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SaGa: Scarlet Grace: Ambitions Switch Review

Usually around the last month of the year, new videogames tend to…stop existing. Or rather, they get ignored entirely, as fansites and vloggers all over the world start focusing on the ever-trendy “Best Games of X Year” discussion. To the hardcore gamer crowd, new releases end once the lists get made, and any stragglers that release at the last second are almost always ignored (with the exception of high-profile releases by Nintendo, or at least Super Smash Bros).

But some last minute word of mouth among the most prolific gaming forums has brought attention to a potential late entry for 2019’s greatest: SaGa: Scarlet Grace: Ambitions isn’t technically a new title…the original game was exclusive to the Playstation Vita almost three years ago, and was never translated outside of Japan to boot. Combined with the substantially smaller notoriety that the SaGa brand brings compared to Square Enix’s heaviest RPG hitters, Scarlet Grace seemed destined to remain one of those mythical hidden gems that only importers and emulation-savvy gamers would get to experience, fan translation not guaranteed.

Fortunately, 2019 turned out to be a year of pleasant surprises from Square, courtesy of their feature-filled E3 conference: in addition to proving to the world that Final Fantasy VII Remake was still on track (and, frankly, looks incredible), the RPG juggernaut also decided to finally localize their previously-lauded import exclusive, Seiken Densetsu 3 (officially titled “Trials of Mana” over in the West), in addition to Romancing SaGa 3, another untranslated SNES game. SaGa: Scarlet Grace: Ambitions was also announced at the conference, and is now available in multiple gaming platforms for an English-speaking audience.

For those unfamiliar with the SaGa series, fret not: just like Final Fantasy, the games are set in wholly separate worlds and characters, and tend to vary wildly in gameplay design as well. For this game, the setup is that an ancient battle between the human-protecting Celestials and their evil brethren the Fire-Bringer resulted in the latter falling from paradise and into the human world, where the two forces continued their battle while the world would become overwrought with monsters. After a thousand years, the Fire-Bringer was eventually destroyed, with humanity soon forming an empire that eventually splintered off into quarreling nations.

It’s a common JRPG backdrop, but what is a bit more uncommon is how Scarlet Grace offers the perspective of four different characters, each with their own unique storyline and party members. In addition, each character’s story path can be tackled in several different ways, from extra party members that can be recruited to key decisions that affect the outcome of the plot, or just skip them entirely to progress to the next area. In an especially neat mechanic, character storylines can also affect one another, with the game allowing the option to customize which stories have been completed or not regardless of whether they were actually played through. Few modern JRPGs offer multiple story outcomes, which makes Scarlet Grace one of the most potentially replayable titles since the 16-bit classic Chrono Trigger.

It also helps that the game cuts a lot of the fat that often fills up a JRPG’s length: while the usual RPG blueprints can be found, including a world map, random battles and towns, everything has been streamlined and squished in a way that instantly calls to mind that this was once a portable game. Still, being able to instantly walk from one side of the map to the other, jumping straight into battles and blacksmiths without any in-between means a lot less trekking and a whole lot more grinding, be it materials for new weapons and armor or stats and abilities through battle.

Speaking of which, the battle system makes up the core gameplay of SaGa: Scarlet Grace Ambitions…which may sound like an obvious statement for JRPG fans, but it is especially emphasized here. Whereas traversal and cutscenes are fast and instant, battles are deliberately slow and methodical; in every battle, each character and enemy follows a turn order as displayed on the bottom bar, with every participant acting in order from left to right. While every party member can theoretically perform an action on each turn, they cannot do so without spending the proper amount of BP (Battle Points). Standard attacks, for example, tend to cost 1 BP (with some weapons like axes and bows taking up 2 BP), while more specialized abilities cost more BP to perform. Each turn instantly restores the BP pool while adding an extra amount based on certain conditions (more on that below).

While this does mean that party members can bust out attacks without fear of expending BP, sometimes the winning move is not to play; each character that doesn’t take an action will automatically take on a defensive stance when the turn is up, while also getting a speed increase for the next turn. Knowing when to act and when to stay on the defensive is a crucial strategy, as characters who have low defense or health can brace themselves to withstand a strong incoming attack by the enemy. Speaking of which, each action that an enemy will take is displayed in the turn order, allowing for strategic preparation, such as putting up defensive abilities or throw everything you’ve got in the hopes of quelling the foe’s attack (in fact, there’s a status known as “quelling” that interrupts an enemy’s counterattack).

