Square Enix posted an interview with two of the team members behind the SaGa series, illustrator Tomomi Kobayashi and composer Kenji Ito. The interview covers the pair’s work on the series, particularly the recently-released Romancing SaGa 3 and the upcoming SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions.
Square Enix: Who was your favourite character to design in Romancing SaGa 3, and what were your inspirations when designing the characters?
Tomomi Kobayashi, SaGa Series Illustrator: It was very fun to design Leonid and Mikhail. I liked designing Thomas as well. Back when I designed the characters in Romancing SaGa 3, I admired people who were elegant and intellectual, and that comes through in my designs. I suppose that’s youth! In those days, I enjoyed designing good-looking, classic, cool characters.
SE: How does it feel looking back on the series after 24 years? Were there any particularly memorable moments you recall from making the original game?
TK: Looking back, I feel an attachment to the two Robins. I think they presented an impressive contrast. I actually drew Robin (not the fake one) in his everyday form and as his true self. I initially made him good-looking, but then Akitoshi Kawazu (the game’s director) asked me to re-do the design… He told me, “It will be too obvious who he really is,” so the design was shelved.
SE: There is a lot of variety in the character designs in Romancing SaGa 3, with some characters having more western designs (Monika, Thomas) and others having more eastern designs (Sarah, Khalid). How did you go about creating these different designs, and what was your thought process for giving Romancing SaGa 3 an overall unified look?
TK: If I remember correctly, the original request documents didn’t say, “People from a country in the South” or anything specific like that. I used the different tones of the names as inspirations for the character designs. When creating characters, I imagine which part of our current world they would be from, depending on the sound of their names. I am also very conscious in differentiating the designs from those of characters I have already drawn. For this title, I recall designing Monika or Mikhail first. And in terms of differentiating the designs, the sleek and laid-back Mikhail and the rough and tough Khalid are good comparisons.
SE: Were there ever any aspects of a character’s design that changed substantially?
TK: I consciously try to change up small details and the overall feel of my illustrations. And through working on titles with various storylines and lore, I’ve also made conscious efforts to change up the details. The amount of time I spend on a single illustration has also changed. I’ve learned when to call it a day.
Also, in all of the years I’ve spent designing SaGa series characters, I’ve felt it would be better to have variety among the character designs.
SE: How does it feel to see the characters you drew actually moving about in the game?
TK: I was surprised by the unique presentation of the characters in the game, which is quite different from their presentation through words or manga. Similar to novels and manga, there is a storyline to the games, so I wanted to know what the characters go through, what the world lore is like, and how the story unfolds. I am the kind of person who does their best to finish the games in order to find these things out.
SE: Are there any characters in SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions that you really like?
TK: I love Kahn, and I enjoyed designing Marquis of Parm. I also enjoyed designing the blond, classic character Antonius, which was the first character like this in a while.
But at the end of the day, my favourite is Kahn. To describe him, I’d use the expression the ‘utility pole effect’. Basically, it refers to men who are reliable and won’t budge even when you lean on them, and I think I was able to illustrate a reliable, broad-minded man like that through Kahn.
With regards to female characters, I would say Taria is my favourite. When I initially started designing her, I was going in a very different direction, but I ended up where I imagined in the very end. The original premise was that she is a women with a dark, lonely past, so I designed a women as bright as the sun — a bright, positive woman who overcame her sad, lonely past. I would say it was something similar to the women that Yumeji Takehisa (a famous Japanese artist) would draw. But in the end, that version of her design was shelved.
SE: Were there any particularly memorable moments when creating the character designs for SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions?
TK: I started off Leonard’s design as a good-looking guy with a dark past, but I was asked to redo the design as it wasn’t in line with what the director had imagined. It seems he was looking for a Northern Kanto feel [laughs]. I should say, in Japan that area is infamous for young delinquents, so I could understand immediately what he meant! In the design request document, “James Dean-like” was also mentioned, but I wasn’t able to put my finger on what a “young man who is like James Dean but also has a Northern Kanto feel” would look like [laughs]. Even after working with the director for close to 30 years, I felt I still hadn’t completely figured him out and there is much more to him [laughs].
SE: 8. What sort of things are you conscious of, and what do you put your heart into when drawing?
TK: I feel it is important to see various things as a character designer. I think it’s unavoidable for your design to steer toward your preferences, but back when I took on a task to create illustrations for a book whose genre wasn’t my cup of tea, I was able to expand my horizons in terms of design. It’s most definitely important to go through different experiences. Having various ideas and knowledge to pull from will be key for character design if you are in it for the long haul.
I try to keep my preference as my design core, and when the time comes for me to incorporate it into the designs, I let it all out.
SE: What are some of the most iconic songs you’ve worked on across the SaGa games? What are some of your personal favorites?
