- Complex battle system encourages experimentation
- The world reacts to the choices you make
- Fantastic soundtrack with many memorable themes
- Difficulty options help the game to become more accessible
- More voice acting would help flesh out the characters more
- The presentation isn't for everybody
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher, Square Enix.
The SaGa series has always been a series with a rather different take on how RPGs should be made. Creator Akitoshi Kawazu has always drawn on inspiration from tabletop rpgs and has always made the games that he wanted to make rather than what would be most successful in the industry at any given time. What started as the Final Fantasy Legend back on the Game Boy has now turned into a series featured on all of the console generations from Romancing SaGa on the Super Nintendo, SaGa Frontier on the PlayStation, Unlimited SaGa on the PlayStation 2 and now recently, SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions which started life as a Vita title and now releases on the current consoles. It’s a storied history and the SaGa games have inspired other games along the way however it’s been a long time since a new game was released. Indeed, the SaGa series has recently just celebrated their 30th anniversary, a commendable achievement considering the uniqueness of their games.
With that said, before you can even begin to discuss Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, you need to learn just what the SaGa series is. While most of the entries can vary dramatically such as Unlimited SaGa’s almost board game like design, they retain many core principles. You don’t level up in the traditional sense in SaGa, instead your characters grow after winning battles by increasing HP, weapon skill levels or by glimmering new Techniques. On top of this, you have the LP (Life Points) system where in each character will lose a LP if their HP is depleted in battle, lose all of your LP and your character will be forced to sit out for a while (in the case of Scarlet Grace: Ambitions). The most unique feature however is the way you learn new Techniques (Techs) with the glimmering feature mentioned a moment ago. Using already existing Techs from the many weapon types available, your character will sometimes spark a light bulb above their head, indicating that a new Tech has been learnt and then immediately utilize it. It’s a system that has been carried over and expanded upon for a while now and it makes most battles exciting due to the prospect of learning a new Tech.
The world changes based on the choices you make.
The story is rather simple to begin with, there’s no explosive cinematics to begin and you’re given a background on the Firebringer, the Celestials and the Empire, the main forces for the story. There are four central characters to this tale, Urpina the young daughter of House Julanius, the head of the previous Empire’s four great houses, Leonard a farmer on the frontier of Yaxart, Balmaint the executioner of Castle Kohan and Taria a Ceramicist who’s had an unusual life. In order to even begin, you’ll be given a series of questions to answer which, based on your answers, will select one of the four heroes along with changes to their starting stats. Of course, if you wish to forego the stat changes, you can select your preferred character and for good reason too as some are more viable for a first playthrough such as Urpina who is aimed at newer players to SaGa. Each of these characters have their own unique story that interweaves with a more overarching narrative as you progress through the story and all add to the fascinating lore of this world.
The first thing many new players may notice is the presentation of the game, this isn’t your standard Jrpg where you’ll be exploring towns and traipsing through dungeons, instead the entire game takes place on a large world map outside of the battles themselves. This shouldn’t be judged unfairly though as after a few hours of getting used to it, I couldn’t envision playing this game any other way. There are over 20 regions to explore all with a multitude of events and locations to interact with along with many more that come and go based on your choices. Indeed, player choice seems to be a large part of Scarlet Grace Ambitions and it works well, having you think carefully before selecting a choice due to the repercussions you may face now or down the line. As you explore more in the world, you’ll also come across different locales, ships to get you across stretches of water and a world spanning Development questline that sees you trading supplies across the world. What starts as underwhelming ends up being unique after a few hours and allows you to keep at the core of the game, the battle system, as much as possible.
Preparation plays a large part in your strategy during combat.
The battle system is where SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions truly shines however and it’s for good reason because you’ll spend more time in battle than doing anything else. The battle system is a turn-based system using commands against your enemy however there’s one huge twist over the traditional styles. At the start of a combat round, you’re given Battle Points (BP) that you have to distribute between all five of your party members and positioning is crucial as enemies also have the same limitations. You can however see what your enemy will be doing that combat round so it then becomes a puzzle of reacting to what you’ll be facing in the coming combat round. This places a unique spin on strategy and forces you to plan out each combat round rather than simply selecting your strongest attacks as enemies (and the player) can utilize Techs that can block against attacks, interrupt and change your position in the order or even counterattack to deal huge damage. There are so many ways to approach battle and it’s this uniqueness which makes the game a delight to play.
