2024-03-12: The Secret of Varonis -- SaGa 1... 2?

The SaGa series is pretty storied at this point. A massive spanning affair with a couple dozen installments stretching back to the original Game Boy days, it has no want for different takes on its formula or options for play. It eve has a fair number of spiritual successors in the form of The Last Remnant, Alliance Alive, Legend of Legacy... However I'm not personally aware of much that throws back to the original Game Boy games as much as pays homage to the formula itself.

The Secret of Varonis sets out to do that, and does it pretty well by my book. This one kind of came out of nowhere; I discovered it on accident while checking if another game I was interested in was on sale yet. I'm glad I did though; it was a delight to play through.

At its core, Varonis is an homage to SaGas 1 thru 3, with its creative vision drawing most strongly from the first. It doesn't pretend to be entirely its own thing, throwing you immediately at the foot of a proverbial world-spearing tower (or rather a castle with teleportation gates) right from the start. It's made very clear you'll be going on a SaGa 1 style adventure again. Varonis though knows when to lean hard into the retro aesthetic and when to pull back and do things with a little more modern spin. The quality of life improvements are strong, the opaque mechanics of a SaGa game made more clear and numbers made more explicit, and an array of difficulty and accessibility options ensure you don't need to be a die-hard SaGa expert to get into the game.

The game hybridizes aesthetics by presenting a four-color greyscale palette (sidebar: a secret little easter egg lets you swap palettes by tapping a direction on the title screen), but then wrapping that 4:3 display in a 16:9 full color artwork HUD that more informatively presents your party's status. Sometimes this HUD can break, but it seems to entirely be a data polling issue and the broken HUD does not impact the game in any way. Besides, they're churning out hotfixes and I'll sure they'll patch that soon. If you don't want the HUD you can turn it off for a fully retro experience.

Everything within the game itself is just slightly sharper than the Game Boy: a similar palette but higher resolution display, slightly higher fidelity audio, etc. It appears to be a Unity affair, but at one point I was questioning if it wasn't a Game Boy emulator with a homebrewed cart ROM in it. That seems to not be the case.

The plot to Varonis starts out identical to SaGa's: there's a gateway to other worlds that's been closed for reasons unknown and you need to roam the world to find it. Of course "the world" in this case is one of many worlds, and is quite small. Once you get the gate open, the true game begins by placing you at the bottom of a massive sprawling tower that forks off into entire other worlds every few floors. If you played SaGa, you'll know the drill. However Varonis sets itself apart by not really presenting these worlds as individual micro-stories that play out between your meanderings to other worlds. The story here is laser focused on point: now that the gate is open again, monsters and actors unknown from beyond threaten your world.

That's not to say each world is just about finding out more about this threat. Each world has its own major problem you need to solve before you move on. Most of these are vaguely shaped like "One of the evil gods from above has subjugated this world and you need to free it" but how and why they do so differs.

Your party creation options are identical to SaGa. You have four options: humans who gain power through ~~drugs~~ potions they buy with gold, espers that mutate to gain stats and abilities randomly, monsters that eat meat from slain monsters to mutate to new forms and robots that gain stats directly from equipped gear. The former three are directly lifted from SaGa 1, but the robot is from SaGa 2. The pros and cons of each are identical to the original games, right down to espers only having four equipment slots and robots being able to recharge weapons.

That said, if you don't want to worry about breakable weapons and limited spell tome charges, Varonis has an option to make gear repairable at an inn. It claims the game with designed with breakable weapons in mind but I suspect some people might find the game frustrating if they have to carefully ration the good stuff. I opted to play with repairable weapons. It just felt like it'd be more fun for me. The same difficulty toggle also controls if you have Final Fantasy 1 style "Ineffective..." attacks if an ally swings at an already dead enemy or not. So it wasn't a hard decision.

From here everything plays like SaGa but elevated. Combat resolves in a text log very reminiscent to SaGa 1, enemies can group together much like SaGa 2, and you fortunately don't have limited life points (nor do you have the ability to make replacement party members). In the QoL arena you have the ability to save anywhere, have the ability to find warp items to instantly travel to any prior visited town or dungeon, can speed up text and combat, can make weapons repairable, and you can choose how encounters occur throughout the world.

The last point's really cool. Varonis has three encounter modes to choose from: random mode acts like early Final Fantasy games where you just randomly enter combat. Field mode has the enemies visible on the field and you can avoid them (though some are quite speedy). Then you have Fixed mode. Fixed mode is a special challenge mode where you have enemies visible on the field but they do not respawn. On one hand this means once you clear an area it's done; on the other you have limited resources and cannot get more. Given everything about not just progression in a SaGa game but even your spec and identity in horizontal progression requires fighting, that's a pretty challenging thought.

You can swap between these modes at any time with the exception of swapping away from fixed prevents you from swapping back on that save. The difference between random and field isn't all that much difficulty wise since Varonis's run chance is extremely polite. I'm not sure I ever failed to run.

As you ascend the tower and enter different worlds, the game branches out and begins to throw some nods to other titles. There's a Final Fantasy V style Fork Tower, I'm pretty sure one overworld track is at least inspired by the boss theme of Phantasy Star II, Warmech may or may not make an appearance, the list goes on. If you're well versed in RPGs from the 90s, there's quite a few little things you might recognize here.

The game's pretty short. I believe I took it down in about 12 hours; which is about right for this era of SaGa game. I also played on easy so I can't exactly throw stones here. It was extremely enjoyable though. Pretty much the perfect balance of respecting an older title and adding their own spin to it. Some of what Varonis does in its storytelling is real neat: how it approaches different worlds and their understanding of the magic and tech from elsewhere, their taking of inspiration from various pantheons and lore, the careful weaving of references without ever really being too hamfisted to copying anything.

A solid experience, and a surprising one considering I found this completely on accident.

tags: game_writeup, rpg, saga