As Square’s “Summer of Adventure” approached, three titles loomed large on the horizon: Legend of Mana, Chrono Cross, and Threads of Fate. Being an avid fan of the Seiken Densetsu series (Secret of Mana in the States) I was looking forward to Square’s latest installation of the classic action/RPG series. But I also had a sense of trepidation, as I heard that the game was a lot like SaGa Frontier as far as being comprised of mini-stories instead of one main plot. Since I didn’t much enjoy SaGa Frontier, I was very worried that Legend of Mana would be a repeat of Square’s earlier non-linear plot effort. Fortunately, Square managed to produced an excellent quality game in spite of its non-linearity, and what a way to start off the summer!
Legend of Mana takes place in the exceptionally detailed and colorful world known as Fa’Diel. A land with a long history of wars and magic, Fa’Diel has gone through cycles of events, usually centered around the Mana Tree, provider of life and magic. However, 900 years ago the tree burned down, depleting the world of Mana. Afterwards, sages and magicians fought each other seeking the scarce leftover power of Mana for themselves. Eventually, the faeries were corrupted and started a war against the humans, and the world was thrown into chaos. When the war was finally over, the sages started to lose interest in Mana, believing it the source of all their troubles. For a long time, now, the Mana Tree has laid dormant, and the land divided, enchanted, and its memories imbued within magical artifacts.
It is into this world that you awaken. Through the power of your imagination, you will be able to release the memories inside the artifacts and use them to revive the different lands within Fa’Diel, eventually reviving the Mana Tree itself.
If the plot sounds a bit confusing, it’s because it is, as long as you think of the game as an RPG. Instead, think of it more as a virtual world, sort of like Sim City, but with the play mechanics of an action/RPG and many side stories to keep you occupied. What there is of plot is very well done, however, and comes in the forms of mini missions… LOTS of mini missions. In fact, there are a more than 60 missions in all that you can complete, ranging from enemy mashing to recovering a lost broom. The missions can be done in almost any order, so long as you have met the prerequisites, and some missions are related (for example the dragon slaying missions) and form a larger story. Some of the missions are humorous, some are touching, and others are just plain strange. However, even within those small missions, you get a sense of connection, for, unlike in SaGa Frontier, you play the same character and interact with the same characters throughout the entire game. So you can watch the individual characters and their antics throughout the game, and let me say right now that there are some very STRANGE characters in the game (example: your housemate is a talking cactus).
One of the two areas where Legend of Mana really shines, however, is graphics. This factor, more than anything else in the game, drew me in and kept me playing. All the characters and backgrounds are hand drawn sprites, and are the most detailed and beautiful I have ever seen in any video game ever. This is Disney-quality stuff, and you’ll be reminded of Disney quite often as all the graphics have a very storybook, cutesy cartoony feel to them. Everything from houses to towers to snowfields are all drop dead gorgeous and feel as if they came out of one of those old storybooks, such as the Goldenbooks editions of Cinderella or Snow White. Rarely will you get a sense of malevolence from any of the artwork, but even when you do, it’s pretty cute, leaving the dialogue and music to set the tone.
Another impressive thing about the graphics is that, though there are a lot of sprite characters, all of them seem to have their own unique look to them. Aside from the Sproutlings, Students, and a few others, each character is an original: you never get the feeling that you’re conversing with Random Villager #54. You’re speaking to Rachel, Matilda, or Niccolo, and it helps you to bond with the characters. And they all animate very nicely, especially your character. Attacks and movement are all very detailed and never look choppy.
Magic spells are nothing incredible, but I hear that some of the later, more powerful spells are more impressive. However, the special attacks have some nice visuals while keeping it simple. Nice, overall.
However, my favorite part about the graphics, and the one that I was most impressed by, has got to be the animation of the “big guys”, and no, not the bosses. I’m talking about Trent and Gaeus. When they speak, they have incredible detail in the movement of their facial features. It’s a subtle thing, but when it hits you how much work must have gone into the movement, both in the animation and its near seamless incorporation into the regular graphics of the game, you will probably be floored by it.
