Review: SaGa Frontier Remastered (PS4)


The best thing about SaGa Frontier Remastered isn’t the new content or features, but how it stays true to the scrappiness of the original.

The original SaGa Frontier is a fascinating game. Nigh-unrestrained ambition and an constrained development cycle clashed to create something wholly unique, even within the inventive SaGa series. The obvious holes left behind from content cut at the last minute coupled with open, deliberately undirected storytelling that took inspiration from everything from classic JRPG fantasy to cyberpunk to tokusatsu hero shows created something that was messy and uneven, but all the better for it: a fever dream of different ideas, all pulled together in ways that work well precisely because, on paper, they shouldn’t.

Related: Collection of SaGa brings three classic Game Boy RPGs to Switch that have aged surprisingly well, in all their 8-bit, black-and-green glory.

The risk in remastering such a game is that you lose all of that. How can you modernise a game like SaGa Frontier without unwittingly polishing away a soul that derives in large part from how unpolished it was to begin with? And yet, SaGa Frontier Remastered, somehow, manages to walk that tightrope effortlessly. Even as it picks up old pieces from the cutting room floor, adds some little modern conveniences, and gives the game a spit-shine, this remaster resists the urge to “fix” the messiness of the original—a messiness that stems from the original’s turbulent development, but nonetheless gave it its unique character.

At the heart of SaGa Frontier, in both its original and remastered forms, is the Free Scenario system. Seven (or eight, in the remaster) different protagonists come with seven (or eight) different stories, but they all overlap and intersect in ways that don’t become fully apparent until you play through all scenarios. And while the major points of each story are more or less set from the start, you’re given free rein between those beats to explore a dense world full of curious characters and little side-stories, your choices about what to do and who to recruit creating a dynamic, non-linear adventure.

Without the scope and development time to match those ambitions, SaGa Frontier’s storytelling ends up being disjointed and uneven. Plot points jump abruptly from one to another, and things you’d expect to be major emotional moments are traversed in the space of a couple of lines of dialogue. The pieces of the different scenarios don’t always neatly line up, and there are places where last-minute cuts leave a blatant gap.

A wide array of disparate influences add to a sense of disconnect. By design, each scenario draws on a different narrative tradition: one is a high-action superhero adventure, one is a gritty cyberpunk revenge story, one is classic JRPG save-the-world romp, one is a girl’s magical quest in search of identity, and so on. Because of the way the stories overlap, you get odd situations like an Interpol-esque detective getting caught up in a feud between duelling mages and sci-fi gangsters dropping into a martial arts tournament in a kingdom inspired by Asian fantasy.

SaGa Frontier is far from the first game to blend influences in this way—Star Ocean, in particular, comes to mind, but also just the broad sphere of science-fantasy in general—but it’s unique in how jarring its juxtapositions are. As you move between locations and stories, visual styles and motifs change abruptly with little to smooth those transitions, to the point where it feels like you’ve suddenly started playing a different game.

All of this might sound like criticism. It’s not. These things that might sound like flaws on paper are exactly what makes SaGa Frontier so fascinating to explore. Intentional or not, the disjointed nature of the storytelling and mish-mash of different influences gives the whole game a surreal quality that’s utterly engrossing. It’s messy, rough, you might even say it feels “unfinished”—even in the remaster, despite restoring a lot of the stuff that had to get cut from the original—but it’s a remarkable adventure because of that messiness, not in spite of it.

A masterpiece tapestry is beautiful to look at and impressive when you consider the craft that’s gone into meticulously pulling all those threads together, but an old, fraying patchwork quilt is far more fun to explore—to pull at those loose threads and see where they go, to feel the change in textures as you run your hands across the panels, to think about all the different fabrics, where they come from, the stories they have to tell. SaGa Frontier is that old quilt; its idiosyncrasies are there to be explored. That’s not to say it doesn’t build up to a satisfying, cohesive whole once you’ve found all the pieces, because it certainly does, but the journey to get to that point is the far more interesting part.

