Legend of Mana released over twenty years ago as a part of the “Mana” franchise, and up until this remaster, I really didn’t give it the time of day. Sure, the art design at the time was amazing, but I was a lot younger and a lot less patient to take everything in back then. Thankfully, Square Enix have brought a remaster with a few updates and changes to fall in line with their other re-releases from the same series, and this time I finally got a closer look at a unique gameplay system that never grabbed me the first go around. How does this classic hold up after all these years? Let’s find out.
Legend of Mana was a “sandbox” RPG before we really knew what a sandbox was. That statement holds true to its own narrative, where players basically must restore the world by rebuilding it, spawning NPCs and characters as they progress forward. That really is where the story is here, as every artifact you obtain can create an entire piece of a map, and it is your job to explore, find quests, and continue to gather more artifacts to continue the expansion. There are three character “arcs” to complete, as well as a ton of side-quests where you assist random NPCs with their day-to-day issues. Most quests are simple, but the characters are full of personality and quirk, fleshing out a bit of a backstory as you help them with their mundane tasks. Because nothing is really just given to the player, utilizing these mechanics take a bit of trial and error, but make for a title that has a very solid and rewarding sense of progression, as our silent protagonist’s journey is what the player makes of it.
As I mentioned, this is a game where you are kind of dropped into, and by simply choosing a location for your house, a world is created with a hub town where you then start hunting for more artifacts to build. This is known as “Land Make” mode, as the location of where you spawn an artifact does matter, as it can create a “Land” that is unique to itself, with new NPCs to recruit temporarily in order to complete their quests while also expanding the main narrative that lies underneath for each arc provided. It’s a lot to take in, but ultimately very deep and strategic due to the way the grid-styled overworld works.
Players who get hasty and do not plan before dropping a Land will quickly see a spike in difficulty, as Lands that are farther away from your house become more difficult in level. The battle system is true to the Mana franchise, featuring action-RPG mechanics, where players can attack, defend, and use abilities freely, with a leveling system continuously increasing the player’s stats as they explore more areas. Item collection is also a big deal, as equipped accessories can make or break a big battle. Partnered allies also play a role in combat as they will do their own attacks, but occasionally be able to add an exclusive attack or technique that assists in completing an area with a bit more ease.
It sounds like a lot because it really is. This remaster adds a lot more accessibility and guides to make sense of it all, but even then, I found myself having to basically feel out the game a lot before it all fell into place. Simply put, this is not a game that holds your hand as you are expected to learn it as you go and failing to read something can lead to a bit of tedious repetition as the learning curve to it all is mastered. Those wanting to have a friend join in can have them control an NPC which is a nice feature (and very familiar to the franchise), but only for specific areas and when you have a party member available.
Once you dig in and get past the depth of it all, Legend of Mana is actually a simple game to conquer, with so many secrets and rewards, all based off how you decide to play it. In this day and age of RPGs being either action or turn-based, this title adds a middle ground that truly feels unique and refreshing, even if it can get a bit stale due to the many filler Lands that don’t add a lot of value to the overall experience.
This kind of goes without saying, but Legend of Mana is stunning. With rich colors and soft, hand drawn sprites, there is definitely a warm, relaxing atmosphere at work here. The animations add a lot of life and charm as well, with little NPCs scurrying about the environment, bringing this painting to life. The menus can feel a bit cluttered at times as this remaster may have refined instruction, but still has yet to streamline things – which kind of makes it feel as if just basic navigation of it can be a game in and of itself.
The soundtrack is some of the best video game music I have ever heard. Yoyo Shimomura (famous for Super Mario RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles, and a bevy of other big-hitters) makes the world of Fa’Diel feel impressive and boisterous, even at its most basic moments. While there is little voice work, the effects tie-in well, offering a lot of incentive to unlock new Lands to explore. Yes, the audio is something special, and at times maybe a little too giving due to how oddly the game holds itself together.
Legend of Mana is an odd one. It has an amazing soundtrack, fluid and fun gameplay, and some of the best art you can find in an RPG. That said, there is something a bit off when you step back and take it all in that misses the mark when it comes to creating one full experience. This is possibly due to the world building mechanics, but also due to a few too many mechanics all playing out at once. It’s not really disjointed as there is a flow to it all, but this Mana title definitely could have used a little more attention as at times it feels like you are playing a host of small experiences, rather than one whole one. It’s kind of like someone had all of these ideas to create the perfect RPG, but got too carried away and overfilled the world with unnecessary substance. Either way, this game is still well worth the price of admission and full of defining moments that are extremely satisfying, so longtime fans and newcomers should find a lengthy distraction within these gorgeous walls.