Kenji Ito, SaGa Series Composer: I would say that the opening title track, which is called “Opening-Overture – Dawn of the Romance” in English, is a representative song for Romancing SaGa 3. That said, not only “Overture”, but any opening title track will be heard by players the most, so in general, I think it could be said that I personally like the opening track for any title.
SE: What sets the music of SaGa apart from the music you’ve created for other games?
KI: In terms of how SaGa music separates itself from that of other games, it’s quite special to me because it’s a project that helped me build my skills as a composer.
SE: What were some of your inspirations when composing themes for Romancing SaGa 3 and SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions?
KI: For “The Great Robin’s Theme ~Villainy Will Never Prosper~” in Romancing SaGa 3, I took inspiration from different anime themes. For example, I added lots of little musical phrases and melodies which were inspired by the main theme for the Japanese anime “Yatterman”.
Rather than the melody itself, I drew from the sounds, such as that of the kettledrum, found in the main theme song “Theme of Yatterman” composed by Masayuki Yamamoto.
In SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, I was inspired by Balmaint himself when creating his theme. I tried really hard to reflect his characteristics, like his strength of character, personality, and physique, in the music.
SE: How do you start the process of composing a theme?
KI: We start by reviewing documents regarding the characteristics, physique, and other aspects for each character. Then, we try and create a melody or mix that lets you feel that character’s determination or will, so that the character’s personality and ‘feeling’ really come across within the music too.
SE: Did you have an overall theme in mind when composing the music for Romancing SaGa 3 or SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions?
KI: I did not approach working on either title with a certain theme in mind. That being said, I did get a better sense of what that theme could be the more I worked on each title.
For example, with Romancing SaGa 3, the “Death Eclipse” theme seemed dark, grand, and profound, but rather than focusing on that entirely, I wanted to discover something that was full of hope.
For SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, the original SaGa Scarlet Grace had preceded it, and the Firebringer illustration used as the packart had already been completed, so those served to expand on the image. The Firebringer is a villain, but there’s something about him that makes him more than a mere antagonist. I believe he left that kind of impression. I suppose, in general and not limited to these titles, it comes down to being conscious about the story development from a musical standpoint during production.
SE: Did your approach to composing music change during the span of time between working on Romancing SaGa 3 and SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions? If so, how?
KI: My fundamental approach didn’t change that much between the two games, but with SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions we had several other arrangers who worked on the title. Because of this, to me it felt like they brought different colors and feelings to the table.
SE: Each of the eight main protagonists in Romancing SaGa 3 has their own unique theme music that fits to their unique character traits and play styles. Can you explain how the creation process was? Did you work closely with the development team to create theme songs that are ever so fitting to each character?
KI: Tomomi Kobayashi’s character illustrations were already complete when I was composing the music for Romancing SaGa 3, so the melody lines formed as I referenced her illustrations, such as the characters’ expressions and attire as well as the weapons they’re holding. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the sounds begin to form. For example, in Romancing SaGa 3, Khalid has an Asian feel and Mikhail has a king-like atmosphere… I wanted to give him a dignified image. From that standpoint, I draw a lot of inspiration from the designs of the characters’ attires.
SE: In Romancing SaGa 3 the characters learn through inspiration. What did you learn from working on the SaGa games?
KI: In terms of what I learned, when I created the music for the four Sinistrals battles, I was able to use the otherwise “forbidden” musical instrument — the electric guitar — in one of the tracks. That was the first time I was able to impart a real “rock” vibe, which turned out to be a big element of the song.
I’ve shared this anecdote before in previous interviews, but the words of Hiroshi Takai, a development team member back then, became the reason for incorporating the electric guitar in this track.
When we began composing the music for Romancing SaGa 3, he came to the sound team’s room one day and asked, “Why aren’t you using the sounds from an electric guitar?” I answered, “It’s because it won’t sound clean/beautiful.” He responded by saying, “That’s not right. It’s whether you decide to do so or not.” Mr. Takai and I are the same age. When spoken that way, it left a slight sense of frustration, leading me to think “if you insist”… that’s how it all kind of started. Mr. Takai has always been a man of ideas. Particularly, a song like “The Four Sinistrals 2” had been a first back then, and it left an impression on me as I remember it causing a bit of a buzz among everyone (those who listened to the track) since such a sound had been emitted from the SFC hardware.
SE: Whether a moment of defeat or triumph, the musical score of SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions feels ever-optimistic. Was there a message you wanted players to hear coming through from the background of this special universe?
KI: Through my music, I’d be really happy if players feel that even in difficult times, they can progress as long as they keep on looking forward.
Romancing SaGa 3 is currently available worldwide for PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, iOS, and Android. SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions is set to be released in North America and Europe on December 3, 2019, for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, iOS, and Android.