Sunday, May 8, 2011

Unlimited Frustration.

Before I begin by saying anything else, I want you to watch the following clip:

Did you take a good look?  Seriously?  What you just witnessed was an absolutely gorgeous opening to a PS2 game.  From the opening, I hope you realized the quality of art, the diverse characters, the lush and breathtaking scenery, and frightful foes to overcome.  When you first place Unlimited SaGa for the PS2 into your system, this video is the first thing that greets you.  Based on the video alone, one is promised an adventure of epic proportions and intrigue (Seven Destinies!  Seven Wonders!  Unraveling the mysteries of the world!).   My experience with Unlimited SaGa certainly gave me many of those things.  The graphics push the limits of the PS2.  The musical score, like many SaGa games previous, is diverse and memorable.  The quests certainly are diverse and intriguing.

However, Unlimited SaGa also gave me a few other things:  Anger, sleepless nights, and pleas from dear friends to just put the game down and walk away.  At more than a few points, the trio of friends who had to suffer through listening to me play through the game (Nick, the Enabler, and David) came very close to staging an intervention.  Fortunately, I finished the game before it finished me.

Let me state this clearly:  Unlimited Saga is undoubtedly one of the most frustrating experiences on the PS2 you will ever come across.  A convoluted game system, obscure mechanics, an over-reliance on chance, and a disjointed, abrupt narrative prevent the game from being realized as a shining gem in the PS2's library.  Although it is a rewarding game for those who can figure it out, attempting to figure out the game is the challenge in itself.

Read on if you dare:  After all, misery loves company

Romancing the SaGa

I've been a fan of the SaGa games since before I even knew I was playing a SaGa game:  Back when they masqueraded under the name of "Final Fantasy Legend" on the game boy.  While the U.S. missed out on the early SNES incarnations of the series (save the remake of the first), we were fortunate (or, as some would argue, unfortunate) enough to have received SaGa Frontier 1 and 2 on the Playstation.

I'm not blind:  I completely understand why people dislike both SaGa Frontier games.  They're not the most intuitive, the system of leveling seems random at first, and learning new techniques (known as "sparking" to veterans of the series) seems like more of a crapshoot than anything else.  The first SaGa Frontier offers you a myriad of character quests to go through the game as, they're radically different experiences, and not in the best ways (compare, say, the epicness of Red's quest to that of Lute's, which might as well be renamed "Half-Minute Hero" for its simplicity).  The second game, while narrowing the scope of the quests to two overlapping tales, suffers from rather disjointed storytelling until the very end.

They're not the best games in the world.  I realize this.  Yet something about them kept me coming back for more.  The music was some of the best I had heard at the time.  Check out these samples:

The first being one of the most soothing themes I've heard in the RPG, while the second being one of the most awesome final battle themes I've heard:  an area where SaGa certainly delivers for each of the 7 characters.  What can I say?  I'm a sucker for good game music.

"You do realize you can the soundtrack instead of playing that awful game, right?" - The Enabler
Knowing all of this, I actually anticipated the release of Unlimited SaGa.  I first came across the game upon its release, when I was still working at a video store.  I took a few stabs at it as a free rental.  The system was confusing, initially, but I hadn't invested much in the game.  I merely played it long enough to realize there were some things I disliked, but enough that I liked that the game would become an eventual purchase, which it did some time later.  Due to the obligations of school, work, and other matters, Unlimited SaGa eventually found its way into my backlog:  I knew that it would require a significant investment, (as I'd planned to finish it with all 7 characters) but that I'd return to it eventually.

In previous posts, I've referenced my dogged determination to see things through to the end:  In terms of a game, if I've spent money on it, I'm certainly going to finish it.  This is certainly an admirable trait when applied to many professional settings (which is likely why my supervisors trust me).  In other arenas, it can be seen as self destructive.

When I finally sat down to take on the game in full, this almost became my undoing.

The Opening of a Frustrating Journey
Up until this point, I have been fairly civil, merely expressing the negative points of the game in my framing statement.  As this section will be an overview of the gameplay and mechanics, let me try to attempt to capture my feelings on this experience more accurately, yet succinctly.

Fuck this game.  Seriously.  There are not enough expletives in every known human tongue to convey my utter contempt for its mechanics.

It's difficult to pinpoint where to begin, but I've found an image that conveys the complexity of Unlimited SaGa's systems fairly well:

Easy enough to figure out.
Let's focus on main systems in the game:  Character Growth, Combat, and Reels.

