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Legend of Mana (PlayStation) artwork

Legend of Mana (PlayStation) review

"When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that all the dunces shall be in confederacy against him.'' "

When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that all the dunces shall be in confederacy against him.''
--Jonathan Swift

Perhaps they forgot what a true spectre of beauty they had on their hands. Secret of Mana seemed so effortless and simplistic in its design, and yet it remains one of the rare great action RPGS in existence today. Released in the Super Nintendo's prime, it combined seamless real-time battles against fun but fierce monsters with an easy-to-learn magic system (maybe to a fault; it was very easy to take advantage of rapid spellcasting and win boss battles in mere seconds). While the unfolding of the story was linear and cliché - enough so as to turn some gamers off totally - it took the source material and told it beautifully, powerfully, masterfully.

Here, the unfolding of the story is more akin to letting go of a balloon that hasn't been tied. It kind of goes all over the place, and you can't possibly trace the path to where it landed. You just have to accept where it landed and leave it at that.

However, this is the Mana series we're talking about. The moment one is willing to settle for less is the moment you let a great company like Square get away with making crap. I refuse to leave it at that.

In Legend of Mana, you play as either a boy or girl - both dressed rather oddly - with only two worldly possessions to your name: the weapon you choose at the beginning from a vast menu, and a mailbox. Sure, with some item as practical as a spear, you can harpoon a Rabite, build a fire, and have instant lunch, but what in the holy heck are you going to do with a mailbox, of all things?

Why, you're going to cause a two-story house to magically sprout from the ground and serve as the central hub of your myriad itinerant adventures.

What did you think you were going to do with it?

This mailbox and a couple of building blocks you receive from a Sproutling piddling around on your front walk are known as artifacts. These many objects, ranging from swords to spoons to lamps to ancient magical relics, transform extravagantly into the many eclectic locales that will eventually form the complete world of Fa'Diel, the fictional island continent in which LoM is set. Laying the artifacts down on the map is simple. You can only place an artifact next to one of the locations you have already put on the map, and even then some can only go next to certain other places. Once a location is set in stone, you can enter and discover the many wonders inside.

All the places formed on the map contain at least one mission for you to carry out. Missions are the heart and soul of Legend of Mana, the reason you keep playing (and later on, don't). Throughout all the game, several differing personalities, some quirky, others totally down to earth, will call on you to carry out many tasks that run the gamut from the mundane to the wildly adventurous. To be sure, Legend of Mana is not at a loss for unique supporting actors. In the eternally nocturnal village of Lumina, you meet the mystical Monique, who has a knack for creating lamps from raw odds and ends and can't seem to get rid of her centaur lover Gilbert. Neko from SoM sports a new look and a new name here, appearing brown instead of purple and christened Niccolo by the development team at Square that likes tinkering with original formulas that work. Later in the game, you even get to grow an orchard where a wise old tree named Trent makes ripe fruit and good conversation.

Being an RPG though, you of course get to engage in your fair share of battle - otherwise, the game would be called Grocery List of Mana and would probably sell far fewer copies. As in Secret of Mana, all battles occur in real time and are over when someone's energy bar plummets to zero. You can learn a number of small special abilities, such as taunts, throws, and slides, which in turn lead to you learning great special techniques based on your weapon of choice that work kind of like the charge attacks from SoM. These attacks are fun to execute and make for some fantastic fireworks, but there is just one glaring problem.

They, along with magic and items, serve no purpose in this game at all.

That's right: Legend of Mana is little more than a slapfight with fancy weapons, even against the larger but no more threatening boss enemies. Where magic is used, it is highly ineffectual for both sides and is best left alone, especially in the case of musical instruments, which are not nearly as powerful as the in-game descriptions of them lead you to believe. Just about every enemy assault is avoidable as long as you can move your body successfully around it. Which brings up another point: even outside the boundaries of style-cramping turn-based fighting, do these characters really have to move slower than molasses trickling down a hill? The only time characters can walk and run freely is outside of the battles, which are not random but rather orchestrated at certain points in the game (i.e. you'll fight the same enemies in the same rooms every time). This is sloppy fighting that completely mars the beauty of free roaming in real time combat, and worse yet makes what could have been an interesting game utterly devoid of challenge even to the final battle.

After one of these grossly unentertaining battles, you might receive some spoils - items given to you as a reward for such an empty victory. Rarely are these materials of any value to anyone anywhere. They fill up space in your inventory and, with the exception of some minerals and weapons, sell for very little on the market. Minerals are best saved for the tempering process, which you can attempt at a late point in the game when Watts the blacksmith builds a forge near your house. What the game hopes to achieve by letting you make your own arsenal of homemade staves and swords is to give you a sense of accomplishment once you make something so powerful that not even the game's creators could have dreamed up so dreadfully unstoppable a piece of equipment.

Imagine your chagrin when you go to all that trouble to make an axe that has less attack power than the weapon you're carrying right now.

