As games become bigger in terms of their scope, we get to experience the majestic beauty of classic JRPGs less often. Of course, progress demands sacrifice; without it, we wouldn’t see games like Final Fantasy XV, Octopath Traveler and Persona 5. But every so often, my nostalgic side takes over and asks for something simpler: something that would transport me back to the 90s. And that’s exactly what Romancing SaGa 3 does best.
Romancing SaGa 3 looks much like a game out of 1995 – and that’s because the game was indeed originally released that year. However, everything including visuals, sound and dialogue has been remastered. It’s a colourful game, with bright character sprites immediately noticeable on the static, but often equally as attractive backgrounds. But further to it, I was also surprised by smaller details, such as the warmth of light emanating from windows, as well as how good the water looks.
Characters even leave footprints in the snow which promptly melt and disappear into a white blanket covering the ground. These visuals might seem rudimentary in comparison to modern games, yet they manage to transport you into a beautiful fantasy world.
This becomes all the more important when telling the game’s story. Upon starting the game, you’ll have a choice between eight characters: from simple settlers and merchants to the noble Marquis and his sister. Choosing one character over another alters the game’s prologue. It also provides a different perspective from which to view the story, making the game ripe for repeat playthroughs. As for the plot, well… it’s quite the doozy!
Every 300 years, an event known as the Rise of Morastrum occurs. And any living being born during that year encounters an untimely demise. However, 600 years ago, a child survived and became the Archfiend, an embodiment of evil. Another 300 years later another child survives, becoming the Matriarch, an embodiment of good.
Fast forward three more centuries to the present day and the Rise of Morastrum is about to occur once again. Residents all across the world dread the approach of this inevitable event, wondering whether it will bring forth a saviour or yet another destroyer. But if you ask me, it looks like the final boss is about to be born.
Following this brief introduction, Romancing SaGa 3 proceeds based on your chosen character. I chose Mikhail, the Marquis of Loanne, because he’s rich and powerful, and I get to hear “Yes, sir!” a lot. Most characters cross paths on their journey, but each one has a different story to tell. With Mikhail, I had the opportunity to experience betrayal, a huge clash between two armies and an intense boss battle. All during the first hour.
And after all was said and done, I was finally free to explore. But wait, where do I go? I probably looked about as confused as Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction when trying to find the intercom. Without too many options at hand I recruited Julian, another playable character, and set out to explore the surrounding town of Loanne. After exhausting the local offerings, I went to the main gate and travelled west, to the nearby city of Myules.
It was hardly any more fruitful than Loanne. Whilst there, I managed to recruit a Minstrel at the local pub and stumbled upon a port soon after. This time, my party took a voyage north, to the much bigger city of Zweig. This city hosted a tournament which proved too difficult for my underdeveloped crew of three. But a pivotal moment came when my party travelled further north and reached the snowy village of Kyrdlund. Its mayor humbly requested that I rid the nearby cave from a hideous monster. He took advantage of my generosity, and after leading me to the cave remained outside and blocked the exit.
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to save my progress. In Romancing SaGa 3, you can save pretty much anywhere by accessing the inventory menu. And generally it’s a good idea to take advantage of this – but not when you might potentially be stuck in a dungeon which houses lord knows what!
Desperation and fear took over in mere moments. Hunger and thirst crept into the minds of man, and the Minstrel prepared to chow down on his own leg five minutes later. After thoroughly exploring the cave system, I came to the conclusion that there’s no other way out. None, aside from a path leading to a boss battle: a huge pack of rats. Just as quickly, I realized that my party isn’t prepared to take them on. And with the only way out blocked, my only option was to grind stats by battling enemies within the cave.
Thankfully, unlike in many other JRPGs of the time period, there’re no random encounters in Romancing SaGa3. Instead every enemy is visible on the map and, with some nimble moves (and a desire to do so), you can easily get past them. Making contact with any of them immediately transports your party to a remote battle arena – into a classic turn-based affair – with heroes and monsters distributed across multiple rows.
A party consists of up to six characters. And generally, characters in the back row can’t be hit before the ones at the front are first dealt with. This idea is also supplemented by offensive and defensive formations, some of which bestow beneficial properties upon your whole party.
All characters are equippable with up to four different weapons: swords, spears, clubs and variations of each. But in addition to the expected stat boosts, weapons often provide new skills. For instance, a greatsword could provide the character with an offensive skill, while a magic staff potentially bestows a highly useful ability to heal. Most characters are inherently skilled with one type of weapon, but their prowess increases with usage.
Before selecting an action, you can switch between these weapons at will. And it’s often important to consider whether or not a skill will be useful against a particular enemy, as these actions, much like magic with MP, consume SP. Upon attacking, characters have a chance of learning a new ability for that weapon. There’s also a somewhat obscure LP gauge which depletes every time a character falls. Once it reaches zero, the fallen character remains dead, unless certain conditions are met thereafter.
Characters do gain stats and increase health, but equipment plays a much bigger role than that. And because of that grinding for stats didn’t help my plan of getting out of the cave!
But was beating the seemingly unbeatable boss really my only way out? After attempting to defeat the boss for the umptieth time, I decided to flee. And what do you know, there’s an alternate solution to my plight. This action triggered a new event and going back to the entrance, a girl was waiting outside to save me from my predicament. I have no idea why she was there, but thanks to her the Minstrel didn’t resort to cannibalism.
Where to next? That’s up to you. In fact, you might not stumble upon the same cave as I did. Or, at least, not right away. There’s the treacherous Arctic Lake north of the village of Justerm and Mount Taftan south-east of the royal city of Loanne. Most of the game’s map is open right from the beginning and the order in which to explore it is largely up to you.
Most enemies, aside from bosses, scale with your party, making you less likely to encounter a battle beyond your capabilities.
I noticed one downside to exploration fairly soon – the scarcity of treasure. Whether in a town or in a dungeon, you’ll rarely encounter any loot. It makes sense when exploring the household of a local resident. But going through numerous rooms of a dungeon, fending off countless beasts and not encountering any rewards feels, well… unrewarding.
There’s often no clear transition between various locations, either, with the same background music playing on a constant loop. As a result, even though they look different, many towns feel alike. They contain the same shops, generally an Inn and an item shop, and NPC’s aimlessly walk from one corner to another.
But in addition to the main cast, you’ll come across other characters: a total of over 20 heroes. Some, like Minstrel, will join your party after simply talking to them. Others might join temporarily or require the completion of a certain task before joining permanently, like Ward. Finding and recruiting these characters to your cause is an experience in and of itself. Not quite at the scale of “108 Stars of Destiny”, but still very enjoyable.
Romancing SaGa 3 on Xbox One is an outlier on the modern gaming landscape, in the most positive sense of this description. I enjoyed not having a game tell me how to interpret its world and characters, or telling me where I should go. Everything comes from experience, whether by stumbling upon a new character while exploring a small town, or by getting stuck in a cave, forcing the player to find an alternate way out with no tips whatsoever.
For some, this may present an insurmountable obstacle. But if you’re not intimidated by the prospect of learning everything on your own, then you’ll have a mighty good time.
(DISCLAIMER: no Minstrels were hurt during the production of this review)