It only took me a few minutes with the game to see why it was so divisive. It is far from flawless, but it is a passion piece that is so unique that it may just win you over if you can look past its quirks.
Legend of Mana
Legend of Mana is a unique specimen, and I knew I really wanted to talk about it when I was only halfway through the title. It is very easy to see why so many people have written this game off, but I feel it may have been misjudged all this time. Well, I’ve got a lot to say, so let’s just get to it, shall we?
Hand Drawn Perfection & Audio Bliss
It is becoming rather redundant to talk about the Mana series in terms of presentation. Yet again. we have a beautifully crafted world. Legend of Mana returns to the colorful and whimsical design of games past, but uses the PlayStation hardware to create beautifully prerendered backgrounds that make the world feel like it’s been ripped straight from a fairytale with beautifully detailed sprite work, all of it hand drawn. That’s a great way of describing it really, as the game chooses to have a sort of storybook aesthetic that makes it look deceptively child like. It tops this all off with wonderfully fluid animation that makes this game not only look good for its time, but to continue to look beautiful even today. This is a world where pelicans deliver mail by scooping up anything with a stamp on it (including other creatures), and giant sentient teapots run inns and stores. It is certainly ‘out there’ even when compared to previous Mana entries, but it all fits into a rather cohesive and beautiful whole and made for a great stylistic design.
Also unsurprising is that the music is top-notch. Scored by Yoko Shimomura, the soundtrack just helps bring everything to life in a beautiful way. Fans of her composition style will feel right at home as this OST is comparable to her work in many other series’. I don’t mean to say that Yoko Shimomura’s work is routine, but it is very obvious when she is composing a work because her style is so distinct. It only took three or so music tracks before I was positive it was her, which can be a good and a bad thing. Here it very much fits the aesthetic. Just listen to this track and tell me that it doesn’t immediately remind you of any number of Kingdom Hearts songs (for example, Sinister Sundown or Scherzo Di Notte). Even with the soundtrack being beautiful, I was a little disheartened that a rendition of Fear of the Heavens (also known as the Mana theme) didn’t appear anywhere in this game.
Mana City Rampage
Legend of Mana contains the must fully realized ‘action’ in the entire series up to this point, so much so that it almost plays more like a 2D Brawler than it does a standard RPG. Spotting battlefield screens becomes fairly easy as you progress. because they will always be laid out on a flat horizontal plane where the enemies will be eagerly awaiting your arrival. From there, things get frantic as the game offers you sa full range of movement, with both a swift and heavy attack by default. You then have the ability to use the two other face buttons to equip some minor abilities of your choosing, which cover a wide range of options; jumping, guarding, counter attacks, resting to restore HP, and so on. All of these minor abilities can be combined with your normal attacks to create new combinations, and use of those combinations can actually lead to learning even more abilities and even special techniques.
Special techniques are abilities that you can use after you have hit your enemies enough times to fill a meter. These techniques dish out a huge amount of damage, if you can hit your enemy with them in the first place. Every time you unleash a special technique there is a long charge time that gives your enemy ample time to dodge, and this can be frustrating. The variety of ranges and attack types that abilities provide give more than enough means to circumvent this issue, though, especially when you take into account that you can have four equipped at a time (one for each shoulder button) that you can use for different combat scenarios. Also equippable to the shoulder buttons are magic attacks which are unlocked once instruments are introduced to the game, and once again, magic feels like a bit of an afterthought in this title. Unlike the last two games, magic is cast in real time and is possible to be dodged by both the player and enemies. It doesn’t take MP to cast magic, instead using a charge meter that is separate from the one used for special attacks. It is a feature I only made use of a couple of times, but the need to dodge and the enjoyment I got from the melee combat had me quickly leaving this feature behind.
This game has the largest amount of weapon types in the entire series, offering you an arsenal of combat styles to choose from until you find the type you like. Legend of Mana encourages you to experiment with its weapon system, not only because the basic combos will be different, but because the type of weapon you have equipped determines the special techniques available to you. The more you play with different weapon types and attack abilities, the more interesting and unique combat abilities you will unlock. The weapon you choose to have equipped will also alter the way your stats increase when you level up, but generally these points lean towards the style you have been using. This can only really be seen as a negative if you are going for a max level/perfect build run of the game because your desire for completion will inevitably leave you with less variety.