Character Growth

Unlike many RPGs, most SaGa games forego the traditional system of leveling in favor of other means.  In previous games, it was a little more straightforward:  If you took more damage in combat, you gain HP.  If you use certain weapons enough, you have a better chance of learning new attacks with those weapons.  Magical attacks increased magic related stats, while physical attacks raised attributes such as strength.  While untraditional, there was still a method to the madness.

Unlimited SaGa.. foregoes a lot of this.  Character growth and stats are determined by panels on a character growth tree.  Here's an example:

There are a variety of categories for the panels:  Melee related (Weapon and melee arts), magic (magic tablets and familiars), "thief" related (lockpicking, trap defusion), and environmental (swimming, obstacle crossing, etc.) ranging from level 1-5.  Stat growth is dependent on what type of panel you use and where you place it:  So for example, a panel placed in the center will influence all stats, a panel placed elsewhere might influence magic or elemental stats, and so forth.  This is slightly easier to figure out, since you get to see what stats are boosted before you place the panels.

However, the system is problematic. While to some extent, you can control the level of the panels you receive (fighting stronger enemies and taking more turns during quests tends to yield stronger panels), what panel you actually -land- tends to be completely random.  You see, at the end of each quest, you're given the choice to select one of four panels.  Logic dictates that a character that barely gets used during a quest gets quality panels related to what they did, while the benchwarmer gets useless panels.

SaGa games, however, rarely rely on logic.

For example, during one quest, one of my main sword users who was utilized time and time again during the quest got nearly every weapon panel EXCEPT sword.  Whereas my benchwarmer who did next to nothing except cast a spell or two, and maybe toss out a punch in one combat round got rewarded with a spread that included a level 5 melee panel.

Seriously, what the hell?

The worst part is that if you get a completely crappy spread of panels that you don't want to place because they're either 1) Useless or 2) Lower level panels that would decrease your stats, there's no choice in rejecting them.  No, you have to accept the hand you're dealt and like it, like some twisted form of hospitality:

The solution around this is usually to designate one panel that has little effect on anything (usually a lower left panel) as a "garbage" panel, and hope you luck out next time.  Yes, the game is deliberately forcing you to take crappy choices that might destroy a character build.  While I get that this might have been implemented to deter grinding in favor of smarter play, it would have been nice to simply have a "No thanks" button.  Instead, I get the "I slayed five dragons and all I got was this stupid level 1 fortuneteller panel".  Thanks, SaGa.


Compared to most SaGa games, this one remains mostly consistent.  New techniques are not learned with levels, but instead, you have a random chance to "spark" a new art in the midst of combat.  The chances of sparking an art depend on the strength of the monster you're fighting.  Simple enough, until you add in that some arts have a lower chance of sparking than others, so it's quite conceivable to go through the game never learning a certain attack you're set on.

Further complicating this are the idea of melee arts, divided into punches, kicks, and throws, which you'll be relying on heavily in the game as not to use the durability.  Melee arts have three overall specializations:  Light, Medium, and Heavy.  Light arts, believe it or not, are the superior ones.  However, these arts are dependent upon character weight:  This is in part influenced by the equipment a character is wearing, in addition to the character's base weight.  The game, by the way, NEVER TELLS YOU ANY OF THIS.  Admittedly, for some characters it's pretty obvious:  The giant slab of rock that looks like Geodude from Pokemon isn't going to be using light martial arts.  Others, not so much:

This is considered the lightest character in the game.  Seriously.
As for Heavy Arts?  Another complete crapshoot.  Your character cannot have any melee panels of the corresponding martial arts line to learn these, has to rely on sparking it in battle, then once it's learned in battle, has an even rarer chance of using it.  Why?  Because of the accursed reel system.

The Goddamn Reel System - Gambler's Hell.

I've you've played any Shadow Hearts game, you're familiar with the Judgment Ring, which relies on specifically timed input from the player to execute attacks, and various other things in the game.  Legend of Dragoon had  a similar deal in combat.  SaGa, feeling the need to add some challenge to the game, introduces the reel system, which is exactly as it sounds like:  A spinning reel full of potential commands you can enter.  I've included a video that helps show this more accurately than the picture -- skip about a minute in to see what I'm talking about.

The video might have given you a small idea, but let me paint a clearer picture for you:

In combat, you don't simply select the powerful attack you want to use:  You hope it lands on the right panel on the reel.  Now think back to what I said about the combat system and "sparking".  Remember all that trouble you went through to learn that awesome technique?  Great!  You've learned it!  Now, every single time you want to use it, you have to make sure that you time the button press so that it lands on the right reel.   Having a higher level, corresponding attack panel helps (so if you're using axe skills, having a level 4 or 5 axe panel will give you more chances to hit level 4 or 5 arts), but it's not a guarantee.  If you look at the first picture, you'll note the different color panels on the reel:  This is how the level of arts are denoted.  Green panels indicate level 1 arts.  As you can see, there are significantly more green panels than anything else.

