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.)