So some games are always going to be cult.
We know hardcore roguelikes are never going to become popular like Call of Duty. And there's probably a case to be made that RPGs will never quite become truly popular outside of one or two titles a year. There is an argument to be made that these few games that are popular developed a following over years, but nevertheless we can say that there are RPGs that have a level of popularity.
Then there's a game like SaGa Frontier. Even though I had heard it was a unique game, I didn't really understand how unique. A year ago or so I started reading the wikipedia page for experience points. Probably one of the nerdier things I've done, but it breaks down like this: level up, activity based, and free form are the 3 main ways characters progress.
So everyone is aware of leveling up. You finally finish off enough quests or battles and you gain a level, which comes with stat gains. This is your progress, there might be other systems in place, like weapons that require a certain level, or areas that won't let lower level players in.
Activity is a bit more popular now, the Elder Scrolls is no small part of that change. You want to become a better archer? Engage in combat with the bow, you want to smith better gear? Smith your own gear and over time you'll have higher skill in smithing. Though Skyrim mixes this with a level up after acrueing enough points which it then allows you to buy skills with those level-up points.
That's much more like a free-form system though. Think Dark Souls, you choose what your levels go to, so that you build a character. Though another system that is important to understand is the hybrids, like Skyrim lots of games sort of pick and choose what they want to use. Most of the time this stuff is done behind the scenes for a number of reasons, from keeping a good difficulty curve to curbing behavior that hurts players.
This stuff is usually behind the scenes, but sometimes a game comes along requiring players to understand these elements. SaGa Frontier is one of those games.
Let's just look at my experience leading up to my own "aha" moment. I'm playing Blue's scenario, the game is made up of 7 different scenarios, each of which allows for loads of creativity. Well, the first screen after picking Blue I get the lowdown of his scenario: to attempt to master a bunch of different types of magic before Rouge does.
That doesn't seem so difficult, just like becoming the archmage in Skyrim, right? In SF magic is bifurcated, each magic has a contrasting type that won't work if you try to learn both. So that concept immediately cut my work in half, if I can't learn all the magic I'm going to get out of this thing with half the work. Genius.
But they split the magic up really well, one class of magic might have a good buffing technique while it's opposition has a good healing spell. There is a constant sense of trade off going on.
The first thing I do is go to a city to try and master my first spell. I look at the shops, I see what the sense of the environment is, and then I decide to go after some enemies. The game doesn't have random battles, more or less. It's like a modern Persona game: if you can avoid the enemy you won't have to fight it. But it's way more difficult to avoid than a Persona game, often requiring you to have moved through an area several times to understand how to avoid the baddies.
Which brings us to battle rank. The more enemies you fight the higher your battle rank goes. You can basically tackle the game in any order, so the game staggers the monsters you fight based on how many battles you've engaged in.
You really can't grind in this game. Character progression is fairly complicated, and not to even mention the confusing elements.
Humans are generally good at magic, sword and gun techniques, maybe even martial arts. Now some people no matter how hard you train they won't learn certain skills, or they'll take a tremendously long time to grow. This is the sort of stuff that this game leaves going on behind the scenes. Characters grow based on what they do in battle, so if you use magic your magic pool will grow, and your spell vocabulary, same with weapon skills.
If you want skills to grow you need to fight tougher opponents, because...well just because. Just imagine more stuff going on in the background though this time you really don't want to know. The basics are: play a character how they should be played, if you pick someone up for magic use them for magic, don't grow their sword techniques. If you fight too many enemies that can't land a hit on you then when you actually deal with tough enemies you might not have enough HP to take a hit.
So you really can't grind. Which makes the game special. If you've played RPGs before you've probably hit a wall in one before and grinding got you past it. Then in your next game you decided to avoid that wall by grinding from the beginning. SaGa Frontier is anti that behavior. Move forward at all costs. If you can't beat a boss after a couple of tries then engage in extra battles, but if that's not happening you really need to keep your number of battles down.
Humans are just one type of character. The first other race I found was Mystic. Mystics look like humans, they can wear the same gear more or less, but they don't grow the same way. They can raise their amount of HP and whatnot by battling, but you want to use their mystic powers to absorb enemy skills.
The extreme of this is a Monster. Monsters don't use the same gear as people, they don't grow stats the same way, and they don't really even compare. Monsters have the option to absorb an enemy skill at the end of battle. You then move their skills around on the ability menu, and they literally change all their characteristics based on this. Some of their stats gradually grow based on how many enemies they've absorbed, but based on how you set up your monster their stats can vary wildly from one setup to the next.
I was running around with my monster at over 400 HP, and then by absorbing one skill they had gone back to 220. However, there is a lot of creativity involved in powering up a monster. If you know what you're doing you can do some great stuff and basically make a super being. Again, this class reminds the player that progression isn't just about completing battles and quests but actually developing your character over time.
The last class are the Mecs. They grow by absorbing mecs you fight. They have the best set up for equipment slots, basically being able to wear enough full suits of armor to have 99 defense almost out of the gate. But character progression is more than having 99 def and 99 str and 750 hp, they can take a long time to gain their skills.
The diversity of classes feels overwhelming at first, but over time it really means you never feel like a battle is wasted. Maybe its an opportunity to grow your monster, or maybe you're fighting a mec so there's a chance you'll grow that character some. Not to mention the replayability. All these different scenarios, all these options each time, it spits in the face of the idea most RPGs seem to have of level your way to being a hero and use the most powerful skills to rain death on your enemies.
One of the ways they keep combat engaging from the start is the combo system. Again this is one of those elements going on behind the scenes that makes almost no sense, but if 2 attacks have the right qualities and come one after another the characters will attack at the same time for loads of damage. Even if you're having problems with a boss you could probably just use a combo to deal with the situation rather than getting a few more random battles.
SaGa Frontier really deserves the praise it gets from it's loyal fans, but it speaks to a bigger idea in games of how mechanics create meaning. Though the amount of stuff going on behind the scenes can drive you mad as you begin, once you start to see how the pieces fall into place you realize that it's a free form experience that doesn't demand you play a certain way though it does reward focus and creativity. The game wants players to re-examine the notions that most RPG gamers take for granted.
The instruction manual doesn't hint at any of this. Like a good roguelike you really need to jump in and get wiped out a few times before everything takes shape. But the moments after the player finally figures out how the game works are kind of magical and reform how every RPG should be viewed.