May 15, 2014

Minor Distraction: SaGa 2: Hiho Densetsu (Final Fantasy Legend II)

warning: may contain spoilers

I think this may be my most anticipated discussion to date, as many of you are old fans of this game and the rest of you have never played it! So I will do my best to provide some insight on this awesome Game Boy classic that will hopefully do the game justice.

Let me begin by quickly clarifying that SaGa 2 was retitled 'Final Fantasy Legend II' in North America. I will, however, refer to it only as SaGa 2, largely because I like the name better, and because I'm not proud of the rename. It seems the game was retitled to leech off the recently popular (in NA) Final Fantasy games, and guarantee SaGa's success in other markets, but I've always felt that SaGa was plenty fantastic on its own.

I first got my paws on this game in the early 90's when it was released in North America. I guess my mum recognized the name "Final Fantasy" as one I loved, and bought it for me - so I guess the sales tactic worked. Imagine my surprise when I popped the cart into my Game Boy and discovered that this is no Final Fantasy at all! That doesn't stop SaGa 2 from being an excellent fantasy RPG, though, especially considering it's one of the earliest RPGs made popular on a handheld in this hemisphere. While it does share a handful of qualities in common with Final Fantasy, it is - as I said - its own title, and one that I've replayed countless times. I love this game.
Regarding graphics… well… SaGa 2 is on the good ol' Game Boy. That means there wasn't much more than a few shades of gray pixels to work with. That said, every character has their own shape; you can easily recognize homes, caves and palaces; and the game offers a few different terrains to keep things fresh in each new world. This is a comforting element in a game whose level design is rather primitive, and could easily get bored and repetitive. There is at least one part in the game that forces you to notice these little touches, so keep your eyes peeled…

I think the most outstanding thing SaGa 2 has to offer is its soundtrack, which is not only nearly perfect - every tune catchy, diverse, beautiful and memorable - but it may be the best OST that the Game Boy has to offer.
Additionally, the game takes a fun approach to the tunes. Of course every new area has a different theme, but if you visit the cafe or pub in town and spend some time with the phonograph there, you can actually temporarily change the song you hear while exploring the town!
I've also noticed that the soundtrack changes to meet the game at breakneck speed. This may seem like useless information, but if you're a current gen gamer like me, you'll occasionally notice that the soundtrack takes some time to catch up on Xbox or Playstation, so who'd have thought that the little (…little?) ol' Game Brick would have the best loading speeds? The game also has unique sound effects to match the awesome that is the musical accompaniment. The soundtrack of SaGa 2 alone is a 10/10.

When you fire up a new game, you're expected to choose a hero, who may be a male or female of a number of different species (more on that later). Our story begins as our hero sleeps, and dad suddenly springs in and wakes us up! He hands us a piece of MAGI, and says he has to leave for a while, so he's charging you with the safe keeping of this mysterious rock. Then, for some reason, he goes out the window.
Fast forward many years and our hero is all grown up. It turns out dad never came back (the old "pack of cigarettes" move huh, dad?), and now we want to set out on a mighty adventure to find him and bring him home! As in all RPGs, everyone is totally cool with this, so mom tells us to stop by school and let Teach know we're bouncing. Thank God someone in this crazy town has some sense of concern, and Mr. S insists we take a bunch of our friends along!
After raiding a few people's homes, you set out on a journey that turns out to be far more massive than anyone anticipated, and grow into a team of valiant warriors while taking down tough enemies, tricky organizations and ruthless bosses who want to rule the world, all while uncovering the mystery of MAGI, and maybe finding dad… if we have time. It's hard to figure out in English, but if you pay close attention (or play the original in Japanese) you'll notice the game is heavily influenced by Asian history. There is a whole world inspired by the Edo period in Japan, and many items named after Japanese or Chinese figures. Sadly, a lot of this is lost in translation.

The aforementioned team of valiant warriors is made up of your chosen hero as well as three additional characters - school friends - that you also choose.