To summarize the shock-inducing poorness of it all, take all the elements above, and repeat them about forty times to make a pitch-perfect copy of this redundant stroll through a pretty world that brings shame to the connotation of the word ''adventure.''

All of it has a definite snowball effect. You run around acting as everyone's hired lackey, getting into battles that will invariably have the same satisfying but strangely dull outcome, making items that stay in the same pitiful range of attack power and armor that provides the same pathetic if not twice as low defense, and using magic that has absolutely no positive bearing on the battles whatsoever. Combined with the lack of flow in all 67 missions and that missing pizzazz that a Mana game should have, this game is simply unacceptable and should be passed up for the likes of more grandiose, well-thought-out RPG experiences.

What horrific, sparse gameplay there is in this game is compensated for to a degree by the fantastic graphics. People and places are rendered in such beautiful two-dimensional detail that this RPG is a good spokesman for the argument that games can still be drawn just as well with paints as with polygons. Every shrub, rock, and cement tile is painstakingly painted and colored just right to convey the mood in each of the game's many spectacular locations. With some light effects imposed on top of the already magnificent colors, you get masterpieces of contemporary art that 3D games have yet to match. Your first look at the Bejeweled City will blind you with complete and utter surprise, while freaky macabre joints like the entire length of the Underworld will so easily give you chills down the spine that it's as if Stephen King himself were the creative force behind all its marvelous visualization. Many of the spell effects have also stayed in the flat realm but are sometimes too flagrant, coming at the cost of some of the accuracy of the curved lines and lighting displays. The game is beautiful enough on the whole that it cannot be faulted for shying away from the beaten path of its 3D peers. The visible breath of old-school you see exhaled in this area makes it a shame that they didn't try as hard with the gameplay.

Yoko Shimomura also delivers with a fantastic original score of exquisite beauty. From the sweeping orchestral melody in Domina's plaza to the grotesque mastery of mounting tension displayed in ''Marginal Beast'' (one of the boss themes), the music will have you humming to its violins, marimbas, and various winds and percussion the whole game through. Legend of Mana really undersells its great soundtrack, choosing foolishly instead to associate it with characters you never really care about, but rather only get some small chuckles out of. The sound effects can't hope to rise to the plateau that the many tunes that please your eardrums do, consisting primarily of your basic smacks, pops, and explosions that do nothing to impress you to any extent. Even today I can hum the accordion solo that you hear when you meet Diddle and his monkey friend in Angel Park, and the great adventurous melody of the Cave of Mekidu that reminds me slightly of Indiana Jones running away from the giant spherical boulder in the Temple of Doom. Shimomura can't be faulted for his flawless composition, but the sound effects leave something to be desired and quickly leave your subconscious in the wake of the excellent soundtrack.

The control is also a bit dodgy, and moves that are awkward to perform, like jumping and sliding, translate that same awkwardness to the screen. You can set any basic move like cheering or pushing to two of the four shape buttons, while special attacks that require a full charge meter are reserved for the L and R shoulder buttons. Doing battle is hit-and-miss. You can keep an enemy immobilized with repeated tapping of the X button, resulting in stale three-hit combos with whatever weapon you're armed with. Playing the Super Nintendo Mana first, however, you get the undeniable impression that this is not what this game is supposed to be about. As in that game, all the enemies here are placed in preordained positions, but it doesn't retain that same feel of whizzing around and giving it to a foe from all angles. It feels more like a Double Dragon-type setup where you and your opponent circle each other, each waiting for the other to make a move so someone can counteract it. Fights soon become exhausting and a hassle to carry through with to the point where you'll almost want to run errands for the common folk just to avoid seeing the same thing over and over again. It all makes for horribly wasted potential and expectations that were not only not met, but missed by so much that it barely makes it a worthy addition to the Mana series.

Square obviously took heed of none of their own miraculous results when Secret of Mana became a breakaway hit. That game had it all - monsters of grand design, a main plot intertwined with several other diverting but relevant subplots, and a weapons and magic system that was simple but not just for the birds either. This game is a work of art to behold and has a soundtrack for the ages, but aesthetics aren't all a game is about. Square takes a serious hit by paying too much attention to its Final Fantasy series and not giving quality sequels to some of the past successes it's had (Chrono Cross was a colossal bore as well). Legend of Mana is the perfect example of the current adage that graphics alone aren't what make a game. You need an engaging story, and while LoM has a million to tell, hardly any are worth sticking around to hear the end of.

Never in my life have I seen a role-playing game where the improvement of your weapons and magic, the supporting characters, and your silent hero(ine)'s ultimate destiny mattered so little in the big scheme of things. Legend of Mana remains a lackluster piece of gaming lore that is worthy of little recognition outside of its graphics and sound, and with two-dimensional graphics, this game could have been a magnificent journey that spanned many discs, but as it is, it's a pretty pile of waste crammed all into one meager CD. Play it once to get a feel for what it is, but turn it off once you start feeling like everybody's useless running dog.

snowdragon's avatar
Community review by snowdragon (December 09, 2003)

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