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Legend of Mana (PlayStation) artwork

Legend of Mana (PlayStation) review

"Your reward is a new item to place on the map. Youíre almost scared to use it by now. Is it going to be another stupid town? Is the game going to ask you to stare at a sunset while birds twitter in the background? Not quite. When you enter the new destination, youíll find youíve stepped inside a cave. Limestone walls paint the foreground, while silhouettes of stalactites scroll behind you. A few steps in, monsters suddenly pop into view, and just like that you got the fight youíve been craving for the last ten minutes."

When it comes to Legend of Mana, Iíve noticed Iím one of the exceptions. While the vocal majority describe this game as a monstrous disappointment, I find myself repeatedly drawn to play the same game one would presume many other reviewers are using as a paperweight. A polarizing aura hangs over this game; youíll either love it like one might a good book or youíll hate it like you would a knee to the groin.

As you may have guessed by the gameís title, Legend of Mana is an eventual sequel to the much-beloved Secret of Mana, released years ago on the Super Nintendo. That game featured a linear quest to save the Mana Tree and the world from destruction. Many players found themselves lost in that mysterious world and loving it. To this day, it remains one of the classics that can make older gamers turn misty-eyed, and I remember how excited we all were when Square announced this sequel. But when it finally was released, people started complaining and havenít stopped since. ďThis isnít Secret of Mana,Ē they say with disgust. ďItís not even close.Ē

Such gamers are quite right. But while they head back to their Super Nintendo to play the Ďthe good Mana game,í letís take a careful look at what theyíre missing.

Legend of Mana opens with a map. Itís beige, like a rumpled manila folder. Surprisingly, this is actually one of the gameís most important components. The map is your overworld, and itís quite interactive. To play much of the game at all, you must first find a magical item, then place it on the map and watch it sprout into a new location. You start out with a mailbox, which you place to form your home base of sorts. Then from there, you find other items that will represent the numerous caverns, forests, deserts, villages and other such locations youíll visit on your lengthy quest. Each such item has certain inherent elemental abilities, and the locations where you place new destinations affect what sort of monster strengths and weaknesses youíll encounter.

If youíre anxious to start crossing blades with enemies, the map system is quite frustrating. Already, youíre probably beginning to dislike the game. Where are the monsters? What about a nice little dungeon puzzle? When will something hurry up and happen? It doesnít immediately matter to you that youíve seldom seen more beautiful visuals. The cottage you call your home is perched on the top of a grassy knoll that overlooks a stone workshop, a stable and barn, and even an orchard that plays host to a giant tree spirit. All of it is hand-drawn, shaded to perfection and brushed with pastels that look like the most beautiful watercolor painting youíve ever seen.

Sound is also absolutely amazing. Prepare for thrumming guitars and eloquent piano music, accompanying each other while in the background a mournful wind instrument lends an air of mystery and adventure to the entire composition. Most every destination has a new selection, each every bit as impressive as the last. The melodies suck a person into this fantastical world, compelling you to move forward not only for any adventures that may lie ahead, but for the next immersive world you can place on the map. Itís fun to walk into a new locale, then just stand still and let the sound wash over you.

Then there are the gamers who will look at that last sentence and ask themselves ďWhat the hell is he smoking?Ē If you asked yourself the same question, this game probably isnít for you. Simply put, Legend of Mana is about experiencing and developing an immersive world. Itís about spending hours there because you love visiting it that much. And yes, itís about battling your way through dungeons that bore into the very core of the planet. Iíll get to that stuff in a moment, because first I need to tell you about the town of Domina.

Domina is a little village located atÖ well, you get to decide where itís located. Since youíll visit the place quite frequently, it makes sense to position it adjacent to your home. But you donít really have to. You can put it anywhere on the world map you like, then watch as your sprite hikes from point one place to another. When you enter Domina, thereís yet another map, one that allows you to more quickly skip around the rather large location. Choose one of the segments and thereís a five-second load screen before youíre zoomed into the city streets. Once again, that same watercolor look greets you as you wander about exploring ramshackle cottages, hotels and shops. Thereís a lot to see. Venture inside a tavern and meet a young man who is searching for his sister, Pearl. Will you help him find her?

The game gives you many options like this, and you can always choose to be an unhelpful bastard. But since youíre by now likely suffering from monster withdrawals, of course you accept the brotherís request. Your reward is a new item to place on the map. Youíre almost scared to use it by now. Is it going to be another stupid town? Is the game going to ask you to stare at a sunset while birds twitter in the background? Not quite. When you enter the new destination, youíll find youíve stepped inside a cave. Limestone walls paint the foreground, while silhouettes of stalactites scroll behind you. A few steps in, monsters suddenly pop into view, and just like that you got the fight youíve been craving for the last ten minutes.

