REVIEW: ‘SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions’ is a World of Difficulty (PS4)

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Art and title of Saga Scarlet Grace: Ambitions

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions is a JRPG co-developed by Square Enix and Studio Reel. The first SaGa game, entitled Makai Toushi SaGa, came out in Japan in 1989 on Game Boy and later made its way to North America, rebranding itself as Final Fantasy Legend to capitalize on the other franchise’s success. Scarlet Grace: Ambitions is an expanded port of the series’ twelfth entry. Originally released on PlayStation Vita in 2016 as just Scarlet Grace, the updated version arrived on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Android, and iOS in December of 2019.

The story of Scarlet Grace: Ambitions is rather complex and often felt like jumping headfirst into a Lord of the Rings book for the first time. Plus, there are four distinct main characters, each with their own personal storyline. However, the basic premise is the same for all characters. Every 150 years, the Fire Bringer and his demons would appear and wreak havoc on the world. As a result, people formed a powerful Empire to fight back against the monsters. The Empire finally defeated the Fire Bringer after his seventh attack, falling into ruin shortly afterward. The game begins 70 years after the Empire’s collapse. Dangerous monsters still exist and each playable character has a different goal for their relatively new nation.

Hypothetically, this doesn’t sound too difficult to understand. In fact, at first glance, it seems like a pretty generic JRPG story. Unlike most JRPGs, however, which tend to have hours of story-related dialogue, Scarlet Grace: Ambitions never tells you anything directly. You need to figure it out and piece it together yourself. Initially, I thought this was a major flaw with the game since I was hours into it and still didn’t understand what was going on. As I played more, though, it finally clicked – the goal of the game isn’t to drown you in story, but to make you feel immersed in the world.

As a result, Scarlet Grace is a phenomenal experience in terms of worldbuilding and exploring a fantasy land. On the other hand, unfortunately, once I finally figured out what the story was, it did feel generic and unexciting. I found myself wandering around to discover the world’s lore, not because I cared about my character’s personal journey. While the idea of not having any set objectives was interesting, in reality, it made me feel like I was never achieving anything on purpose. I triggered most important cutscenes by chance, after I happened to visit the right location. I never had any direction to follow unless I was in the middle of a huge story beat. Because of this, I never knew if what I was doing was important or if it was just a side quest. This eventually became frustrating because even if I was fully engrossed in the story, it was difficult to continue my progression since I didn’t know where to go.

As a JRPG, one thing that Scarlet Grace: Ambitions did have a lot of were enemy encounters. When you meet an enemy, you choose which characters from your party, called your retinue, that you would like to bring into battle. Each character can wield different weapons and has different abilities, called techniques. In battle, you spend BP to use these techniques to attack monsters. Every technique that your character has costs a certain amount of BP, so you have to be careful and calculate which attacks you’d like to make and which characters you’d rather have defend. It’s rare to have enough BP to let every character use a technique during one round, so you have to think critically about the best strategy.

The order your characters attack in is incredibly important as well. At the bottom of the screen is a timeline showing all protagonists and enemies from left to right, which is the order they will attack in. This adds another factor in deciding who should attack each round because if anyone dies, their circle at the bottom disappears. If that person or enemy’s circle disappears and causes two circles that belong to the same side to touch, it triggers a United Attack. In a United Attack, multiple fighters gang up and attack a single opponent. Both you and the enemy can cause this to happen, meaning you need to be careful when deciding who to target and who to keep alive. Pulling off a successful United Attack or messing up and letting an enemy use one can often quickly change who has the advantage.

Another key component of Scarlet Grace’s combat are Life Points, or LP. Each character has their set HP and, like every other video game, when their HP hits zero, they die. Unlike other games, however, characters in Scarlet Grace: Ambitions also have LP. When someone’s HP hits zero, it also takes away one LP. At the end of a battle, HP is restored but LP isn’t. When a character’s LP hits zero, they are unable to participate in combat for quite a while. You can avoid this by just switching out your characters regularly since LP regenerates slowly when fighters aren’t in battles.

Like most JRPGs, what equipment you bring with you into engagements matters as well. Scarlet Grace: Ambitions offers an extremely robust system of equipment upgrades. In every area of the map, you can usually find at least two towns that have a blacksmith. These blacksmiths use items that you win from battles to upgrade weapons, staffs, and armor for your retinue. Each upgradable item has a plethora of stats that, as far as I could tell, were never explained by the game. This made it frustrating since I didn’t know what the increases were helping me with if they weren’t typical stats like “strength” or “endurance.”

That said, there is so much to do in Scarlet Grace regarding equipment that any already-established fan of JRPGs is going to love it. There are so many characters with so many variations that the game feels very customizable and true to its 1990s JRPG roots. Even though I only understood what half of the upgrades meant, I loved going into towns and beefing up my weapons and feeling that sense of progression.

The combat isn’t forgiving, either, making strategy and equipment important to think about. I found myself struggling with battles frequently, even at the beginning of the game. Scarlet Grace: Ambitions offers three different difficulty levels, but if you’ve never played a JRPG before and aren’t familiar with turn-based combat, I wouldn’t recommend starting out with this one, no matter how much you lower the difficulty level.

However, as someone who grew up on JRPGs, I adored the combat and its challenges. I became engrossed in the game for hours on end multiple times. It never felt like grinding was a chore because I had to thoroughly think through my strategy each time to outwit my opponents and trigger United Attacks. I loved pushing through difficult fights and trying over and over to see if I could get lucky enough or be smart enough to figure out something new that would give me even a slight advantage. Additionally, I really enjoyed the LP system because it encouraged me to switch around my retinue and experiment with different characters, instead of muscling through the game with the same four or five.

Overall, I had a great time playing through Scarlet Grace, though it does have its flaws. The world-building was some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game, but the story suffered as a result. Nothing plot-wise felt cohesive enough to understand what I was supposed to be doing or to feel like my character’s personal journey had any true impact. That said, learning about the world’s history was so engaging that I visited every location at least once, simply because I craved more information and wanted to explore everything I could.

The combat, too, was strong and incredibly intelligent. The difficulty did occasionally feel unfair because enemies dealt way more damage to you than you did to them. However, the battle systems found clever ways to give you an advantage if you were smart enough to figure out different strategies and swap out characters frequently. I definitely do not recommend this game to anyone who’s never played a JRPG before, but if you have a general understanding and appreciation for JRPG mechanics, Scarlet Grace: Ambitions is a game that you can sink dozens of hours into. The battles are challenging and the world is rich, though not the best if you’re looking for a robust story. In every other way, however, Scarlet Grace delivers on being a savvy, old-school, tough JRPG.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions is available now for PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Android, and iOS.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL; DR

Overall, I had a great time playing through Scarlet Grace, though it does have its flaws. The worldbuilding was some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game, but the story suffered as a result.