Console role-playing games (RPGs) are not really known for their innovation. Aside from the predictable evolutions in graphics and sound, these types of games generally play the same as they have since the release of the original RPGs—Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES. That was what made the release of Secret Of Mana on the Super NES (SNES) such a thrill for me. For one thing, it was not the traditional turn-based RPG that I was used to seeing, and it took action-RPGs a step further than the original Legend Of Zelda. Instead of a single player going through the game, two additional characters joined the party, and either the computer or two of your friends could control each of those characters. Considering what a solitary playing experience RPGs tended to be, this new option changed the whole dynamic of the game, but both the genre and multiplayer were perfectly suited for each other. Thats why I was so thrilled when I heard Legend Of Mana—the third in the Seiken Densetsu—series was coming to the PlayStation for its first (and last) appearance. Having played it though, I must confess disappointment in Square for not remembering what it was that made one of their original SNES games such a hit.
In a palpable attempt to throw in some long-held-onto RPG conventions—such genre concepts as story progression and character development—Square came up with a new system to be the focal point of Legend of Mana called the "Land Make" system. As the story goes, the world of Legend Of Mana has been reduced to a collection of artifacts. These artifacts hold the memories of people and places that existed long ago. To proceed through the game, I had to acquire these artifacts, restore them to their normal state and then explore them. In what results in an unbreakable cycle, I needed to acquire artifacts to open new areas to explore in order to find more artifacts. In essence, it was by exploring and interacting with the people in these new areas that advanced the game. With every confrontation, there was the possibility that I would meet someone that needed some sort of task accomplished—like a princess needing rescue or a some sort of adventure that needed undertaking. These objectives took the form of chapters (69 in all) that are scattered throughout the game. To make things easier, Square made the order in which I found these artifacts, and even completed the chapters, inconsequential. In fact, I could advance through the game however I chose.
Such a system certainly sounds innovative and excitingly new, but in application it is not at all problem free. The game's major problem is most apparent before the game really starts. After sitting through a vague opening intro, I chose a generic character (male or female—it doesn't matter), selected a weapon of choice and was then plopped down in the world of Mana with nary a clue as to what to do. In retrospect, I supposed the developers at Square simply believed I would be happy to find my way with absolutely no guidance and feel some sort of satisfaction when I did. However, this was not the case. What wound up happening was that I wasted precious minutes running around—often in circles—trying to figure out what to do next. Naturally, I did find my way, but I can't say that the feeling of confusion never quite goes away while playing.
Since Legend Of Mana lacks a strong story that keeps itself in the background (thus providing some foundation to the gameplay) a feeling of aimlessness permeates the entire game. The interdependence of the individual stories does little to make up for that. After I played through one chapter, no matter how much fun it may have been, it was over before I knew it. I was then left to go searching again—admittedly it wasn't always a long wait—for someone who would lead me on another yet adventure. This got to be quite aggravating as few of these chapters ever held any cohesiveness to the last. There really was little motivation to keep on playing since nothing I was doing felt worthy of my time. I do enjoy open-endedness in a game, but taken this far it was just an example of lack of direction.
Another area of contention lies in the fact that despite the popularity of the multiplayer mode in Secret Of Mana, Square reduced it to an afterthought in Legend Of Mana. There are still three characters to a party, with each under the control of three players or controlled independently by the computer. However, what is different this time around is that two human players can only control the game during battles. I fail to see the reasoning behind such a move. After all, what made Secret Of Mana such a blast was more than one person was going through the entire game together. It was true multiplaying long before MMORPG (Massively-Multiplayer Online RPG) was even an acronym. What will likely happen with Legend of Mana is that your friends or siblings will spent most of the game sitting on their hands watching the you play. How exciting is that? And to make matters worse—and in keeping with the flimsy feel of the other components of the game—party members are not permanent and are totally interchangeable. There is never enough time to get to know and enjoy having a particular ally on my team. As soon as I did, he, she or it would run off—leaving me to either look for another partner, search for the one that just left or go it alone.
That isn't to say that Legend Of Mana doesn't have its strong points. The combat system itself is fairly similar to preceding Mana games, but this time around it is more focused on real-time action. Instead of navigating through a menu system, spells and special attacks are assigned to the four shoulder buttons before battles begin. The standard face buttons are relegated to a single light weapon attack, a heavy weapon attack, blocking and jumping. I found these to be sufficient in most battles, but when strung together they resulted in impressive combos. The variety of these combinations can be quite inspired, and they change depending on the weapon of choice. It was one of the throwbacks to Secret Of Mana that I greatly appreciated. When it came to casting spells, Square showed its trademark flare for the dramatic—only these spell animations didn't force you to stop playing to watch them. Their effectiveness is contingent on whether you hit a dizzied enemy or one in the middle of an action, but whatever the case, they are a great compliment to the different weapon attacks.
Two features of the game that are hard to ignore are incredible sound and graphics. The music in this game is simply remarkable. From the background music to that of the opening introduction, it is another example of the phenomenal abilities of the Square developers to get the most out of a console's audio chip. But what takes the cake has to be Legend Of Mana's very stylized, hand-drawn art. The quality of the backgrounds is breathtaking, and one look at the detail and artistry of the designs for all the characters in the game—large and small—will leave you stunned. With the proliferation of 3-D graphics and prerendered 2-D backgrounds in so many RPGs these days, for Square to go this route took guts. But in the end, it is so perfectly suited for this type of gameplay that they should be commended for sticking with the old. If nothing else, it is wonderfully nostalgic—bringing back memories of Squares 16-Bit heyday. The one drawback here though, is that it was sometimes hard to navigate through certain areas. Almost every scene is full of so many irregular shapes and protrusions that they could actually block areas of entry or exit. It was through a lot of trial-and-error that I would find my way around. Granted it wasnt a major problem, but it was certainly slowed my progress.
Perhaps it is to enhance the gaming experience, or just Square following the latest trend, but mini-games are abound in Legend Of Mana. Most are adequately suited to the game's premise, but others are clearly fluff. There is weapons forging—where I can combine items found or bought in the game to create newer and more powerful weapons and armor. If my current selection of allies is ineffective, I can create them in the form of Golems. Golems are artificial creatures, created in the workshop from unneeded weapons and armor, and can be called upon to fight at my side. I can also fashion magical instruments that are used to increase my magical abilities. The most useless of diversions was the silly Pokémon-esque monster raising game. It required harboring eggs I acquired during my travels and feeding them fruit from an orchard I had to grow. It was probably the biggest waste of time of the bunch.
I am still shocked that Square would toss aside the excellent multiplayer feature I had come to expect from the Seiken Densetsu series. But as disappointing as that was, it wasn't what kept Legend Of Mana from shining. What hurt Legend Of Mana was the feeling of irrelevance that saturated so much of what I did, and this will hurt any game, especially an RPG. To its credit, Squaresoft tried to a few new game elements with this release and succeeded in making it one of the more unique playing experiences around. Unfortunately, "unique" doesnt always translate to "good," and in Legend Of Mana, Square has a game that doesn't live up to expectations.