LUFIA: THE LEGEND RETURNS / Natsume / Game Boy Color
Given that it starts out with an introductory cinematic linking the events of the first two games to this one, it's pretty clear that The Legend Returns is meant to be Lufia 3. I would guess the branding of it was due to Natsume hedging their bets; the first two games were well-reviewed and had a strong cult following, but apparently didn't sell well enough that the company felt comfortable putting in the kind of money a proper mainline sequel would have cost. So we get this watered-down Game Boy follow-up instead.
The game picks up 100 years after Lufia (Lufia 2 was a prequel), as the Sinistrals appear in the world again and a new red-headed swordsman takes up arms against them. The game does hit pretty much all the Lufia beats, but it's hard to tell at first because it's just so awful-looking and muddy.
Underneath that ugly facade is actually a fairly solid RPG however, though one that is a long grind and sometimes makes baffling design decisions. For the most part, it retains the Lufia pattern of wandering about the world in semi-linear style chasing down and executing one Sinistral after another. The biggest changes it makes are to the battle and dungeon systems.
The new battle system is actually a pretty decent idea. You can send up to nine characters into battle, placing them on a 3x3 grid. Only one character from each vertical row can attack each turn, however, and the front three characters must be kept alive or its game over. It's a little arbitrary, but it adds a strategic bent to the usual JRPG grind. As in Lufia 2, in dungeons the enemies are visibly wandering about and if they get you from the side or back that shuffles your row formation all around.
That part is cool, but the process of adding new skills and spells is just needlessly complicated. Skills are a pain just to try to explain. Each character has ratings in the four different elements, which go up with levels but also increase depending on who they are standing next to on the grid. So you have to shuffle characters around on the grid just to learn new skills, which are then permanently available no matter where they are. And instead of learning spells at level-up, you have to go to churches in towns and buy them individually for each character using special items you grind out through battle.
The game's overall flow has also changed somewhat. The previous games could be accused of being overly linear, shuttling you from town to dungeon to new town to new dungeon in a very rigid and repetitive way. The Legend Returns opens things up a bit more, allowing you to go pretty much anywhere right away but gating off new areas with powerful random overworld encounters that will quickly stomp you. The areas you are "supposed" to be in also often have multiple dungeon and town locations to visit. This new open style ends up just leading to confusion and meandering, however.
Part of that has to do with the new dungeon structure. The Ancient Cave was probably the most popular single part of the previous game, and it makes a return here. However, every single dungeon in the game now also has its own roguelike style, with floors generated procedurally every time you move between them (until you get to certain "special floors" where boss encounters or plot elements are housed). They pretty much all use a generic cave or castle tile set, which gives them an extremely samey and repetitive feel. I get the feeling this was done to squeeze a console-length RPG onto a Game Boy cart.
Given all the meandering and the samey dungeons, the game quickly turns into a grind to get through. I hung in there for a bit, as it has some of the qualities that made the previous Lufia games good: there's more of a sense of humor than the usual JRPG (thickheaded new hero Wain is like Rance without the sex drive), the execution of everything is basically solid and it has pretty good sound work. But it already feels repetitive and tedious even just within the first few hours of the game.
Huge fans of the Lufia series might want to hang tough to see the story continued, but everyone else can safely skip it.
* Gameplay Video
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