No, I did not finish Romancing SaGa. After dying yet again on a monster that killed all my characters in one move, I decided that I'm doing this for fun, not masochism, and I've certainly played enough of this game (20 hours) to write a final review. This probably looks bad that I've completed 1 out of the 4 games I've started so far, but I guess Sturgeon's Law says that most of the SNES RPGs won't be masterpieces.
Broadly speaking, I think this game had a great concept behind it. You can pick any of eight characters with their own unique backstories. Some of the quests will be unique to them, and the end of the game is the same for everyone, but other than that the game is completely freeform -- you can go anywhere in the world and do a number of quests, with everything moving forward dependent on how many battles you've fought. You also have a lot of freedom in how you build up your characters. There are even three different ways to reach the final dungeon based on your actions throughout the game. So you could play this game a number of times and not have the same experience twice.
The problem is that the implementation of this concept just didn't work. I don't know if it was development time, money, limitations of the system, or what, but I don't think that what they came up with is a good game. I'll use my 7 categories to explain more why this is the case.
Story/Characters: The eight characters have acceptable back stories compared to other RPGs of this period. The problem is that there isn't much development. With Claudia, the character I chose, once you finish the initial quest, she has only one short unique event and that's it. Others have more, but not that much more. The story development is perhaps hampered by the open world nature of the game, but it is quite thin even granting that. The quests mostly involve a small amount of dialogue, a long dungeon, and then a reward. There is some attempt to link certain quests together in a longer story, but it never really comes together. You can guess what the final showdown is going to be fairly early on in the game (perhaps the opening sequence).
World: The world is large, as it should be for a game like this. However, there is no world map. To open new areas you generally have to hear about them or activate a quest flag, which requires finding a specific person. This makes it hard to explore when you're stuck. Another problem is that you can't travel the world freely; you have to spend money on ships to travel around to the different continents. This is especially difficult at the beginning, when money is very tight, and when the number of quests you can do is the smallest.
There are different areas -- a wild frontier, a jungle area, a knight stronghold, and such. Each town does have its own personality, to a certain extent.
Game Flow: The idea seems to be that you can travel around anywhere you want and do quests. But there are so few quests available, and they're so hard to activate, that without a walkthrough you mostly blunder around with no direction. Quests often involve talking to specific generic-looking people, or finding specific recruitable characters which will be in one pub, somewhere in the world, depending on the number of battles you've fought. If there were 150 quests this wouldn't be so bad because you would find something no matter what, but since there are only about 25-30 quests total, it's a matter of finding the small number of characters in the large world that will let you proceed.
One interesting feature is that certain stories can advance whether or not you're around, based on the number of battles. So you may return to a city to find it overrun by monsters, or destroyed. Although this is sometimes annoying, it does add to the open nature of the game.
Another problem with the game flow is that the difficulty of monsters often ramps up very suddenly. You'll be at a point where you can mow down enemies with no trouble, but then you'll start encountering enemies within those groups of weaklings who can do huge damage to your party. This means you have to keep saving and reloading within the dungeon if you accidentally encounter these monsters; if you learn to spot them you can use your powerful techniques on them, but in a very long dungeon even this may not be enough.
Now, it's possible that many of my issues could have been solved by better party planning; learning certain magic and building up my characters differently. But this shouldn't be necessary in this type of game -- the whole idea of the open world and free development is completely useless if your characters cannot survive without having specific strengths and powers, especially since things like magic and weapon levels take a long time to build up.
Furthermore, the final boss is evidently very difficult. The person who wrote the GameFAQs walkthrough was unable to beat it without using cheat codes, and a lot of Japanese sites I've seen recommend exploiting glitches to make the fight easier. The final boss' strength is based on the number of battles you've fought, but also scales to the amount of damage you to do it in the first few turns. This is another reason why I gave up playing the game; I had no confidence that even if I slogged through to the last boss, I would be able to beat it.
System: There are no random encounters; instead, there are symbols on the map that give you encounters. There are a lot of them, and they tend to move quickly, meaning that it's hard to actually avoid encounters. If you try, you often get hit from the back or sides, which messes up your order. As I mentioned in a previous post, I wish they had only made back attacks mess up your order.
The battle system itself is fine. The three rows create interesting strategies, and the weapon abilities have enough uses that you can actually employ them against grunts rather than saving everything up for bosses. The ability to equip multiple weapons at a time is also appreciated, since you can use a bow if you end up in the back row, for instance. There is a robust magic system but it's hard to know which spells are useful, and magic uses are far more limited than weapons. The healing magic is also quite annoying because it heals very little outside of battle compared to in battle.
The decision to make 9999 gold the limit is baffling. I see no good reason for this limitation.
Side Quests/Optional Content: Since there are no truly required quests other than the final dungeon and the initial character quest, most of the content in the game is optional. If you enjoy the game you can probably get quite a bit of replayability out of it since you can try different weapons, magics, team setups, and any of the eight characters.
Interface: Compared to FF4 this is not so great. The status menus and equip menus are needlessly hard to navigate. You have to manually take off a piece of armor to equip a different one of the same type. There's no way to tell what the stats of a weapon or armor are without equipping it. It's better than the NES-holdover interfaces of GDLeen and SD Gundam Gaiden, but it could be a lot better.
Graphics/Sound: The music and sound is average. The graphics are what you would expect from this era of the Super Famicom; they're at Final Fantasy IV level.
Ultimately I was really disappointed in this game; I had been looking forward to it, but it's just not very good. Hopefully RS2 and 3 will fix some of the problems with this game and be more enjoyable.
In a day or two I'll post a few games that I'm skipping, and on Saturday I'll do the first post for the next game -- The Glory of Heracles III.