Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
The fourth installment of the popular Seiken Densetsu action RPG series has arrived, but has taken a different turn from the rest of its predecessors. Legend of Mana is a unique and intricate game that draws you into the world of Fa-dil and never lets you go.
Upon starting the game, Legend of Mana allows the player to choose either a male or female main character. This only affects minor statistical adjustments. From there, you are allowed to select a primary weapon to become proficient in using. There are eleven to choose from, and the weapon you select becomes a highly influential force in the development of the main character, statistically. For example, if you choose a Sword as the primary weapon, each level gained will yield perfectly balanced statistical growth. In other words, each individual parameter will increase equally with all theothers. However, other weapons, such as a Broad Sword or Battle Axe will result in the character becoming dominant in strength and power, and lacking in agility and magic skill. Choosing a Staff, Lance, or Daggers will result in the opposite effect. Selecting a weapon wisely is essential.
Next, the player is taken to an overhead view of a large map and introduced to the Landmake system. In Legend of Mana, you select a small area of the world to develop and explore. Different areas of the world are infused with varying concentrations of the Mana Elementals, so picking a naturally balanced area is also highly important to successful gameplay. You then receive your first artifact, “My Home”. Artifacts are items that create locations on the world map and are obtained through completing specific quests. With My Home being your character’s main headquarters, the relative locations at which you place other artifacts factor heavily into the gameplay experience. For example, the closer you place an enemy-infested battle area to My Home, the weaker the enemies and bosses in that area will be, and they increase in strength the farther away you place their respective artifact. However, towns and cities close to My Home tend to carry fairly cheap and weak equipment in shops, while those placed far away have powerful weapons, armor and magic for sale. As you can see, a great deal of strategy is involved in how you choose to manipulate the Landmake system.
Legend of Mana is not a traditional RPG with a continuous, linear storyline. Rather, it is a collection of 68 small quests of which you can complete any or all as you choose, in any order that you would like. Many of them are as simple as helping out a person in town, but some become as complex as the Dragon Killer series of five quests. A personal favorite of mine, it involves the hero meeting with Lark, a Dragon Killer seeking the power of the Mana Stones to defeat the King of the Dragons, Tiamat, and the conflict that arises between him and his sister Shela, Princess of the Dragons. Another set revolves around the mysterious swordsman Escade, his ambitions and his past. Quests such as this are serious and dramatic, but others are lighthearted and comical, such as the war between the Penguins and the Anagumas, a race of dogs who live deep under the Wakuran Mines. It is not necessary to complete all of the quests to finish the game; only several major quest threads, such as the ones mentioned above, are required, and the player can choose which paths to follow.
Many quests tend to follow a basic pattern of initiation in town, then traveling to an area and battling to the boss at the end of it. Battles are unavoidable in Legend of Mana and you cannot escape from them. In battle, you have a choice to perform a quick, light hit with the circle button, or a slow, but heavy hit with the triangle button. How you strike the enemy also depends on D-Pad movement. For example, performing a Hadoken motion (down, down-forward, forward) prior to striking with the triangle button will result in a leaping uppercut slash that can knock the enemy back and potentially stun him. This, of course, only applies those who use the sword as primary weapon. The X and square buttons are reserved for Abilities, special battle techniques that are highly valuable. You start with eight of them in the beginning of the game and eventually can learn several dozen through mastering combinations of them. They include Dash, Guard, Jump, and my personal favorite, Somersault, among with many others. Special attacks, or Waza, can be assigned to the four shoulder buttons and there are about ten to twenty available for each weapon type. However, a Waza can only be used once the Waza meter has become full, which is accomplished by striking the enemy a certain number of times. A very nice feature in this game is that your HP is healed completely after each battle, and if you die fighting a boss, you have an option to continue as many times as you want until you beat it, penalty-free.
Finally, Legend of Mana brings a unique approach to Magic usage. Magic is available in the form of Instruments that must be equipped to the Waza slots on the shoulder buttons. Instruments can either be purchased in shops or created by your character later in the game. Magic is cast by holding down the respective button designated to the spell while a Magic Gauge builds up. When it is full, the spell is unleashed upon the helpless enemies. Magic can be used as often as you like, for there is no MP to drain or anything. The other benefit to having a variety of Instruments comes during encounters with the trademark Seiken Densetsu Elementals. If you happen to come across one, you have the option to play it some music using your Instruments. If successful, the Elemental will be lured over to you where you can grab it. This produces Coins, which can be used in even stronger Instrument synthesis, but if you fail, it will simply disappear and the player receives nothing.
Legend of Mana features a three character party as typical of the series. A second player can even pick up a controller and control the hero’s companion NPC. But what about the third character? This will either be a computer-controlled Pet or Golem. Pet raising is accomplished by capturing monster eggs throughout the land. This is done by luring them with foods. If the pet likes the food and devours it, it will fall asleep when finished eating. This is when you can grab it and take it back to your farm at My Home. There, you can feed the pet a combination of dozens of different food types, all of which have different statistical effects on it. Once it hatches, you can either bring it along, let it roam around the yard gaining experience on its own, or sell it. Raising a pet is very simple to do, but unfortunately, the CPU tends to control them horribly and pets usually die quickly in heated battles.
It is also important to note that the player can forge their own weapons and armor, as well as grow their own foods for use in pet raising in Legend of Mana. These processes are just as simple as the one described above.
Mechanically, Legend of Mana truly shines. The game’s graphics are magnificent to say the least. All the backdrops are beautiful, hand-painted, watercolor portraits, similar to those used in SaGa Frontier 2. The characters and enemies are brightly colored sprites, each having many different frames of fluid animation. Bosses redefine the word huge, many taking up 75% of the screen (wait until you see Tiamat).
The music in Legend of Mana is excellently done as well. In fact, it has one of the greatest RPG soundtracks ever composed. There is a rich variety in the score, ranging from very soft and peaceful songs such as those heard in My Home and Domina, to the hard rock boss theme, “Pain of the Universe”, which rivals even some of the masterpieces composed by Falcom’s JDK Band. The music embraces an adventurous tone in each area of its presence and suits them perfectly.
So, what makes Legend of Mana less than perfect? For one, gameplay tends to get slightly repetitive and tedious after a while. Many of the quests are similar in nature, following the format I previously mentioned above, and having to fight through inescapable random battles can quickly become a monotonous chore. Others can be downright frustrating, having you run back and forth across the world to ten different places. Also, the “side-quest” format of the game and lack of a continuous storyline may turn off some gamers. However, it is still an excellently done game overall with only a few minor flaws. It is also one that will keep you occupied for a while: completing every quest takes around 30 to 40 hours or so. Another masterpiece from Squaresoft.