SaGa Emerald Beyond review: The strangest journey in JRPGs is far from over

Final Fantasy's weird, younger sibling is weirder and wilder than ever.


Since 1989, SaGa has been one of Square Enix’s oddest and most enduring series, finding new ways to innovate and, frankly, alienate genre fans in ways the bigger, blockbuster franchises could never. Director Akitoshi Kawazu has been at the helm the entire time, giving a sense of evolution and continuity of ideas almost unheard of in video games and especially in RPGs. Emerald Beyond is the latest, and the first brand new entry in SaGa since the PlayStation Vita. A lot has happened in that time, from a world-disrupting pandemic to a rejuvenated interest in old school gaming conventions outside of Japan. This game has even challenged me, a veteran sicko who has grown to love these games and all their quirks. But can I challenge Square Enix’s broader audience, in good faith, to give Emerald Beyond a shot?

A multiverse melody

Choosing a protagonist in saga emerald beyond
Source: Square Enix

Over the years SaGa has explored modular RPG structure and anthology-style storytelling, and Emerald Beyond is the latest step up that ladder. Your first task is to choose a protagonist, which sets you on a path that is totally distinct from the others. Each character leads a unique scenario, with a totally distinct premise, starting location, initial party members, and in some cases even gameplay mechanics. After the introduction you’ll find yourself traveling to disparate worlds through a sort of cosmic network, encountering further sets of isolated story vignettes as you pursue your greater goals.

The collection of characters and scenarios before you do an excellent job presenting the kind of unhinged, but calculated madness that SaGa embodies. Your options run the gamut from relatively straightforward to completely absurd, and the additional scenarios you encounter along your journey only get weirder and bolder. One starting point seems normal, putting you in the shoes of a couple rookie cops in a near-future urban setting. But it isn’t long before your party is filled in by a litter of literal cats, and you find yourself running around in a mysterious, robotic research station performing tasks for interstellar mad scientists. Other protagonists start knee-deep in wackiness, such as a famous diva whose consciousness has been implanted into a mech.

The space between worlds in saga emerald beyond
Source: Square Enix

Opening a new door is exciting in SaGa Emerald Beyond, because you truly have no idea what to expect next. And each step is weird, totally different from the last, and can have you doing all kinds of mental and physical legwork as you try to piece together what to do, what the heck is going on, or simply vibe and let the adventure wash over you. You may be confused at times, but you’ll certainly never be bored.

Combat is a combo cacophony

While returning SaGa sickos may recognize Emerald Beyond’s general visual style and combat UI from the previous title Scarlet Grace, things are very different. Emerald Beyond’s combat is aggressive, unpredictable, and extremely challenging. At a base level there’s a timeline system that lets you observe turn order, but that order quickly falls to pieces as you choose your moves and react to what the enemies do. Lining your own moves up gives you combos and potential bonuses, but the enemies get to follow the same rules. A turn that looks great for you can just as easily fall to pieces, as an ill-timed enemy move, random skill proc, or simple unforeseen consequence can tip the scales to a game over. It’s like Shin Megami Tensei mixed with a brutal game of Tug of War, and I’m still wrapping my head around it after dozens of hours of playtime. It’s thrilling and frustrating all at the same time, which ultimately feels like a testament to a significant level of depth.

A look at combat in saga emerald beyond
Source: Square Enix

While combat is on a whole new level of creative deviance, character progression and party building is classic SaGa through and through. Sometimes these games veer off the path and try new things, but Emerald Beyond feels like a culmination of previous ideas and innovations all brought together in one bag of tricks. Stats randomly go up after battle, characters randomly learn new moves (or this time, slight modifications as well), and other elements of meta progression are more pronounced than ever. If you are willing to put the time and effort in, and aren’t afraid of reacting to heavy RNG, the potential for making a team that truly feels like the fruit of your labor is huge. This is often my favorite aspect of SaGa as a series and Emerald Beyond may have found a new peak.

Pen, paper, and pixels

SaGa’s distinct mechanics historically come from, well, the history of JRPGs. All the way back to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, these games came from a desire to replicate the vibes of pen and paper, tabletop RPG games but with the streamlined approachability of console video games. Simplistically grinding EXP and levels was one way, while SaGa took a different path with incremental growth based on ability use, participating in combat, and grit. This drive has reflected in the games’ structures in distinct ways over the years as well. Having these anthology-like, contained scenarios within larger plots is a piece of it. Primitive “open world” stylings governed by subtle event flags and missable content factor in as well, engineered to make players feel like small pieces of a world that moves without them.