In a dungeon, when defusing a trap, you rely on the reel system to either succeed, fail, or critically fail.  Once again, having a higher level growth panel for "Defuse" increases the number of "success" marks on the reel, but there's still a chance of failing, or even critically failing:  Which in minor cases results in taking some damage from the trap, and as mentioned before, in others it results in you losing everything.  Super.

When swimming across a lake, the reel determines your success.  Fortunately, the game is kind enough that critically failing doesn't result in you drowning.  You'll do that to yourself after a few failures.  In real life.

The list goes on.  Basically, a reel system is equivalent to a saving throw.  Only the saving throw is used for EVERYTHING under the sun. 

Success:  Obtained - Kit-Kat bar.  Failure:  Kit-Kat bar is stuck.  Try Again?  Critical Failure:  The machine has fallen on you.  Call 911?

I'm sure you can imagine how upsetting this can be when, in the midst of combat, you're hoping to land on a level 4 or level 5 skill that will connect for devastating damage.  Instead, you land on a level 1 panel where your attack does next to nothing.


I could go on and on about the game system, really, but there isn't enough space here to do justice to the injustice that it is.  Look, I get it:  The creators were hoping to reward creativity, exploration, and ingenuity.  The problem here is that there are some things in this game that you would have -no- way of figuring out.  To further illustrate my point?  Go to GameFAQs, look up Unlimited SaGa, then look at the FAQ list:  You might notice that the largest file is the mechanics FAQ, which is nearly 1 MB of text.

Something is horribly, horribly wrong with this picture.  When attempting to explain this to Nick, I got a blank stare.  David went silent, which I can only anticipate as him calling the cops.  The Enabler firmly suggested that I remove the game from the PS2, put it back in the case, then throw it against the wall (which I did.  It helped.  Briefly).

I could go on about the randomness of the forging system, but you've already seen the flow chart.  The magic system?  While spells are powerful, it's so much trouble to obtain the magic tablets that you need to get them that you're better off learning the level 4 axe and dagger arts (Reverse Delta and Bloody Mary, respectively) to ease through the game.

This is about the closest you get to an "I win" button in a game determined to make you lose.
 I do have determination when it comes to these games, but even my masochism only takes me so far -- let's talk about the things that the game does right, shall we?

Innovation! .. To an Extent

With all that seems to be wrong with this game, a few of you are wondering how I could continue to sit through this game (aside from being a masochist and the aforementioned dogged determination) for so long.  I mean after all, pretty graphics and a nice soundtrack can only carry you for so long, right?

Or not very long at all.
I mentioned earlier that SaGa manages to do some unique things in its games that few (or none) manage to do.  In the case of Unlimited SaGa, you see this in the form of the quest maps, as well as the monster ecosystem.

Map Quest

Adventures in Unlimited SaGa almost feel like you're playing a cross between a tabletop RPG and a board game.  I've already mentioned some annoying aspects about the former:  There are plenty of traps, you're constantly having to rely on the random reel system to get you out of predicaments, and so forth.  Yet when you're able to step away from this, the idea in itself is actually cool in some ways.

Rather than do the usual RPG deal of an overhead map, your character is displayed as a board piece, which moves from space to space on a map.  Generally you have a little bit of warning before running into a monster (the adjacent space or room will be highlighted in yellow), but there are other times where they might suddenly pop up without warning.  Storyline quests may span a number of maps while granting you unlimited turns to proceed through the adventure.  Non-story quests grant yo a set number of turns to complete your objectives, with each movement, successful action (opening a lock, defusing a trap), or battle consuming one turn.  Your minor quests will give you in the neighborhood of 100 turns, while the more substantial quests (such as the "Seven Wonders" dungeons) grant you up to 1000.  While some dungeons will leave you pressed for time where every action counts, the game's unusually generous about giving you turns to finish the other ones.

The system left me torn.  On one hand, the suspense of never knowing when you're going to run across something that would ruin your day such as an unexpected trap or a hostile monster (example:  Undead monsters -always- attack on sight) was stressful.  On the other hand, frequently running across an unexpected boon in the form of a treasure chest was quite exciting.

Treasure or trouble 'round the next corner?

