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SummaryAmazing art, awful gameplay/story
The GoodLegend of Mana is a game Square released during their most glorious days of the Playstation 1 area. It was released in Japan approximately at the same time as the more popular Final Fantasy VIII, even though it is more obscure. It is sort of a sequel to the previous entries in the Mana series, however it was still released under the western-like name "Legend of Mana" in Japan, instead of "Seiken Densetsu IV" it should have been, thus it's not really a sequel, but a spin-off, of a series which itself started as a spin-off of the Final Fantasy series... what a mess.
So, just like other games in the series, Legend of Mana is an Action-RPG... or not really. It's really hard or impossible to classify this game, so much it's weird. It is between a western RPG (though I admit I hardly ever played those), a beat-em-up and an action RPG. It definitely lacks the "Japanese-RPG" elements which include a developed character cast, a complex story involving emotions to the player, which is usually why I play RPGs, or at least those released past the mid-90s.
The graphics of this game are amazing. They are entirely in 2D, with some pre-rendered background which were developed directly by artists. They look gorgeous, and of pure fantasy. Creatures of many imaginative races populate this world, and they are funny to interact with. The cities and dungeons you visit in this game really looks impressive, and will be very memorable. The fact the game is in 2D is absolutely no problem, on the other hand they reached a level of detail probably not possible with Final Fantasy-style pre-rendered 3D, and that would have seriously hindered battle.
The music composer had changed since the last Mana games, and the soundtrack was made by Yoko Shimonura, the woman who also composed music for Live a Live and Super Mario RPG among other games. She is one of the best video game composers, and she did a marvelous work for this game. A Swedish language song in the intro is amazing (no, other than that the game has nothing to do with Sweden), the melodies are very pure, cute, innocent, reflecting the nature of this game. Dungeons have more energetic music going on. Hard-rock / electric guitars are used for the boss battle themes, which contrasts a little with the rest of the game, but fits the mood perfectly. Overall this game is almost worth playing for it's music (and possibly graphics) alone.
The BadThere is unfortunately several huge problems from this game that make it relatively hard to enjoy in the long term. Don't get me wrong, when starting a new game you'll immediately love the music, the visuals, the atmosphere, and thinking you'd have to be crazy to not fall in love for this game. However, the truth is, after playing several hours, this games shows how empty and dull it is. There is no linearity in this games, it is basically a large collection of sub-quests you can do in almost any order. The quests are usually simple things such as fetch an item, rescue someone and/or kill a monster. Other than that, there is absolutely no story in this game. Character development is extremely limited character development. The hero or heroine (you can chose at game start) is a voiceless dwarf, without any development at all except that he lives completely alone in a very beautifully well maintained romantic farm, despite being basically an orphan. Which is very self-contradictory considering the hero is 13 years old at most.
The only memorable characters are Bud and Lisa, two kids even younger than you, that are actually training to be sorceress and you can take along you (but only one at the same time), probably because they come to live by your house. Some other 2nd characters can join as well, but they're not living in your house so they only join if you ask them at appropriate places and leaves when you enter your house (why do they have to leave here ? Does my house smell that bad ?).
You can capture animal enemies and breed them. This sound cool, however it's not terribly useful, and I personally do not care about breeding virtual animals - I leave gladly this feat to Pokémon fans. In addition to animal breeding you can, after completing some missions, do other new activities in your farm like growing vegetables and potatoes and reforge weapons, which is completely pointless since you don't need to improve your weapons anyway, and the system is so complex it's not even worth investigating.
The battles are quite bland, and almost impossible to loose. I never saw the Game Over screen, not even once. When one character in the party is knocked out, it is disabled for several seconds then revives. Because you can have 3 characters in the party (one 2nd character and one captured enemy), it is extremely unlikely for all 3 to fall simultaneously. It plays like a beat'em up, once a battle starts we can't escape or use the menu until the battle is won - and we can have several hits and combos at our disposal. In all cases, the enemies are constantly weak and does not pose a single threat to the party. Experience is earned by collecting gems from defeated monsters, the problem is that neither of the NPCs will collect them, or if they do it's only by pure chance, so the hero(ine) will always be overpowered as opposed to 2nd characters and captured enemies.
The challenge, however does not comes from battle, but from "what am I supposed to do next ?". Basically this game is entirely about being loss and have no clue how to complete started missions without a walkthrough, because the clues as to how complete missions are extremely limited, and might pop up only a single time on the screen in a dialogue box you'll never see again - or might not even be in the game at all.
To make things worse, most places are like labyrinths, with the same re-used screens all over the place. Not everywhere but sufficiently so that it is extremely annoying, to add insult to the injury there is no quick way to escape to the world map (that I know off) so you can be lost in the middle of nowhere and have no idea how to escape even if you return after having completed the main mission(s) in that place already. In those places there *IS* a way to quickly escape it is disguised as a totally unrelated non-playable character. For example a penguin asks you "Do you want to drink some tea ?" and if you answer "yes" you're kicked out of the dungeon. In some places you can't even answer "no" - just touching a huge egg might get you teleported - or even worse, you're teleported in another place in the dungeon and there's no way to know where since it looks the same everywhere with re-used screens. It's hard to describe exactly but pretty much the entire game works based on this "system", it really looks like the creators were on drugs when deciding what happened in this game.
To have access to new missions you need to have access to new places, and access to new places is gained by completing missions, and getting an artifact in return. Not all missions return an artifact (usually they don't), making this game extremely unlinear and unpredictable. But also it might be impossible to complete a mission because a character or item is gone, because of the complexion of another mission. This has the side effect of making it possible to be technically stuck in the game and there's no way to beat the game. This actually happened to me on my 1st playthrough. And seeing how boring and dull this game is, I'm certainly not making any second playthrough.
The Bottom LineLegend of Mana feels like a lot of wasted potential. They could have made this game more like Seiken Densetsu 3, with a story, a world map to explore, interesting characters and keep the same graphics, soundtrack and atmosphere. Even the battle system isn't all that bad, if it weren't so easy. Basically it feels like an empty box, very beutiful box but still empty. It's really a shame Square didn't put the effort to actually fill that box with a real, solid game, like they usually do.
Don't get me wrong - after playing this game for several minutes you'll love it, it's only after a dozen of boring side quests that you'll figure out how bland this game actually is. I'd say play it if you are into weird games that are trying something new, but if you actually liked its prequel Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3 and are looking forward to a good follow-up of the series on par with how Final Fantasy 7 was a good followup to the previous FF games, prepare for a huge disappointment.
Overall, Legend of Mana is an example that great art does not yield to a great game.