Unlimited Saga – Review

Here on the Internet, specialized abbreviations are often used as a form of shorthand to save the fuss of typing out common words and phrases. Some of these may be confusing to people not familiar with message boards or newsgroups, so as a way of shedding light on this phenomenon, we've collected a few samples. The most prevalent occurrence would most likely be LOL, short for laughing out loud. Used as a way of expressing laughter in a medium that is not conducive to auditory feedback, it's a common cue. Another example is OTOH, or on the other hand. IMO and FWIW (in my opinion and for what it's worth, respectively) are also handy ones to remember when writing or chatting electronically.

Some may believe a falling level of literacy is implied by the habitual use of such quasi-words, but they're really quite handy, even for subjects besides online communications. Case in point—Square-Enix's latest game and the subject of this review, Unlimited Saga. Either WTF or POS could be used as a quick way of referring to the game, since they encapsulate the experience in a brief, pithy manner.

However, since this is a review and not an instant message window, let's go over the game with a more traditional approach. Alleging to be some kind of role-playing game (RPG), Unlimited Saga features seven different "characters." Unfortunately, I have a hard time thinking of them as anything more than placeholders since none of the stories behind them make any sense, nor resonate on any level. They're barely more than conceptual outlines, and I'm still trying to figure out if this part of the game was some kind of in-joke that isn't funny to anyone outside of the development team.

The first character I picked, Judy, is a ten-year old witch trying to save her grandfather from imprisonment in a magic mirror. Her premise was interesting enough, but the dialogue and execution were sketchy and instantly forgettable, amounting to little more than "Grandpa's trapped, so let's go find some trinkets in a dungeon! Whee!"

The next character I tried, Laura the ex-pirate, was just as bad. Starting her adventure at a funeral (or so the text said), she entered a random battle, rescued some prince who just happened to be there, and they both set off on a vague quest after a few no-context lines were exchanged. Players are supposed to be motivated by this? With meager sentences where there should be meaty paragraphs, there's no reason to get involved in the "story" or to care about anything that happens to any of the characters.

The same slapdash level of exposition is prevalent throughout, with anonymous people randomly joining your party with little or no reason given, and certainly no characterization or depth shown at any time. It's strange that the game would utterly fail to score a hit in this area, since Square (prior to the recent Enix merger, at least) is synonymous with (over)dramatic storytelling.

Moving on, the graphics are just as flat as the characters, both literally and figuratively. Showcasing a 2D art style using a pastel palette and clean draftsmanship, Unlimited Saga looks great—until you start playing it. Now, I have absolutely nothing against 2D art, and in fact I love it. Looking at screenshots of Unlimited Saga is likely to catch anyone's eye with its lush illustrations and appealing composition. However, in spite of the top-notch hand-drawn work, the overall presentation leaves much to be desired.

In "towns" (see below), dialogue takes place as a series of heads onscreen communicating through comic-book style speech bubbles. No problem there really, except that there's no animation! Mouths don't move and there's usually only one facial expression per person no matter what they're spouting. It looks like nothing so much as a half-assed Punch & Judy show using paper cutouts instead of actual puppets. The diarrhea-thin dialogue only magnifies the inadequate cutscenes.

There are no towns or overworld portions to explore since all interaction takes place via a series of menus with frilly backdrops. Leaving "town" and venturing into a dungeon is little better. Presented like something one notch above Chutes And Ladders, you move your character like a piece in a board game. Rather than creating the environment, Unlimited Saga shows a small thumbnail rendering of the cave, forest, or wherever you're supposed be in an upper corner, and keeps static backgrounds running for the duration of the dungeon. If I wanted to play a boardgame, I have plenty in my closet. If I want to use my imagination to visualize a fantasy setting instead of seeing one, I can read any number of books. At what point did Square-Enix forget this was supposed to be a videogame?

Once you actually enter battle, things are just as pathetic as what you endured to get there. Carrying the 2D theme onto the battlefield, your characters are egregiously flat sprites exposed by the screen's zooming and rotation. The visuals here could easily pass for an early PlayStation title rather than the PlayStation 2 game it's supposed to be. If PaRappa The Rapper had a quest mode, it might look like this.

Though certain attacks and enemies display a sporadic smoothness, the game's animation on the whole looks utterly miserable. I've seen more fluid motion on the SNES, and I don't see why the game looks like a five-frames-per-attack slideshow. Is their hyped "Sketch Motion" graphic technique some kind of misguided attempt at abstract performance art, or just a "sketch" of what good animation is supposed to look like?

Graphics aside, battling with the Unlimited Saga system is clunky and completely unintuitive. The battle engine features an insane potluck of disparate elements, almost as if Square-Enix took all of the purged leftovers from ten or fifteen other games and smashed the scraps together to create the unholy videogame sausage that it is.

For starters, the game's battle system is a sadistic joke. From the time you start an encounter to the time the first round ends, it takes no less than fifteen button presses to assign attacks, with five more needed to wank off with a nonsensical wheel that modifies the attack's success. Adding a bit of chance to battles is all well and good, but the wheel spins at about 37,000 RPM. There's not a chance in Hades that you'll be able to use it with any degree of skill, not to mention the fact that it's outrageously tedious to click a button twenty times for each round of battle.

If you can ignore the pain from thumb fatigue, you select five actions in any order from any/all members of your party. After making your choices, you can either let them be performed separately, or try and link them together to form a powerful combo. The key thing to remember here is that you're selecting five actions at once, and once you start the process you have little control. Besides the sheer pointlessness of the wheel business, it's impossible to pull off combos with any degree of consistency because the computer can break your chain at will and hit you with an attack bonus culled from your combo! This is an outright crapshoot. The instruction book explicitly says you should be careful when doing combos, but how can you use caution if you can't prevent interruptions or see them coming? Is crossing your fingers considered acceptable strategy these days?

The rest of the game is just as flaky. Instead of the standard hit point system used in every RPG since the dawn of time, Unlimited Saga implements a mysteriously obtuse two-pronged HP/LP system. In this case, HP is a type of damage buffer, and LP represents your actual hit points. Attacks will deal out seemingly random amounts of damage to either or both values, and I never understood exactly how it was being calculated. Experience and leveling up is also way out in left field, since characters can only access their development after finishing a mission. Instead of leveling up the traditional way, at the end of a scenario you can choose one of four skills to add to a hexagonal chart that displays your character's abilities and skills. It's not very satisfying since every character gets skills that are very similar to each other's, and none seem useful or powerful. Besides the things I just mentioned, there are so many other issues with the game that I can't possibly go over all of them in detail due to lack of space. Straight up, there was nothing about the disc I liked except for the non-playable Final Fantasy X-2 demo (but that just doesn't count.) Sorry, Square-Enix.

Unlimited Saga is so boring and tedious to play that it borders on torture, and I could hardly forget that every minute playing it could have been spent with something far more enjoyable—like getting a double habanero enema followed by a broken glass chaser, or wearing a loincloth made of beef liver and leaping naked into a pit of syphilitic rottweillers.

This random mishmash of substance-free nothingness left me detached and disinterested from start to finish, and I can't believe that Squaresoft let the game make it past the beta stage, much less see full retail release. Unlimited Saga is without a doubt one of the worst games I've played in over twenty years of console gaming, and that's saying something. It looks like the Super NES version of Wizardry finally has some company underneath the bottom of the barrel. Rating: 1.0 out of 10