Akitoshi Kawazu is to RPGs what Treasure is to action games. That is to say, his gimmick is to take a genre, fold it in on itself, amplify certain aspects and traits, and come away with distinctive creations that appeal primarily to deeply hardcore fans. Both build dense, mechanics-driven works that aren’t immediately intuitive at a glance. You can’t just pick up and play a game by either Treasure or Kawazu; you have to spend time with them, trip through them via trial-and-error, and come to terms with what they expect of you.
There is an important difference between the two, though. Treasure commands the deep and abiding loyalty of a cadre of dedicated fans. On the other hand, you’ll probably never hear anyone loudly proclaim themselves a die-hard fan of Kawazu. Not to say his work doesn’t have fans, or that people don’t respect his idiomatic approach to RPG design. But it’s not a point of pride for anyone, and you won’t see fan sites dedicated specifically to his work the way you do for Treasure.
Why the difference? It’s not an issue of quality—to my mind, both make very good games. More importantly, they make very unique and original games, traits far less common than mere quality. They both parse their respective genres in very distinctive ways and offer up works of exceptional depth for those with the patience and determination to fully grasp their intricacies. Neither is the problem visibility; Kawazu has been involved with some of the biggest RPG franchises to come from Japan, including SaGa, Seiken Densetsu, and of course Final Fantasy.
No, the real issue at work here is one of genre. Treasure deals with action games, primarily shooters and platformers, while Kawazu works entirely with RPGs. A Treasure action game requires some investment of time and an open mind, sure, but the commitment necessary to come to terms with the likes of Bangai-O Spirits is considerably less than it takes to begin to understand the intricacies of something like Unlimited Saga. You can muck around in Bangai-O, make some small progress, jump around to different levels, dabble a bit, and eventually come to a proper understanding of how things fit together without feeling like you’ve made any permanent mistakes.
Unlimited Saga, on the other hand, doesn’t seem so forgiving. It’s an RPG, so the game is a lengthy quest, with each chapter building on the last and a character’s fortunes depending to some degree on their earlier experiences. When the first five hours of a 20-hour experience are spent fumbling with game mechanics and trying to figure out just what on earth is actually happening, you’re inevitably left with the sensation that you’ve made a terrible mistake, wasted five hours of your life, and need to start over from scratch if you want to have a hope of success later.
In other words, Kawazu’s games don’t take into account the need for a learning curve. In some ways, that’s part of their charm; on the other hand, five hours is a lot of time to have to toss out. In the time it takes for Unlimited Saga to properly click, you could have finished Ikaruga five times over and completely mastered its color-based mechanics. Five hours into a Treasure game, you have a keen sense of its specific design. Five hours into a Kawazu game, you probably have a broken party that needs to be thrown out. Five hours is basic-level mastery in a Treasure game, zero real progress in a Kawazu RPG. No wonder people hate his work.
And yet, in many ways, Kawazu’s creations may be the closest thing to the original vision of RPGs anyone in the industry is developing, outside of maybe some obscure Eastern European publisher that makes 200-hour dice-driven PC RPGs. One gets the impression that he’s a man who spent a lot of time drawing up character build sheets during college, but instead of channeling this love for tabletop RPGs into grand retellings of his favorite campaigns (a la Record of Lodoss War) he instead decided to build a career on trying to convey tabletop mechanics in video game form with as little transparency as possible.
On the other hand, it’s also entirely possible the dude never even heard of an RPG until Dragon Quest came along and just likes doing things the hard way.
That’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that Unlimited Saga is probably the single most Kawazu-ish game Kawazu has ever produced. Curiously, its title separates it slightly from the SaGa series—the G in “Saga” is quite deliberately left in the lower case here. This is in itself a sign: as obscure as the SaGa games tend to be, Unlimited Saga makes them look as accessible as Mass Effect 2.
Therein lies the first problem. Unlimited Saga can’t be approached like your usual console RPG. It has a cast of characters and shops and skills and equipment and random encounters, sure, but none of them are presented in the standard fashion. You never once take control of a bunch of sprites and wander around towns and world maps; the entire game is menu-driven. That’s hardly unusual for a tactical RPG, but for a game that -- at its most basic level -- works the same as a standard Final Fantasy derivative, well, it’s a little off-putting.
As has been noted before in the pages of GameSpite Quarterly, the video game RPG is ultimately a distillation of classic tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. The scenario writer and the battle planner are a sort of double-team ersatz dungeon master, leading the player through a story and throwing lots of conflict into the mix along the way. Dice rolls are replaced by invisible random number generators, and other players are supplanted by guild or party members. The genre has fallen into a comfortable groove of what works: consoles are great at throwing out numbers yet not so good at simulating the experience of working with other humans, so the combat mechanics have grown ever more complex while narrative has become generally more linear.
