Legend of Mana
  • Genre:
    • Action RPG
  • Platform:
    • PlayStation
  • Developer:
    • Square
  • Publisher:
    • Square
  • Released:
    • JP 07/15/1999
    • US 06/06/2000
Score: 75%

This review was published on 09/21/2014.

Legend of Mana is an action role-playing game developed and published by Square for the Sony PlayStation. It was released in Japan on July 15, 1999, and North America on June 6, 2000. This is the fourth game in the Mana series, known in Japan as the Seiken Densetsu series. The Mana, or Seiken Densetsu series, began as a Final Fantasy spinoff on the Game Boy and eventually got a successful sequel on the Super Nintendo called Secret of Mana. Critics adored Secret of Mana, and countless fans considered it the best game of all time. The third game in the series was never released outside of Japan, so it wasn't until Legend of Mana that North America got another game in the Mana series. Unfortunately, Legend of Mana didn't meet people's expectations, but that was to be expected. Secret of Mana did set the bar pretty high, after all. However, Legend of Mana is far from a bad game. While it does suffer from a couple of shortcomings, it's still a high quality, well polished action RPG.

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The game is set in the fantasy world of Fa'Diel, where mana is of utmost importance. Mana is a natural source of energy that primarily comes from the Mana Tree. Nine centuries ago, the Mana Tree burned to ashes and was almost completely destroyed. Mana then became an incredibly scarce resource, which caused a war to erupt between several different races. When the war ended, there was nothing left in Fa'Diel. Important locations were sealed inside of ancient artifacts while the remains of the Mana Tree slowly regenerated. A hero of your creation must restore the world back to its former self by using these mystical artifacts. The mana thing is old hat now, but world restoration is a new theme for the series. Those that have played games like Soul Blazer and Terranigma should be familiar with the concept of restoring dead worlds. World restoration is a cool premise, but it always runs into the problem of evoking feelings of loneliness. The lonely feeling gets less and less prevalent as you further progress the game, obviously. Legend of Mana does have a lively, vibrant world once some of it gets restored, though the initial loneliness might prevent you from getting that far.

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When it comes to graphics, Legend of Mana hits a total homerun. This is visually one of the prettiest games on the system, featuring amazing 2-D graphics. The backgrounds are particularly gorgeous, looking as if they were taken straight out of paintings. That shouldn't come as a surprise, as the PS1 is a 32-bit console capable of astounding 2-D renderings. Some people dislike the art style, but it can't be denied that these graphics are impressive. Due to the complexity of the backgrounds, it can be hard to discern the entrances and exits of certain screens, but that's a relatively minor issue. Bosses also look awesome, being that many of them are huge and very well animated. 2-D was considered outdated by this point, but it's for the best that Legend of Mana chose to go with it, because the PS1 isn't too great at doing 3-D. Had this game been in 3-D, it wouldn't have aged as well as it has, visually speaking. The music isn't half bad, either, though it still has nothing on Secret of Mana's soundtrack. Legend of Mana certainly presents itself legendarily.

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Every game has a selling point, and Legend of Mana's selling point is the Land Make system. At the beginning of the game, the world of Fa'Diel is an empty place. You fix that by finding and placing ancient artifacts on the world map. Once placed, artifacts will create new lands, permanently making them a part of the world. New artifacts will be obtained throughout the journey, and the lands created by them can be anything from towns to dungeons. The location in which artifacts are placed actually matters, making map planning an integral part of the game. Every land has affinity with the eight elemental mana spirits, referred to as Mana Levels, and the Mana Levels of one land will influence surrounding ones. Mana Levels affect a variety of stuff, like quests, monsters, and magic. Many of these things won't become apparent until much later in the game, though, and it'll be too late to change anything by then. It's very easy to lock yourself out of stuff if you place things incorrectly. This mechanic would have been a lot better if the map could be rearranged at any time, but as it is, it acts as a beginner's trap.

