtrack is streaming in most places, so go grab a listen for some great “I am a video game character” walking around music.
It’s a bizarre moment to look at a game that I should, fundamentally, love from top to bottom, and just walk away feeling a bit disappointed and bored. Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song has so much about it that is engaging and exciting, and then so much that is schlocky, aimless and visually unappealing. I wanted to push forward because I knew there would be multiple moments of “aha” where I would get sucked into the game, and then I’d be pushed right back out when I came down from that momentary high. If you’re someone who really loves the concept of Open World without wanting to wander too much, then this is right in the pocket in terms of choice and corralling. If, however, you’re on either side of the spectrum – wanting full freedom or full directionality – then I’m afraid this song just isn’t for you, as it wasn’t for me.
While a step up from the PS2 version, the oblong characters and weird coloring make me yearn for the pixel protagonists that were present in the original Super Famicom version.
Really cool leveling and skills mechanics with some solid approaches that are hampered by lack of camera control, there was just too much tangling the feet of this game to get me fully engaged with what was happening.
Music was gorgeous and evocative, with voice work that dragged me into a high school presentation of Hamlet. Highly recommend to mute the speaking entirely and just rock the music.
I could see what was being done and what was being attempted, but it was all so clumsy and lost that I kept wanting to just put down the game inbetween flashes of brilliance. If I want to stop playing a JRPG, that’s a sign that something went wrong.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song is available now on PS4, PS5, Switch and mobile.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Romancing SaGa: Minstrel’s Song was provided by the publisher.