Legasista is a game best understood by its dualities, and never is this more apparent than when looking at the main character. Alto’s hair is business blue up front, rage party red in the back. His shirt lacks a torso, but is popped with a collar that stretches halfway up his face. He is at once the most righteous of the right and a ruthlessly twitch-fisted interrogator. His name is in Spanish, he speaks in English, and is voiced over in Japanese. Details like these aptly illustrate how I feel about this strange seesaw of a game, a game with a well-plotted blueprint for inherent fun that is ultimately stricken by the unsteadiness of the hand that drew it.
The adventure takes place within the anatomy of the Ivy Tower, an ancient research facility for a dormant group of techno-savvies that has long since become dilapidated by the wear and tear of age. Monsters run rampant within its wild walls, promising all the unknown dread a would-be spelunker could ever want. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Our hero, Alto, definitely is. With his crystallized sister in tow – cursed by the arcane art of a later-to-be-revealed entity – Alto traces a revivalist’s journey to the Ivy Tower in hope of uncovering a rumored secret within that just might be the cure to his sibling’s crippling condition. Along the way, our dude/mineral duo meets the likes of sexy automatons, well-endowed witches, and an army of sentient bean sprouts who help them venture forth as far as the tower will allow, and dare I say, save the world on the side.
Legasista’s story is purely in service of the towering location it takes place in, using the span of its halls and whatever important relics lie within them to yank players deeper and deeper. What we get is a very by-the-numbers narrative garnish that does little to entice, full of characters that don’t adhere to their stereotypes so much as threaten to dismantle them. The motivations for the ragtag group to join together are universally thin, personalities waver constantly (see Alto’s aforementioned assessment), and rarely is dialogue endearing enough to make any one character stand out as a good reason to care. When the most personable characters are bipedal vegetables, the problem resides in the writing, not the source material.
The story is there, and you can take it or leave it. The gameplay fares somewhat better, although it refuses to let me decide whether or not I fully understand it, even after felling the final boss. Combat on its own maneuverable merits is as easy as a system can be. Players control one character at a time, running around pre-constructed dungeons filled with pressure plate traps and monsters that always pull a never-ending aggro should you invade their personal bubble. There’s an attack button, a jump button, a button to ready your shield, and a button to spatter your spells. When you learn the feel of Legasista’s play, there’s a certain elegance to dipping between proper aggression and positioning. At its best, players bait out enemy attacks and optimize that hit-and-run mentality that makes action games like these so satisfying. Moving through combat is simplistic and easily understood, if occasionally cumbersome due to the additional buttons required to manage your item queue, but rarely does death by inconvenience stain what is normally a calculated flow.
But then you take a look-see under the hood and realize a few things. Legasista is a peacock draped in burlap, fostered on a diet of numbers. While playing may be straightforward, the mechanics beneath layer the game thickly with a gross number of subsystems that cater to players who love them some min-maxing. In addition to the basic character classes that dictate statistical and skillset differences, every job comes equipped with an expanding list of Energy Frames, an ambiguously named weapon load-out feature that alters the very nature of what characters can and can’t equip. Some have two slots for shields, some grant bonuses to all items on the left side of the grid, and others focus on gung-ho, high risk, high reward playstyles with zero armor slots – it all depends on the pick, and more importantly, how players want to play.
Stick your head in a bit further and you’ll find all sorts of frightening digitation. How about the mana cost for equipment? Slots on the Energy Frame don’t mean anything if the price of a desired weapon is higher than your character’s available pool. We’ve got item durability; that shiny new shield you picked up might be strong as an ox, but swing at enough, and it’ll crumble like coffee cake. Then there are Titles, which add stat boosts to individual items, and sub-titles below them that augment even further, all interchangeable, all full of numbers that impact other numbers that impact other numbers. You can see where I’m going with this.
Legasista is like an awful anime beehive: so long as you leave it alone, the stripes inside won’t care what you do. It’s the type of game that allows you to ignore the particulars and ham-fist your way to the credits, should that be your chosen route, but can just as easily reward those looking to scratch that itch for mechanical intricacies. Unfortunate, then, that the game’s tutorials are so inadequate at explaining the complexities. I was given plenty of info (both optional and mandatory), but never did I come away from class confident that any of it would be useful to me out in the game world. I wasn’t looking to have meta-game concepts completely divulged; I just wanted to know why my entire weapon load-out was spontaneously combusting whenever my shield broke. (This only happened during my mid-game, but was still enough of an oddity to warrant a mention.) A little handholding goes a long way in a game as fibrous as this, especially when the core gameplay just isn’t fun enough to amuse on its own.
Certainly, there’s reason to pay attention. Outside of the standard 15-hour dungeon crawl, players are encouraged to dig holes around the hub to uncover Ran-geons, the game’s clunky portmanteau of “random dungeon,” which means exactly what you think it does. Unlike the main story path, these caverns stretch dozens upon dozens of floors with shape-shifting difficulties that depend on which gates you take. Some might heal your ailments and increase item drops, while others make enemies on upcoming floors all the more thorny. One gate in particular upped the enemy level ante by 400, which seemed about as fair as having to cut through a loaf of sourdough with two-ply toilet paper. Needless to say, I got dirt kicked in my face, but those who want to dig deep and cap out at the coveted level 999 will be thrilled that Legasista’s meager length is backed by an infinity. Escaping hell’s very depths with tractors full of treasure is why we’re here, right?
Should you want to liven the place up a bit, the game also sports a rather robust character creation system that lets players tweak everything from the pitch of a battle cry to the names of their abilities. Stash your PS3’s photo gallery with .png images, and you’ll be able to load up customized sprite sheets to give your party a bit more personality. It’s a fun, cantankerous hassle of a feature that I totally loved, if only because pictures of friends and Charlie Brown have never been put to better use. The problem is that Legasista’s graphics look so sharp, so vibrant, that anything I crafted looked like it was animated by an intern, which, at the very least, made for some genuine laughs.
Legasista is a strange thing with an equally strange name, full of great ideas that almost always come hogtied to an opposing force. It’s a game’s game, but that’s all it can ever be. A lukewarm story will do that to you. While the systems in place promise an endless descent into addictive, loot-driven madness, it’s just too hard to prop up a game that’s been tempered with bean sprout inspiration.