Speaking of leveling, while the game has your character progress automatically, experience points aren’t given to you immediately after you defeat a foe. Instead, when you dispatch a foe you will be showered in either gold, experience crystals or a crafting item, and you have only a short time span to pick up the items before they disappear. The type of reward dropped is random, which can be irritating if you are level grinding, but even with this randomness I never found myself to be underpowered. An aspect of this system that is frustrating, however, is that it is not automatically split between you and the pets or other party members you may have with you, so you can run into the dual issue of your AI controlled partners collecting the experience and depriving you from it, or you taking it all without your partners getting any. There is a mission early on that hands you an equippable item that automatically shares the experience with others, but it can be easy to miss because of the game’s free form structure.
Above all else, however, I found the most interesting aspect of combat to be how HP and HP restoration was handled, or more importantly, the fact that HP restoration in battle is nearly non-existent. There may exist a healing spell in the game, but I didn’t find it, and restorative items don’t exist in this title at all. The only means of healing in battle that I found was the previously mentioned ‘rest’ command, which moves so slowly that it is all but useless. While many may find this annoying, I really loved it as it encouraged skillful play. Blocking, dodging and counterattacks all became extremely useful tools in my arsenal, and every boss battle became a lot more intense knowing that I only had a finite amount of health. Well, for the most part, anyway. If a character is knocked out in battle, their life will slowly restore until it fills to max again and brings them back to life. But if your character gets knocked out, all you can do is hope and pray that your AI partner survives, and those chances are extremely slim, but not impossible. Even if you do die during an important battle, the repercussions are small, as you will be placed in the room right before the battle you were taking part in, meaning you can either try again or run off to get better equipment or level up, making the game challenging, but not at all unforgiving or unfair.
The World is Flat
Exploration in Legend of Mana follows the same basic principles that it did in Seiken Densetsu 3, moving on a screen-by-screen basis from one location to the next on a rather small scale. The way the levels are laid out feels a bit different now, however, as the 2D brawler combat system seems to have forced a change in how space is used, as vertical space is now almost completely ignored. Almost every area is a horizontal line with exits on the left and right side of the screen, and exits being on the top or bottom of the screen less frequently. Not all areas are mapped this way, as towns are given a bit more freedom in design because encounters don’t generally happen there, but most dungeons are laid out this way. I enjoyed this layout for the most part, though in some areas where the screens looked a bit samey it could make it easy to get lost. The game generally avoids this, though, by giving landmarks and clues along the way to ensure that you continue in the correct direction. I found a lot of the game’s areas quite expansive and genuinely enjoyed the layouts because they made me feel like I was actually exploring. Despite every screen being essentially a straight line, the areas are surprisingly non-linear at times.
There is one area in this game that I absolutely detested going to though, and that is the S.S. Buccaneer (which by the way is not a ‘steam ship’, so why they used the S.S. moniker, I have no idea). The ship-based level isn’t terrible in itself; in fact, I liked the idea of a pirate ship being run by a group of pirate penguins and the art design of this area was great, down to the fact that the boat has a rather nauseating rocking animation to add to the illusion. The thing that bothers me about this area is that it has a ridiculously convoluted puzzle based on a 25-square invisible grid, and all you are given are text clues as to what square you are on at any given time. On that large grid there are only four points of interest, and each one is its own sidequest, meaning that if you can’t figure out the grid you won’t finish every quest. It is diabolically infuriating, and I had to resort to two different guides to get it working properly. Most of the other puzzles are actually fun, but this was the one component of the entire game that I truly dreaded doing. Once again, it is not required to beat the game, but it was just… awful. It halted the games flow for me for quite some time.
I’m Not the Hero!?
One of the most common complaints about the game is that there is no centralized storyline and that the main hero/heroine has nothing to do with the main plot. While I understand where this thought process is coming, from I think it is very important to note that it is a misguided complaint, but to explain why I will have to give a short literary lesson, so please bear with me.
In fiction (or any kind of writing really) there are primarily four types of stories:
1) Character stories focus primarily on character development and the arc they go through during the story. It begins when the character has to start their ‘transformation’, and ends when that change is complete. A great example of this story type is The Last of Us, which primarily focuses on the development of Joel and Ellie.
2) Event stories focus primarily on… well, events. They are generally written about big world-changing situations that force the characters to act. Event stories begin when the world-changing event begins and ends when the change is either made, or the world inevitably falls into chaos. A great example of an event story in gaming would be Chrono Trigger, where Lavos is the ‘event’ that needs to be stopped.