Fun fact: you have to choose 4-letter names. I chose mine ouija board style.
Each character type has a different set of stats, meaning that choosing the team is one of the most important aspects of the game. Based solely on my many years of playing the game, here's the spread:
Humans have high strength and gain HP quickly.
Mutants will naturally learn magic, and have high mana stats. Note that there is no "black" or "white" magic. Just magic. As far as I'm concerned, at least one is mandatory. Their magic will save your ass so many times, but you have to watch them as their defense is terrible.
Robots are as tough as they get. Super high defense and they specialize in guns - which is either really effective or really not. They're kind of useless in the early game (guns can be expensive and cure magic does not work on robots!), but pretty much mandatory by the end. 
Monsters (Imp/Slime/Baby-D) are the strangest possible additions. Basically you build these guys by feeding them the meat of your enemies… yeah, seriously. They then take on the traits of those enemies and morph into different creatures altogether. It's a kind of frankenstein project, which can be pretty fun for the more experienced gamer, but I don't recommend them for your first foray, and recommend no more than one for any given expedition. For the record, eating meat does nothing for any of the other species, which is too bad, they missed the opportunity to add a cool element with that, like maybe a temporary stat boost or ailment?
Occasionally, you'll get a temporary party member like Mr. S, Ki or the peculiar Mask, who looks awfully familiar… nah! Couldn't be. These folks almost always have insane stats compared to the team, so use them to your advantage. I like to grind with these momentary playable characters since they take out the toughest enemies without much effort, and after their attacks run out (we're getting there, we're getting there...), you're in pretty good shape to move on in the story.

Basically, the universe is made up of multiple worlds, all joined by the Pillar in the Sky. Many of these worlds have a particular ruler who harbors an evil agenda involving MAGI, and that means we need to take them out. We also require MAGI, partially because dad says so and partially because we require it to pass into new worlds. MAGI is also able to be equipped, offering a boost in whatever status the MAGI reflects: Mana, Power, Speed, Defense, various magic (Fire, Ice, Poison etc.) et al. Some MAGI possess a really special ability, and are indispensable once you know how to use them.
Once you've entered a world, you'll usually find that the towns are close together. Some worlds host only one town and some worlds host nothing at all! So long as you remember that the next world is always to the right in the Pillar, it's not easy to get lost. You can save your game at any time in any place, by simply accessing the command from your menu. Speaking of the menu, press start:
Abil > Allows you to view your character's current stats, as well as all the items equipped, which you can organize as you see fit.
Item > Allows you to view your very small inventory, organize your items, and "trash" unwanted things your ex left in your underwear drawer. It's incredibly important that you manage your items since you can carry so few. If your inventory is full when you try to purchase or open a chest, the game will insist you sell/drop first.
Equip > Allows you to assign items to characters. You can equip weapons, shields (which act like weapons), spells or potions in addition to armor.
MAGI > Views all the MAGI acquired, and allows you to equip a single MAGI type to each character. If you have 7 Power MAGI, you will equip all 7 to your character, but you cannot equip 3 Power and 2 Defense, for example.
Memo > Keeps track of all the little things learned from exploring and talking to NPCs.
Save > I'll give you two guesses…

Navigation and exploration is very simple. If one were to write a walkthrough for this game, one could do it in point form. While exploring and battling, you'll find that the text moves painfully slowly. You can speed this up significantly by holding A, or stop it in place by holding B. Battles will take years if you don't take advantage of the former.

