Square's SaGa series has been around for 30 years and this latest installment captures the franchise's magic exceptionally well.
SaGa made its debut with the 1989 Game Boy game that we westerners know as The Final Fantasy Legend. That spawned a couple of sequels then there was a trilogy of Romancing SaGa games for Super Famicom and a couple of SaGa Frontier games for PS1. I personally played the original Game Boy trilogy as well as the SaGa Frontier games and dabbled a bit in Unlimited Saga for PS2. Anyway, if there's one thing that can be said about the series it's that it has remained impressively unconventional since its inception which makes it a rather divisive franchise as gamers looking for something unique have found a lot to love about it while those who merely want a cookie cutter RPG have been left underwhelmed. With SaGa: Scarlet Grace - Ambitions, the same sort of things can be said as it's an incredibly imaginative and rewarding game yet those who aren't willing to adapt to its distinct formula likely won't have very much fun with it.
SaGa: Scarlet Grace - Ambitions tells the tale of 4 heroes: Urpina, Leonard, Taria, and Balmaint. Although there's an overarching story where the world is in strife after the now-slain Firebringer caused monsters to emerge and the nations are divided, the narrative is told through these 4 heroes' perspectives and just like in past SaGa games, you can play through each hero's campaign and they're very different to each other. However, no matter which hero you play as, the gameplay loop involves traversing an interconnected world while fighting monsters and communicating with NPCs. The world map is fantastically implemented as you gradually open up new areas and cause events to unfold. In fact, I found carrying out side-quests and uncovering the map to be exceptionally rewarding.
Aside from running around the map, you'll fight tons of enemies and the battle system is quite unconventional. Basically, you assign 5 party members to take part in a battle and each one has life points. Once they get knocked out enough and expend all of their life points, they have to wait on the sidelines for a certain number of battles. Anyway, at the start of each turn, you're granted stars that you spend to command your party members. More powerful skills require more stars so optimizing each turn can be tricky. On top of all this, once a combatant perishes, they get removed from the battle gauge and if that causes members of either party to unite, a United Attack will commence which can be devastating for either your foes or yourself which adds a fun puzzle element to combat.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the world map and battle system and there are a couple of elements that elevated my experience. Namely, I love the soundtrack from veteran game composer Kenji Ito which brought me back to the PS2 era and the cast of characters is incredibly endearing. Watching characters' relationships unfold in dialogue scenes as their personalities shine is a treat while the English voice cast helps bring each character to life. Their designs are also distinct and colourful although the overall graphical quality manages to be both dated as well as inconsistent. I mean, everything looks okay but it's definitely neither cohesive nor impressive.
Finally, I'd like to discuss some odds and ends. First, increasing your party's capabilities is mostly automatic yet visiting blacksmiths to exchange found materials for upgrades makes for a simple and satisfying feat. That being said, it feels like SaGa: Scarlet Grace - Ambitions is missing a few elements as all you do is traverse the world map, battle enemies, and perform minimal party management tasks. Although all of this works well, I wish that there were more elements to manage and general things to see and do such as town and dungeon exploration. Last but not least, some of the battles can be absolutely brutal and can feel unfair. For example, one fight had enemies easily evading my attacks only to counterattack and I had no idea how to beat them. I did eventually but still...
If you're looking for an unconventional and rewarding RPG then SaGa: Scarlet Grace - Ambitions is a must-play. However, those who merely want to enjoy the same old tried and true formulas should definitely look elsewhere.
- + Fantastic game world that's supremely rewarding to uncover and master
- + Unconventional yet exciting battle system
- + Great music and cast of characters
- - Feels like it's missing a few elements
- - Visuals aren't quite up to par
- - Some battles can be a bit too frustrating