Nothing is perfect, unfortunately, and the graphics suffer in one area: boss design. They’re big, impressive, detailed, and… frequently pallet swapped clones. While it’s a minor detail, it gets a bit irksome when you realize that the bosses don’t have much of a personality at all and are merely giant monsters to be destroyed.
Fortunately, LoM has many more good points, and one of them has got to be the music in the game. The intro music is simply fantastic, as are the opening and closing vocal songs (both in Sweedish). Though it’s an aspect I’ve come to expect from the Seiken Densetsu series, LoM really stole the show in this area. Every track fits the location it plays in perfectly. From the light and comforting My Home theme to the ominous Underworld theme, you’ll be hard pressed to find a track that doesn’t fit the land you’re in. What’s even better is that, if you pre-ordered the game, you get a CD with a few tracks from the game. It’s not much, but the opening and ending themes will tide me over until I can order the full soundtrack.
And yet, there is one problem with the music in the game: except for a few tracks, the soundtrack is not the most memorable. Though the tracks fit the areas, they just don’t stick in your mind as well as in some other games. Again, it’s a minor point and one that shouldn’t detract from your overall gaming experience.
As for the sound effects in the game, all I can say is that they are damn near perfect. The amazing effects, both visually and aurally, when creating a new land are just incredible. Weapon clashes and clangs are all unique, and you even get nice effects from spells. Add to that the incredible nature sounds in the game and you’ve got a flawless performance from Square’s foley team.
The gameplay in Legend of Mana is, like the story, unconventional, in that it’s not like your typical RPG. The game centers around the “Landmake” system, which is basically Square’s term for allowing you to place the towns and dungeons where you want to on the map. You make these areas by using artifacts on lighted circles on the world map screen. Depending on where you put the land, enemies may be harder, treasure more precious, spells more effective, and events more likely to occur. The only limitation is that each land must be created next to an already “completed” land, and only if that land is correct for the type of land you want to create (i.e. the ship must be built on a water circle, etc.) Fortunately, when you begin the game you get to choose which region of Fa’Diel you want to play in, and so it provides replay value to the system. Though I didn’t find the Landmake system too useful or fun, if I knew more of the strategy involved in land placement, it probably would have helped.
Once you make a land, you have the option to explore it and, if you’re lucky and clever, activate an event. Events are mini-stories, almost like fetch quests, except that you rarely have to “fetch” any item. Events vary in terms of what you have to do, but quite often the goal is to slay the boss monster. What’s really nice about these quests is that they are addictive, to say the least. You want to keep completing events in order to see which one you can unlock next, or even just to see what Li’l Cactus has to say in his Diary about it.
As I said before, Legend of Mana is a lot like a Sim-type game, in that it allows you to be very creative with both your character and your world. Adding to that feeling are the activities you can indulge in at your workshop. By completing certain events, you’ll gain access to the rooms of your workshop in which you can make instruments (to cast spells), weapons and armor, and even golems. You make these things out of special items you either find or buy throughout the game. There is also a monster ranch where you can raise companion monsters after you find their eggs in the wild.
The only down side to all this creativity is that I didn’t find any of it, aside from the monster ranch, to be of any use to me while playing the game. Some of the monsters are valuable as battle companions, though most are rather useless and take a long time to level up because of the lackluster AI. However, the instruments, weapons/armor, and golems were just useless to me. Granted I didn’t experiment that much with any of them, but that’s probably because it’s very hard to figure out which materials you can/should use for creation. At least with the monster ranch it’s not too difficult to just feed them and let them graze. There is a lot of room for customization, but it’s rarely useful customization.