It really is a double edged sword:  The concept, in theory, is cool, though the game can be punitive with it at times.  Particularly when it comes to the realm of traps, but at other times, monsters, which brings us to the next point of discussion.

Monster Ecosystem

The concept for this is pretty simple:  The more you kill of a certain monster family, the stronger they eventually become.  This is a gradual progression that happens throughout the game, and admittedly you might not notice it at first.  But let's take, for example, plant-based enemies, known as Vegeplasts in the game.  When you first start playing, the plants you encounter will look fairly unintimidating, like this:

You almost feel bad killing these things.
I killed my share of vegeplasts throughout the game, so at first I didn't notice it.  As I drew closer to the end, however, I saw that when "vegeplasts" popped up on a section of the map I had traipsed onto, gone was the cute little shrub that I almost felt guilty killing.  Replacing it was a giant man-eating Venus Flytrap that was many times larger than my party:

This one..not so much.
This is both unique and beneficial:  Sure, the enemies are a bit harder in these forms, but if you recall what I said about sparking arts and panels, fighting these larger enemies will increase those chances. . . well, at least as much as a random system like this can allow for.  But I have to give credit where it's due:  It's nice to go through the game and eventually see that you're fighting monsters that look like they're straight out of the Australian outback.

The Thylacine is not "more afraid of you than you are of it".
One other thing kept me playing, but it deserves its own section:  The story.  Believe it or not, the game actually does have a story (seven of them, in fact) underneath all of this.  Is it one worth telling?  Well..

Seven Destinies.  Seven Opportunities to Hate Life.

Be forewarned:  There are spoilers here.  But you know what?  I don't feel bad about it.  In fact, I'm likely doing you a favor by saving you the pain of going through some of it.  When you first start the game, you have the choice of seven characters.  The designers are kind enough to include a brief note about each character's quest, and they're actually quite accurate in suggesting who has an easy quest, and whose quest might be challenging.  The cast is as follows:

Laura:  An ex-pirate who's in charge of protecting a young prince (the blond in the pic)
Ventus:  A Carrier (i.e. UPS man) who hopes to avenge his brother (the one in green)
Mythe:  A self-styled lady's man.  Most difficult quest ever (the guy -- yes that's a guy on the upper right).
Aramic:  That little fuzzy thing you see up there.  I didn't really give a damn about him.
Judy:  A 10 year old witch (she's the short one).  Interesting quest.
Kurt:  An ex-knight who seeks to unravel the mysteries of his gauntlet.  Stat wise, one of the crappier characters.
Ruby:  A fortuneteller.  She's peppy, and has one of the more interesting quests

I'll give SaGa credit here. Most of the quests sound interesting from the outset.

Except for his.  Is this any surprise?
 In addition to the main storyline quests, each town has a variety of sidequests (not all of them are accessible in every quest) which tell their own interesting tale:  Some include a series of finding the treasure of a master thief (and fighting his ghost in the process), others include visiting a submerged town in search of a trinket for one of its residents.  For the sidequests, the story telling is hit or miss.  Some of them start off interesting, but they tend to have lackluster conclusions, and many of them don't tie into the overall story or quest, making it feel disjointed.

As for the main quests?  In my initial playthrough, I started with Laura, though eventually I went with Ventus, as his quest was one of the easier ones.  Ventus's quest centers around avenging the killer of his brother, Breeza.  Early on, he encounters the killer:  A vampire named Kalandorn, who beats Ventus within an inch of his life, but mysteriously spares him.  Like any good vampire, he manages to manipulate Ventus into acquiring a material known as Dragonheart, which is apparently a big deal.

Even a dragon voiced by Sean Connery wouldn't have saved this game.
There was enough intrigue here to keep me going.  Why else was Ventus spared?  Why is it that whenever Breeza came up in conversation, Kalandorn referred to him with a mysterious degree of respect?  What was Kalandorn really after?  I played on to find the answers to my questions.

..And that's where things went south.  Kalandorn is part of some group known as the "Ensanguined League" which is sort of like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, except for the undead.  Kalandorn is mysteriously killed at some point, and with his dying breath, implores Ventus to go after the mysterious Knights of the Round, who are apparently kind of like King Arthur's group, except they're kind of evil, and King Arthur is a bloodthirsty knight named Phantom with no personality.  You know, if you were going to bastardize the whole concept of the Knights of the Round, at least give them more personality, or make it cool:

Like this.
Only Kalandorn is revealed to be alive, and you fight him at some placed known as the Two Moon Temple..but then when you defeat him, he becomes the entity known as Chaos.  Upon defeating Chaos, you finish the game.

