So, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song was released recently. I had to wait in line behind fifty other gamers who were waiting to get their hands on this much-anticipated title.
Haha! Got you! Actually, I knew that after the horror that was Unlimited SaGa, that Minstrel Song would drop in price quickly, and lo, it was $19.95 before long. But why? The game was actually good! It got above average reviews, the music is pretty good, the graphics are great for the PS2, and while it's basically a huge remake of an old SNES game (the original Romancing SaGa), it still has enough charm and gameplay to keep a good amount of people interested.
Notice that I only said, "a good amount." The biggest problem with the SaGa games is also one of it's strongest points. And that problem is a combination of two things: randomness and difficulty. Honestly, when was the last time you played an EASY SaGa game? I know I haven't. On the whole, the SaGa games are designed to be a challenge to the casual RPGamer. However, this is largely a causal effect of the other problem, randomness. With so much of the stats of the game being determined by nothing more than a random number generator, many gamers are turned off by the fact that they have little to no control of how their character develops. Let me explain briefly how the games do this.
During battles, characters have the chance to learn new techniques when they attack. The chance improves when other abilities or statistics are raised. However, these stats or abilities are usually ALSO raised at random, usually at the end of a battle. There will be times where you will fight a tough enemy, learn 6 or 7 skills, and then perish, and then the next time, you may only learn 1 or 2. The ultimate effect of all this is that characters develop regardless of many of the things you do.
Unlimited SaGa even went so far as to make it difficult to perform already learned skills, via a slot system. A reel spun, and if you timed it right, you'd perform the proper skill, or merely attack. However, the reel was horribly difficult to use, and slots outside of battle were impossible to predict.
I love a challenge. That was why I gave Unlimited SaGa a chance. I honestly almost finished Judy's story before I was fed up with everything except the music (which is actually pretty good...more on that later). It's now a lost cause.
So, we know what problems the games have, but what about their good points?
Like I stated before, the games have a steep difficulty curve. However, there are many gamers, like myself, that want a challenge, no matter how insanely impossible it may be. With the recent onslaught of incredibly easy RPGs (even so far back as FFX), I'm always looking for game that can keep me on the edge of my seat during a boss battle, praying to survive.
So far, the music in the SaGa games has proven itself to be quite worthy of attention. Unlimited SaGa's "Battle Theme 1" is a great track (among others), and deserves a listen by any respecting RPGamer. Minstrel Song also has its share of great songs. I own the SaGa Frontier 2 soundtrack, so that should say something.
The graphics are usually pretty good. I was impressed with the watercolor style of SaGa Frontier 2, as well as the Sketch Motion that has been prevelant in the past two games.
Why? Why does S-E bring these games over here? They get hardly any attention stateside, but the Japanese seem to love them! I don't know the actual sales figures, but the fact that the price of these games dropped by 50% in a matter of weeks is a good indicator that it's not a very good seller.
I understand that practically every game garners a small amount of followers, regardless of the general consensus. However, from a business standpoint, the SaGa games aren't profitable in North America. If the games are dropping in price by such a large amount so quickly, then they need to do some serious thinking about the cost versus the benefits of the consumers. Sure, some people love the games, but most people couldn't care less. Monolithsoft is doing the same thing with the Xenosaga series: they had predicted 6 games in the series, but after the first two games' dismal performances in the market, they are cutting it down to 3.
Square-Enix needs one more chance. The next Romancing SaGa game needs to be carefully developed if they want to keep and expand their North American market with that series. Since Japan does not have a problem with the series, they should especially focus their attention on what NA gamers are saying about their previous efforts. A lot of problems can be solved with better advertising, since Minstrel Song fixed many of the problems that Unlimited SaGa faced, but no one cared because of Unlimited SaGa's reputation.
But they have to make a decision soon. Final Fantasy was Squaresoft's largest asset, and once they merged with Enix, they now have the Dragon Quest series under their belt. They aren't worried about losing money over the SaGa series in North America. However, hopefully, they can fix this problem, and maintain a series that has the potential to be incredible outside of Japan.