The Legend of Legacy (3DS) review
"Despite a lot of talent, Legend of Legacy under-utilizes many of its strengths"
Announced in September 2014, Legend of Legacy drew a great deal of attention due to the reputation of its staff. Veteran system designer Kyoji Koizumi and illustrator Tomomi Kobayashi from the Romancing SaGa and SaGa Frontier series would be joined by composer Masashi Hamauzu (Final Fantasy XIII, Unlimited Saga) and writer Masato Kato (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Xenogears). A number of former Squaresoft and SquareEnix talent joined the team as well, including artists Misako Tsutsui, Yuichiro Kojima, and Ryoji Shimogama. Legend of Legacy had the appearance of a lightning strike of talent, gathering some of the very best to a passion project. A comparison of the back of the box of Romancing Saga 3 and Legend of Legacy.
What turns out to be the most shocking team member is the director running the thing: Masataka Matsuura. He had not work on any of the classic RPGs–he was playing them. At this time, Matsuura was in his late twenties. While some of the more experienced members of the team were creating pillars of the JRPG like Romancing SaGa, Matsurra was barely old enough to play them. In numerous interviews, Matsuura has left no ambiguity about the inspiration of Legend of Legacy: he joined FuRyu with the idea for the game already in his mind, and he contacted Koizumi directly to get him onboard. This was a man who loved old RPGs, wanted to play one again, and he was going to move heaven and earth to make one.
This is a case where the idea for the game was born out of personal love for a style of game that was no longer being made. While Bravely Default had shown that there was still a passion and appetite for classic Final Fantasy-style RPGs, the SaGa series had been reeling over the poor reception to Unlimited Saga for over a decade. For all its faults, there is massive love for SaGa and its experimental, exploration-focused systems. Legend of Legacy, with the pedigree of its team–was poised to be the heir apparent to SaGa. There was no team more qualified to make this game than the one Matsuura had rallied.
Considering that this was poised to be a Chrono Trigger-like gathering of experience and talent, you might be wondering at this point, “why have I never heard of this game?”
If you were playing RPGs on the 3DS in 2015, you were probably playing Bravely Default. A Final Fantasy game in everything but name, Bravely Default was an inflection point for Japanese RPGs. It was proof that there was still an audience for the trope-laden turn-based RPGs of yesteryear. Classic Final Fantasy, with its deep class system and absurd stories, is something people still wanted.
There’s that other series though. Born out of Final Fantasy II before becoming Square’s first million copy seller on the Game Boy, SaGa is a series with a lot of love in Japan. In North America, SaGa has always been a bit maligned, misunderstood, and overshadowed by Final Fantasy.
The key figure behind SaGa, Akitoshi Kawazu, was the battle planner for the first two Final Fantasy games, with the second being the ur-SaGa–a game without experience or character levels, where growth was accomplished by repeating an action (e.g. attack with a sword; get better at using swords). This premise carried into Makai Toushi SaGa and SaGa 2, which added in more experimental mechanics like transforming into enemies and randomly mutating spell capabilities.
Herein lies the first problem for SaGa in the West. In 1990, RPGs had not yet found a niche on consoles, despite heavy marketing pushes for Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES. To better utilize the money already spent on marketing Final Fantasy in North America, Makai Toushi SaGa and SaGa 2 were re-branded as Final Fantasy Legend I and II respectively. These were obviously not Final Fantasy games though and played nothing like the original or future installments.
So when Final Fantasy VII managed to do what no JRPG had done before–find success in North America–SaGa had a double hit to its reputation. Capitalizing on Final Fantasy VII’s success and the extended life of the Game Boy thanks to Pokemon, Sunsoft republished the Final Fantasy Legend trilogy, hoping to make sales based on the name alone. Shortly after Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft made the bold decision to finally localize a new SaGa game. That game, SaGa Frontier, was not only visible unfinished and hastily localized, it was nothing like Final Fantasy VII’s easy-to-understand and straightforward systems. Anyone in North America who jumped into RPGs with Final Fantasy VII likely found SaGa Frontier uninviting and unfun.