Another large feature of combat is the United Attack system, a powerful all-out attack that happens when you defeat an enemy that sits between two of your allies. This will cause a powerful attack that not only deals large damage but also decrease the BP cost of your Techs for the next combat round, allowing you to make use of more of the more powerful Techs in a single combat round. Plan your attacks out well enough and you can even chain together United Attacks and take out the enemy group in one fell swoop. There is a bit of risk with this however as your enemies have the same feature available to them, should they dispatch one of your own allies between two of theirs then you’ll suffer a United Attack yourself, it’s all about weighing up the options available to you. Looking at the Techs your enemy will use for that combat round and reacting to it is the name of the game and will determine the outcome to the battle ahead. On top of this, all enemies fall under a certain species and specific weapons or elements are useful against them so you’ll need to experiment with the many tools available to you to build a balanced and versatile team.
There are many Techs to discover and doing so is part of the excitement of combat.
As previously mentioned, Techs play a huge part in your team’s makeup and you’ll want to glimmer as many as you can. This is down in part to random chance but also down to the Techs you’ve already learnt as specific Techs will have a higher probability to glimmer specific Techs related to them. On top of this, each Tech can raise in rank three times, increasing their effectiveness and decreasing their BP cost, this means a Tech that only previously got some use through a United Attack will now become more viable due to only costing a few BP. There’s more to this though, as combinations of Techs unlocked will unlock Roles for your characters to equip outside of battle, offering a variety of useful bonuses such as status resistances or attack power increases which help to diversify your characters even more. Admittedly on the Normal difficulty, you can get by with just learning the Roles for a single weapon but should you attempt to fight the game’s ultimate bosses, you’ll need careful planning for your Roles to give yourself the best chance of survival. Finally, when it comes to combat, you have the spellcasters who operate a little differently than the other weapon types. Incantations (Magic) always has to be charged ranging from one combat round to three however their damage and utility is so useful that It’s generally a sensible idea to have one in your team at any given time. Although you may invest the BP in that particular round, the damage you can deal with it will pay dividends when it’s done charging and should you rank up the Incantations then you’ll be able to use a single BP for group wide devastating spells. Ranking these Incantations however are a little different to normal Techs, instead you’ll need the appropriate element based Staff, the correct skill level for that element and then to absorb Flux after each battle for the chance to either rank up or learn new Incantations.
This all may sound confusing but after a couple of hours into the game, the battle system will click and for me personally, I got lost in the wealth of options and strategic possibilities available to me. The game will dictate the difficulty of an encounter before you begin, ranging from Easy, Normal, Hard and Brutal and using these, you can prepare ahead of time. You also have three difficulty options you can manually change it to should you find yourself struggling to get to grips with the mechanics of the battle system. One factor that many players may struggle to get to grips with however, especially early on, is the LP system. As previously mentioned, if your HP is reduced to zero you are knocked out and you’ll lose one LP, lose all of your LP and you’ll be unable to use that character for a long period of time. LP only really recovers when a unit is placed in the reserves and at a rate of one per every two encounters and outside of the odd event here and there, you’ll have to rely on this as your main method to recover LP. It’s for that reason that you have to rely on recruiting as many allies as possible and keep a good selection of them up to par so you can rotate in and out when you need to recover LP.
Attack animations are a joy to watch, especially with how many there are in the game.
The world has so much more to see and do though outside of battles, even if the presentation may lead you to believe otherwise. There’s a whole Smithing system to get to grips with where you can spend the Crystals and materials you obtain from battle to upgrade your equipment. As you upgrade something, your rank will rise unlocking more options and decreasing the cost of previous ranks so you’re encouraged to smith at all times to give yourself that slight edge in battle. There are also many questlines and hidden events that can be tracked down and you’ll find that there’s always something to discover allowing the world to truly feel alive. Of course SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions intends for you to play through it multiple times to get the true scope of the entire world and the stories it wants to tell but even a single playthrough can be fulfilling with the promise of more adventure to come should you decide to return to it. Indeed, you can carry over a lot of your progress from each playthrough such as unlocked Techs, the current progress of the Development quest and more.
Scarlet Grace Ambitions also features a stellar soundtrack from composer Kenji Ito with incredible themes that really capture the feel and mood of the many different scenarios that play out. There’s voice acting in places and although the quality is generally high, there’s just not enough of it to really pay too much attention to it, which is a shame because it helps to further bring these characters to life. The most important thing to take away from Scarlet Grace Ambitions is that it’s just fun to play with lots to explore and uncover, something that a lot of games seem to forget these days.
SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions may not be a game for everyone but for those willing to not judge the game on its presentation will find a rich world with a unique gameplay experience unlike any other. This is a great starting place for new SaGa fans and one of the best yet for long time fans.