Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Square’s Seiken Densetsu series is one of the best-loved action RPG series in the world. Its lofty reputation is well deserved; the series has proven its excellence over 3 previous installments (1 on the Game Boy, 2 on the Super Famicom). Several years after the release of Seiken Densetsu 3, amidst fears that the series would never see another installment, Square calmed despairing minds by announcing Seiken Densetsu: Legend of Mana shortly before the May 1999 Tokyo Game Show. At long last, the first PlayStation installment of the wonderful action RPG series has arrived, and it proves to be worth every minute of the lengthy wait for it.
The first thing that gamers will likely notice about Seiken Densetsu: Legend of Mana is the visual presentation. In my opinion, Legend of Mana has the most beautiful graphics to ever grace a 32-bit game. All of the backgrounds are 2D hand-drawn maps, and the onscreen characters are sprites, rather than polygons. The backgrounds sport a level of detail never seen before in a video game, and the sprites are meticulous in their design as well. The colors used are bright and look great, and there’s definitely no shortage of colors anywhere in the game.
The animation of characters in Legend of Mana is similarly impressive. Everything animates very smoothly, both in and out of battle. In battle, both the special attacks and the spell effects are spectacular, animating cleanly and utilizing lighting effects well. The standard enemies that you fight aren’t particularly impressive, but the bosses are huge and beautiful in their detail.
The character designs and art are also noteworthy. Although most of the characters are a tad overtly cute in their appearance (much like those of past Seiken Densetsu games), they are very detailed and aesthetically pleasing. Like the character designs, the art in the rest of the game is a little bit cute, but it still looks amazing.
An interesting note about the art is that while the majority of the characters in the game are overtly cute, Legend of Mana also contains some of the most demented-looking characters I’ve seen in a game. These are usually reserved as villains, but some of the regular NPCs are quite freakish as well.
As you begin play, you can choose to be either a male or female character. Your gender choice for the main character doesn’t seem to make any difference in terms of the gameplay or storyline in the game. You also get to choose a weapon to start with. You have a wide variety of choices here; possible weapons include a pair of daggers, a sword, a bow and arrows, and a lance.
Legend of Mana is an action RPG, but in terms of overall gameplay mechanics, it reminds me more of Chrono Trigger than it does Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan), the most popular Seiken Densetsu game among US RPG fans. The area maps are laid out much like those of Chrono Trigger, and enemy encounters are extremely similar as well (you can often see your enemies before they attack).
Once the enemies do attack, however, Legend of Mana becomes more similar to Secret of Mana. Despite the fact that the battles take place on the area maps and the scope of the battles tends to be restricted to the screen on which the enemies are encountered (a la Chrono Trigger), you physically move your characters around in battle like in any other action RPG. Like in SaGa Frontier, you are healed to full strength after each battle.
You can attack using a slow but powerful attack or a faster but weaker one. Combining directional pad movements with attack buttons also yields variations in your attack. Special attacks can be learned in combat and then assigned to one of the 4 trigger buttons on the PSX pad. When the special attack meter fills up (hitting enemies with regular attacks fills up the special attack meter), the special attack in question can be executed with a simple push of the trigger button it is assigned to. A multitude of special attacks can be learned in Legend of Mana; each weapon type has its own distinct set of special attacks.
A large part of Legend of Mana’s battle gameplay revolves around the concept of action abilities. Action abilities, which include moves such as jumping, crouching, dashing, and guarding, can be assigned to 2 of the buttons on the PlayStation pad for use in combat, and are executed simply by pushing these buttons. New action abilities are generally learned through combining the uses of pre-existing action abilities, and like the special moves, there are a lot of action abilities that can be learned.
Magic can also be used in Legend of Mana. Spells are cast through instruments, and are executed similarly to the aforementioned special attacks. You assign an instrument to a trigger button, and when your special attack meter fills up, you execute the spell by pushing that trigger button. Unlike the special attacks, you have to hold down the trigger until a spell meter fills up before you can unleash your magic.
Throughout your quest, you will meet many NPCs. Some of them will join you (one NPC can join you at a time), and can be controlled by either the second controller or by computer AI. Although the AI of these NPCs in combat is nothing to rave about, it is much better than that of just about any other action RPG that I can think of. Your characters attack enemies aggressively, and do a pretty good job of keeping themselves from getting killed in the meantime. Unfortunately, unlike Secret of Mana, you can’t switch between controllable characters on one control pad. The first controller is the only one that can control the main character, and the second controller is the only one that can control the NPC.
In addition to the NPC, you can have a pet of some sort in your party. Sometimes in towns and dungeons, you’ll see monster eggs running around. By laying down meats and vegetables, you can lure the monster egg into your clutches. Once captured, the egg can be deposited into your pet ranch, which can hold up to 5 eggs or monsters (or any combination thereof) at a time.
The pet-raising aspects of Legend of Mana are extremely simplified compared to that of most pet-raising games. You simply feed the half-hatched egg up to 3 food items, go away for a while, and when you come back, the monster egg should be fully hatched and ready to join your party. The pet is entirely computer-controlled in combat. Because pet characters tend to be pretty weak, with worse AI than the NPCs, I found their utility to be quite limited. It definitely seems that this option was included more for fun than anything else.
