When people think of great games that never made it to our shores a lot of games come to mind, unfortunately. Tales of Phantasia, Sakura Taisen, Front Mission, some of the Final Fantasies, and the Romancing SaGa series are all games that most RPG players would have sold family members' souls for. Right up there with these games is the legendary "Secret of Mana 2": Seiken Densetsu 3. For many US gamers this was the first major RPG that we were aware we did NOT get and because of this it's achieved something of a cult status. It turns out that it's revered and applauded for very good reasons.
With the possible exception of Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia, Seiken Densetsu 3 (SD3) has quite possibly the best graphics to have ever graced the Super Famicom/SNES. The characters are colorful and detailed and have some absolutely great design. The bosses are fantastic. They're big, well animated, and interesting. The backgrounds are just stunning. From the boss fight where you're riding on Flammie to the caves with pillars of light arcing down from the roof, they are just spectacular. The magic effects are much the same as Mana: good, but not overwhelming. The special attacks are also nice, though not spectacular for some characters. If you're looking for 2D graphics at their best you would not go too far wrong with SD3.
SD3 handles much like its predecessor in terms of raw controls, but there are a few differences. The most noticeable of these is the lack of "charging" special attacks that Mana had. Instead, if you go without swinging your weapon for a period of time you will do a powerful attack. After you reach your first class change you will do a special attack that hits all enemies on the screen. Basically if you did well with the controls in Mana you will pick up SD3 in a very short amount of time.
Seiken Densetsu 3 is among the best games I've ever played. First thing to mention is the difficulty. Secret of Mana was pretty easy, I think most people would agree. Seiken Densetsu 3 is HARD. Not merely harder than Mana, but very difficult in its own right. The enemies are incredibly agressive and attack with a zeal that I've never seen before or since in an action RPG. This keeps players on their toes through the entire game. No boring romps through the countryside this game.
One noticeable change in the gameplay compared to the previous Seiken Densetsu games is the more "traditional" method to fighting. What I mean is that in each screen you can have an encounter and until you defeat all the enemies (in traditional Secret of Mana style) you cannot move onto a new screen. This makes enemies a lot more dangerous, as you can't run away to a town if you get badly injured.
Another major feature is what Square called the "Triangle" system. There are 6 characters in the game, but you can only choose 3 of them to go through the game with. Your first choice is your "main" character and is the primary focus of the game. The other two are important, but not as much as the main character. You will encounter the other characters as you go through the game, but they will not join you. The interesting thing about this feature is that, depending on who your main and secondary characters, the storyline will change and the last boss(es) will be different!
The final gameplay feature that is worth mentioning is the new class system. Twice, once when you reach a certain level and once when you reach a certain place, your characters change class gaining new abilities and techniques. Depending on whether you choose dark or light you become totally different characters with very different abilities. This lets you customize your characters to a great degree. If you want evil characters with dark magic you can have that. If you want good characters with a hint of the dark side you can have that too.
The only real flaw that I was able to find in the game is the very poorly designed Item Ring. Like Mana your items are arranged on a Ring, but unlike Mana there are literally dozens of items you can have for that Ring. Unfortunately there are not NEARLY enough spaces for all the items that you really need, forcing you to buy the best of everything long before you can really afford to buy it.
I didn't find that there was too much to run home and talk about with SD3's musical score. The tunes were well composed and not really bad, per se, but on the other hand they didn't exactly make me feel the scene or emotion like other soundtracks do. The SFX fall into the same category. Useful, but not really remarkable.
I personally thought that the stories were fairly interesting, though not completely original. They were well executed and paced. Though I did learn most of the story, I have the feeling that if my Japanese was better I would have enjoyed the storyline more. What keeps the story really good is the fact that there are so many of them. After you beat the game with 3 characters you can take 3 totally new ones out and get a somewhat different story with new bosses and different dialogue and encounters.
SD3 is a great game with a lot of replay value (I recommend at least 3 times to see everything). With some great boss fights and some very interesting gameplay this game is definitely a classic. It's a real shame that we got that piece of crap Secret of Evermore rather than this excellent offering.