Legend of Mana (PlayStation) review
"Non-linear gameplay is an odd subject. Games such as Final Fantasy X are routinely villainified for their adherence to linear gameplay. The masses shout, “Give us freedom!” Yet games which do feature non-linear gameplay do not sell as many copies, the genre of MMRPGs excluded. "
Non-linear gameplay is an odd subject. Games such as Final Fantasy X are routinely villainified for their adherence to linear gameplay. The masses shout, “Give us freedom!” Yet games which do feature non-linear gameplay do not sell as many copies, the genre of MMRPGs excluded.
Why is this? It could be that the definition of “linear” depends on the perspective of the individual. Gamers really want to be able to choose to be evil or good, a god or a soldier, the characteristics of their alter ego, etc. They desire the structure, and more importantly, the ability to change and adapt endlessly in said structure. That is the core of non-linear gameplay. Pioneering games such as Ultima provided this: a character with a vast, multifaceted world to explore.
Legend of Mana fails utterly at this task. The illusion of freedom is given, yet the reality is that you are locked into a horribly boring linear quest. Painfully simple combat dooms an otherwise promising equipment system. The only saving grace is a beautiful musical score and the accompanying sound.
At the crux of Legend of Mana is the quest to restore the Mana Tree to the world. (Followers of the series might ask, “Haven’t I already done this four times?”) The Mana Tree holds immense power – how this power is used is dependent on the user. You gradually bring about the return of the Mana Tree by completing various quests which unlock more areas of the world to explore.
These quests are extremely varied, and therein lies the biggest problem with Legend of Mana. There is little continuity from quest to quest. It’s even foggier how these quests, which can last anywhere from five minutes to five hours, have anything to do with restoring the Mana Tree. Like another “non-linear” game, Valkyrie Profile, Legend of Mana lumps together a bunch of mini-stories under one main plot branch and stamps “non-linear” on the box to validate the absence of a tight and cohesive story.
However, the difference in story content between Valkyrie Profile and Legend of Mana immediately jumps at you. Valkyrie Profile concerns itself with tragic deaths and ruthless murders, the victims of which are allowed to fight on in death to restore their honor. Legend of Mana concerns itself with penguin love affairs, runaway cactuses, and squat green saplings who are here to save the world. Prepare yourself for constant farcical behavior and characters ranting idiotically whilst your silent protagonist looks on.
Legend of Mana is called non-linear. It isn’t. After you complete a certain number of quests, a new one will pop up which allows you to receive the traditional “The End” scene. This is no more non-linear than the games held up to be the linear archetype, the Final Fantasy series. You’re required to do a bunch of quests you might not normally like in order to beat the game. Simply allowing you to skip or play required quests does not Legend of Mana non-linear.
Roleplaying purists may argue that the characters and plot of a game are irrelevant as long as the gameplay of said game is up-to-par. Legend of Mana fails even in this regard though. It has scrapped the tried and true battle system from past Mana installments for one which a chimpanzee with a nervous twitch could demolish.
Repeatedly jamming the attack button is the only skill required to beat nearly every enemy in Legend of Mana. The perspective matches that of the original Zelda - venture from left to right, up to down, in a two dimensional landscape, slashing everything that moves. When the slashing victim poofs out of existence, you’re left to collect the goodies they left behind, which can be experience crystals, gold coins, or an item.
The previous games required some strategy: after attacking, you had to wait for your attack meter to recharge if you wanted to inflict any meaningful damage. You could also charge your specific weapon and unleash impressive multi-hit barrages. Planning was required; should you attempt a monstrous combo attack or focus on dodging the beams being fired at you?
Legend of Mana destroys this subtle strategy with its hack and slash gameplay. Just go up to any enemy and pound the crap out of it! Sure, they counterattack, but they’ll die long before you run out of hit points. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that hit points are automatically restored after every battle?
Attempts are made to reconcile this mindless hacking, but they are unsuccessful. Special and magic attacks are available, but require you to first hack until a meter is full. A repertoire of exotic abilities like moonsaults and lunges is also available. Too bad the game gives you little advice on how to unlock these abilities, outside of “try different combinations.” Not that any of these tactics matter, as the slash is still more effective.
To “help” you in your quests, you are sometimes given “assistance” by computer controlled non-playing characters (NPCs). The AI for the NPCs is horrible, and more often than not they just get in the way. Unlike other games, which allow you to control NPC behavior, Legend of Mana offers no way to change the lack of aggressiveness present. You are allowed to control the NPC with a second controller, but unless you’re an ambidextrous gamer with giant hands, that would require hunting down a second player.
The lack of intelligence doesn’t stop here. Your enemies are just as clueless, as evidenced by the success of the hack-slash method. “Oh, I think I’ll blindly rush towards the sprite with the battle axe!” Bosses are a notch tougher: they take longer to destroy and are invulnerable while launching attacks. Still, the entire concept of “difficulty” is sorely neglected throughout Legend of Mana.
The one saving grace of Legend of Mana is that it is busting at the seams with ways to stretch its sub par gameplay. This is achieved through the reliance upon a forging and customization system. Every item you acquire can be forged into a weapon, or reinforce a piece of armor, or help to construct a metal golem. While not as deep as Star Ocean 2, it provides the sort of stat boosting and equipment making that hardcore roleplaying geeks love.
Even this is not without flaws. The interface itself is a hassle. After you modify a piece of equipment, it’s impossible to see what effect has taken place without exiting from the customization screen. Also, without experimenting, it’s hard to tell what exactly is useful for blacksmithing and what is not. Finally, all this cool equipment you can create has little value, since Legend of Mana is just as easy to beat without it. Is it worth foraging for parts for hours to slaughter a boss a bit more easily?
The presentation values leave nothing to be desired. A faded and rustic hue is painted on to the cartoonish graphics. Legend of Mana has this sort of folksy feel, so it is appropriate. Character models suffer from fat and short syndrome, and the detail is a notch up from Super Nintendo quality. The backgrounds are also a strong point. While they are not interactive, they are very detailed. Scenes are represented by the corresponding background perfectly, from lush green jungle to the dark yet still detailed bowels of a cave.
The music in Legend of Mana is also a delight and it is a shame that more thought obviously went into this aspect than the rest of the game. Rich orchestrated tones and background themes accompany the shrill pling of metal against metal. Legend of Mana is one of the few games I never had to use the volume or mute button on, as I basked in the lovely melodies.
Customization and aesthetic value save Legend of Mana from being a poorly conceived travesty against gaming. There a re a multitude of better games available that can fulfill your gaming needs - Everquest for true non-linear gameplay, Secret of Mana for adventure gaming with roleplaying elements, or Star Ocean 2 for pure creation, imagination, and statistical fulfillment. Legend of Mana should only be played after these possibilities have been exhausted.
Community review by sgreenwell (May 30, 2003)
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