There were some key evolution games missing from North America. While not all of Squaresoft’s 16-bit masterpieces received a proper localization, Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger all put a certain style of game into the collective consciousness. No doubt, these were some of the most popular ROMs during the emulation boom of the late 1990s, highlighted by Final Fantasy V being among the first fan-translated RPGs. What was missing in North America was Romancing SaGa, a series of three games with complex systems and a story that was notoriously difficult for fan translators (none of these games had a complete English translation until 2016). These were the games that made SaGa Frontier make sense, introducing concepts like multiple protagonists, battle ranking (changing encounters and making new content available based on how many encounters the player has faced), glimmering (gaining new abilities permanently during combat), and an unfriendly game world that treated the player as though they had no special agency or power in the game world. It was an experimental series to be sure, but one that gathered a loving fan base in Japan during the 16-bit era. It’s a game many younger developers (including the team of Legend of Legacy, Bravely Default, and Octopath Traveler) cited as direct influences.
For the small number of North American fans that were drawn to like SaGa Frontier, its sequel was itself another surprise, bearing less resemblance to any other game in the SaGa series and being wildly different from its predecessor. After this, SquareEnix localized Unlimited Saga, a clear instance of executive privilege where Kawazu (now one of the longest serving employees at Squareenix) made the game he always wanted, a confusing mash-up of table top and video RPGs that perplexed even fans of the series. It was poorly received and, until 2016, Unlimited SaGa had effectively ended the niche series.
Out of the SaGa series, it seems the most beloved entries in the Romancing SaGa series. For their time, they were technical marvels, featuring some of the best sprite art and music from the era. Unlike Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, SaGa did not push the character in a given direction but rather gave the player tools and a world to explore. One playthrough of Romancing SaGa could be wildly different from another Romancing SaGa 2 even used a complex generations system where the main quest is completed by descendants of the player, who inherit abilities and world improvements across multiple generations of a ruling family. These were games that invited the player to play through the game multiple times, see new content each time. SaGa Frontier shares some of these properties too, though it’s literally unfinished (some quests are broken and an entire character scenario is missing) and suffers from the jankiness of being an early generation PSX game.
While each SaGa game is different, the one defining characteristic is the focus on improvement through action and experimentation. From Romancing SaGa on, characters will “glimmer” new abilities during battle, using a new skill for free and permanently adding it to their arsenal. Characters also improve an action by being it, much like practice in real life, though usually through math that is opaque and not known to the player. You can’t really min-max a SaGa game. These systems encourage the player to try new abilities, to glimmer new skills and improve the ones they already know.
In 2014, it looked apparent that SaGa was a dead series. There was The Last Remnant in 2008, which was SaGa-like (and not surprisingly involved Kawazu), but this style of free form character building and world exploration appeared to be an evolutionary dead end.
Going off on a long tangent about SaGa is not off-topic here. Legend of Legacy desperately wants you to think (and feel) like you are playing a SaGa game again. The art looks like Saga; the world map looks like SaGa; the combat system is essentially SaGa; the mysteriously told story is SaGa-like. It wants to be what Might No 9 promised to be to Mega Man, what Bloodstained promised to be to Symphony of the Night–this is the SaGa game you’ve wanted under a different name and it wants to be part of that long history.
Despite this, most contemporary reviews failed to mention SaGa and the importance of that influence. It’s not a mystery why that is the case though–SaGa Frontier was not well loved, Final Fantasy Legend was not well understood, and much of the series was unlocalized. Even if you had heard of SaGa in North America, you probably had little experience with it and would not see how this is related.
It’s very related though. The goal of “Project Legacy” was essentially to make a SaGa game. Were it actually part of that series, there’s a good chance it would have gone unlocalized or dropped into obscurity quickly.
Matsuura was asked numerous times about the name “Legend of Legacy.” The title was not translated for the Japanese release, with Matsuura stating that it had a “mysterious ambiance”. As a native speaker of English though, the title suggests a new old game, an intentional callback to games of yore.
The key theme of Legend of Legacy is mystery, both in its story and its gameplay. While it clearly wants to be SaGa, the resulting game is closer to Wizardry. The game takes place on the island of Avalon, a place with a single town that doesn’t offer much beyond the menu-based towns of RPGs of the 80s. The island is covered in mysterious ruins and needs to be properly explored, which is where the player comes in.