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Restoring the world can wait, but quests cannot. The adventure is broken up into countless smaller, often unrelated quests. There is one major quest per land, with some lands having additional quests. The main quest of a land must be cleared before you are allowed to create new lands in adjacent panels, so the game has a Super Mario World vibe to its map progression. As a result of that progression, the game is fairly nonlinear, which is neat. The difficulty of each quest is determined by how far away the land is from your home, meaning the areas you do last will always be the hardest. That's all dandy, but there are two problems. The first problem is that almost no quests are related to the main narrative, making the whole game feel like side quests. Problem two is how many quests inexplicably disappear or fail if you do them in the wrong order, place certain artifacts too early, leave an area when you're not supposed to, kick out a party member at the wrong time, and plenty of other unobvious things. Quests in Legend of Mana would be better if they weren't so fickle and irrelevant.

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Combat in Legend of Mana is, like all the previous games in the series, real time. You are limited to attacking things that are on the same plane as you, similar to old beat 'em ups. There are a wide range of weapon types, which all change your attacks significantly: swords, axes, spears, bows, and more. Attacks are now divided between Quick Attacks and Power Attacks. Quick Attacks are fast and can be chained together to form combos, whereas Power Attacks do slow, powerful hits. Pressing the directional pad in certain patterns before doing a Power Attack has you doing things like uppercuts, not unlike a fighting game. Conveniently, HP regenerates automatically while standing still during battle and restores to full after every fight. To offset that convenience, items can't be used in battle, nor can you flee fights. The gist of battle is to attack until you're low on HP, hide in a corner until healthy, then rinse and repeat. It's repetitive, but streamlined, as you spend no time messing around in menus. Not having to heal after battle also allows you to quickly go from one fight to the next without interruptions, which improves pacing. Combat is basic, but brisk.

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To further enrich the battle system, there are Action Abilities and Special Techniques. Two Action Abilities can be equipped at a time and new ones are learned as you fight battles. Action Abilities include things like jumping, defending, back flips, front flips, and so on. Most Action Abilities are defensive in nature, but some of them can be combined with regular attacks to do offensive maneuvers. Speaking of offensive maneuvers, attacking enemies fills up a meter that enables Special Techniques to be used once it's full. There are a huge amount of Special Techniques, all of which are specific to certain weapon types, and they're extremely powerful. They're like the Limit Breaks from Final Fantasy VII, except you can use them way more often. Special Techniques are handy, but one irritating thing about them is that they get removed whenever you change your weapon, forcing you to reequip them. The addition of all these mechanics is appreciated, but most fights still tend to devolve into button mashing. Legend of Mana sure makes that button mashing fun, though.

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You have the option of playing Legend of Mana cooperatively with a friend. The idea is that a friend who owns the game can bring their memory card to your house, allowing them to use their character in your game. It's a cool concept, but it can't be used most of the time due to those blasted guest characters. Only one normal character may join your party at a time, and quests often come with guests. You're pretty much always on a quest, so this makes the feature of importing a friend's character not as cool as it initially seems. That's not too big of a problem, though, because a friend can still take control of a guest character. It's a good thing, too, because the AI is horrible. Some guest characters can optionally join your party during lull moments in the story, which is great if you lack a second save file and the quest you're currently on has no guests. Also, you can battle your friends at the arena, but the entertainment value of that is limited. Either way, co-op was fun in the last few Mana games, and that still holds true for Legend of Mana.

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Musical instruments become magical instruments in Legend of Mana, enabling them to cast spells. At that point, they are instruments of destruction. Unlike most RPGs, magic in Legend of Mana doesn't cost any MP, and therefore can be used without limitation. The catch is that spells take a bit of time to charge, leaving you open to enemy attacks. It's not that big of a deal, though getting hit interrupts your spell. Different instruments have different spells on them, and there are quite a few to try out. Besides elements and offensive power, each spell has a different targeting method. Some target enemies in a straight line, others target surrounding foes, a couple target baddies in a fan shape, etc. The longer you charge a spell, the bigger its range when you cast it. Spell animations have been shortened considerably, which makes magic way less tedious. Sadly, magic isn't terribly useful. Magic doesn't get good until much later on, and even then, physical attacks always outpace it. Shame, really, because magic is fun to use.

