Some might be surprised to learn that the mind behind Nintendo's popular Fire Emblem games, Shouzou Kaga, hasn't had a hand in making the series for years. Kaga left the series developer, Intelligent Systems, after the release of Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 in 1999, two decades ago as of this writing. He went on to create Tear Ring Saga, a strategy RPG so similar to Fire Emblem, that Nintendo took him to court. After some time away, Kaga is back with Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions, a Japan-exclusive freeware title from 2016. With a new translation by Dangen Entertainment, more people than ever before can experience this adventure by one of the genre's pioneers.
Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions Review | That Throwback Feel
Studio Vestaria Project is the developer behind Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions. Project is an apt name, since this SRPG feels like a passion project by Kaga and the rest of the developers. While Vestaria Saga is incredibly low-budget (it runs on SRPG Studio, which is very similar to RPG Maker) it's evident that there is a lot of love and care put into crafting this game. Artist Mayumi Hirota, know for her work on Fire Emblem: Thracia 776, created the character portraits for an authentic and retro feel. Character art has a weathered and retro look, like they're from an old manga or 1990s anime. Character designs are quite varied too, assuring that every unit you recruit to your party feels like a unique individual.
While yes, the art is excellent, some character portraits feel out of place or inconsistent with the rest of the roster. The lack of consistency within Vestaria Saga is notable with generic enemy units, which don't seem to have as much care put into them as the main cast nor completely match the quality of the main cast. Nitpicking aside, Vestaria Project outdid themselves with the quality of the soundtrack. The word that comes to mind to describe the music, as it does for most of Vestaria Saga, is Fire Emblem-like. The music is as good as much higher budget titles, and its character art has a lot of passion behind it as well. Regardless of your experience with the SRPG genre, you'll be sure to enjoy the tunes and art.
After doing so well in both character design and music, it's an immense letdown that the presentation of the rest of Vestaria Saga leaves much to be desired. Because Vestaria Saga runs on SRPG Studio, it also utilizes pre-made assets that aren't created by Kaga's team. Everything from the textures of buildings and terrain on the maps to character sprites on the field of battle are cheap assets copied into the game. Because of this, I found that the maps can be quite an eyesore sometimes, with the same, ugly texture painted over and over again. When you attack an enemy in Vestaria Saga, it plays out a closeup scene of your unit battling with said enemy. This also soon becomes exhausting to watch, as the scene plays out with your units attacking enemies in what seem to be single digit frames per second. Thankfully, these scenes can be disabled in the options menu.
SRPG Studio holds Vestaria Saga back from a technical standpoint as well. In widescreen, the game stretches to the point of blurring. The default window is no better, shrinking the image to an almost unplayable state. Pressing the Escape button automatically closes out the entire game, so you can lose progress with an accidental push. There is gamepad support, but only if the controller stays activated throughout your play session. SRPG Studio is just a pain, and I can't help but think of how extraordinary Vestaria Saga could be had it used a better engine and handmade sprites.
Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions Review | Familiar Gameplay
The gameplay premise likely sounds similar to SRPG veterans. Players in Vestaria Saga command a lord named Zade, as well as a band of warriors you command from map to map. Your roster of characters will increase as you continue the story, and they grow stronger as you use them in combat. Characters level up and gain increased stats, which allow them to perform better in combat.
Combat isn't exciting by any means. There is no weapon triangle system like in Fire Emblem, where one weapon type is stronger than the other. Your success in battle will come down to stats like strength, which increases attack power, defense, which reduces damage taken from physical attacks such as swords and lances, and more. Like the engine Vestaria Saga runs on, combat feels rote and bare-bones. This is faithful to the series it takes inspiration from, but combat boils down to how much damage your units can do versus how much damage they can stand without dying - and yes, there is permadeath.
While I would have liked combat to be more exciting, the map design more than makes up for it. Kaga is known for these elaborate, insane maps with multiple or even hidden objectives. Maps are puzzles in design, and deliberately so. There are certain ways to tackle objectives in Vestaria Saga, which makes the strategy layer all the more compelling. To begin, map objectives are far more than "kill all enemies" or "survive for this amount of turns." One map required me to escort a fragile wagon to safety while protecting it from an onslaught of bandits. Some maps have multiple objectives, like taking out an enemy leader in one part of it, then taking over a stronghold.
One of my favorite maps, which serves as an exceptional example of how unique they can be, gave me two relatively weak units. My ultimate goal was to kill the enemy leader and occupy an enemy stronghold at the top right of the map. To accomplish this task, I had to recruit other units to my cause by, for example, returning a gem to a defaced gravesite to stop undead attacks. This would rally soldiers to my increasingly large army and allow me to fulfill my objective.
Each map is quite different from the next, but my biggest complaint is that many of these levels are stupidly vast in size and throw curveballs every few turns. As a result, chapters can take anywhere from an hour to several to complete, depending on your skill. I had to take frequent breaks since some of these maps, as clever as they may be, are a slog to get through. It doesn't help that you are thrown hundreds of lines of dialogue before, during, and after battles, making things drag.
Vestaria Saga might sound daunting to some players, and it is a difficult game to some extent. I do really appreciate that Kaga and his team made it relatively accessible to newcomers or less serious players of the genre. There are two difficulty options: Orthodox and Clemency. Orthodox is the base Vestaria Saga experience that veteran players are likely to enjoy. The latter - which I unabashedly picked - is easier by giving players increased experience gain and a stat boost when one of the game's main characters, Athol, is on the battlefield. This is a unique approach to difficulty rather than weakening units or increasing the intelligence of AI. Furthermore, in both difficulties, you have the option to save every five turns, which means that mistakes are easily fixed. Vestaria Saga is actually more accessible for those who might be reserved about the genre's notorious difficulty curve.
Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions Review | Final Thoughts
The story of Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions is conveyed through an excellent translation. I did not find any errors despite the 2016 release being in Japanese only. Dangen Entertainment had a serious undertaking, as this game contains what feels like a novel's length of dialogue. Story-wise though, it is relatively generic. A continent is embroiled in war, and your young hero needs to save it. The plot is very political in nature, with a lot of the key characters prattling back and forth. Character-wise, I can't say any of them were particularly memorable either - not even the main character, Zade, who was just an uninteresting noble.
Vestaria Saga does boil down to being a game held back by its bare bones, clunky engine, and ugly graphics. While the maps are mostly interesting puzzles with a lot of strategy involved, combat isn't as exciting as Fire Emblem or even the recent Wargroove. If you can look past those flaws, though, you have a game passionately made by industry veterans with cleverly-made maps, awesome portrait art, an absolutely awesome retro soundtrack, and a lot of love and care thrown in.
TechRaptor reviewed Vestaria Saga I: War of the Scions on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Mayumi Hirota's Character Art
- Great Throwback Soundtrack
- Interesting Map Objectives
- Quality Translation
- SRPG Studio
- Some Maps Are Too Large
- Relatively Uninteresting Combat Mechanics