"[Legend of Mana] is by no means a perfect game...but if you play it with an open mind and can fully embrace a lot of its lighthearted elements, you may just fall in love all over again."
The Mana games are infused with a special kind of a magic that's difficult to truly articulate. There's that ephemeral something about the world and the journey – the game is full of depth, charm, and memorable scenes. It's easy to get lost in Mana's powerful worlds. Needless to say, when I saw Legend of Mana (LoM) available on the PSN, it immediately found its way into my download queue. There's always a danger in going back to some of your favorite titles; games age, and it's not always graceful. What did I find with what I consider to be the last "good" Mana title? I found that LoM is still a charismatic game; it's almost like a magnet that instantly pulls you in. In fact, it's the first PSN title I've played where I've been able to sink more than a couple hours without being turned off by its archaic setup. However, as much as there is to praise about the title, I encountered a conundrum while playing LoM: what was once solid gameplay isn't all that fun now. This is a shame, because, for its time, LoM was an innovative game with ideas that were wise beyond its years. Unfortunately, age has a way of creeping in and spoiling the party – and in this case – at times it erased some of the magic I had originally experienced.
Short Stories That Make The World Grow
LoM begins with the Mana tree urging you to, "Remember me! Need me! I can provide you with everything! I am love. Find me, and walk beside me." From there, you are on a quest to restore the Tree to its original form to tell a new legend for the world of Fa'Diel. There's a brief historical overview that recounts the war between various different races who fought over the leftover mana power after the Mana Tree burned down centuries ago. Since then, the Mana Tree's essence stays hidden without enough power to return to its former glory. For now, various lands remain locked away in ancient artifacts. That's where your character comes in and where the game will bombard you with various decisions. See, in LoM, you are literally rebuilding the world by finding ancient artifacts and deciding their best placement in the world. Once you get started, you're set on a journey that features many staple characters from various Mana games. Yes, there are Rabites, Chobin Hoods, and, of course everybody's favorite money–hungry merchant, Niccolo.
LoM is set up like a book of themed short stories. It provides you with a glimpse into various smaller quests that have a place in the grander scheme of restoring the Mana Tree. Some of the quests are highly influential in your progression, where artifacts are obtained for map placement. Others simply offer bonuses that are key for customization. Quests also take on different forms: some end on cliffhangers and are connected, while others are standalone. Much like the differences in type of quest, the writing quality varies. But where LoM really shines is in its ability to balance out its humor and serious ponderings. It's even more of a strength that plenty of the philosophical questions are relevant to our world today. In addition, the dialogue doesn't ever disappoint because it's full of variety, life, wit, endearment, and fun. Where the story most misses a beat, however, is how these short stories play into the larger narrative. There's a level of disappointment when you finish the game; to say the ending is anti–climatic is an understatement. If the main story arc was fleshed out more, it could have enhanced the end product. As a player, it's impossible not to feel connected to the world you are shaping, and so more development in the story arc – especially in the end – would have made the whole journey feel more grand. My main gripe is that I wanted to feel something
when the game ended, not left completely indifferent.
So Much to Explore!
Gameplay is probably the hardest area to put a score on. It was so inventive and richly–developed for its time, but now much of that has faded. There's still plenty that the game does right, but the flaws are obvious when compared to modern games. In the Mana tradition, battles are all action–oriented. You start out with various action abilities, such as lunge, push, jump, defend, and as you create different combinations of these tactics in battle, you're awarded with new abilities. Beyond that, special techniques can be unlocked; these are skills that can only be used if you fill a meter by performing normal attacks against enemies. These basic battle elements are rather simplistic, but it's still a fun, fast system that works. Here's the downside: attacks must be lined up precisely with the enemy on the field to hit them. There is no auto–target, so even if you're off by a micron, you will miss completely. What's even more exasperating is using your special techniques, since not only must you line them up, but they take a few seconds before they trigger. Unfortunately, this means you can have an enemy's position spot on, but if it moves, you're out of luck, and you've just wasted the meter you filled. This is one case where the system does appear rather archaic. It may be a game breaker for some, however, it wasn't so obtrusive that I couldn't continue.