3) Idea Stories are about finding information, generally through the eyes of a character. These can be deep philosophical messages or just a simple murder mystery, but the story begins when a question is raised and ends when the question is resolved. A great example of this type of story in gaming would be Alan Wake, where the question is quite simply ‘What the hell is going on!?’
4) Milieu stories (also known as World stories) are focused on the nature, societies and the all-round general workings of a story’s world. This is often used along with the sort of ‘fish out of water’ trope, allowing both the character and the player to experience a place with fresh eyes. A great example of this sort of storytelling in gaming would be Bioshock and the exploration of Rapture.
Obviously, there is some crossover here, as most well-written narratives have bits and pieces of all of these things in them. The type of story is dependent on what the primary focus is. Most of the time in gaming we focus on event-based stories, because it is the easiest thing to work with. “Oh, no! Bad things are happening and you must stop it!” is much more immediate an incentive and is much more likely to lead to an action dependent conclusion than an in-depth character study will. As gaming has evolved, developers have tried more and more to move away from that standard, with mixed success. There is even an argument to be made that because gaming is its own medium, it shouldn’t be judged by these narrative standards at all; no one plays Super Mario Bros because of the deep philosophical meaning behind it. Even more artistic ventures like Papers Please aren’t really a narrative in themselves, more just trying to convey an emotion, though now that I think on it, that could also constitute an idea story. But I digress.
From my experience, people seem to be more often drawn to event and character stories than anything else, which is where I feel most of the backlash against Legend of Mana’s storytelling comes from; Legend of Mana’s story was not bad, it was just told in a format people weren’t expecting, especially back in 2000. Legend of Mana is primarily a Millieu story, focused not around your character or any particular event, but around the world and all of the workings therein. There isn’t one large problem to solve; there are multiple smaller problems to solve. This alone makes for an interesting dynamic, because for the majority of the game you aren’t some great hero who is destined to save the world. You are a skilled fighter who is living his or her daily life, and from time to time will happen to be swept into something a bit larger than an errand of, “please help me get through this dungeon to collect some herbs.”.
In fact, once you get past that initial disappointment that your character is arguably not important, you will find that Legend of Mana has a more in-depth plot than the rest of the series combined. With three fully developed plot arcs and a multitude of interlinked side quests, this game not only paints the most vivid and fully realized world in the series, but one of the most fully realized worlds in gaming as a whole, and I was blown away by the level of detail it provided. Every NPC has a story if you are willing to look for it, and they are all important; if not to you, then to the world around them. The game has moments that hold actual emotional weight, but on the other side of the spectrum, the game can be completely whimsical and just plain fun.
Some of my favorite moments in this game didn’t come from the main story arcs, but from the slower moments where the game gave me time to breathe and I could soak in my surroundings. On top of that, the game is genuinely funny. I was actually surprised by the number of things they let slip into this game with only a ‘T’ rating at the time. For example, there are a chain of side quests following a failed ladies’ man as he tries to woo several women, and upon trying to seduce a basilisk lady he says, “I’m getting hard, so hard for you baby!” This was a rather obvious and crude double entendre, and I won’t lie, it had me chuckling, especially when it led to him actually being turned to stone when he just wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. There are tons of both beautifully moving story segments and absolutely hilarious moments, and it is this amazingly balanced contrast that makes exploring this world such a marvelous and unforgettable experience.
Legend of Mana isn’t just a game about a fantasy setting, it is a game about life. It is about taking part in other people’s stories and experiencing both the highs and lows of existence. If you can wrap your head around this way of thinking and become fully immersed in this game’s vibrant world, I am sure you will walk away impressed and fulfilled by what the game has to offer in terms of its storytelling.
The Multi-colored Elephant in the Room
Let’s get this game’s most controversial feature out of the way here. At the beginning of the game, you are shown a world map, and are asked to pick a general location where you want the game to take place. This creates the section of the world you will spend your whole game in, and it acts mostly as a patch of land for you to use as a means of choosing the location of every area the game gives you from there on in. This is called the ‘Land Make’ system, and it is… let’s just say it’s ‘unique’. Each area in the game is represented by its own landmark on a grid, and the player gets to choose which landmark goes where as they are unlocked throughout the game. Giving the freedom to players to choose the relative location of every area in the game is an interesting idea, but the fact that it affects so many unknown variables makes it impossible for the players to know how detrimental or beneficial each placement will be in the long run. Landmark placement affects the power of certain elemental magics, the strength of the enemies that will be appearing at each location, and much more damningly, which quests will and won’t be available to the player.
