It's not over until EVERYONE sings.

Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- Remastered provides JRPG fans yet another opportunity to learn from whence the genre came. I’m always wary of doing this. Often, remastered games look odd, lack modern RPG conveniences, and/or rely on grinding or replays for longevity. To a degree, all three happen here.

Although Romancing SaGa 2 and 3 have been available for Switch for quite some time, this is my first experience with the series. It’s actually the best place to start. Although it looks more modern than 2 and 3 on the Switch, Minstrel Song is a remaster of a remake of the first Romancing SaGa game.

The remaster gives players more than just a visual upgrade, but a lot of the enhancements will be lost on gamers who haven’t played Minstrel Song in a previous incarnation. A sorceress named Aldora now gets her own events, but I wouldn’t have known she didn’t have those before. I wouldn’t have known Schele, Monica, and others couldn’t be recruited. And the new inclusion of mini-maps and a high-speed mode just feel like things that most games have now.

Still, they’re a welcome attempt to help modern players feel comfortable with a game originally released in 1992 when RPGs were a very different thing. Minstrel Song makes this known right away, asking gamers to select from one of eight characters to begin the journey. You’ll eventually play as all eight, but their skills and approaches are so different that not picking wisely could turn you off from attempting with anyone else. I originally picked a pirate because I thought he looked the coolest, and was immediately thrust into a world that didn’t make much sense to me. Battles were confusing. Exploration was aimless. Nothing grabbed me or provided incentive to move forward.

So, I started over as Albert, a more standard warrior with a more standard character arc. I guess I found that comforting as I wrestled with Romancing SaGa’s approach to…well, everything. But even after using Albert to grow accustomed to gameplay, I was still sometimes confused and frustrated when switching over to another character. I can handle mastering different skills and strategies. I’m not as good with wildly unbalanced abilities. You may often find yourself wondering, “Who let this person go out on an adventure?”

Also, some of the character arcs just aren’t all that compelling. They happen simultaneously within the timeline and often intersect. Minstrel Song is much like Octopath Traveller in that regard, but the latter never left me feeling like I was learning a whole new game. A light story about evil deities, sacrifice, Fatestones, and the dreaded 1,000th anniversary of some big thing tie the characters together, and it’s up to the gamer to position them properly for their part in the play.

The difference with this setup is that the game doesn’t drive in one obvious direction. You’re meant to explore. This is fine, except that you may end up being punished if you don’t explore properly. Character upgrades are handled by acquiring classes that open up weapon and skill proficiencies, but you have to be trained in these classes, and it’s possible to completely miss the training.

I would need three paragraphs to properly explain it all, so I’ll instead just point out it’s possible to miss the side stories that help you master these classes. And considering the classes provide basic features such as the ability to jump high enough to access otherwise closed-off areas, you’re just going to have to come to terms with missing a lot of stuff.

As such, I wrestled with using a walkthrough for Minstrel Song. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything important, but getting a guide through this game is counter to its entire point. Explore, dammit! Make do with what you find and push ahead. Remember what you accidentally closed off and tackle it in the New Game+. You’re not supposed to hit 100% completion in your first playthrough. Not even close. Playing through each character doesn’t take that long when compared to today’s JRPGs, so expect to do so multiple times if you really want to experience the game to its fullest.

Even if you don’t, Minstrel Song can still be rewarding. Because you’re constantly able to recruit new characters, the battles tend to feel fresh throughout, even while grinding.

Perhaps more important, the frustration you’ll feel at being trapped with no clear progression leads to a greater sense of relief when you finally unlock the next area. Unlike some of the more recent JRPGs I’ve played, the battles and exploration are the point of Minstrel Song, not just something to break up the elaborate cinematic cutscenes.

Speaking of cinematics, I feel like I also need to talk about the visuals, which are…weird. The remastered graphics provide sharp details and colors on the characters, but they look odd against the smudged backgrounds. The characters also have a chibi-style appearance that makes them look like dolls, in a way; the kind that would scare you if you could see them sitting on the shelf at night. Still, I appreciate any deviation from the overused retro 16-bit and over-hyped HD-2D visual styles, so I had no problem here.

I knew as I was playing through Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- Remastered that it was going to be a difficult game to rate. It’s not really fair for me to punish a game for being different from what I want and expect a JRPG to be. Square Enix updated it enough to make players like me more comfortable with its general approach, but it’s still a game that demands you take it for what it is. It’ll stump you. It’ll leave you wandering. It’ll make you regret earlier decisions. Then, just when you’re wondering what’s the point, it’ll unveil something new to invite you forward. I just wish those invitations were more compelling.