Thursday, August 27, 2009

Romancing SaGa

Romancing SaGa is one of those games that I picked up years ago, forgot about, and only recently started playing. So, here are my first impressions, after about two hours. I started playing with Claudia, a girl who was raised in the Mazewood. An enchanted forest so entangling that all visitors get lost and find themselves back at the entrance no matter which way they turn. Claudia was raised by an old woman, considered to be a witch, who might be the one who maintains the spell on the forest. Her story opens with a man, Gian, being attacked by monsters at the entrance. Claudia saves him, and he thanks her by inviting her to the palace for which he's a guard. The old witch tells her she might as well go, because a young adult should go see the world or some such.

But before we go any further, there's a disclaimer attached! I've always been something of a fan of the SaGa series, so I may be a bit biased. Let me go ahead and give you guys an overview of the series.

Oh, and Romancing SaGa is a remake of a SNES RPG that never left Japan. So I'm treating it as a completely new game, because, well, it's new to me.

The SaGa games are considered by most JRPG fans to be challenging, bizarre(in terms of gameplay), and greatly underrated. Or bafflingly overrated, depending on who you ask. I, personally, more or less grew up on the SaGa games. Final Fantasy Legend (actually the first SaGa, rebranded in the USA) was one of my first RPGs. I grew to love its quirks and unique setting and story. The series is known for having equipment with set durability, turn-based battles, branching, interweaving storylines, non-standard leveling, and really cool combo attacks. In all but a few games, the player actually controls a cast of about seven or so main characters, each with their own goals and stories. The characters often meet each other, and it's always nifty playing through one character's story only to see other characters join and then leave your party from a completely different perspective. Which was done years before Suikoden III's "innovative" Trinity Sight system, by the way. And as for leveling, rather than gaining experience and levels, characters simply gain points in stats as they use them. A guy who takes damage might gain more max HP. A character swinging a sword will see an increase in strength, while a bow-user is going to get boosted agility.

From what I understand, the series is by the same man responsible for the weirdness of Final Fantasy II (skill-based attacks, individually levelling stats, and a rotating cast of guests). Square recognized his genius, but didn't want him to mess too much with their flagship RPGs, and so gave him his own series to play around with.

Being much more well-played, I see the series as the Japanese take on Western-style RPGs. To most JRPG fans, the series is disturbingly nonlinear, and the distinct lack of a single main character is jarring, and not at all carried out in the same manner as the beloved Final Fantasy VI. Western RPG fans, however, would find much to love. The nonlinear gameplay focuses on exploring and finding fun things to do. The games, however, have JRPG turn-based battles as well as distinctively Japanese graphics and music.

Now that I've given something of an overview of the series, the best I can really say is that Romancing SaGa is a classic SaGa game. It follows the same overall format, with the branching, interweaving stories and all. Combat seems to have been taken straight outta SaGa Frontier. The game system is a nifty skill-based class system. Once characters have certain levels in certain skills (by training them using "jewels") they can change to different classes with unique abilities. Rangers sometimes use no BP (battle points), for example.

The graphics are absolutely gorgeous, although a bit weird. The characters are all SD (super deformed, or chibi) except without the corresponding cutesy features. The effect is like walking to a room of four-feet tall adults with heads twice their normal size. The soundtrack, from Kenji Ito, is beautiful. So much so that I've been listening to it on my iPod for a while.

Long story short, if you like SaGa games, you'll like this. I know I'll be playing it for a while. And if you're just curious about the series, this may arguably be the best place to start, with relatively accessible gameplay and a lot of eye and ear candy (unlike the truly bizarre Unlimited SaGa.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Elven Legacy - First Impressions

Wow, this new version of Battle for Wesnoth sure is impressive! Wait, hang on a moment, this is Elven Legacy!

For those of you unfamiliar with the open source classic, Battle for Wesnoth is a fantasy turn-based strategy game on a hexagonal grid. EL is also a fantasy turn-based strategy game on a hexagonal grid. In fact, the core gameplay of the two is darn near identical. Recruit units that can move about and attack enemies. Capture towns and villages to get gold. Only one (land) unit can occupy a hex. Units can level up to gain new abilities and stats. Gameplay proceeds one battle at a time, and there is next to no game outside of battle. Click your next battle on the map, and you're off!

There are some slight differences between the games. In Wesnoth, units cost an initial amount of gold to recruit, as well as gold per turn. The number of units on the map are limited only by whether you can afford to pay them. In EL, units cost only an initial sum or gold, and there is a hard limit as to how many units can be on a map, although they can be swapped with reserves (I believe, I haven't actually yet had the opportunity to do so.) The method of obtaining gold is slightly different. In Wesnoth, villages give a certain amount of gold per turn. In EL, you get a lump sum of gold when you capture a village and nothing more.

Healing also differs between the two games. In Wesnoth, you can heal by resting, standing next to a healing unit, or standing in a village, as well as unit-specific stuff like trolls regenerating and the like. It should be noted that in EL, every unit is a collection of individual soldiers. So, you can wounded soldiers by resting, and you can restock your dead comrades with recruits if you're close enough to a village. Restocking does cost gold, however, and the unit's experience drops on account of the green soldiers coming in.

Obviously, then, Wesnoth puts much more emphasis on capturing and maintaining villages. Villages in Wesnoth are not just valuable defensive points, they are the backbone of your army. In EL, however, villages serve no purpose other than their defensive value, and one may discard them after their capture so long as there isn't an extreme risk of enemy troops getting behind your front lines.

Wesnoth has another unique feature that makes it more of a "prepare and then strike" game. Time. Time passes in Wesnoth, and certain units are weak at night and strong at day, and vice versa. The emphasis in Wesnoth is waiting and defending and bolstering your army whilst you're weak, and attacking when you're strong again. Without this time feature, EL seems faster-paced and more combat oriented.

EL of course offers some strategic possibilities not available in Wesnoth, most notably a second plane of battle. EL features air units that can fly around and occupy the same hex as land units, which means they can fly past one's front lines and attack your rear. EL archers are also able to attack from a distance, and if they are positioned next to an allied unit that is being attacked, they will let loose to give their allies some covering fire (a feature which, to my knowledge, debuted in Squaresoft's classic SaGa Frontier II.)

EL is of course prettier, and voice acted fairly competently, although in the tutorial at least the on-screen dialogue doesn't always match the spoken dialogue. The soundtrack has an entirely different flavor from Wesnoth. Wesnoth's music is mainly battle marches, whereas the music in EL is more ethereal, and, most appropriately, sounds more elven.

EL is certainly a solid strategy title. It isn't, however, anywhere near as complicated as the reviews I've found online make it out to be. It manages to surpass Wesnoth in complexity, as well as, say, Nintendo's Fire Emblem series, but it is nowhere near as complicated as, oh, any of Nippon Ichi's fantastic strategy RPGs (Disgaea, Phantom Brave, La Pucelle...) or even the more mainstream Final Fantasy Tactics. On the other hand, it isn't an RPG and doesn't try to be.

If you'd like a solid strategy game that doesn't try to be anything else, and you also want pretty graphics, this is the game for you. As for myself, I'm a bit miffed paying so much money for a game that barely surpasses free offerings, and one that's way simpler than advertised as well. I shan't stop playing it because of that, though.

Oh, and I think that aside from Tetris, this is the only Russia-developed game I've ever played.

I've only played a couple of missions, and haven't yet dived into multiplayer. Perhaps my impressions of the game will change as I explore more of it!