This is true of its unique approach to the JRPG formula, too. Since its inception, the SaGa series has been driven by curious exploration of game systems, with unusual levelling systems and relatively freeform party composition that leave a lot of room to experiment. SaGa Frontier takes that to another level, combining the series’ usual semi-random character growth with new quirks. A vast array of potentially recruitable characters—but whose availability depends on all sorts of other factors—make the options for building a party both functionally limitless and immensely satisfying as you delve into the systematic details. 

It’s a game full of opaque little things that seem annoying at first—like almost no items being sellable, except for the select few that a handful of vendors are specifically looking for—that just add interesting layers to the flow of the game once you start to make sense of them. It’s a game where grinding can be both your saving grace and your downfall, due to how battle count (rather than party level itself) affects enemy levels, but where exploring the limits of that system and the potential impacts it has on everything else can be its own adventure. It’s a game where, even within the same scenario, different playthroughs can be wildly different just because you picked up a character that you didn’t last time, or did a few side-quests in a different order.

SaGa Frontier isn’t “non-linear” in the videogame marketing buzzword sense, but genuinely freeform in a way that few games are, even today. It’s a big toybox full of things that interact with one another in curious ways, and a space to explore those interactions.

A consequence of this, certainly in the original game, is that it can be hard to find your way. Some scenarios are more guided than others, but in general, SaGa Frontier is a game that’s not interested in trying to tell you where to go or what to do—an approach that can be both liberating and frustrating. This is broadly true of SaGa Frontier Remastered, but there are a few welcome additions that can help limit some of the fumbling in the dark that comes with this sort of setup. The big one is a story summary that updates as you progress, doubling as a sort of pseudo quest log with clues about what to do next—a handy point of reference if you find yourself getting lost or get too distracted with exploration and forget what’s going on.

SaGa Frontier Remastered is full of these sorts of tweaks that help address some of the more frustrating elements of the original. There’s an auto-equip function now, better stat display for equipment, exit markers on the maps, high-speed functions, the option to flee battles, and a New Game + function, among other little balance changes and the like. The important part is that there’s nothing that undermines the nature of the game in the way a lot of “fixes” potentially could—just as in its storytelling, the little quirks in SaGa Frontier’s game design are a huge part of what gives it its identity, and what makes it so enjoyable. (And yes, the junk shop glitch and gold ingot trick remain very much intact, for those who enjoy a good infinite money exploit.)

In an odd way, even the remastered visuals feel in keeping with the original game’s rebel spirit. The character sprites look like they’ve been completely redrawn—keeping the same style, but in crisp, clean HD. On the other hand, pre-rendered backgrounds and most enemies look like they’re upscaled from original assets, with the artifacts and blurriness that comes with that. It’s not as severe as what we saw in the remastered version of Final Fantasy IX, but in contrast to the characters, it’s noticeable. In any other game, this would be disorienting, but in SaGa Frontier, it just adds to the scrappy atmosphere.

But the most significant change in SaGa Frontier Remastered is the extra content, taken directly from things that were planned for the original version but had to get cut late in the piece. Asellus, once the worst victim of the chopping block, now gets her (rather moving) story told in full. So too does Fuse, the missing eight protagonist who acts as a thread tying all the others together, finally has his own scenario like he was always meant to. Unlocked after the first time you complete one of the others, Fuse’s story shows the events of other scenarios from his unique perspective, with more chapters unlocking as you complete other routes—all building up to the grand true ending that comes from completing all eight of them. These are wonderful additions, not just in terms of having more stuff to explore and play around with, but in terms of finally letting SaGa Frontier feel whole.

It would have been easy to take this remaster too far, to polish it too much in search of broader appeal. But its messiness, its scrappy nature, and the surreal atmosphere that stems from that are precisely what make SaGa Frontier as memorable and beloved as it is among its cult of fans. Restored content, revamped visuals, and new conveniences are great to have, but SaGa Frontier Remastered‘s greatest achievement is how it keeps the maverick soul of the original alive for a new generation to enjoy.

Score: 4.5 stars

SaGa Frontier Remastered is developed and published by Square Enix. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PC, Android, and iOS.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.


About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.