The most opportune strategy is to defeat an enemy whose turn icon is sandwiched between two or more party members; succeed, and the connecting party members will form a “United Attack” that deals significant damage to the next foe as well as give each participating ally a BP boost (which essentially cuts their BP cost for each individual attack by half). Be advised, however, that enemies can also form a United Attack, which can also occur when a defeated ally’s icon is sandwiched between two adjacent allies. In other words, taking out the second enemy in a row of three (or the enemy takes out an ally while sandwiched between two enemies) will lead to an opposing United Attack.

This is just a fraction of the many strategies that can occur with the battle system; in theory, it’s all about getting the upper hand in the turn order, but on paper there are dozens of variables to consider, which will no doubt cause many strategic-oriented players to stare at each command with the intensity of a chess game. Since there is no way to learn which party member will be targeted with which attack, every decision becomes a deadly gamble that can either stop a foe from unleashing a deadly attack, or failing to protect a fellow party member low on HP or defense.

This is also where the battle system of SaGa: Scarlet Grace: Ambitions reaches a divisive point. Traditional JRPG fans may either love the unorthodox approach to the classic turn-based combat found throughout the genre, or come off frustrated over the guessing game of its combat. The latter is especially compounded by the high difficulty, where few random encounters will end without at least one party member falling in battle. The good news is that there is no penalty to the experience gained if an ally does fall in battle, and all HP is restored upon victory as well. The tradeoff is that each party member has a set number of Life Points (LP) that will decrease by one point every time they die. An ally that loses all LP will be forced to wait in the sidelines until several battles pass. In addition, lost LP can only be recovered when a party member isn’t participating in battle, which is why it’s a good idea to bench anyone close to expending their LP.

While each party member starts off with a set role in battle (such as tank-focused characters with high defense, Mages with spells that are slow to cast but deal significant damage, high-speed characters that can delay and interrupt enemy attacks (which also change their turn order in battle, and plays a big role in aligning icons together for a potential United Attack), and so on. Thankfully, there is quite a bit of versatility that allows party members to take on other roles in case a star player has to hit the bench to restore their LP; every character can equip every kind of weapon, and doing so will unlock new techniques as well as new Roles (which include several boons like increased mobility or higher defense) as well as Formations (each one granting a specific bonus associated with the desired playstyle. Examples include a formation that gives everyone a slight speed boost at the cost of lower BP, extra attack damage for two specific characters placed in the front, extra BP for every foe defeated, etc).

As for equipment, Scarlet Grace once again eschews the traditional buying and selling of weapons and armor in favor of something more unique but also quicker to the point: instead of buying items, all equipment can instead be earned through various sidequests (of which there are many) and improved when visiting a Blacksmith. Keep in mind that rather than currency, each weapon and armor type requires a certain amount of elemental material to strengthen it. These can be earned, naturally, with successful battles and quests, and visiting the right Blacksmith can also reduce the cost of certain materials.

Visually, Scarlet Grace definitely shows its roots as an original handheld title, though the fast framerate and colorful effects (not to mention two types of menu designs that players can choose, a feature more games ought to have) should satisfy the less graphics-focused RPG fans. While the story doesn’t really do anything special with the usual JRPG tropes and characters, the strong localization by the famed translators at 8-4 help punch up even the most cliched moments and banter.

When all is said and done, SaGa: Scarlet Grace: Ambitions proves why the franchise is often overlooked in favor of its more familiar RPG cousins. The battle system requires much trial and error, and many optional scenarios, party members and outcomes may be skipped over entirely due to the extra challenges they offer for newcomers. Yet there is no denying the dense amount of strategic systems to play around with as well as the massive amounts of replayability thanks to its multiple characters and outcomes. Patient gamers will be rewarded with an RPG experience that is both familiar and fresh at the same time, not to mention another hundred hours to sink into the Switch as it continues to be the ultimate haven for the genre.

7 out of 10