One of the biggest challenges in SaGa 2 is that you have to fight for a very long time in any given area to get used to the enemies and figure out their weaknesses and HP levels. The mobs are often big and too much to handle, but you won't know unless you participate in this experimentation. Successful battle requires a great deal of strategy.
Battles are initiated randomly or by touching a known enemy. They are turn based; input one command for each character while fighting mobs of each enemy. You must attack; there is no "skip turn" or defend, unless you have a shield equipped, and if you have nothing to use, your turn is forfeited. You cannot access your bag, so cure potions, for example, must be equipped to someone to be used during battle. Each character can equip eight items including weapons, armor and spells. These items don't work in typical RPG fashion - how it works is, each inventory item comes with a number of uses (with the exception of Excalibur, because Excalibur is the shit). You equip an item to a character, and you can use that item until your inventory runs out, then you must purchase a new set. This is the law for weapons, spell books, shields and potions. Guns operate similarly, except if you sleep at an inn while the gun is equipped, it will actually reload! So there is no need to repurchase guns. This method applies to natural spells, too.
Armor is a little difficult to understand, but if you're an experienced RPGer, it's old news. Essentially, every piece of armor comes with a preset defense boost, and you can equip as many as you desire, so long as the character has the space. You can, of course, only equip one piece of each kind of armor (one helmet, one pair gloves, and so on). Once again, character inventory is limited so you must choose wisely! Helping/hindering this is the fact that some characters will naturally learn magic spells - many of which can't be used right away, or at all unless you equip a certain kind of MAGI - and these cannot be unequipped or overridden. As far as I can tell, spells develop at random. Sometimes you'll get a very useful spell and then lose it after your next battle. Sometimes mages will learn multiples of the same spell… it's all very frustrating.
After that it's pretty straight forward, you choose your attack and the target and hope you live long enough to execute; you defeat enemies one by one, mob by mob. There are only a handful on attacks that hit the whole field. Sometimes attacks will take out more then one baddy; sometimes attacks will miss or do nothing at all. Enemies will often attack your party in order, meaning Mr./Mrs. hero has a great big target on their forehead, and will likely take the most damage. When you win your battle, you're rewarded with GP (money), sometimes the meat of your enemies, and if you're lucky, a stat boost. There are no experience points in SaGa 2, and you do not level up. And that brings us to easily the most difficult part of SaGa 2: grinding.

Grinding is a bit of a nightmare in this game. The method of "leveling up" is incredibly unique and very difficult to understand. In a nutshell: the item/spell you use in battle is what determines which stat you will boost, and then a certain number of uses are required to actually "level up" the stat. Naturally, there is quite a bit of experimentation required here, but there is some predictability. Most swords and axes boost STR, shields boost DEF, anything that sounds fast - psi, laser etc. - will boost AGL, and of course magic boosts MANA. You have to keep an eye on your stats throughout the game and purchase and equip accordingly. Also important is choosing the right area to grind; you need to make sure you actually get your attacks in and everyone gets a turn, but also need to be able to heal and purchase new items nearby. I expect the more expensive/harder to find the item, the more benefit it adds to your eventual boost, but I can't be sure, I always just purchase what's available. HP seems to operate on a sort of fixed algorithm, it will go up with experience no matter what, however, mutants and robots gain significantly less than humans and is all over the place for monsters.

The controls for SaGa 2 are… Game Boy controls. How hard can it be? A is input, B is cancel,
start brings up your menu and select does nothing. You navigate with your D-Pad. 'Volume up' increases the room's level of awesome while 'volume down' kills puppies. That's all there is to it!

The game offers no tutorials, so your understanding is based exclusively on your own research and exploration... or this article. Back in the day, we didn't really have the internet to consult, so we had to figure things out the old fashioned way. I still do it the old way with SaGa, as I fear the internet would only worsen my understanding of the game, and perhaps mute its majesty. Other than that, the difficulty of the game depends on the time you're willing to put into it. If you spend the time exploring and talking to everyone, the story will present itself fairly painlessly. If you spend the time grinding, bosses will be very manageable, and trash mobs will vary from super easy to inexplicably impossible. I'm going to take this moment to introduce you to a technique I employed as a result of my first playthrough of SaGa many moons ago, that I now apply to every "random encounter" RPG. Essentially: I never run from battle, and I never die. I insist on fighting every single battle I encounter and if I should fail, I simply reset my system and start from my last save. The reason for this is that in SaGa 2, when you die you are taken to Odin rather than a game over screen. Odin makes you a deal that if you agree to fight him some day, he will revive you now and send you back the place where you died. Sounds like a sweet deal, right? It's not. It's a fucking scam. Odin is infuckingpossible to beat (in my experience). My very first file in SaGa 2 remains incomplete (well… it's long gone now, but I never did beat it) because of this asshole. After I learned of Odin's trickery, I restarted the game and never died once. Lotta good that did me! (You still have to fight Odin.) Nevertheless the method has served this RPG Queen over the years, as I now find I'm more than prepared for what the game throws at me since I have so much experience in battle.
SaGa 2 has no clock, but I reckon it takes me about 30 hours to beat on average, keeping in mind that I've not sat and blasted through it in many years, but rather tackled it bit by bit whenever I get the chance to pick it up (a minor distraction). The story itself is not very long - perhaps half that - but I always spend the time grinding and exploring so I can enjoy everything the game has to offer. This is a very familiar, classic, fantasy RPG that I'd recommend to anyone who feels at home in the genre. It does require a bit of work, as I've outlined, but it's provided me with countless hours of entertainment, and whenever I'm itching to play an oldie-but-goodie, I often find myself reaching for this.

