Who would have thought that someone would make a serious attempt to marry an adventure RPG with R-Type-like shooter action? That's exactly what we get in Sigma Star Saga, an original idea and potential franchise from WayForward, the studio that can be most recognized for the stellar Shantae adventure on the Game Boy Color. It's certainly commendable for both WayForward to try a new game concept, and Namco for taking a risk on the new concept without a familiar brand attached to the title. But in the end, the project hurt by game mechanics that quickly become unnecessarily tedious and repetitive, and almost make the game a chore to play.
Sigma Star Saga is an adventure that tells the tale of alien invasion, race vs. race warfare and the human that bridges the two warring factions together. You play as a human that's switched sides in the war, adopting a new way of life using the alien's technology. But the story weaves and bobs from one side to the other, with you caught in the middle uncovering the plot while exploring planets as a member of the enemy.
Instead of turn-based fights like in most RPG-style games, Sigma Star Saga puts a clever spin on the idea and throws the gamer into one of a series of horizontal shooter challenges. Here, players earn experience with every enemy they defeat, scooping up icons that will raise their ranking and make their ships sturdier and more powerful in the blasters. So, as players work their way through the "overworld" solving puzzles, picking up power-ups, and generally advancing the storyline, players will be continuously interrupted, sucked up into a spaceship, and expected to blast through the side-scrolling action until the task is complete. Then it's back down to the planet for more exploration.
I will go on record and say that I hate RPG-style random battles. Hate them. It's a game mechanic that's lingered since the early days of games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, and while some have accepted and embraced the idea of randomly occurring battles that interrupt the flow of the adventure, I can't stand them. If I'm trying to go from point A to B, the last thing I want is a random element to take me away from the exploration to that location. Luckily this mechanic has evolved in games over the years, as in Paper Mario where you can see an on-screen indication of a forthcoming battle, and choose to make an attempt to avoid it if you're trying to advance into the storyline or backtrack to a save location.
But even in the old-school style RPGs, most game designs offer some sort of out in order to avoid unnecessary fights: Pokemon has its "REPEL" potion, and hides its monsters in designated areas, and games like Final Fantasy give players the option of running from a battle. Sigma Star Saga offers neither of these, so not only are you at the whim of the random battle generator, but once in a shooter segment you're stuck and must see it through to the end. Even if you've already experienced the particular sequence dozens of times before, you're forced to endure it again and again with no change in the action. And this becomes even more tedious when your ship is so powered up that these shooter levels eventually can't even offer enough experience points to make the action worth it.
So, much of Sigma Star Saga's length is artificially inflated because of the forced battles players must endure throughout the hours-long quest. If the frequency of battles was toned down considerably, or if the designers gave the player a particular way to avoid battles, this adventure would be way more tolerable because much of the rest of the game is rather well designed. The story is actually interesting and many times funny, and the action is tight and responsive with plenty of exploration, puzzles to solve, and items to shoot. The two graphic engines that handle both the overworld exploration and the side-scrolling shooter elements are pulled off well on the GBA; characters are huge and animate with a good variety of expressions and movement. The shooter levels do tend to chug if players equip a rapid fire weapon and blast it in an enemy-congested area while setting off a super bomb. But that's just the extreme end of the spectrum.
The adventure puts a neat focus on collecting hidden and not-so-hidden gun power-ups that affect how your ships will blast in the shooter levels, with three different aspects to the cannons. This adds a bit of experimentation to the game design, but the designers offer no way to test a particular combination against enemy ships before making it combat ready; the only way to see how a combination works is in combat itself, which puts players at extreme risk if they choose a combination that sucks in a particular situation. If the player dies during the shooter levels, it's back to the last save location which means any progress made after then is completely lost, so it's a little unfair to the player to not have any real knowledge of a gun's strength outside of an on-screen indicator of what that gun will look like when it's blasted. I want to know how it affects the enemy more than what it looks like.
The sheer variety of guns does give Sigma Star Saga a sense of personal expression, since many players will find their own favorite cannons. But in many cases some cannon combinations are so powerful and devastating to the enemy during the shooter levels that they make some other potentially powerful guns obsolete and unnecessary. So when you start earning guns later in the adventure that feel like they should kick more ass than what you've already equipped, many times it seems like a pointless pick-up because it doesn't.
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