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Instead of leveling up by simply killing enemies, there is a middleman to deal with in the form of experience crystals. Murdered enemies drop crystals that must be gathered in order to gain experience points. Itemized experience is annoying, because you have to frantically gather them each time. Enemies also have a random chance of not dropping any experience, which is dumb. On top of that, AI controlled party members rarely pick up crystals themselves. There's equipment that fixes this problem through experience sharing, but it's still stupid. As for the leveling process itself, stat increases are now determined by what weapon you had equipped at the time of the level up. Different weapons will boost different stats, allowing growth customization in a roundabout way. Unique as this may be, it does present a problem: if the weapon you want to use doesn't boost the desired stats, then you'll have to constantly switch it with another one prior to gaining levels. It would have been better if stat growth was separate from weapon usage, so that you wouldn't be punished for using the wrong weapons. The whole leveling process was done better in previous Mana games.

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Normally, you can only have two characters in your party, including your hero. It's possible, however, to have more than two party members if you bring along a pet. Pets can be either monsters or golems. Monsters hatch from eggs caught in the wild, and you feed them food to determine their stat growth when they level up. The stats of a monster also determine its behavior. Golems, on the other hand, are created in your workshop with equipment, and they never level up. Out of the two, golems are the more interesting option, as they're more customizable. A golem's behavior depends on Tetris-like blocks called logic blocks, which you rotate and place inside of a grid. The issue with pets is that their AI is even worse than a regular party member. Golems are particularly bad, as they will do absolutely nothing if you don't configure their logic blocks properly. In most battles, pets won't do much more than act as meat shields, getting in the way of enemy attacks and absorbing damage. Pets would be awesome if they didn't suck so badly.

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Forging and tempering equipment joins the list of unnecessary features in Legend of Mana. At some point during the game, various workshops will open behind your house. These workshops allow you to create and alter weapons, armor, accessories, and instruments. Forging is quite simple; you pick a raw material and create a piece of equipment out of it. Better quality materials result in better equipment. Tempering, however, is complicated. When tempering gear, you're able to use materials to boost the individual statistics of a piece of equipment. Sometimes, while tempering, your equipment will get special passive effects added to it, like increased health regeneration. A lot of trial and error is involved, because the effects of tempering aren't obvious until after the fact. Upgrading equipment is a complex science, but those who put a lot of time into it can attain supreme power and totally break the game. This is one of those things that you either ignore or dump endless hours into. Enhancing gear can be fun if you're able to stomach the complexity, but it's a little too easy to get overpowered.

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Jealous of Chrono Trigger, Legend of Mana adds a new game plus feature to the mix. Each play through of the game is referred to as a cycle, and certain things carry over from one cycle to the next. Just about everything transfers to a new cycle, like your level, skills, items, equipment, money, and so on. Playing new cycles allows you to do any quests you might have missed on a previous one, in addition to experimenting with different map layouts. A living cactus person resides in your house, named Li'l Cactus, and talking to it after completing a quest will prompt it to record that quest in its diary. The diary's contents remain across all cycles, allowing you to keep track of what quests you have and haven't done. Annoyingly, Li'l Cactus won't write stuff down if you don't talk to him, which results in you missing quest entries if you aren't careful. Besides going for missed quests and trying new land layouts, the other reason to do new cycles is to attempt higher difficulty modes, which only unlock after beating the game. All of this adds to the replay value, so it's nice to have.

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Legend of Mana is a fine game hampered by a little too much experimentation. The quests having almost no relevancy to the main plot is a huge issue, because the majority of the game feels disjointed. Being locked out of or failing quests for the slightest misstep is also lame. Additionally, Legend of Mana is too complex for its own good, boasting tons of needless features that serve only to obfuscate the core game play, like growing produce, feeding pets, constructing golems, forging, tempering, Mana Levels, and other stuff. Some may prefer the complexity, but most would probably find it tiring. Despite those wrinkles, however, the game is still fun to play, thanks to its streamlined combat and two player co-op. It's also gorgeous and the boss music kicks butt. Legend of Mana doesn't compare to the last two games in the series, but it's still worth its salt.

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