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‘Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song-‘ Review – Toss a Coin to Your Minstrel

100x100bb 4If you’ve been keeping up with Square Enix’s mobile releases, you probably have SaGa opinions by now. The series, which had always had a spotty localization record, went dormant in the West for a long time following the 2005 release of Romancing Saga: Minstrel Song on the PlayStation 2. I can only assume the Western release of Romancing SaGa 2 ($17.99) did better than expected, as we’ve received a veritable flood of SaGa releases since. All of those games have seen global releases regardless of their original localization status, meaning that we have just about the entire series available on mobile. And now fate has brought us here, back to Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song ($24.99).

This is a remaster of the PlayStation 2 game, which was itself a remake of the Super Famicom title Romancing SaGa. You never quite know how extensive the changes will be when a game from that era makes a reappearance, but in this case the changes are many and fairly significant. They range from new content (characters, story) to quality of life improvements, and the end result is a game that so greatly outclasses its previous incarnation that it renders it nearly irrelevant. I think it’s frankly as good as it can be without actually ripping the whole thing up and starting from scratch. If for some reason you are trying to decide between the PlayStation 2 version or this one, it’s an easy choice.

While I’m sure not many readers played the previous release (the franchise went dormant for a reason after all), I’ll quickly detail the additions and improvements. Most obviously, the graphics have been enhanced and upscaled. I have mixed feelings about the art direction of this game, but it’s never looked better than it does here. The UI and menus have been redone, which they would obviously need to be for mobile users. It looks good and is as functional as you are going to get when applying touch controls to a game originally designed for a controller. There are some nice quality of life improvements like a high-speed mode, extremely useful mini maps, and a highly welcome New Game + option that fits this game like a glove.

As for new content, there’s actually quite a bit to see. Like with SaGa Frontier‘s remaster, we’ve got a new playable character with their own episode. Aldora the Sorceress, who those familiar with the original will remember as Mirsa’s ally, is now selectable and has her own story about her travels with the Legendary Hero. There are also a handful of new recruitable characters, with Schiele being a highlight. There are some new classes to tinker with, which is always a nice thing to see in remakes and remasters of games with job systems. Additionally, there are a bunch of new super bosses. They’re… something. For those players who found the original game didn’t satisfy their desire for challenging encounters, eat up.

Curiously, part of the intention behind the original Minstrel Song was to go back to a more traditional and approachable format after the decidedly mixed response to Unlimited SaGa. Yes, this is the SaGa team (circa 2005) trying to make an easily digestible game. Does it work? Yes and no. At the end of the day, this is still a SaGa game. It has all the quirky systems you would expect from the series, has a tendency to be opaque and offer few clues about what to do, and focuses more on mechanics than story elements. It revels in its unorthodox nature, though it is rather orthodox in its unorthodoxy if you’re familiar with the series.

That last bit is perhaps the key to it. If you’re looking to get into the SaGa series, this is a decent enough starting point. It will teach you a lot about how the series works, and you may well find yourself able to appreciate the other games more having played through this one. I’m not sure it’s the best starting point anymore, but it’s a good one. But in the grand scheme of RPGs, this is still a game that requires a bit more work on the player’s part. While the original Romancing SaGa was the fourth part of the SaGa series, it was the third game in the series made by the same team. If you’ve played the Game Boy games, the original game followed on from Final Fantasy Legend II, bringing the ideas and philosophy of the series to the 16-bit world. With, you know, all that implies.

I won’t spend too much more time talking about the original 16-bit game though, because the PlayStation 2 game was already a significant remake and this remaster takes it even further. You’ll start this game by choosing from eight different characters at the start, and once you’ve gotten through the first bit for each, you’re more or less on your own to make your way in the world. It’s full of things to do and people to meet, though how much of that you find on any given playthrough is up to you. It wants you to replay it, and if you enjoy what it offers you almost certainly will do so.

That open approach is the calling card of this game, and it demonstrates how in a lot of ways this was a title far ahead of its time. But it can also be daunting to players used to a more guided approach. I recommend taking advantage of all of the tutorials and instructions the game offers, mostly through kids hanging around in the towns. It will leave you better equipped to enjoy what the game has to offer. If you’re feeling uncertain or anxious, I recommend starting with Albert. It will hold your hand as much as this game is willing to. Those who just want to dive into the open scenario goodness should pick Barbara, who is more or less tossed into the fray immediately.

I’m not going to talk too much about the story. Stories? It’s all engaging enough with some truly interesting twists and world-building, but it’s far from the main reason to play the game. No, it’s the mechanics that are the highlight here. The Glimmer (SPARKING) system returns, allowing you to learn new techniques pretty much any time just by using other ones. In true SaGa fashion, your stats will upgrade based on your actions. There are no traditional level-ups here. The class system also requires you to have certain skills leveled among other requirements. In general, tough battles in this game are best dealt with by rethinking your party build and tactics. Grinding is an option, but it’s a very bad idea due to a core part of the mechanics: event rank.

Basically, time passes in the world of Minstrel Song. At certain points enemies will get stronger, new quests will open up, and old quests will disappear. The thing that determines how the time passes is the number of battles you’ve fought, which feeds into something called your event rank. Grind too much and you’ll miss out on a lot and only end up making the enemies stronger. At the same time, you’ll want to move time (and fight battles) at a decent pace lest you reach the end before some quests have a chance to open. Your relationship with your event rank will largely determine what you can and can’t see in this world, and is one of the things that makes this game so replayable.

It’s worth taking your time going through, because completing sub-quests not only adds to the narrative texture of the game but also helps you power up in various ways. You’ll find new characters and other things that are frankly worth seeing. And that’s really who this game is for, I think. While the Final Fantasy games are roller coasters, taking you on a fairly straightforward route with pre-planned surprises and turns, the SaGa games tend to be more for the explorers. The people who like to experiment. The ones who like to poke around and see if they can put one over on the game. If that is you, you’ll find an absolute ton of value in this game.

If you have played any SaGa games in the past and had a good time with them, you’ll almost certainly like Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song. Its presentation is a little odd but the game itself is a fairly safe entry in the oddball brand. On the other side, if you haven’t been able to get into past games like SaGa Scarlet Grace ($29.99) or SaGa Frontier ($24.99), nothing in here is going to change your mind. If you’re somehow fully new to this whole business, this isn’t the worst place to dip your foot in. Those tired of the same old JRPG mechanics or those who generally have an open mind may want to give this one a go.

As for this mobile version in particular, it’s excellent. The aspect ratio means you’re getting bars on the side if you’re playing on iPhone, but the visuals look fantastic and the UI is both functional and attractive. You’ve got full controller support here, thankfully. One never knows with Square Enix releases. Even if you aren’t using a controller, you’ll find the touch controls are more than up to the task. Sure, it’s a little expensive relative to other mobile games, but it’s cheaper than the console versions and every bit as good.

Overall, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song is a fantastic re-do of a game that had lots of room for improvement, and this mobile port is top-shelf. SaGa fans will eat it up, and even if you’ve played the original you may want to check this out for its new content and additions. There are certainly some awkward carry-overs from its PlayStation 2 origins, like the lack of a player-controlled camera, and that may chafe some. It’s also a SaGa game through and through, and that’s either going to have you jumping with joy or running for the hills. I leave it up to you to make that final decision, but I know which side of the line I’m standing on.