Now, let me take a moment to say that I was anticipating a decent ending here.  I cheated and snuck a peek at Judy's ending on YouTube, and you know what?  It was good.  It provided closure for all the character, it was a decent length for a game with multiple characters, and it showed some promise for everyone else.

I'll also add that upon beating Chaos, Nick was with me to share my jubilation.  It's only fitting that my best friend share my joys with me.  However skeptical he was about me finishing it, I felt the need to have this moment with him.  I still have the IM conversation between us as a cherished memory, which I'll share with you now (names changed to respect privacy):


(2:12 a.m.) Nick:  You're lying.  I don't believe you.

(2:13 a.m.) Ayn:  I kid you not.  I'm watching the ending now.

(2:15 a.m.) Ayn:  ....
(2:15 a.m.) Ayn:  ... That was a fucking stupid ending.

(2:15 a.m.) Nick:  ROFL ROFL
(2:15 a.m.) Nick:  I see the game decided to bitchslap you one last time.  What was the ending?

I've also included a video where I expressed my joy at finishing the game as well (prior to actually seeing the ending).

While Judy had an ending that gave closure and left everyone feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, Ventus's ending had two lines of text:  One with his brother's former girlfriend musing about fate being a funny thing, and another with Ventus saying "I'm off!" with a shot of him wearing his new, swank "Team Dragonheart" jacket.

That was it.  Truly a rewarding end to my quest.

If an experience is about the journey and not the destination, then the journey of Unlimited SaGa is Oregon Trail and everyone has dyssentary.

Closing Thoughts
Much of this post was spent slamming Unlimited SaGa.  I realize that I left out much of the good.  The game does have gorgeous graphics.  The higher level techniques have some pretty flashy and cool animations.  The spell effects?  Positively breath-taking.  The music, as to be expected from a SaGa game, is quite fitting and a pleasure to listen to.

But honestly, recounting the experience for me was so exhausting that I just don't have the energy to defend the game that much.  Admittedly, there's a niche, and I do mean a small niche, which this game will appeal to.  There are those people that, in the face of its obvious flaws, will staunchly defend this game as one of the underappreciated gems of the PS2's era.

In another circumstance, I might have been one of those individuals.  I've often praised SaGa games for being willing to take risks and do something different.  And while there were some cool things this game did do differently (dungeons that sort of play like a board game?  That was pretty unique for the time), it's hard for me to defend a game that seems to pride itself on being obscure and inaccessible to most people.  It's a difficult balance to negotiate:  On one hand, of course we don't want cookie cutter RPGs that are the same in almost every incarnation (I'm looking at you, Dragon Quest).

I've always said that SaGa games aren't for everyone.  But after a certain point, it becomes hard to stick up for a game that seems to narrow its fanbase more and more with each incarnation.  In the end, much like any other SaGa game, it does a number of things beautifully, but the flaws are so glaring that it truly inhibits the enjoyment of the overall product.

It pains me to say that, perhaps because playing this game felt like I was in some twisted relationship.  It kept punishing me with its game of chance, frustrating me with a sudden game over after spending hours in a dungeon, and infuriating me when I couldn't quite forge that right piece of equipment.  Yet at the same time, it lured me back with its beautiful graphics, teased me with bits and pieces of an intriguing narrative, and tempted me with the next promising adventure.

Then I got Ventus's ending.

I'd like to say it ended there, but I immediately started Laura's quest.  In the midst of all of it?  I finally realized what I was doing had far passed the point of being determined, and had crossed over to the realm of masochism.  I promptly put Unlimited SaGa away, since in my mind, finishing it with one character out of 7 was still finishing the game.

Blonds don't have more fun in SaGa.

Unlimited SaGa isn't without its uses.  For instance, it's built up my tolerance for other games that might have been enjoyable, but had certain annoying parts (Devil Summoner 2 comes to mind).  In the broader scheme of things, subjecting a gambling addict to enough time with the reel system would be enough to make even Harvey Dent stop flipping a coin.  The Enabler, taking one of my earlier defenses of the game having beautiful artwork, suggested that it be used as a coaster, sense the disc art was nice enough.

Indeed, one could say the uses outside of actual entertainment as a game are..unlimited.

Regardless of how much you like SaGa, Unlimited SaGa might try your patience.  If you have a friend that's thinking about playing this game and they have plenty of other games on their backlog, well, you might want to deter them.  To quote the advice of two friends whose advice I should have long heeded, when I mentioned doing another playthrough:

Friends don't let friends play Unlimited SaGa

Until next time friends, keep playing.  In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my goddamn tea.

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