LOTIPS
  • There are going to be many, many battles before you start making headway in your stats. Keep at it and use guests to grind since they can often carry battles themselves. 
  • Your inventory should consist almost entirely of cures in early game. In fact, you should be pretty well stocked on cure items for the whole game. Remember that spells don't work as well (or at all) on species with low mana.
  • The Pillar in the Sky is easy to navigate if you remember that left always goes backward and the right-most door always moves forward. If you're lost, just keep pushing right until it says "you need more MAGI…" Eventually, you'll get the pegasus MAGI and doors which will warp you to places previously visited.
  • Whips suck. Don't bother unless you want to boost AGL.
  • Super important note: the order in which you choose your team is the order of your party. You cannot change it. This is important because enemies will typically attack your party in order, meaning your hero - the first in your party - will likely die more than everybody else. This makes robots excellent starters, and mutants a horrible choice. That never stops me though, for some reason I often choose mutant heroes.
  • Your inventory is NOT bottomless (max 16 items), so don't over-purchase! Also, the bag doesn't sort and condense items, so remember to scroll through the whole thing and see what you have, especially after areas with treasure chests.
  • When you reach the Dragon Races, there is a trick: the faster the dragon you choose, the more bosses you will have to fight during the race. If you choose the slowest dragon (for free!) you will only face one boss! Also, don't save during the race, in case you are not strong enough. You will be stuck there with no means of leaving or healing. (Dragon Race is after Venus' World)
  • Some areas have permanent encounters, like Ashura's base - the zombies don't disappear when you defeat them, they just keep instigating battles. This makes it a great place to grind!


4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the excellent post! I've always been intrigued with the SaGa games, but the only one I've ever really played was SaGa Frontier, which is hella hard!

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    1. Thanks for reading! SaGa games are certainly not for the faint of heart, but once you figure them out, they become more manageable! Playing them as a "minor distraction" works nicely, too, since you get a break from the challenge between plays.

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  2. Hi! Don't mind me perusing through more of your posts! :P

    I remember this game too. My brother had gotten this game for his Game Boy, but I remember playing it a whole lot. The battle theme is seared in my memory lol. It wasn't until a few years ago that I found it wasn't Final Fantasy but SaGa. This game was ridiculously hard...I'm sure partly because I was really too young to know what I was doing. I only played this one and not Legend I or III.

    Taking a look at your other posts, I agree Trine 2 was pleasantly surprising, and if you don't mind, I'd like to suggest a game that I don't think you've mentioned before but I'm sure you've heard of. I finally bought Shovel Knight last week (I had been waiting for the game to be on sale, but a game so good doesn't go on sale often) and have been thoroughly enjoying the game like I haven't experienced in a long time! It's Mega Man hard, has elements of Super Mario Bros 3, and doesn't hold your hand! If you do decide to play it, you should do a stream as well as a review!

    Anyway thanks for listening to me ramble! I'll throw nintenlo a follow sometime. :P

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    1. Welcome back! The game was made hard, it really doesn't consider your age. The "level up" system is just so unique, it would take even the most experienced gamer a few tries to figure out. Legend 1 and 3 are significantly harder to find, it seems. But the SaGa series is a large one now, so there are many game to check out!

      I think I mentioned in one of my pickups blogs that I bought Shovel Knight for WiiU (on sale!). I haven't gotten a chance to play it yet but it's certainly on my to do list. I looooooove Mega Man! I hadn't considered streaming anything but there will definitely be a new entry here once I finish Shovel Knight!

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