One of the more fun aspects of the game, however, is the battle system. As were the previous Seiken Densetsu titles, Legend of Mana is an Action/RPG. As you begin the game, you’re asked to choose a hero or heroine and a weapon. Weapons range from daggers to warhammers. When you encounter enemies, the screen locks and you can only fight in that area. You attack using your weapon in either a quick strike, which leaves you temporarily stunned, or with a combination attack which, while it also leaves you stunned, delivers more attacks, albeit at a lower power. You can take damage, but it is healed after the battle.
Where the battle system truly shines is in the use of abilities and special attacks/magic. Abilities are simple commands such as jump, defend, crouch, cheer, etc., which you can assign to two buttons on the controller. Used separately each ability can help you defend yourself or help you heal faster, etc. When used in conjunction with another ability, however, you can discover new abilities, such as back-roll, defensive lunge, etc. But that’s not all! By combining quick and combo attacks, as well as attacks and abilities, you can learn special moves for your weapons. Special moves, assigned to the shoulder buttons by default, allow you to inflict much more damage or a wider range of damage than with just a normal attack when your special attack meter (built up by whipping up on enemies) fills up. These moves vary from weapon to weapon, but usually have great animation and do good damage. Also, each move has a specific range and distance of effect. Strategy has never played such an important part in an action/RPG before.
Of course, there’s also magic in the game, used by charging up an instrument in battle by holding down the assigned button. Like special attacks, each magic spell has its own range of effect and damage done, but instruments can be used an unlimited number of times, just by charging it up. Strangely, however, I didn’t find them to be that effective, so rarely used magic, relying on special attacks instead.
The final thing to mention when discussing the battle system is synchronicity. What syncrhonicity is, is a sort of “jive” between characters in battle, which allows for nifty effects. For instance, when you’re close to Bud in battle, if you see electricity arc between the portraits of both your characters, it means that Bud will heal faster while your spells will have better effects. I thought that this was a brilliant innovation, one I had only seen in Shining Force 3 before, and never to such an obvious effect. It simply adds another layer of strategy to an already strat-leaden game.
I do have a couple problems with the battle system, and one is control. Though the characters control very well outside of battle, in battle, you move haltingly in short steps. It makes it difficult to get from one end of the screen to the other, so if a monster drops an item or experience jewels, you have to be fast to pick them up before they disappear. Also, if you’re standing just a bit below or above a monster, you’ll miss it completely with a normal strike. Sometimes you’ll hit it on the z-axis with a combo from a spear or a special attack, but it’s difficult.
The other problem I had with the battle system is the rather lackluster AI of your companions. For one, after you kill an enemy, if it drops experience jewels or gold, the other characters won’t go after them, and so leveling up your companions, whether monsters or characters, is very difficult. Also, the AI rarely will avoid attacks by boss monsters. These monsters give ample warning of their special moves by flashing before they set one off. You’d think the AI controlled characters would take the hint, but they rarely, if ever, do. The AI is a definite sticking point in the game, but since your character could probably take on the whole game without a companion, it’s not THAT bad.
The last thing I’m going to say about the game is that it has extras in many forms. For instance, it has a 2-player feature, so that if a friend brings over his saved game you and he can whup on baddies together (solves the AI problem). Also included are a lot of encyclopedias that you can read at your house to learn more about the game world, characters (after you meet them), lands, materials, items, even produce! Since you add more entries every time you meet someone or learn something, it gives you that “gotta find em all” feeling. And of course, let’s not forget the New Game+ feature. After you “beat” the game, you can use your saved data to start over with all your experience, weapons, armor, creatures, etc. It also includes a difficulty select for the monsters, so that you can up the challenge a bit (or a lot in a certain case).
So overall, Square presents a stunning product in Legend of Mana. Graphics, music, sound, gameplay, and extras all outshine most other games out there. All I have to say is that people looking for a central plot should rent the game instead of buying it. I do recommend it to all those Poke-crazed people out there, however, as it allows for a lot of customization and creation of not only monsters but weapons and magic as well. Check it out and enjoy.