Like many of Square's franchises, the Seiken Densetsu series has gone through quite a few name changes over the years. The original game, for the Game Boy, was released in North America as Final Fantasy Adventure (furthering Square's trend of releasing all their games at that point as Final Fantasy games to boost sales via name recognition). The sequel, for the Super Nintendo, was released as Secret of Mana, and is still one of Square's most-loved games. Unfortunately, Seiken Densetsu 3 wasn't released in the US, though enterprising translators have translated the ROM. Legend of Mana is the latest in the series, and Square has released it as the first title of their "Summer of Adventure".
If you're looking for a focused, epic plotline, look elsewhere - otherwise, you're in for a treat.
"Nine centuries ago, the Mana Tree burned to ashes..."
The game takes place in the mystical land of Fa'Diel. Originally created by the Mana Goddess, the land was peaceful due to the influence of the Mana Tree - until centuries ago, when war destroyed the tree. Sages fought over the last remaining bits of Mana, and the land was largely sealed up in Artifacts - treasures containing pieces of the world of Fa'Diel.
Your character is responsible for collecting various Artifacts, reconstructing the world of Fa'Diel, and ultimately charged with the task of resurrecting the Mana Tree itself. To this end, you go on a variety of quests, searching for Artifacts, and exploring the various area of Fa'Diel that you create. If it sounds non-linear, you're quite right - with a few exceptions, you're largely free to create and explore the areas in just about any order you like. This non-linearity prevented Square from giving the game a long, Xenogears style quest, so if you're looking for a plot-focused game, Legend of Mana isn't your best bet.
This isn't to say that there's no plot, though - there's around 70 different quests you can do, and there are 3 main story arcs, along with a variety of other quests - it's safe to say that just about everyone you run into factors into at least one, and usually several quests. It's very nicely done - you don't have to do the majority of the quests, but doing so generally nets you items, triggers more quests, or even new areas to explore. The three main story arcs are all very nicely done, and each could have been expanded to form its own game - my favorite involved a long-lived race known as the Jumi, who were being hunted and killed for their jewel cores.
There's lots of reference material for the plot (and the game in general), including lists of all the characters you've met, and a quest log that gives a brief recap of each quest you've completed. It's all very handy. The only problem is with the way the quest log is done - to update it, you need to talk to a specific character after each quest you complete - except you HAVE to talk to them before you complete another quest, or any record of the first quest will be lost. It's also annoying because whenever you enter your home to update the log, your NPC will leave, and you have to go pick them up again - which can be quite a hike. The quest log author is also absent at some times, triggering quests that you have to complete to get them back - which means that you'll have even more of an incomplete log. It's not a huge flaw, but for the perfectionist, it's greatly annoying.
Character development is a mixed bag. The main character has no personality, doesn't speak, and so forth. The rest of the inhabitants of Fa'Diel have various levels of development - depending on how many quests they're involved in. You get a nice sense of who they are and about their motivations from the brief moments you have with them. Like the game as a whole, how much you see is dependent on how much you put into exploration and questing.
A Rainbow of Colors
Perhaps one of Legend of Mana's strongest areas - and the most noticeable - is the graphics. Like the recent SaGa Frontier 2, the graphics are 2D sprites, and they look incredible. Backgrounds are lush, varied, and layered in such a way that every area is a graphical feast. Whether it's the pristine beauty of a snowfield, a deep forest, or even the underworld itself, the graphics are simply incredible.
The variety of enemies, characters, and even backgrounds is nice, and the animation is done quite well (yes, even for a few backgrounds). While there is a bit of palette swapping - mainly to signify different power levels of the same monster type - it's not prevalent, nor is it a problem. You'll see a few bosses a few times, but the redundancy generally makes sense in context - and you'll be too busy pounding on them anyway. Characters have a variety of animation for their different attacks, and different weapons have a whole new set of attacks. Spells look nice, even though they're generally limited, and special attacks look nice as well.
There are also a few FMV sequences, but they're generally just collages of the various pieces of artwork from the game - nothing spectacular, and they seem a bit out of place, even though they look nice. In fact, they really don't help the game at all, just because the rest of the artwork looks so good by itself. I suppose no Square game would be complete nowadays without a bit of FMV, though.