Legend of Mana also features the Landmake System. By placing artifacts that you obtain during your quest onto the world map, new gameplay areas are opened up. Some artifacts can only be placed on certain areas of the world map. For example, certain artifacts have to be placed on a plot of land bordered by a body of water on at least one side, while others have to be placed on plots completely surrounded by land. In addition, each artifact you place has its own elemental property, and the location in which you place an artifact can have different effects. Although the Landmake System allows you to customize how you want your world to look, it doesn’t seem to make a big impact on the gameplay, with one possible exception. Although I have yet to confirm this, some optional events may not be playable if your Landmake doesn’t reach certain mana requirements.
Legend of Mana’s layout is relatively unique as well. The playable events of the game are laid out in an extremely nonlinear manner; where you go and who you talk to determine what events are triggered at a certain point in time. Although all of the events should be playable at some point in every game, you at least get to decide the order in which these events are completed (at least to a certain extent).
The nonlinearity of Legend of Mana is carried out brilliantly; in my opinion, Legend of Mana has the best-executed nonlinear layout ever seen in a console game. Although there are some constraints on the order of events (in order to keep the plot coherent), there is a feeling of near-absolute freedom when playing this game.
Although the execution of Legend of Mana’s gameplay is excellent, there are a few relatively major problems with it. In combat, battles take place on the screen in which the enemies are encountered. In other words, with most battles, once enemies are encountered, you can’t scroll the screen in any direction until all of the enemies are defeated. This prevents you from luring enemies to a battleground that is advantageous for you, which is something I consider important in action RPGs.
In addition, there doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid fighting in this game. Even when you can see enemies before they attack, you can’t avoid them, and once you are in battle, there doesn’t seem to be any way to run away. This makes the game a bit more time-consuming than it needs to be at times.
The special attacks often take a significant amount of time to execute. During this time, you can’t move your character at all, so if the enemy moves out of the way (which they often have time to do), your special attack misses completely. This lag in execution severely limits the utility and versatility of many of the special attacks in the game.
Also, you can’t access the menus in battles. Therefore, you can’t use items at all in battle. Perhaps more seriously, you can’t change spells or special attacks in battle, either. Because you can only have 4 different spells or special attacks equipped at one time (one for each trigger button), you’re stuck with the same 4 spells or special attacks (or any combination thereof) for the duration of the battle.
Finally, Legend of Mana has an annoying habit of taking time to load every time you leave a screen. Although the load times aren’t overtly lengthy, they are significant, and they become a nuisance because they occur so often.
Like all of its other facets, Legend of Mana is excellent in its control. You can move in 8 directions, and a dash button allows you to travel through the area maps at a brisk clip. In battle, the majority of the weapon attacks (including the directional pad combos) are pretty responsive, and so are the special attacks. Most of the action abilities also respond fairly well to your commands. The menu design is brilliant, too, though it takes a little bit of time to get used to.
Control does have some weaknesses as well. Outside of battle, your character has an irritating habit of bouncing off of objects; you often get bounced into the next screen if you’re standing near the edge of a screen and don’t take extra care to avoid this phenomenon. In addition, your characters tend to move sluggishly in combat, and action abilities like the dash or back dash generally don’t offer enough maneuverability to hold a high level of utility.
Although storyline is its weakest department, Legend of Mana is still strong in this facet, especially when compared to other action RPGs. In the large scheme of things, your goal is to grow a new Mana Tree in the world of Fa-dil. However, the storyline mainly focuses on the many smaller events involving the large cast of NPCs in the game, and these stories are interesting and often humorous. Like most other action RPGs, character development is minimal, but there are a few great emotional moments in the game.
In contrast to the storyline, Legend of Mana’s sound department is one of its key strengths. Sound effects are full and impressive, and some of the explosions really boom solidly. Like most other Square games, there is no voice acting in Legend of Mana.
After hearing the amazing songs from the Legend of Mana demo, I was expecting big things from Legend of Mana’s soundtrack. Unfortunately, the soundtrack in its entirety doesn’t live up to the promise of the demo; most of the best songs on the soundtrack were present in the demo. However, the Legend of Mana score still comes out very strong, and ranks as Square’s fourth-best 32-bit soundtrack so far (behind Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, and Soukaigi).
Variety is a strong suit of the Yoko Shimamura-composed soundtrack, as nearly every possible game music genre can be heard in the influences of the many songs in the score. Some of the tracks really stand out; the opening theme “Legend of Mana” manages to be both beautiful and ominous simultaneously with its piano-driven melody. “Song of Mana”, the second opening theme, lays pretty Swedish vocals over a Celtic-influenced upbeat melody.
The true highlights of Legend of Mana’s soundtrack, however, are the rock-influenced boss themes. “Pain the Universe” and “The Darkness Nova” are perhaps the two best hard rock songs I’ve heard in an RPG since Falcom’s Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys. And “Irwin on Reflection,” while slightly less driving and slightly more repetitive than the aforementioned boss themes, still impresses with its intensity.
As great as some of the songs are, there just aren’t enough total songs on Legend of Mana’s soundtrack. Many of the tracks begin to repeat themselves early on in the game, which causes you to become weary of even some of the best pieces from the score.
Seiken Densetsu: Legend of Mana ranks as one of Square’s best 32-bit games yet released. All are encouraged to get this one.
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