Another year, another SaGa remaster. I’ve grown to look forward to these every time Square Enix reaches into its back catalog and pulls out an entry from its most bizarre RPG franchise. I’ve reviewed several of these here, and a constant acknowledgment is my admittance that these are not for everyone. If you’re looking for a normal RPG, you won’t find it here. SaGa games are obscure, unyielding, and in many ways not beginner friendly. Players unable to roll with punches will find themselves miserable.
And yet, this has become one of my favorite RPG series out there. I absolutely can’t get enough of these games. Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered, a remaster of a PlayStation 2 remake of a SNES game we’ve never gotten, might just be one of my favorite SaGa games yet.
Minstrel Song Remastered, like many other SaGa games, isn’t necessarily a story-driven RPG. Depending on your selected protagonist, there can certainly be a larger emphasis on the story than others, but I wouldn’t go in expecting that. Romancing SaGa at its best feels like a day out on the town with a list of errands you need to run right before a dinner party you’re hosting later that night. It can be stressful, budgeting your time is a challenge, distractions can cost you, and you need to have a good grasp of your environment. But when you make it home with plenty of time to spare? It’s a deeply satisfying experience.
But really, what is Minstrel Song Remastered about? That’s kind of asking the wrong question, even if it is a valid one. I have played one of the protagonist stories, admittedly one with some of the least amount of story, but I’ve taken a gander at a friend’s playthrough. When selecting your protagonist you have quite a few options you can choose from, the two most important being your protagonist and progression speed.
Your protagonist will change your goals, and in drastic instances exclusive main mechanics you’ll need to interact with in your playthrough. The visual language will tell you that the first character, named Albert, is the intended beginner experience. I did not pick that on my first go, because a character named Gray just looked so cool, which is probably the furthest thing from a beginner-friendly go and only recommended to players wanting the rawest SaGa experience possible. Gray’s story drops you on an island, tells you nothing, and expects you to find the catalyst for his main motivation in a cave (of which there are several on the island). He has to train and level up a sword. That’s it, that’s all you have to go off of. Go out, and explore the world now. It rules, and I feel spoiled having started with it.
Having watched that previously mentioned friend’s playthrough, I noticed an obscene increase in cutscene volume and railroading. There is certainly a story, with characters, and more concrete motivations. I even saw several pre-rendered cutscenes! In my Gray playthrough, in comparison, I saw my first pre-rendered cutscene about 15 hours in. It’s just that kind of game. It’s something I’m glad exists to ease fans into the experience, but I feel like it would have very little value for someone as gone as me.
The latter is an interesting one, with the option being a new inclusion to this remaster. Every time you finish a battle, you will gain points toward a previously hidden system called Event Rank (ER). In the original western release of Minstrel Song (which cut the subtitle entirely, horrifyingly enough!) the numbers on this were tweaked to be less breakneck. The number of battles allowed until reaching the next ER was increased, and I think that works for a better experience. You see, every event in the game has what I call an Appear and Expire value tied to your ER. Events will unlock in the world for you to find when your ER reaches a certain value, but fight too many battles and you can find yourself being locked out of finishing questlines in the middle of them. Thankfully this remaster has added a UI on the menu that will show players their ER, which is a big improvement for your time management.
This remaster in general lives up to the SaGa team’s excellent efforts in preserving their games. It feels faster to play, annoyances that add nothing to the good parts of the SaGa obscurity have been reduced (running away from battles only costs 1 LP now instead of 1 LP from each party member!), and new party members have been added in that were previously just side characters. Minstrel Song already had plenty of improvements over the SNES original Romancing SaGa, and this further cleans up the edges. My favorite additions are the simple ones: Speed-up and autosave. This game can be cruel, and wandering into a room and immediately getting attacked and wiped after 30 minutes of careless exploration stings no matter who you are. Everything just feels faster to execute, and makes the player feel more in control.
I have no complaints about the game as played on Nintendo Switch. Zero notes. If you want portable SaGa this is one of the best ones you’ll get. When the maps get expansive, I did notice what appears to be some slowdown. Since this is a turn-based RPG, it’s not a huge deal and thankfully it’s rare but worth noting.
The SaGa experience, as best felt by Gray’s playthrough I feel, is that of being a wanderer in a grand and indifferent world. Stumbling from one town’s tavern to the next, learning about the lore of the world, or just random goings on in that town. Events and quests don’t make themselves clear as Main or Side stories, so you feel like you’re doing things because you want to and not because you have to. Meeting new characters and party members, uncovering their stories, and moving on to the next town to find what else you can do just… works so well. The flow of progression, when you understand what the game is going for, is really like no other. It’s an open-world experience that knows its limitations as a budget game, and tries to be the most it could be.
The combat features SaGa’s typical brand of random progression that some will hate but I adore. Battles feel exciting and fresh, knowing that at any moment you could barely win by the skin of your teeth or whip out a fancy new ability that will turn the tides of battle. I don’t really come to SaGa for combat, and you’re almost incentivized to not spend too much time grinding through battles, but it is quite fun as you try to surmount the insurmountable. It’s a hard thing to talk about why it works so well, it just does.
As much as I love the obscurity of progression, sometimes it does feel like it goes a bit too far. I feel the game barely explains its proficiency system, which is a series of overworld skills that allow you to do things like jump over gaps, mine ore, climb walls, etc. There’s a massive pool of them, and you’ll need to make trips to different towns since each town has a different set of classes to level up. Not to mention, it is quite tedious to traverse the entire map when trying to remember where to find X weapon or Y. Gray’s playthrough in particular, where you’re trying to find rare minerals to infuse into your sword, feels almost impossible without a guide. It encourages you to explore, which I like, but if you don’t have patience you’ll find yourself getting quite frustrated.
To revisit events, I think that’s where a lot of the game’s charm lies. This is the kind of game that I would just get lost in for hours, solving equations in my head to maximize efficiency in how to fit in as much as I possibly could and zone out for hours. There’s a gracefulness weaved into this game’s dialogue that just intrigues you, encouraging you to keep at it and explore more. One more area, one more quest. Maybe this time I’ll do some battles for fun?
I adore the kind of game where progression is a mystery, and I can spend hours talking to friends about things I’d have never discovered on my own. New mechanics, secret quests, special moves, and more. There are quests in this game that introduce themselves early on, but aren’t finishable until after several playthroughs. This game, living up to its legacy as a SaGa game, simply begs you to replay it again and again. It will happily provide you more and more reasons to come back, tantalizing you with new paths to take or choices to make. This is SaGa at some of its best in the ways that really matter to me.
I think SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions is, by all normal means, still the series’ peak in terms of “quality.” I think it’s the better game, and might even be a better recommendation for your first SaGa game. Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered sings to me in a way that game just can’t compare. Maybe it’s the PS2 design sensibilities, perhaps it’s the chibi models, or maybe it’s the music. I can’t quantify it, but I think depending on the person this is one of those games that will stick with you for life. This seemingly tiny package has so much meat and is one I just want to keep revisiting for years to come. It doesn’t hold your hand but instead beckons you to plunge into its depths and uncover its secrets. You’ll drown in systems that often feel like they’d never work together, but it all just does. There’s beauty in the chaos, if you embrace it.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Square Enix