To this day, there is still a number of prestigious Japanese role-playing games western audiences have not had the opportunity to play. Up until recently, Romancing SaGa 2 was one of these titles. First released in Japan in 1993 on Super Famicom, the second instalment actually counts as the fifth entry in Akitoshi Kawazu’s SaGa series – and originally stems from the Final Fantasy line of games. Having been localised for Android and iOS in 2016, the title has now arrived on various other platforms, including Nintendo Switch.
RS2 is a story about war and conflict across several generations as you experience the history of a small country as it grows and changes based on your own actions. The tale starts out with the king of Avalon locked in battle with seven heroes who have turned against civilisation and the surrounding lands. Foreseeing his own grim fate, the king finds a way to pass on his abilities onto his heir in order to help the kingdom continue its generational battle against the heroes it once praised.
It’s an out of the ordinary premise, but the story and dialogue isn’t on the same level as more prominent series from Square Enix. What it does though is lay foundations that make it an engaging title – with the ability to amuse players for hours on end. Naturally in games like this you become attached to a small group of characters after a prolonged period of monster slaying and adventuring. In contrast, RS2 keeps its audience invested by making every party member in the game expendable. Your fighters can be permanently killed in battle and new recruits – all of different class types – will eventually be required to replace the existing members.
Taking control of the emperor or empress of Avalon, the task at hand – when not leading a party of characters into battle – is to make important decisions that affect the future of the monarchy. Located within the kingdom is a treasurer who keeps an eye on the fund reserve in the castle treasury. With these funds you'll request the development of new spells, equipment and the establishment of new services. The capital itself can also be expanded – with public works eventually able to be funded. A chancellor is also on-hand to inform you of tasks that must be solved within the world and where to go next. All of these efforts go towards the overall improvement of the kingdom. Of course, when you’re not busy with the management side of the kingdom, you’ll spend your time talking to townsfolk, restocking your inventory in between each adventure and scouting for your next recruitment. It’s these elements that set RS2 apart from more linear role-playing games.
Outside of the castle is an entire world to explore. Where to go and what happens next depends on the areas that are accessible and the dialogue options you select throughout the adventure. RS2 includes standard environments such as monster-ridden towns and dimly lit caves where you’ll wipe out every enemy in sight, take on a boss and retrieve as many items and coin as possible from chests. In every location you can see enemies moving about on-screen. With no random encounters, this means you can always attempt to get the jump on your opponent before the battle begins, else monsters might catch your own party off-guard.
The battles are the core content. This is where you'll sink hours of your time. It’s an alluring turn-based system appearing overly simple at first due to its dated imagery and the basic information on display. Over time, the depth of the game’s mechanics becomes more apparent. It doesn’t rely on a conventional character levelling system as such; instead it chooses to focus on skill proficiency. If you focus on the development of a specific weapon or move for offensive or defensive purposes the collective party is likely to be better off in battle.
Equipping the right gear and assigning particular skills when formations come into play will give your party an advantage in battle. These formations in RS2 have been derived from classic Final Fantasy titles. Staring out with only a few choices, formations enable you to strategically set up the position of each of the party members in combat. For example, you could place a defensive class at the front and ranged attackers like spell users or archers in the rear – with more traditional characters like swordsman in the middle. Obviously, this depends on the classes you have selected and the formations available to use.
There’s a level of depth on offer between the assignment of skills and weapons, formations and the recruitment of characters linked to specific class types that makes this game hard to put down. Room for improvement is ongoing, with the game encouraging you to make alterations to your party on a regular basis. It also means certain strategies may have vulnerabilities – meaning it’s important to cover all areas of battle whenever possible. Don’t bolster close combat numbers and expect to make easy work of every monster you encounter. Occasionally, you’ll be required to rethink your approach. Thankfully, it's rewarding to experiment and evolve a strategy as you progress to combat sections that may be challenging.
There are a number of notable quirks that separate RS2 from other games under the same genre. After every battle, your entire party automatically recovers its health. As odd as it might seem, this is a welcomed inclusion. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the difficulty, either, with plenty of enemies troubling the party at all times. The other defining aspect is the fact each character can only be knocked out so many times in battle. Once they lose all their life points – that’s it, they are permanently removed from the party. It means every action the player makes in battle counts. If a weaker class or character for example is on the end of one too many receiving blows, best start seeking a replacement as soon as possible.
All of this is packaged as a classic sprite-based experience (with a few modern visual enhancements here and there) with a soundtrack ideal for a game of the era. The niggling menus and clunky movement are about the biggest barriers to overcome. Other than that, it's a classic experience from start to finish. As an added bonus, the game also includes the choice to play with or without additional features that enhance the overall experience, and there’s also a new game plus mode included.
Romancing SaGa 2 is a really intriguing JRPG. The combat system has a great sense of depth thanks to its distinctive take on levelling, the inclusion of formations and how the player is held accountable for each party member. The kingdom management aspects also provide a greater sense of player agency and helps set it apart from conventional role-playing games. Due to this design, the story and character development – including the dialogue throughout – aren’t quite as refined as other Square Enix titles. Regardless, the entire concept has aged surprisingly well – even by modern standards.