The basic goal of LoM is to partake in various quests and during these quests it's possible to recruit characters to bring into your party for future missions. One thing I must point out is how some of these quests aren't all that entertaining from a gameplay standpoint. A game that was completely filled with fetch quests, like Legend of Mana is, wouldn't stand up in today's market. There were many quests in this game that I found too obtuse, repetitive, and pointless to be worthwhile. This is especially apparent in quests that rely on trial and error. For instance, there was a quest where in a crowd of indentical faeries, you have to talk to a specific one to pass the quest. If you choose incorrectly, you fail the quest, but no visual cues point you to the correct one. A lot of the tedium exists because quest triggers are awkward; there's one where you have to keep sleeping at an inn until you land on specific days. There's also plenty of backtracking, which adds to the bigger problem of all the dungeons being extremely maze–like and easy to get lost in.
It's not all bad, though, because there is plenty of customization to make the journey fun, and this is Legend of Mana's ace in the hole. Once you get a workshop, you can customize your weapons and armor by not only creating new gear, but also enhancing the old. There's also monster raising, produce farming, and you can even build a golem. One problem, however, is the overwhelming amount of customization options, it's hard to get entirely invested in one specfic area or keep up with all of them. Something always manages to take a back seat. For example, I focused more on monster raising than building golems, since you could only bring one or the other into battle. The customization choices can also be frustrating as a lot of them employ trial and error. To get monsters in your party and get them stronger, you must choose the correct food to feed them out of numerous possibilities. The same goes for armor and weapon wielding; it's a lot of guesswork, unless you follow a guide. That being said, I applaud LoM for giving the player many options in how they want to play this game. There really is no "wrong" way to succeed. This also extends to artifact placement on the map. It adds a strategic element to gameplay, but it's not make–or–break, since placement is more of an incentive for extra bonuses. For example, depending on where you place your pieces you could potentially increase the success percentage of catching a hard to find monster. At the same time, placement sometimes can determine what quests you can access. A FAQ is bound to come into handy if these things are important to you.
LoM's gameplay definitely evokes a sense of ambivalence. Despite all its flaws, I still was compelled to continue my journey through. LoM is one of those rare games where I played it more for the gameplay than the story. It's hard to put a finger on why that is, but it could be that it offers something for everybody, and it's accessible enough to please both the casual and hardcore gamer. The amount of depth in every area of gameplay is mindboggling, but it's still convenient for newcomers. At the end of the day, did I have enjoy the LoM experience? The answer is still yes, even though there were parts of the game that were completely off–putting to me. That's exactly where the magic comes from, there's so much wrong, yet so much right to balance it all out. LoM still holds up now, but what's interesting is that it has become an excellent handheld title. This is the perfect game to play in spurts on the PSP, but you'll also lose the ability to engage in the 2P aspects of it if you go that route. The decision is yours, but at least it offers something for many gamers.
Time Can't Destroy The Music and Visuals
LoM is still gorgeous, and even time can't take that away from it. The game is colorful and its style definitely fits the storybook setting. The environments are equally good and, most importantly, varied. This is especially noteworthy to me, because a common criticism of mine today is that games often lack variety in their environments. LoM is a good example of how refreshing a world can be when developers aren't afraid to mix it up and make one environment completely different from its successor. Honestly, LoM's well–animated sprites hold their own compared to just about any DS or PSP title, and that's pretty impressive for a game that was released over a decade ago. The same can be said about its music, which is hands down one of the best soundtracks for a JRPG I've heard to date. Variety is a win here too, though a lot of the score features a heavy emphasis on instruments in the woodwind family. The soundtrack has songs full of heart, others are lighthearted, but they never fail to capture the scene and world they are portraying. There's no denying that the music in this game is absolutely fantastic.
A Worthy Purchase
$5.99 for LoM is a steal, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The game was a pioneer in much of the customization that is still used in other games today. Sometimes, you just want a game that is fun – pure and simple – and that's LoM exactly. I must caution, though, that while the magic is still there, time has diminished it somewhat. LoM is by no means a perfect game – far from it – but if you play it with an open mind and can fully embrace a lot of its lighthearted elements, you may just fall in love all over again. If you play games to get lost in another world, LoM has one of the better vast worlds to entirely get swept up in. A scene in LoM professes: "But to dream is merely to view reality through a filter," this is one filter to reality that's worth experiencing.