June 25, 2006 - The SaGa series is like the red-headed step child in a family of over-achieving blondes: different, awkward, and often overlooked. That's not surprising when its sibling franchises include Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Kingdom Hearts. Yet game producer Akitoshi Kawazu refuses to disown SaGa, continually thinking up new ways to convince people to like the series, or at least pay attention to it. This latest attempt takes the form of a total make-over with Romancing Saga, a re-release of the 1992 SNES title of the same name.

The story takes place in a vast world called Mardias. A thousand years ago three evil gods wreaked havoc on the world, until they were defeated and their leader imprisoned. Now that same evil is threatening to return, and it will be up to you to stop it. Like other SaGa games, Romancing SaGa chucks conventional linear gameplay by getting rid of the lone hero and instead offering eight different characters to choose from, each with their own stories that start in different places and offer different outcomes. As you progress through the game you're given the option of performing various tasks while traveling the world freely with up to five companions, any of which can be replaced along the way (including any of the seven other heroes you might run into along the way.)

The game has a lot of variables, and depending on where you go and what you do your actions will affect the overall arch of the story. This unconventional and old-school style of role-playing is certainly appealing in many ways: you're a free soul, taking things on as they come, choosing who you want to travel with, and discovering your hero's fate at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately this lack of direction also requires the utmost patience since in order to advance the storyline (such as it is) you must explore a lot of places and interact with a myriad of characters (not all of which are interesting.) If you can't accept these terms then Romancing Saga is not for you. But if you can stomach the idea of running around a massive landscape with only a compass and a vague idea of where to go and why, this game is for you.

To be fair the SaGa franchise has never been about intricate storylines or character development anyway. It's all about gameplay, particularly its multifaceted battle system and heavy emphasis on exploration. Those that are familiar with the series will be comfortable with this formula, but those who have never played it will be utterly bewildered by the amount of choices they're given at any given time. These choices appear mostly in battle because that's where most of the action takes place. Battle is triggered in dungeons and in open fields where you'll run into various monsters. These monsters are visible at a distance and can sometimes be avoided, though not without difficulty. You can try sneaking up on them and triggering a first strike command, but the enemy will try to do the same thing and will probably be more successful at it, since the camera angle cannot be manually adjusted and any approaching monsters will go unseen until they're right on top of you. In any case, regardless of who tags who first, the moment you come into contact with an enemy the fun ends and the battle begins.

Combat starts off in traditional turn-based style, meaning you choose attack commands for each member of your team and then wait for the enemy to strike back. There are a lot of choices to make during combat: what weapon to use (you can carry multiple weapons at once and switch between them at any time), what spell to cast, what ability to unleash, and even what order to attack in. These choices are important, since almost every action has a set amount of Battle Points attached to it. If these run out certain abilities and spells are closed to you for the duration of battle. Essentially it's the game's way of curbing your enthusiasm. You can't just take out bad guys with hard-hitting spells and attacks; you have to think about the consequences of your actions. Also important to keep in mind are Life Points, which are consumed after a party member has fallen. Unlike regular Hit Points, which regenerate after you win a battle, if a character's LP drops to zero they cannot be revived and will literally disappear from your party (or in the case of the main character, the game will simply end.) This can be extremely annoying, because the only way to revive LP is to race to the nearest inn, which is usually quite a ways away. The Quicksave Mode is meant to neutralize this problem by allowing you to save anytime you think you'll run into trouble, but unlike a regular save you can't store your data multiple times and you can't recover any points lost.