In sharp contrast to just about every other feature in Legend of Mana, the battle system is quite plain. Youíll be disappointed to find that it mostly consists of walking forward, then slashing something until it dies. Meanwhile, itís attempting to do the same to you. However, the monsters move with the speed of a sunbathing hippopotamus. Itís not difficult at all to position yourself just below them and to the side, where you can hack away to your heartís content as they slowly wobble down to your level. Keep up a steady motion of blades (or a barrage of arrows if youíve chosen a projectile-firing character) and you wonít feel endangered much at all throughout the whole game.

Part of this is because the system is so forgiving. Suppose you manage to find a really difficult battle. Often, youíll have another companion or two with you. As long as one of the other party members stays alive for awhile, youíll eventually recover and return to battle as if nothing happened. Meanwhile, your teammates (one of which can even be controlled by a second player, as was possible in Secret of Mana) have been handing the monsters their asses on silver platters. You revive in time to land another blow or two and watch the monster disintegrate in a pile of feathers, coins, or experience jewels. Oh, and one other thing: each party memberís health meter is completely restored.

Because thereís seldom any real danger of death, battles manage to become tedious despite their brevity. Itís not difficult to build up levels, either. Soon, you may find yourself wandering through caves, casting your most powerful spells and watching enemies burst apart without ever having the chance to attack. Then you dash through and gather up all the goodies before entering the next screen and another simple fight. Only bosses put up much resistance, and even if youíre having trouble you can simply level up your characters to easily win those formerly difficult battles. The strategy for these behemoths quickly becomes the same as always: run in and mash the Ďattackí button like a mad baboon.

The developers must have realized such redundancy needed a boost, and their response was to create a monster breeding system. Does it work? Perhaps. Those who are under the spell of the achingly beautiful visuals and soundtrack will likely welcome the chance to wander through familiar locales looking for spirits and monster eggs. Theyíll happily dance back to their home after each completed mission so that they can put new-found meats and vegetables in their monstersí feed bins. Then theyíll head out to the corral to pet their happy little monsters and watch them grow into powerful cohorts. For those people willing to devote such time to rather menial tasks (a few hours if you play this game for the fifty or sixty hours it can easily support), the breeding system is endearing and rewarding. Thereís something quite satisfying about taking along your favorite pet and watching it tear apart a low-level enemy for you while you just sit there twiddling your thumbs. But since this is optional and time-consuming, I suspect many gamers will skip this aspect of the game entirely.

Theyíll pass over other things, as well. Late in the game, Legend of Mana is still introducing new elements and skills you can learn. Many must be carefully tended to in much the same way as your animals. As always, thereís nothing here that level building canít replace. After all, what better way to unfold more of the gameís thrilling story, right?

Apparently not. When I read reviews others have written for this game, one thing becomes painfully obvious: they missed much of the plot because they were rushing. Remember how I said Legend of Mana is all about experiencing things? I wasnít lying. It forces you to slow down if you want to uncover each of its secrets. Thatís never truer than it is in regards to the plot. There are around seventy missions. Each unfolds differently depending on how you play. Thereís no rule saying you have to experience them all, either. Itís actually quite simple to go through the game without the foggiest idea of whatís going on behind the scenes, just because you didnít bother to look. Yes, some of this is the gameís fault. But a lot of it comes from not playing the game the way it was meant to be played.

Because everything is so non-linear, a temptation I gave into from time to time was laziness. Some of the missions can be downright confusing. One example is a scene where you are talked into helping sell glass lamps throughout a town. The residents there speak gibberish, and youíre given a brief tutorial on how to interpret things before you start your sales campaign. Speaking to a resident initiates a line that makes no sense unless youíve taken copious notes, followed by more lines of the same. If trial-and-error tactics grow old and you are just sick of the quest, it can be tempting to leave it behind and just place some other item on the map to see what adventure lies down that path. Do this at the wrong time and you can lose track of what youíve accomplished and what you havenít. Then you can get entirely lost, without a clue what youíre supposed to do next to continue through the game. In times like this, it may be tempting to turn to an online strategy guide.

Even if this sounds like a terrible flaw, it really isnít. Legend of Mana is no quick fix for the battle junkie, and itís not going to reward you if you expect to sit down for a half-hour of adventure. Instead, itís a ponderous quest that will let you meld it into precisely what youíre looking for. You just have to be willing to invest the time. And when you do, itís then that the gameís true rewards pile upon you and make you grin. There are a million sights and sounds, a fascinating story you have to work to see, and enough optional things to collect that you might well find yourself engaged for weeks on end. Now itís up to you: will you love it or hate it?

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Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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