We caught up with the localization team that brought Square Enix's distinctive Japan-only Vita RPG to Switch in America.
SaGa fever has swept over many of the RPG lovers at Nintendo World Report, thanks to two new entries (outside of Japan at least) coming to Switch recently. Romancing SaGa 3, a Japan-only Super Nintendo release from the ‘90s, came out in November, while SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions came to Switch after debuting on Vita in Japan years ago. At the heart of Scarlet Grace’s Western release is the localization by 8-4. That’s a company you might not know by name, but you likely have heard of some of their past games (Fire Emblem: Awakening and Xenoblade Chronicles X might be their biggest Nintendo projects) and if you’re a fan of old-school Electronic Gaming Monthly or 1UP, you’re liable to recognize some of their figureheads and contributors, including Co-Founder John Ricciardi and Scarlet Grace editor Jeremy Parish.
Graeme Howard led the charge on the localization for Scarlet Grace, but it wasn’t an easy task. “The Western discussion surrounding the SaGa series has largely centered around its relatively unorthodox mechanics,” Howard said. “With the localization of SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, we wanted to shift the needle a bit toward what has always been a large part of the series’ enduring popularity in Japan—the remarkably witty dialog. To that end, the trickiest part was finding ways to convey Mr. Kawazu’s very particular style of writing in a way that preserves the range of character—from powerfully emotional to loaded with dry wit—that Japanese fans celebrate.”
Mr. Kawazu is Akitoshi Kawazu, the SaGa creator and longtime Square Enix developer who dates back to the early days of Final Fantasy. He was a proactive part of the localization, determined to make sure the original Japanese came through in the English, whether that involved 8-4’s team providing alternate translations or going back and forth to clarify how their original idea worked for the western audience.
Kawazu wasn’t the only Japanese developer involved in the game’s Western language release. Yasuhiro Ikuta, the battle designer of the original Vita release and the director of the Switch version’s Japanese release, focused on making sure the mechanics and systems were effectively explained. Kazuyuki Shindo directed the English version and also had a hands-on role with the localization. “It was great to work with people who were so enthusiastic about making sure the English version came out to their liking,” Howard added.
Some of the aforementioned unorthodox design involves the turn-based combat, which is something that at a glance, seems approachable. In Scarlet Grace, your party members each have different weapon types and attacks, with new abilities upgrading and appearing randomly as you use different types. There is no leveling up; instead, sometimes stats bump up at the end of battles and proficiencies in weapons increase. The differences are jarring if you’re used to the Final Fantasy staples that the SaGa series emerged from decades ago.
The series is also known for its open-ended design and party member variety, and Scarlet Grace is no different. That, of course, upped the difficulty on the English version. “Most of the game’s interactions take place between your protagonist of choice and their default companion character, so our top priority was establishing their personalities, relationships, and rapport,” Howard said regarding their focus in writing individual characters. “Side characters, conversely, sometimes have very little dialog attributed to them, which presents the challenge of needing to convey what makes them interesting with just a few bubbles of dialog, perhaps with a verbal tic or a punchy catchphrase.”
In the time since we sent these questions off to the Square Enix and 8-4 team, I’ve played a few hours of SaGa Scarlet Grace on Switch. The focus on creating individual memorable characters often in bite-sized chunks shines through, making the daunting number of playable characters stick with me even if I’ve barely scratched the surface of the full adventure.
With that in mind, it was fun hearing Howard detail some of his favorites: “Nemain, an aspiring sorceress with a huge ego, has a relatively long recruitment quest attached to her, so you can spend a good, long time getting to know her before she joins up—and she’s quite powerful, to boot! I also have a soft spot for Ogniana, a princess from the Queendom of Grumon, as she put in a lot of work carrying me to the finish line the first time I played through the game’s original Japanese release on the PlayStation Vita.”
SaGa as a series has a very distinct style, as Howard said, “the game does a fantastic job of not spelling everything out for the player. The world they’ve created is so rich with backstory that even if you’ve read every bit of text there is to find (and even if you’ve had the privilege of talking directly to the team about it as we have), the blanks are there to tease your imagination about what mysteries remain.”
It’s something hard to approach; I bounced off Romancing SaGa 2 when that came out on Switch back in 2017 and took a while to warm up Romancing SaGa 3, which in turn helped prime me for Scarlet Grace. I feel like I learned a slightly different RPG language. SaGa has a vibe that is definitely unlike some of the other classic JRPG series. 8-4 as a company understands that, especially with their background on other projects, like Dragon Quest, for example.
“Dragon Quest is a series that has its own very unique localization style and glossary that carries over from game to game, so it was important while working on Dragon Quest VI to be in contact with the teams who had worked on other games in the series to make sure everything linked up,” Ricciardi explained. “With SaGa, while there are certain things that are carried over from game to game (like the names of some abilities and so on), their worlds are typically unrelated, so there isn't as much pressure to have eyes on every aspect of every area of other titles in the series.”
Scarlet Grace is a very enjoyable game (check out our review for more details on the game’s quality). It might not be for everyone, but we went to the closest source we could for some pointers. “Try everything!” Howard implored. “SaGa games are more about the journey than the destination, so when you find yourself in a new area, make the rounds to examine all locations, visit all towns, and chat up whoever you encounter. Once you come across an event that seems like it could head interesting places, go along for the ride and see what happens! If you find yourself unable to proceed due to a battle you can’t overcome, upgrading your equipment is a great place to start. Once your characters are a bit better outfitted, try revisiting battles you know you can win and playing though those a few more times to hone your understanding of how combat works.”
SaGa games might occasionally chew you up and spit you out, but they’re certainly distinct. The series is a welcome sight on Switch and if you’re curious, you can check out the ‘90s secret classic Romancing SaGa 3 or the newer intriguing adventure SaGa Scarlet Grace Ambitions. The choice is yours, just like the myriad of decisions you’ll face if you do play a SaGa game.
Thanks to Square Enix and 8-4 for the interview!