The developers of this game did not expect you to see everything the game had to offer in a single playthrough. There are over 60 quests, and they all have invisible variables involved that make them only accessible at a certain point and some inaccessible after certain points, offering only a brief window of opportunity. There is no getting around the fact that if you want to see everything this game has to offer in a single playthrough, you have to use a walkthrough. It is an interesting dilemma for me when it comes to reviewing, because the intention was obviously purposeful; they wanted people to communicate with one another, to explore and discover things on their own and to create unique adventures for each player. I can respect that attempt, but I don’t necessarily believe that this was the right way to do it. When I play a game, I get a lot more enjoyment when a guide isn’t necessary. On the other hand, I was having so much fun with this game that using a guide to know where to set landmarks and which order to do the quests in felt like only a small inconvenience. All of my gameplay time within the actual quests was done without help, and that kept it from being a complete case of following step-by-step instructions. That made the game enjoyable enough for me to keep playing, but I can definitely see how it will hurt the experience for people who aren’t willing to use guides at all.
The game is designed in such a way that you can complete it without seeing the majority of its content, which given the medium’s current obsession with open world environments and millions of pointless unlockables, doesn’t really seem that out of place. In fact, you don’t even have to complete certain quest chains to finish the game, as the ending mission isn’t linked to any of the three main plot arcs. The real problem here stems from the fact that this open structure is also compounded by the previously mentioned lack of a central story, which will undoubtedly leave a lot of players that aren’t aware of the game’s quirks feeling left out and frustrated. It is certainly hard to defend this system over a more formulaic and structured progression system, but the uniqueness certainly does fit this game in terms of style and design philosophy.
The Importance of Design Philosophy
This game offers you a plethora of optional content; in fact, the majority of the game is optional if you really want to break it down, but what I really want to focus on here is all the little features you can tinker with at your leisure. The game offers you a blacksmith that you can use to forge and temper equipment, though admittedly this feature is far from well-designed (there is also a near-identical shop and system for creating instruments, which are used to cast magic). It all turns into guesswork, as you never know what you are going to create until you actually create it, and the stats aren’t available until the item is built either. I believe this was meant to feel realistic and encourage experimentation, but I think it will more often than not lead to frustration and perhaps game resets until the player gets something they deem worthy of their materials.
The game also includes a pet raising mechanic where you can find eggs throughout the game and raise them to fight alongside you. I rather liked this feature, but once again, the over complicated mechanics tend to drag it down a bit. You need to feed your animal certain foods to encourage certain stat growths (and there is a LOT of food to choose from). The game even goes so far as letting you raise animals just to sell them for a profit if you’d really like too, though you really have no reason to do so. You gain access to a golem-building feature that is much like the pet feature, but with much more complicated and in-depth mechanics that I feel a lot of players will find off putting. There is also an orchard where you can grow fruits and vegetables that are used for the previously mentioned game features. All of these mechanics are left poorly explained and can’t really be taken advantage of without a lot of trial and error, unless you use a walkthrough, which I genuinely feel this game expects you to.
All of this is obtuse at best and completely unnecessary at worst. You can do a complete run of the game while almost completely ignoring these features, which leaves me at a bit of a loss. My instinct, like a lot of other reviewers, is to write these features off as failed concepts; in fact, I did just that when some of these features were reused in Sword of Mana, but I feel there is a fundamental difference here that makes these things at least… acceptable in Legend of Mana, though I still wouldn’t go as far as to claim they were good decisions.
The difference between Legend of Mana and Sword of Mana in this regard is rather simple really; it all comes down to game design philosophy. Sword of Mana was a game that was meant to have forward momentum; the world was in peril and you needed to fix it as soon as possible. Legend of Mana, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach of throwing you into a ‘real’ world that isn’t necessarily in peril and really wants you to explore things at your leisure. Legend of Mana gives you all these toys to play with but also gives the freedom and capability to ignore them if you choose to, and you won’t necessarily suffer by choosing not to partake. If I were to try and give this idea an image, it would (rather appropriately) be a tree: the core gameplay of combat and exploration makes up the roots and trunk, while all of the branches are the side quests and bonus features the game provides. You can easily just climb the trunk to get to the top without halting your progression, but the branches are also there if you want a fuller and more complicated experience.