Unlimited Saga falls into this pattern as well, but what sets it apart is the way its components are presented. Here it’s the process of exploration that becomes invisible, as the characters’ journeys are depicted in the most abstract terms possible: Dungeons and fields resemble a board game obscured by fog-of-war. On the other hand, those virtual dice are brought front-and-center, and practically every action you take has to be rolled for in the form of multi-layered reels, which are basically just slot machines laid bare. You choose an action—be it opening a treasure chest or laying down a super combo on an enemy party -- and your success is determined by the random results of your reel selections. Meanwhile, fundamental information, like how to develop your group’s abilities and the progression of your characters’ skill upgrades, falls somewhere between “never properly explained” and “utterly opaque and impossible to control.”
In short, it’s not a very friendly RPG, and its unfriendliness doesn’t take the form of Etrian Odyssey’s brutal indifference. At least that game gives players all the information they need along with a tremendous sense of agency. When you lose in Etrian Odyssey, you know it’s because you blew it. When you lose in Unlimited Saga, you’re usually left scratching your head and wondering what the hell just happened.
The game does at least become somewhat more approachable if you understand the underpinnings of the SaGa system. Despite that lower-case G, Unlimited Saga still draws heavily from Kawazu’s flagship project. Like Romancing SaGa and SaGa Frontier, the story is presented through seven different heroes and heroines whose personal tales criss-cross and overlap. Characters learn skills (randomly) by using weapons and develop combos (randomly) with comrades using (so untelegraphed as to be random) skills in concert. Light bulbs flash at the moment of inspiration, and X and O marks depict weaknesses and resistances. And, of course, there are the ever-maddening Life Points, which determine a character’s survivability in combat and, once depleted, mean you’ve lost a party member forever. Again, none of these mechanics are explained clearly in the course of the game; the player is left to figure them out on his own.
Like I said, it’s not a friendly RPG. The funny thing is that it looks inviting. The color palette is predominantly pastel, with actions played out through beautifully drawn sprites on lush backdrops. Square developed a special kind of cel shading for Unlimited Saga, the Sketch Motion system, which helped the game look like brush-painted concept art come to life a few years before Capcom had ever said word one about Okami. And the soundtrack was composed by the brilliant Masashi Hamauzu, lending the game a uniquely beautiful sound that’s at once delicate and pastoral yet sleek and electronic.
You can’t help but admire the game’s cast as well—they’re fantastically diverse for a Japanese RPG and shatter a great many clichés and stereotypes. Sure, you have Ventus, your typical angsty yet beautiful young man out for vengeance. On the other hand, you also have Laura, a mature woman who is one of the most competent warriors in the game yet in no way sexualized. Unfortunately, even the best of the characters fall prey to the game’s super-minimal presentation, and Unlimited Saga is yet another of the countless annoying Japanese RPGs that cheap out and present all their dialogue by shuffling character portraits around rather than actually animating interactive models. Kind of undermines all the work the developers poured into developing the game’s fancy visual style.
But, well, that’s Unlimited Saga in a nutshell, really. On some level, it’s an attempt to rethink how the video game RPG presents the original concepts of D&D and its ilk. And it’s really not entirely unique in that regard -- on some level, it almost plays like the sort of thing you’d expect to come from Sting (the one developer who could give Kawazu a run for his money as the Treasure of RPGs). And there really is an interesting game to be unearthed in Unlimited Saga, a take on the role-playing genre quite unlike anything else.
The problem is that, watercolor visuals aside, Square did practically nothing to sell anyone on the game. It’s not just an issue of marketing, either; Unlimited Saga itself is dense and practically impenetrable. Kawazu and company sought to return to the origins of the RPG, which is all well and good, but they regressed a little too much and forgot to incorporate the niceties that modern games have brought to the genre. They took an excessively purist approach, getting rid of everything that defines an RPG these days, when some of the things we’ve come to expect from the genre makes a modern game vastly more enjoyable to play than the merciless brutality of an early Wizardry title. Even its “sink or swim” learning curve doesn’t have to be quite so binary; again, one need look only to Etrian Odyssey to see a better way to revisit the classic RPG format without abandoning 30 years of progress along the way.
This all-or-nothing mindset makes Unlimited Saga a deeply flawed yet deeply fascinating work. It’s the very definition of a cult game, a genre turned on its side, stripped down to its bare components, and rebuilt as the bastard child of a long-running B-tier franchise. If nothing else, you have to admire the bull-headedness of its existence; Kawazu reputedly produced this game well aware that no one would like it yet was determined to make it happen anyway. I don’t know if that makes it a vanity project or simply the passionate vision of a crazy man, but either way Unlimited Saga is not a game that one simply picks up and plays. One picks it up, plays it, wonders what the hell is going on, gets a few hours into the game, and either experiences an epiphany and starts over from scratch or just shrugs and trades it for something a lot less opaque.
I can’t help but admire that on some level. In fact, I think I need to revise my opening statement. I’m not sure how much I like Unlimited Saga, but I’m definitely a fan of Akitoshi Kawazu. Hope it’s OK if I skip the whole fansite thing, though.