"Rigid and at times frustratingly opaque, it's the kind of game that will elicit adoration from a niche fanbase and drive everyone else insane."
Mystery is often an intrinsically compelling force. It pushes us to brave the unknown, to seek undiscovered truths. In fiction, it is the element that makes us turn the page, each development drawing us closer to the answers we crave. Video games, as vehicles for fiction, make use of mystery in the same way to propel their narratives forward. The latest offering from Atlus, The Legend of Legacy, couples the mystery of a newly-discovered island's origins with the satisfaction that comes from discovering its landmarks firsthand. It's an RPG that's light on story and even lighter on direction, favoring atmosphere over explanation. Rigid and at times frustratingly opaque, it's the kind of game that will elicit adoration from a niche fanbase and drive everyone else insane.
As one of seven adventurers drawn to the island of Avalon, the player is treated to an extremely brief introductory sequence and immediately left to explore at their own pace. Whether one begins the game as determined amnesiac Bianca or jocular frog prince Filmia — and you would do well to pick Filmia, because he's amazing — the remaining two party members can be swapped at will from among the entire roster. When I speak of "exploration," I mean so in the true spirit of the word; beginning with an uncharted forest, the party forges ahead through myriad ruins and foreign landscapes, automatically creating maps all the while. There is no guidance whatsoever beyond "go forth and uncover the mysteries of Avalon." As the game progresses, a minimal story begins to take shape, and with it some direction, but be assured: this is no linear adventure.
It's no secret that The Legend of Legacy is a spiritual successor to the SaGa series, right down to the inclusion of former SaGa creators on the development team. As such, TLoL has a distinctly SaGa-inspired battle system. There are no levels or base attributes to speak of; characters grow in one of three areas (Attack, Guard, and Support) depending on the stances they take each turn in battle. Every character can use any piece of equipment, and they learn new weapon skills with repeated use, right in the heat of battle. The chance of unlocking new abilities increases proportionally with the strength of one's foes, meaning that the thrill of awakening to new talents comes part and parcel with the risk of challenging Avalon's most powerful enemies.
Make no mistake: playing TLoL is typically more risky than rewarding. Even regular encounters have the potential to completely wipe the party out, and death means reloading from one's last save. The game's "quick save" feature actually functions the same as a regular save, strangely enough, but this doesn't reduce the overall difficulty level. There are no allowances for mistakes, particularly in the game's grueling boss battles. An integral part of combat is forging contracts with the elementals that inhabit Avalon. A character must spend a turn petitioning a type of elemental's aid (water, for instance) before he or she is able to cast spells of that element. However, enemies have equal ability to forge contracts, and can take them away before the player has a chance to make use of them, leading to an exhausting tug-of-war. Furthermore, both damage dealt and received seem to be affected by elemental balance, so it's common to see numbers fluctuate wildly from battle to battle. The same attack to the same foe might do 45 damage in one fight and 250 in the next. Finally, Avalon's lone shop is all but useless when it comes to procuring new equipment. The only viable method for upgrading gear seems to be sending out trading ships, a feature accessible from the hub town of Initium that takes a set amount of real-world time to process.
A fog of opacity may obscure many of TLoL's mechanics, but its music is quite transparently marvelous. Composed by Masashi Hamauzu of Final Fantasy XIII fame, the lush soundscape is equal parts whimsical and melancholy. There's a consistently ethereal quality to the music that beautifully encapsulates Avalon's enigmatic atmosphere. It's among the best soundtracks I've heard all year. TLoL's visual style is easy on the eyes, too, but the chibi in-game art pales in comparison to Tomomi Kobayashi's lavish illustrations, which appear to be bafflingly relegated to use in promotional materials. Flip through the art book included with a launch copy of the game, and you'll see what I mean.
With roots in a series known for its esoteric game mechanics, The Legend of Legacy may have difficulty finding mainstream success. It encourages risky experimentation and demands a firm resolve to uncover its secrets. For some players, the payoff is rarely going to be worth the effort; a few lines of dialogue are unlikely to sate the kind of player who seeks a narrative reward for conquering TLoL's steep challenges. I would consider myself a fan, but I recognize that my opinion is not going to resonate with the majority in this instance.
And for frogs' sake, pick Filmia.