LEGEND OF MANA / Squaresoft / PlayStation
Legend of Mana was the fourth entry in the Mana series, and the beginning of Square's ruthless determination to never again give fans what they liked so much about the SNES games.
While later entries were just plain crap, I admit that is unfairly dismissive of Legend of Mana. This game's problem is not lack of effort - it makes a wonderful initial impression with some of the nicest, detail-packed hand-painted 2D backdrops ever seen in gaming along with some fantastic sound work. Legend of Mana's problems are getting a little too loose and experimental, drifting a little too far from what brought the series to the dance with the two previous games, and putting its complexity in the wrong places.
The game starts with about as threadbare of an introduction as is possible - we're given a quick text scroll indicating that the Mana Tree died because people are jerks or something, then we're dropped into a barren map that contains only our mute protagonist's home. Fortunately, some cabbage-headed things hanging about give us some magical blocks to create a town nearby with. This starts a sort of plotless chain of just wandering about like Kwai Chang Caine, meeting folks and helping them with their troubles, which often leads to them giving you more items to create more world map locations with.
All of this eventually leads to a Mana Tree / Mana Sword vs Big Bad type of situation, but it takes its really slow and meandering time in getting there. In addition to having a nebulous overall plot for most of its length, Legend of Mana asks you to put up with a lot in return for enjoyment of its colorful and weird world. You'll not have subsystems explained to you until you've already made commitments to them that can't be reversed, there are all sorts of little unpredictable "gotchas" that can terminate side quests before you even know what's happening, and the combat is a step down from the previous games and can be exceptionally tedious at times.
It's all the more frustrating in that there's actually a lot to like here. It's a gorgeous, unique game world that's worth exploring for its own sake. The little side stories and characters are often well-written and compelling in spite of their oddness and a somewhat janky translation to English. It almost feels like they handed off the writing of the game to Quintet (Actraiser / Soul Blazer / Terranigma) in that regard, which would be an interesting theory if this hadn't been developed and released several years before the Square-Enix merger.
And then there's the soundtrack. Hiroki Kikuta bowed out of the series at this point, having left Square with a bunch of other staff members to form the independent development house Sacnoth a couple of years prior. Though his unique and colorful soundscapes are gone, Legend of Mana hardly misses a beat as Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter 2 / Live a Live / Parasite Eve) is called in and delivers some of her best work ever. While not in the same style as Kikuta's work, it manages to be unique and surprising in its own way - for example I particularly liked the "Shenmue 2 meets Game of Thrones" style of the Lumina city theme and the weirdly emotional song that plays whenever bumbling centaur PUA Gilbert blows it with some monster-lady in his various little story arcs.
Good lord does the game try your patience in the process of enjoying all this stuff, though. It starts when you create a new character; you have to lock yourself into a weapon choice before you have any idea how each one plays or what the long-term strategy ramifications are (some are better than others in terms of random drops and crafting at certain points). Placing new areas on the map initially does not appear to have any rhyme or reason to it, it's only once you're tens of hours into the game do you realize that there is actually strategy consideration to this and it's critical to ultimately getting the game's most powerful weapon.
You can lose characters permanently and lock out sidequests due to just innocently going back to your house to save while they're following you. You can get suddenly locked into elaborate dungeons or quest chains with no warning and no way to escape unless you want to fail them and lose them forever.
The crafting system, the game's most complex bit by far, also doesn't even make an appearance until tens of hours into the game as well. Once it does, it's so obtuse and poorly documented in-game you virtually have to go on the internet for a guide just to get anywhere with it.
Combat has also been simplified and stepped down from the previous games, converting to more of a belt-scroller arcade brawler style here. A slow and clunky one, however. Magic takes a while to make an appearance, the special move trees even longer, so for a good chunk of the game you're just mindlessly hacking. Which actually works just fine, because unless you step the difficulty up when you start a new game, you'll eventually learn that the normal difficulty balance is far too easy and the game is a cakewalk just about all the way through its length.
Legend of Mana is interesting to explore for its exceptional aesthetic polish and some of the big ideas that it tries out. At least for a while. Eventually, you start to realize that the game is never going to stop subjecting you to long chains of tedious combat to pad out everything between the more interesting bits. There are some things worth seeing on this adventure, but bring your patience and probably have some internet guides at hand.
* Well-made fan site
* Gameplay Video