Yoko Shimomura, composer of the Super Mario RPG and Parasite Eve soundtracks, has produced an excellent, eclectic soundtrack to go with Legend of Mana. The compositions range from melodious, tranquil pieces to upbeat, heavy songs reminiscent of Parasite Eve. Each area has background music that fits excellently, and the average quality of the tracks is much higher than in a lot of RPGs. The instrumentation is also done well, and while the instruments aren't the highest quality we've heard from the Playstation, they're quite nice. There's also the obligatory choral pieces, which don't add a whole lot to the game, but are good if you enjoy humming along to tunes in foreign languages.
The sound effects are pretty standard, though they don't seem to have any real impact - there's no sense of impact when you bludgeon someone with your weapon, no solid twang when you shoot a bow, and so forth. It detracts from things, but I suppose with such a vibrant and generally light-hearted atmosphere, heavier sounds might detract from the overall presentation.
What Legend of Mana boils down to is perhaps the most non-linear, customizable gaming experiences this side of the PC. You begin by selecting the gender of your character (irrelevant save for the graphics), what area of the world of Fa'Diel you want to play in, and what weapon you choose to specialize in (which makes a large difference in how your character's stats will be impacted as you level up). You can set your home (the area the game revolves around) up in any area you want, and aside from the first few artifacts you obtain, you can place new areas in just about any arrangement you like. From there, the game proceeds with you creating and visiting new areas, completing quests, and becoming more powerful, until you open up the final area and complete the final quest.
The world screen is one you'll be seeing often, and it allows you to place Artifacts, check the Mana level of different areas, and move your character to different locations. As you open up areas, you'll be able to place Artifacts in varying arrangements - you'll usually have total freedom over where you place Artifacts, though a few of them need to be in specific areas to be used. As you enter areas, you'll either get a smaller map (for towns, which have a variety of different areas that are connected by the town map) or enter the battlefield, which you can then explore. While it can be a bit confusing to switch between maps at first, it soon becomes second nature.
Your character has a variety of stats governing attack, defense, and other aspects of your character. They're largely influenced by your original choice of weapon, so a bow user will turn out quite different than someone wielding a giant axe. Characters can equip one weapon and three pieces of armor and accessories, which can raise stats or protect against specific types of attacks - magic defense is separate from piercing defense, and it can be difficult to balance your needs with the equipment you have. You can also equip equipment with magical properties, whether they alter your stats or add elemental powers to your attacks.
Combat is a huge part of the game. Characters have two base types of attack - quick attacks, which do little damage and are fast, and power attacks, which are strong but slow. They can be used in combos, which help do extra damage and can prevent your character from pausing after a series of attacks. Two action abilities may also be equipped, including abilities such as defend, lunge, flip-kick, and crouch. More can be learned through the game, and having the proper action abilities to fit the situation can be crucial. Special attacks and magic can be attached to the controller's four shoulder buttons. Each weapon type has a few different special attacks that can be used periodically, ranging from weak area attacks to high-powered individual attacks. Magic is gained by equipping instruments that have elemental powers, and can be used by simply charging a spell briefly before casting. Unfortunately, magic is all but useless, as it does much less damage than most base attacks.
HP is also handled interestingly - while each character has a certain amount of HP, it is refilled at the end of each battle, and slowly recharges while a battle rages on - rather than listing the number of HP a character has, the game displays the percent left. For those long-lasting battles, a character that has been knocked unconscious can wake up, fully healed, and re-join the battle. There's also no real punishment for death - a continue option allows you to simply restart the battle you died in, making it quick to get past a trouble spot.
Control works well. Interestingly enough, combat isn't on a full 2D plane, but almost exclusively horizontal - there are very few attacks that hit on a vertical axis, so it's largely a manner of lining up with an enemy to hit them, and dodging by moving up or down. It's not a problem, but it is curious. The characters are responsive, though - they generally respond quickly to your commands, though sometimes you can overload the controller and end up doing more action abilities than you had planned on. Combos can be a bit of a pain to pull off, but that's more of a matter of the inherent difficulty of comboing and not really due to the control. It's also a bit difficult to hit enemies with some of the special attacks, but that's more due to the pause in execution than due to bad control. You can run outside of battle to speed things up, and it's easy to get to where you want to go. It's not the best control scheme in the world, but it more than does its job.