The player gets to choose one of seven characters to play as (the others are recruitable) and after a brief introduction is let loose upon the world. The choice of character affects a few minor events throughout the game as well as the introduction and ending, but the world and areas that can be explored are the same. As the player explores, new areas are added to the world map. These aren’t triggered by random events or anything cryptic. It’s the same progression as Romancing SaGa, but with more consistency from playthrough to playthrough.
Mapping is a key component of the Legend of Legacy experience. As the player walks around a new area, the map is slowly filled in. The player does not need to actually map anything a la Etrian Odyssey; walking around is sufficient and the completion percentage will go up. Once it reaches 100%, the map is marked as cleared. A complete map can be sold in town for a significant amount of money and thorough exploration will open up new areas.
There’s more to it than just the tangible rewards though. In one area, I found an overlook where I could see a ruined village off in the distance, adding it to my map. The ruins contained no rewards but rather a mysterious monument that had no immediate purpose (it had one later). Legend of Legacy is heavy on things to explore and light on the rewards. Watching the scenery pop in and out, watching the map completion percentage climb, and getting the little star on the map and seeing its edges filled in when it reaches 100% is its own reward.
How you feel about mapping areas can determine your overall enjoyment of Legend of Legacy, since the threadbare main quest is essentially to just map everything until you find stuff to push the plot along. Not everyone will be motivated by exploration for the sake of exploration, but for those that are, Legend of Legacy is a rewarding and unique experience.
Unfortunately, some unpolished encounter mechanics actively inhibit exploration. All encounters are visible on the screen as non-discrete shadow monsters. These monsters are far too aggressive and will chase the player over large areas. Trying to outrun them will usually result in getting in range of another encounter that will start chasing the player. Getting into one fight won’t link the encounters together into a big fight like many other games do, but other encounters don’t disappear after a battle either, so it’s possible to get stuck in fight after fight after fight.
What’s baffling is that weak enemies are just as aggressive as strong enemies, so harmless monsters will suicidally harass the player to their own demise. As the player gets strong and as this game does not use traditional experience points and enemies do not always drop money, weak encounters often have no rewards and are a waste of time. It’s frustrating to be trying to explore an interesting area, only for constant fights to break the immersion.
Legend of Legacy’s sparse story and lack of towns means the majority of the player’s time will be spent in combat. Character advancement and even the combat interface are very reminiscent of SaGa, with each character able to learn weapon-specific skills. Randomly (and more often during a difficult encounter) a character will not utilize the skill you asked them to do but will “awaken” a new one, using it without any cost and devastating results. Since all characters can equip any item, careful players are rewarded with diversifying and specializing their team with specific weapons. There are some undocumented affinities that allow specific characters to more easily gain awaken specific types of skills, but persistence can overcome those advantages.
While this all sounds very SaGa-like, Legend of Legacy has a few twists of its own. For starters, there’s no traditional stats beyond HP and SP. Instead, each character’s abilities are determined by their position in a formation. The player can set up formations that put your 3-member team into different slots. For example, if a character is in the attack position, they have a chance when using a skill to increase its attack level, making them better at using that skill in that position but not in other positions.
Being in a specific position grants additional bonuses. For example, the attack position boosts attack power while support increases speed and the effect of healing abilities. The guard position allows shield abilities to apply to the whole party, so deploying a dedicated character to defend is actually an effective tactic. Utilizing positions effectively and creating a balanced set (which needs to be done in the menu outside combat) is where most of the strategy lies.
Despite the importance of this system in the game, it still feels under utilized. In particular, formation does not apply to enemies. Assigning equivalent positions to enemies would have made battles more strategic and more interesting. It would have also helped enemies stand out as more unique than they are, since the bestiary is littered with palette swaps. There are a few standout unique encounters, such as giant birds that circle some areas and the player can only see their shadows on the ground, but most enemies don’t do anything particularly unique in combat so the player can usually get by using the same strategies across different encounters.
