'SaGa Frontier Remastered' Has Lots of 'Cult,' Not Enough 'Classic'

So unstructured it still feels unfinished

Key Takeaways

  • No one can accuse SaGa Frontier of being "just another Japanese RPG."
  • There's still not much that's quite like it, even 23 years later.
  • You say "freeform," I say "unfocused and meandering."
SaGa Frontier Remastered title screen

Square Enix

I'm glad SaGa Frontier exists, and that it's gotten this kind of star treatment with its remaster, but it's just not my kind of game.

It's an experimental Japanese RPG that originally debuted in 1998, back on the first PlayStation. Despite being glitchy and distinctly unfinished in its original edition, Frontier became a hit in Japan and a cult classic everywhere else. It's traditionally been divisive; you either love it or hate it.

For its 2021 remaster, Square Enix has fixed much of what was broken about the original game, aside from a few fan-favorite bugs, and added a new playable character who was edited out of the original release. That's the most interesting thing about SaGa Frontier Remastered, to my mind; a scant 23 years later, Square Enix went back and fixed one of its most notoriously broken games. It sets an exciting precedent for future remakes.

Money for Nothing, Scenarios for Free

SaGa Frontier is technically the seventh game in its series, although it's the first to be released in North America under the SaGa name. The first three SaGa games were among the first RPGs for the Game Boy, and were published outside Japan as the three-game Final Fantasy Legend series.

Frontier takes place across seven chapters, each of which has its own protagonist and sub-genre. You can pick which one to complete first, and for every scenario you clear, you get bonuses going into the next one. It's fun how the game ends up feeling like crossover fiction; at first glance, it's hard to believe many of these characters inhabit the same universe.

"If you've ever complained that modern video games do too much hand-holding, then play SaGa Frontier."

The initially available protagonists include a vengeful Japanese-style superhero, an ex-model searching for her husband's murderer, an ancient robot with amnesia, a young wizard with a blood feud against his twin brother, and a bard with a knack for wandering into danger. The remaster adds an eighth character, a cop on the edge, who was cut for space from the original 1998 release.

It's a unique approach, which Square calls the Free Scenario System, and theoretically gives the game a substantial amount of replayability. Each story can change in subtle to obvious ways, depending on what other chapters you've played first. It must've been a nightmare to design, which also explains why it shipped broken back in 1998.

SaGa Frontier Remastered battle screen

Square Enix

Square Enix has fixed a lot of those issues with the remaster, but some of the problems I have with Frontier are purely stylistic. It's made a lot of strange decisions throughout its run time, primarily due to its hands-off approach to storytelling. Speaking of which:

Out On the Weird End of Things

In 2021, Frontier comes off sort of like it's the anti-Bravely Default II. Where that game is actively trying to be the platonic JRPG, with as many of the tropes and trademark mechanics as possible, Frontier abandons most of them from the start.

It still features turn-based combat, but that's where the resemblance stops. You don't level up in Frontier in the traditional sense. Instead, your human characters have a chance to randomly improve one or more of their vital stats based upon what they've done in a given fight. Cast spells and your mana improves; use weapon skills and you get more weapon points.

SaGa Frontier Remastered turn-based combat

Square Enix

Other characters can absorb or farm enemies for new abilities or stat gains, while robots in your squad can equip extra gear for the same result. It's a little complicated, and you'll want to have a FAQ handy as you play through it.

That relaxed approach to character building also carries over to the story. While it's usually easy enough to figure out where you're supposed to go next in Frontier, it gives you a lot of leeway to wander around, get into fights, shop, and generally keep yourself entertained. Even its dungeons are open-ended, often leaving you to figure things out on your own.

If you've ever complained that modern video games do too much hand-holding, then play SaGa Frontier, the JRPG that doesn't care what you do. I spent a lot of my time with the game just trying to figure out what I was meant to accomplish, let alone how. It feels like it’s still in beta.

The game's got its defenders, and a strong fan community, but most of them will tell you this is a niche product. Fortunately, SaGa Frontier Remastered is inexpensive at $25 (respect to Square Enix for not charging full 2021 retail price for this), and is well worth a look if you're in the mood for something weird. 

Don't be surprised if you end up not liking it, as I don't, but there's a lot here I can respect.

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