Experience is handled in a unique manner. When an enemy dies, they'll drop one of three things - a piece of candy (to heal a character), an item, or experience crystals and coins. All disappear shortly after they appear, and must be collected by a character to be stored. Items have no place in battle, and are used for item creation. Experience crystals, however, showcase one huge weakness of Legend of Mana - AI, whether it's for NPCs, pets, or monsters, is simply atrocious. Secret of Mana, released 8 years ago, has better AI. Characters attack sporadically, if at all. Enemies simply wander close and attack - it's all they can generally do. Don't even think about having your NPC or pet collect experience crystals - after a battle's over, they'll simply wander randomly, and occasionally stumble onto one or two crystals, making it virtually impossible to level them up. In the end, it's much more efficient to simply collect all the crystals yourself - NPCs gain levels on their own to stay somewhat useful, and you can have your pets graze to gain levels, so there's no reason not to just grab everything.
You can have a party of three - your character, an NPC, and a pet or a golem. NPCs join at various times, and you can generally choose the one you want, though specific quests require you have (or not have) a NPC with you. You can also select to have a pet or a golem, which showcase some of the more varied aspects of Legend of Mana. At some times you can catch monster eggs, and they later hatch. From there, you can take your pet out, or you can feed them and leave them at home to grow stronger by themselves. While they're virtually useless in combat, there's something amusing about having a rabite tag along with you.
Golems can also be created, and function differently. You create golems yourself by giving them a weapon and several pieces of armor. Once a golem's created, its attack, defense, and HP levels are set - a golem's strength is dependent on what items you use to create it. The real fun of a golem comes in creating its logic circuits. By combining various pieces of equipment, you gain different logic blocks, such as Acid Beam, Fireworks, and Float. By taking various logic blocks and installing them in the golem, you can give it abilities that it can use. How a golem acts depends on the order in which you arrange the logic blocks, giving you freedom to choose what you want your golem to do in a given situation. Sadly, you can't adjust your golem's logic settings in the field, making quick adjustments impossible. You can even customize your golem's paint job. Granted, golems are expensive and just as stupid as any other character in the game, but they're fun to tinker with.
Throughout the course of the game, you'll encounter hundreds of different items, ranging from normal materials such as oak wood, gold, and cloth, to strange items such as Dragon's Breath, various foods, and other assorted materials. These are used in item creation. You can forge your own weapons and armor. By taking base materials and forging them, you can come up with a variety of different pieces of equipment - and you can then alter their stats by tempering them with some of your other items. Creating your own items virtually guarantees superior equipment to that you can find and buy, though the power of the items you create is almost always directly correlated with the cost. It's a lot of fun using the best materials you can afford and coming up with tremendously powerful equipment, and adds a lot of depth.
You can also make magical instruments using base materials and Elemental Coins, which can be found by playing songs for spirits you find in the field. Like weapons and armor, the instruments you make are usually superior to those you buy, even though magic is essentially worthless. The only real problem is the vast number of items there are - there are hundreds of items, and it's simply overwhelming to consider the number of possibilities - I doubt most gamers are patient enough to try even a large number of them. It's depth, but it's rather excessive.
Quests are triggered in a number of ways, though it's generally a matter of talking to the right person or just going to the right area. There are a lot of them, and most of them are fun. As you wander, you never know what quests you may uncover. This is another problem with the game - some of the quests are extremely difficult to trigger, and others are nearly impossible to solve. While many quests are self-contained or self-explanatory, there are a variety of other quests with absolutely no direction - and when you've got over twenty possible areas to explore, the task is almost overwhelming. It's great that there's the freedom to go wherever you want, but the lack of clues can make a fun task simply tedious.
A Unique Experience
While Legend of Mana has a few niggling little problems, it's still a highly entertaining game. You'll get what you put into it, though - if you run through and solve the final quest as soon as you can, you'll be done in 10-15 hours, whereas doing as many of the quests as possible pushes the game up to 30-40 hours. You can replay the game with your advanced character, though, and toggle difficulty settings - though it's simply a function of giving the enemies more HP (they're as brain-dead as ever).
The sheer amount of customization is nice, though, and no two people will have the same game, even though the same basic areas and quests are available. There's a lot of replay value inherent in the game, and it shows - it'll be a game to come back to every once in a while and replay.
It's not for everyone, but if you're looking for a flexible gaming experience, Legend of Mana may be right up your alley.
|Gorgeous 2-D hand-drawn backgrounds are the highlight of the game.
|The soundtrack also seems to be one of the best 32-bit RPG soundtrack you can find.