Try to forget about the first SaGa Frontier. Tell yourself that Square's muddled foray into the depths of nonlinear hell never happened. Taking the criticisms of thousands of disappointed (and frequently lost) gamers to heart, Square has drastically overhauled the sequel and proven itself eager to atone for previous game-design sins. Gone are multiple unfocused plotlines and unclear quests; in their place is a free-flowing tale of political intrigue set in a world brimming with high-Germanic overtones. SaGa Frontier 2 is a sequel to the original in name only; in spirit, the game might as well be Romancing SaGa 4.
The sequel's greatest change is in the presentation of the story. You choose which scenarios to undertake with the traditional Romancing SaGa-style parchment map and quill. At the game's onset, you can choose from two different scenarios. One plotline follows Gustave XIII, a noble prince sent into exile for his lack of magical powers. Another follows Wil Knights, a young treasure hunter seeking answers to his father's disappearance. As the story progresses, more characters join the party, each with potential quests and story elements. The successful completion of a scenario will usually open up one or two more potential paths.
These paths, however, are not always chronologically arranged. Like an episode of Quantum Leap, the story crisscrosses through several different time periods. One moment, you'll be fighting in 1247; the next, in 1235; the next, somewhere else entirely. Fortunately, a thorough chronicle feature helps you navigate the labyrinthine story developments within each century. This story system strikes a fair balance between linearity and freedom; you choose which scenarios to experience (and in what order), but the overall thrust of the game is always in the same general direction: toward the future. While the storylines aren't as complex or convoluted as those in Final Fantasy, neither are they as threadbare as the storylines in the first SaGa Frontier. You get the impression that your characters are both witnesses to and authors of the world's history.
Yet while you can jump between the different scenarios freely, the storylines themselves unfold in an extremely confined and linear manner. Gustave XIII and Wil Knights move from one event to another, never able to backtrack or stray from their respective predestined path. Moreover, the scenarios themselves seem exceedingly abrupt, and the dialogue, while grammatically correct, seems unnecessarily stilted. Even when a king dismisses a loyal servant of several years or a mother pleads for the life of her child, the characters fail to register emotionally. The story's rapid, compressed pace and uninvolving nature may alienate more casual gamers.The battle system is similar to SaGa Frontier's: Characters attack foes with a variety of weapons and techniques, improving their skills with repeated use, and many attacks can be combined to form even more powerful offensives. Each attack or technique uses points from either the WP or JP pool. Characters' HP energy is restored automatically between battles.
SaGa Frontier 2, however, adds a few new twists. Characters can be assigned roles that affect their battle tasks; for example, the diversion role lets a character preemptively split up enemy combination attacks. Characters no longer lose a life point upon dying, and they can now sacrifice a life point at the beginning of a round to refill their HP. Also, a new recovery skill lets characters regain small amounts of WP and JP between rounds. These refinements address one of SaGa Frontier's largest weaknesses: an inability to heal effectively. Also, before each battle, you are frequently given the option of engaging in a one-on-one duel. This is an excellent opportunity for a single character to develop his or her exclusive talents. Some techniques can only be learned during duel mode. Battles unfold slowly at first but pick up as your characters amass skills and talents.
But these gameplay changes seem insignificant compared with the total graphical overhaul. Instead of computer-rendered backgrounds or sharply delineated sprites, SaGa Frontier 2 creates its characters and environments with lush, hand-painted watercolors. It's as if the original sketches and paintings from the game's design phase were placed, unblemished by a digitizing hand, into the game itself. The title's relaxed and flowing tones are a pleasant breeze of creativity when compared with most titles' CG, polygons, and pixel-perfect graphics. The unique presentation is SaGa Frontier 2's greatest strength, triumphantly stating: There is still a place for two-dimensional graphics.
The music is typical of the Romancing SaGa series: romantically orchestral with an emphasis on rousing brass. While the sound quality is excellent, the tunes don't stay with you after the game, unlike Square's finest compositions. The sound effects are somewhat repetitive but mostly harmless.
Unnecessarily tampering with a winning formula, SaGa Frontier proved the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." SaGa Frontier 2 shows that it's never too late to fix things. Updating the series' traditional format with a lavish graphical style and 32-bit complexity, SaGa Frontier 2 will likely please RPG fans who are able to overlook the first title's looming shadow.