The board game-style world map in saga emerald beyond
Source: Square Enix

Scarlet Grace and now Emerald Beyond refined those ideas further, whittling down a lot of the blockbuster flourish and linear narrative movement from its peers into something that more closely resembles a literal game board. Your 3D characters move around a 2.5D plane, entering locations that look like parts of a pop-up book. In Scarlet Grace there was a lot of variability, with events popping up and activating seemingly at random, with minimal guideposting. Emerald Beyond attempts to place some guardrails to help players feel like their time is more respected, with spaces only being interactable if there’s something to do. This ends up both a blessing and a curse, eliminating some of that sense of emergent discovery in exchange for less potential meandering.

The biggest drawback there is it makes grinding feel a lot more like busywork, because you’ll often have to camp out in front of the one combat space you have available at a given moment. This can really get bad towards the latter parts of a story, where you can get stuck with the last boss fight and one room to fight in, unable to proceed until you get just strong enough. It’s a momentum-killer, and at one point I found myself forced to choose between toughing that out or starting over. For the sake of the review, I chose the latter, but I felt the sting of not having an intermittent “new game plus” choice like in other SaGa games.

Godforsaken gear grinding

A look at stats and gear (on a cat) in saga emerald beyond
Source: Square Enix

Another aspect that rubbed me the wrong way is another result of Emerald Beyond’s attempt at streamlining Scarlet Grace’s structure. Before, getting items and upgrading equipment was more broad; you had shops you could visit that specialized in certain elements, and multiple combat spaces to seek out different item drops with bespoke combat objectives for bonus drops. I liked this style, and really don’t like the new replacement.

Now, there’s a trading system that simply sits in the game’s menu, which has me offering up my own items in exchange for a small, random set of return choices that appear after a battle or location change. This makes upgrading equipment bizarrely tedious, something I was actually surprised to see in a SaGa game. Usually there’s more creativity or ways to roll with the RNG that feel productive; here it feels restrictive and arbitrary, especially since you’re often locked to one spot on a map at a time. It makes getting backed into corners feel even more frustrating, as I’m forced to both grind stats and play a slot machine for better gear at the same time!

The SaGa canon

These games have a reputation, at least over in the English-speaking parts of the world, for being difficult. Not just difficult as in hard, but difficult to approach, to understand, to enjoy. There are lots of reasons for that, but the million-dollar question I get asked by friends and peers whenever a new SaGa drops is, “is this a good starting point?” No matter what the answer is, there’s going to be an inevitable moment at which a new player runs into friction they aren’t accustomed to. That’s just a fact. And while there are games I’d recommend to start with over others, there are plenty of folks out there who played SaGa Frontier first and instantly clicked with it. This is the kind of series we’re dealing with here.

One of the main characters in saga emerald beyond - she turns into a mech
Source: Square Enix

Even so, yeah, you can jump into SaGa Emerald Beyond for your first experiment with SaGa. This game has a distinct voice even among its own series, it has a carefree attitude that is expertly localized, a fearlessness when it comes to being silly and weird without being too obtuse for comfort. That goes a long way, especially with how bizarre the different starting points can be. We exist in a world that has finally seen and acknowledged the truth of Live A Live, a game with very similar storytelling philosophies. If you bought what that game was selling, sit your butt down in front of SaGa Emerald Beyond, and think about what a more modern (but in some ways more simple) game that speaks a similar language looks like. Be prepared for things to be a little off-center: not hard to understand, but to feel comfortable with.

A small example of how weird saga games can be
Source: Square Enix

This is a game that wants you to tinker and fail, before you “get it”. It’s also a game explicitly designed to be different every time you pick it up. With its disregard for convention and disinterest in “quality of life” guidelines, you could have a rough start. But there’s so much going on under the hood, so much charm in its presentation and fearlessness in its design, it’s easy to recommend even to folks who might be looking at me like a weirdo right now. SaGa Emerald Beyond comes with caveats like any other JRPG that isn’t the usual Final Fantasy or Persona blockbuster, but those caveats are in service of an experience you won’t find anywhere else.

SaGa Emerald Beyond is available on April 25, 2024 for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5, PC, and mobile platforms. A PS5 version code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Contributing Editor

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favorites include Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mystery Dungeon. He's far too rattled with ADHD to care about world-building lore but will get lost for days in essays about themes and characters. Holds a journalism degree, which makes conversations about Oxford Commas awkward to say the least. Not a trophy hunter but platinumed Sifu out of sheer spite and got 100 percent in Rondo of Blood because it rules. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas being curmudgeonly about Square Enix discourse and occasionally saying positive things about Konami.

Review for
SaGa Emerald Beyond
  • Modular structure is a success; myriad variables ensure a consistently fresh experience
  • Off the charts level of weirdness and silliness that somehow circles around to charm
  • SaGa normally does character and party building well; Emerald Beyond exceeds expectations
  • The most distinct series in Square Enix's library continues to stand out
  • Attempts to streamline from the previous game can sometimes backfire into tedium
  • Doesn't have the pseudo new game plus function from SaGa remasters, which would've been nice
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