The formations and lack of traditional growth are not the only curiosities Legend of Legacy offers. Its magic system is one of the most unique in any Japanese RPG. The island of Avalon is inhabited by elementals that are always in the background. In both the field and in combat, a grid shows how much influence each of the four elements currently has. When a spell is cast, that element gains more dominance. When water, for example, is the dominant field, magic damage is halved for allies and foes alike whereas when darkness is dominant magic damage is tripled. Furthermore, both the enemies and the player can form a contract with an element, gaining a passive bonus like HP restoration in the process. The contract is also required to cast spells of that element.
Equipable magic shards hold the power of elemental spells and can be equipped as accessories. Just like awakening a new weapon skill, a character can awaken and permanently learn a spell by casting it, allowing them to remove the accessory and still have access to the spell.
This is a really interesting system that is let down by a few issues. First, the spells require a contract before they can be cast, and obtaining the contract requires the player to be close to an element shrine in the field or to manually obtain the contract during battle, which takes a turn. If you attempt to cast a spell without a contract, it fails and still charges you SP. You can try to get a contract and cast a spell in the same turn with two different characters, but that ties up two characters and there’s no guarantee that they will act in the order you need anyway unless you’re clever with your formation. It doesn’t help that the library of spells isn’t that great compared to just using a physical attack anyway anyway. When a spell is challenging to set up, the reward needs to be better.
The other issue is that the contract rule does not apply to enemies. If you cast a spell but the enemy has the contract, your spell fails; the reverse is not true for most of your opponents though. When the enemy casts a spell, they will automatically take the contract with it. This alone makes a spell-focused character irritating to use. If the same rule applied to enemies, the player could take contracts defensively, making the spell field more of a volleyball match. There are a few enemies where this mechanic actually works as expected, which leads to more interesting fights, but it is rare.
The annoyances of using spells is such a let down because they are integrated so well into the world and lore. On any given map, the player is activating shrines as elemental hotspots to gain an advantage, finding singing stones that provide shards, and interacting with the elements of the area in very subtle ways. Occasionally there are even puzzles where elements are used to affect changes in the terrain and activating ancient technology. There are glimmers of brilliance here and it feels like so much potential was under utilized.
The magic system is so emblematic of Legend of Legacy. There are so many interesting ideas and discerning players will find themselves wanting the game to take that extra step and do more with them.
Legend of Legacy received a fitting fate. Contemporary comparisons of this game to Bravely Default are reminiscent of comparing SaGa Frontier and Final Fantasy VII. It’s an unfair comparison and an unfortunate fate–Legend of Legacy has some interesting ideas and the more time you spend with it, the more you will realize that this isn’t just SaGa in all but name. It has a unique take on world building and on combat.
Like a SaGa game, Legend of Legacy is deeply flawed. The magic system is broken, the story makes promises that it doesn’t keep, and many battle mechanics are sometimes cryptic, sometimes poorly executed, and sometimes both. At release, it reviewed and sold poorly, and dropped into obscurity quickly.
Also like SaGa, deep running flaws do not make Legend of Legacy a bad game. If expectations are set correctly, it is actually quite enjoyable. The mysterious island of Avalon is interesting and exploring its maps is a reward unto itself. The combat system gives the player a lot of options and while not all options are worth pursuing, it is fun to work with and makes repeated playthroughs engaging. The art aesthetic and surreal musical score give the experience a personality that is wholly unique. While it may have wanted to be SaGa, it ended up being its own thing.
Still, the final result is no doubt not what Project Legacy was going for. Given the pedigree, experience, and passion of the people involved, Legend of Legacy is heartbreaking. Its presentation, minimal story, and quirky combat are just the kinds of things I love, but too often I seeing systems and ideas that felt under-developed. It’s a good game that could have been a great game.
Legend of Legacy is likely to remain abandoned on the 3DS. It did not sell particularly well and was not released on any other platforms, nor does it have enough broad appeal for FuRyu to justify such a port. Given the amount of love that was put into it, that’s a shame.
Don’t worry though; this alliance would stay alive to make another game.
A comparison of the back of the box of Romancing Saga 3 and Legend of Legacy.
Featured community review by dagoss (May 13, 2022)
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