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Review: SaGa Emerald Beyond (Switch) – Diverse But Dull RPG Boosted By Excellent Combat

The SaGa titles are part of a series that started life as , named to capitalise on Square’s blossoming juggernaut. Despite being separate creative endeavours, the two franchises have grown up together. While never achieving the superstar status of its sibling, SaGa has carved its own niche over the years. The franchise has healthy representation on Nintendo Switch, with the original Game Boy releases sitting alongside 2019’s .

Mechanically similar to Scarlet Grace, is a comfortable experience for series veterans. It also sees series creator Akitoshi Kawazu return to writing and directing duties, which should delight fans.

Given agency over your destiny from the start, you are presented a choice between five protagonists. Each has their own origin, unique narrative, and core party members.

After an initial tutorial chapter, they all find themselves in The Junction, a nexus between several themed worlds. No matter who you choose, this hub and its connecting environments will be the same, but story and character interactions are unique to the chosen hero. You can also tackle the worlds in any order, making multiple playthroughs feel fresh. Each plot and party composition offers interesting spins on a central story.

Some stories benefit from more coherent storytelling and better dialogue than others, however. Siugnas is a colourfully dressed but dour vampire lord whose tale starts off confusing and doesn’t get much more accessible. Conversely, Bonnie and Formina’s is a simple tale of two cop buddies chasing a criminal into The Junction alongside a team of monster-summoning cats. Your mileage with the writing will depend on how much you engage with these traditional sci-fi fantasy tropes.

The general flow of the game doesn’t really change across adventures, there’s a consistent loop of story progression and combat encounters. The odd puzzle and story-shifting player choice shake things up a bit.

As you travel the worlds of The Junction, you will navigate semi-interactive overworld maps. The areas themselves are largely superficial, crisp but lifeless dioramas with distinct art styles. Moving across the map is rudimentary, with the occasional navigation quirk and brief text box to explain landmarks.

Each world has its semi-self-contained plot, tangentially linked to the machinations of a shadowy group of antagonists. In one, you’ll be tracking down experimental quantum felines, another sees you take sides in a religious turf war. Along the way you’ll pick up new additions to your retinue from each dimension and further the overarching plot.

Unique and complex battle systems are usually where the SaGa franchise shines, and Emerald Beyond refines the satisfying turn order from previous titles. Reminiscent of ’s queue system, party members and enemies are distributed across a timeline. Your characters utilise a formation that you can tweak before battle. Each action shifts allies’ position on the timeline, putting them behind or ahead of an opposing attack. Actions that meet or overlap on the timeline will trigger a combo, which in turn fills an overdrive meter. Overdrive is often key in turning the tide of battle as it will chain a free combo to the one just executed, for massive potential damage. Additionally, characters can counter or defend adjacent allies, depending on their timeline position. You can always view the enemy actions prior to taking your turn, removing the frustration of unpredictability.

Actions consume battle points (BP) that increase on each turn, so smart fights will see you chipping away at the enemy line, waiting to unleash a full squad of powerful attacks in a row. Organising a strategy for each turn is consistently engaging, and encounters are varied enough that your party tactics will frequently change. Some attacks need to be channelled across turns, status effects can change the order of action, and smart use of BP is paramount.

A full-team combo feels great to pull off (it’s also given a silly-sounding portmanteau combining the names of each attack), but distributing two or three combos across the timeline is an equally viable strategy. Characters left lagging apart from the group get an extra powerful salvo of attacks to compensate for being alone.

If all this sounds a bit complex, the stop-start nature of battles affords you the time to take stock and plan the next combination of abilities. You will find yourself delving into the hint glossary in the opening hours, but soon enough everything clicks.

It’s unfortunate that Emerald Beyond only really excels in those combat encounters. The Junction and its connecting worlds are visually diverse but empty. Moving the plot forward consists of visiting each place, completing a series of combat encounters linked by static dialogue sequences, and working towards a resolution that usually nets you an extra party member and some upgrade materials. Rinse, repeat, move on. The TRON-like Quissatium group connects up the plot, but even they don’t have much of an impact on the story until the later stages.

Progression is no more complex than navigating menus and spending materials on upgrades. Cyclopic franchise mascot Mr. S offers trials and tutelage that reward specific combat milestones and boost core party abilities. This gets a bit interesting when you can teach party members to become tutors, adding versatility to party growth.

The lack of a Japanese audio track stings. Localisation is fine, but some of the voice acting can be jarring. Tsunanori and Ameya are particularly egregious examples of grating fantasy RPG archetypes. Diva Number 5’s mournful Scottish tones are by far the strongest, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that an original language track would improve the material.

Despite some of the best SaGa adventures being built for home consoles, Emerald Beyond feels like an experience created for handheld devices. The gaps in presentation are less glaring when undocked, and there’s a pick-up-and-play rhythm to its disparate storylines and quick battles. The combat itself looks flashy and runs smoothly, which is good because the battlefield is where you’ll be spending most of your time in The Junction.

Audio and presentation gripes aside, the many biomes of The Junction and the stories of our eclectic band of heroes offer a freedom of choice missing from most linear JRPGs. The writing, replete with callbacks to previous titles, will be embraced by fans of the series. For newcomers, as convoluted as the plotting can be, and as bland the characterisation of its protagonists, there is enough content here that something will pull you into SaGa’s 30-year legacy.