If you take into account that the game was designed with replays in mind, it actually does a great job of balancing all of its features; it offers a new game plus mode with not only one harder difficulty, but a second that puts every enemy you face at maximum level. Someone just looking to play the game once never has to touch any of these bonus features, but people who enjoy the game enough to play it a second or third time will need to invest the effort into making ideal equipment and strong pets and the like, giving completely viable options for two completely different gameplay styles. That is why I feel that these features are acceptable, despite not being as well implemented as they should have been. Only those that are truly sucked into the game will ever have to deal with these features in the first place, and those players are more likely to be accepting of these flaws.
This All Seems Awfully Familiar
I hate to have to do this, but Legend of Mana has so much in common with Kingdom Hearts that I felt it needed its own little ‘for fun’ section here. You are more than welcome to skip it if you just want to get back to the main analysis, but I felt like pointing out some of the similarities to see what everyone thought.
First off, the fact that world travel is done from a sort of map screen where you literally jump from fragmented world to world is a rather obvious connection, the difference being that in Legend of Mana these pieces are manually placed in any location you’d like, while KH just has these locations become separate Disney worlds. This also carries over to the storytelling, which is based around a series of vignettes more so than the central character’s journey, though Kingdom Hearts does break that mold at the beginning and end of the game.
The aesthetic choices are obviously similar, with the large amounts of colorful and detailed worlds, and music composed by Yoko Shimomura that feels so similar it’s as if you could rip the soundtrack from either game and swap the songs, and it would still feel perfectly fitting.
The game has creatures called Shadoles that fill a similar role in this story as heartless do in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, though Shadoles can talk.
The enemies you will face (especially bosses) have multiple HP bars that stack right on top of each other, so while you are whittling down their health, you at first don’t know how much progress you are truly making.
The combat system in Legend of Mana was ripped verbatim for use in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, being a side scrolling hack-and-slash game with similar combo setups and enemies exploding into a shower of money and experience points that you have to manually pick up before they disappear. Once again, this was altered slightly to allow for Chain of Memories’s card system.
I don’t think any of these similarities are bad, I just think it is funny that this really could be the spiritual predecessor to Kingdom Hearts, and considering its release date and fundamental gameplay similarities I truly believe it may have been the inspiration for it. I’m not calling Kingdom Hearts a rip-off (especially since they are designed by the same company), but while playing Legend of Mana, there was just a vibe I could never shake. Instead of littering the ‘just like Kingdom Hearts‘ comparisons throughout this whole article, I thought it would be better to just place it all in one section. After all, I don’t want to make several sections saying the same thing, like how they’ve made seven games primarily taking place in the exact same locations in Kingdom Hea…
The Legend That Time Forgot
It may be weird to say, but I almost feel like Legend of Mana was ahead of its time. To me, it feels like a game that would fit right in with the current indie scene. It is an interesting mish-mash of ideas that don’t always work, but the fundamental gameplay is so strong and the world so alive that I was more than willing to overlook these shortcomings. We are in what may be considered a more open-minded market now than we were at the time of this game’s release. With games like Terarria and Faster Than Light being so popular, I could see this game doing fairly well if it were released now as opposed to then. Games that have a large element of randomness and heavily encourage replays so you can actually see everything the game has to offer are now commonplace. We are also firmly in the internet age, where people often willingly use walkthroughs or Wikis to get through the games they play, making my biggest complaints about this title arguably a moot point. It is obvious the game hasn’t changed since its release, but the market certainly has, so I encourage anyone who is interested in trying something a bit more unique to pick this game up. It is easily obtainable if you have a PSN account in North America or Japan. Sorry PAL territories; it was never released for you in the first place.
Legend of Mana is far from perfect, and there are so many little nagging stumbling blocks that I can definitely see why some people would dislike it a great deal. All I can truly reflect on is my experience with the game, and from that experience I can honestly say that this is one of the most charming and fun games I have ever had the chance to experience. It is one of those titles that had me smiling from beginning to end, and anyone who knows me will know that is a very rare occurrence. There just isn’t much out there like Legend of Mana, and I truly feel that it is a game that should be experienced by anyone who is willing to look past its arguably glaring flaws.
Well, that took a lot more out of me than I would have expected. Thank you for reading! Next time I will be tackling the hack n’ slash dungeon crawler, Children of Mana. I hope to see you there!
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net