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Seiken Densetsu 3 (SNES) artwork

Seiken Densetsu 3 (SNES) review

"A visually appealing game that didn't come close to aging well."

Since Secret of Mana is being remade for modern systems, I just need to know one thing: the developers are planning to tinker with its battle system so things run more smoothly, aren't they?

For me, the Mana series fits right in there with other retro action-RPG fare such as the NES' Willow and Crystalis. They're offerings I enjoyed in my youth, but today I have difficulty viewing them as anything more than relics of a bygone era. There is a "clunky" feel to them, one I can't help but notice regularly. I wasn't particularly enamored with Secret of Mana when I played it a couple of years ago, and Seiken Densetsu 3 produces a continuation of those feelings of ennui. In some ways, it's an improvement over Secret of Mana; in others, it proves inferior. I sometimes enjoyed it, but the game just as often left me frustrated or annoyed.

Often mentioned as one of those "hidden gems" in the Super Famicom library, since it arrived late enough (September of 1995) in the system's lifespan that it wasn't localized for North America, Seiken Densetsu 3 is easily admired on the surface level. For a game released during the 16-bit era, it's absolutely gorgeous, offering a wide variety of beautifully rendered locations that range from castles to caves to crumbling ruins. It also offers a lengthy adventure and delivers a ton of replay value. At the beginning of your quest, you pick one of six characters to be your lead, and choose two of the remaining five to serve as allies. Each character has his or her own unique prologue and--more significantly--you'll be sent up against one of three different main adversaries and a varying set of subordinates. To battle all of the final bosses, you have to play through the campaign three times; to see everything the game has to offer, make that six.

There is good variety in these characters, as well. You can pick between a warrior, a thief/ninja, a couple of mages, an Amazon princess and a werewolf who's much more powerful at night than during the day. While these people are pretty basic in terms of what they can do in the early stages of the game, you'll have two opportunities to bestow class changes upon them as the plot progresses. Changing their class allows them to learn new skills and further improves their stats. You'll only control one of the three in battle at once, while the computer lets the other two rely on melee attacks and special attacks that activate once enough normal blows connect and fill up a meter. It's easy to switch between characters for those occasions when you want to make sure a particular spell gets cast.

The plot runs excellently, at least for the game's first half. While you'll only end up needing to worry about one faction of villains, no matter who you pick, you'll find yourself opposing all three groups for quite some time. Each one is seeking the same thing and, therefore, sending subordinates out to create havoc throughout the world, while you run from country to country, always a step behind one villain or another. This leads to a mid-game event where one group of baddies achieves its goals and wipes out the other two sets, in order to become your one true adversary. While the second half of the game isn't as interesting as the first, since all of the intrigue is replaced by your party's need to scour the world for the lairs of several powerful foes known as "God-Beasts", it does end strongly. Then your party finally is ready to combat the main adversaries, with the fate of the world at stake.

So, the game is gorgeous and offers an an engaging plot containing six separate beginnings and three different concluding sequences, as well as a variety of characters. What's not to like? The answer: a lot.

The main issue is the combat system. That's not good when you consider just how much time you'll spend whacking monsters with your weaponry. Regular foes rely heavily on melee attacks and only infrequent spell use, so they aren't much trouble. Bosses can be excruciatingly tedious, though, due to one fact: whenever anyone uses a spell or combat skill, time stops for the entirety of its animation. Not only is there no way to dodge a spell once it has been cast, but this process causes big fights to devolve into a slog that seemingly takes forever to resolve (especially when an opponent's go-to spell has a lengthy animation).

For example, let's look at the time during the second half of the game when I fought the God-Beast known as "Land Umber." During the course of that battle, he regularly employed a spell that took half the current health from whatever target it hit. The animation for that action involved him picking up a party member, crumpling them into a ball and throwing them, which caused their body to pinball about the screen. The process seemed to take about 7-10 seconds (a period during which I could do nothing but watch). The first couple times, the animation was at least more entertaining than watching a fireball hit its target. After I'd seen it a good dozen times and realized he was going to cast it with regularity, I found myself yelling at the game every damn time I'd see one of my characters being levitated into Land Umber's hands.

Land Umber might have been one of the worst offenders, but most bosses were annoying in a similar manner. I would be fighting a big monster and suddenly the screen would freeze while a spell got cast. There would be no flow to the battles because they'd get interrupted every few seconds for another spell animation. Then I would cast the necessary healing spells or use an item or activate a battle skill and everything would stop for that, as well. Most bosses in the game have a lot of health for you to whittle down, bit by bit, so the incessant stoppages wind up making a lot of fights aggravating. It feels like they unnecessarily take twice as long to complete as they should. This is an action-RPG, but when you're facing off against bosses, it almost feels like a turn-based game. You find yourself waiting for one spell animation to complete so you can tap a button a couple times before the next one begins.

Dungeons can also prove underwhelming, as they tend to be unremarkable except the boss encounter you face at their end. I remember how I enjoyed exploring locations in Secret of Mana because I never knew just where I might find find various weapons and the orbs required to improve them. There's nothing like that here; dungeons are little more than mazes with one correct path and a whole bunch of short jaunts leading to meaningless dead ends. If you're lucky, you'll make it to the boss quickly. If not, you're due to wander around until you chance upon said boss, after hitting virtually every single room in the place. With a couple exceptions, every treasure chest in this game is a random reward drop by enemies. I like dungeons that give me a reason to explore every little corner, not ones that simply deliver a series of meaningless rooms between the entrance and the boss.

Only a few locations deviated from that simplistic formula. A ghost ship sets up a scenario where you have to leave one party member behind and go the rest of the way with two heroes instead of three. One of the God-Beasts is in a temple where you must push a couple buttons to open a gate leading to the boss. A wind-themed cave has several places where you have to move statues so the gusts of air they exhale don't impede your progress. But for the most part, the only "appeal" to these places is the possibility of unintentionally grinding for a couple levels while trying to chart a path to the boss. In Secret of Mana, those different weapons you collected had specific uses in navigation. Axes could cut down bushes, while whips could be used to clear small gaps, as long as there was a stake to latch on to. No comparable system is offered here. Each character has his or her specific class of weapon, and they all have no utility beyond their ability to cleave skulls.

I can understand if a person disagrees with my verdict on Seiken Densetsu 3. Hell, 21-year-old me, who binged on Secret of Mana for three days after getting his wisdom teeth pulled, is probably livid! But this series and this game simply haven't aged well enough to remain captivating. While it looks great and has a strong plot that's aided by multiple beginnings and endings, the title's action is somewhat lacking due to a clunky battle system where everything comes crashing to a halt whenever spells are cast or items are used. The most exciting part of a boss fight becomes the suspense you feel as you wait to see whether your heal spell is triggered before an enemy unleashes another highly damaging attack. Add tedious dungeons to the mix and the game winds up serving as much more of a chore than I ever expected.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 24, 2018)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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