Legend of Mana is an insanely pretty game, but that beauty belies a sinister twist—most of the game is comprised of meaningless sidequests that mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. A little back story: long, long ago, I played through an English-translated ROM of Seiken Densetsu 3, the sequel to Secret of Mana, and enjoyed it greatly. It’s an amazing game, and the fact that it never made it to North America is simply criminal. In it, you can choose to play as three of six characters, with the villains and story changing in several ways depending on who you choose. Naturally, I was looking forward to playing Legend of Mana more than you can imagine, expecting that same kind of greatness.
Legend of Mana is nothing compared to Seiken Densetsu 3. It looks similar, even prettier at times with its charming hand-drawn appearance, but this superficial similarity turns out to be all they have in common; Legend of Mana is kind of like a crazy person taking your long-time crush, cutting off their face, and wearing it as a mask. Yeah, they kind of look the same. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re two different people, and you probably shouldn’t listen when they invite you into the back of their van.
If it’s not painfully clear yet, I wasn’t impressed. You’re bombarded in the beginning with random characters like in most games, and all seems to be going fine at first. Then you do a cutesy little sidequest that culminates in a boss fight. Nothing impressive, but it’s good to get a handle on combat early so that you can focus on the story later, right? After all, the simplistic stuff is always put at the beginning. Things will get more interesting later, right?
Wrong—the entire game is made up of sidequests like the ones at the beginning. A few are strung together into what some more generous individuals might consider “main quests,” but these ultimately lack the buildup and length required for the player to be invested in them. The end result is that lots of stuff happened, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it. Now, before anyone accuses me of not “getting” it, I love short stories. The short stories in Planescape and The Longest Journey are a huge factor in why I love those two games so much. Had the sidequests in Legend of Mana been of the same storytelling quality, I would probably be overjoyed by the game. They’re not. Here’s an example of a real quest that’s in the actual game:
So there are a bunch of people loitering about in this desert area that you come to, and it turns out that they’re magic students chasing down an instructor who took an ancient spell book and ran off. You’re told that he’s planning to try out the magic from the book, which is apparently a bad thing, so you volunteer to help like the hero you are. Fighting your way through enemies, you finally get to him, and he reveals that he plans to destroy the earth by bringing the stars crashing down into it using some weird cannon-looking thing. Sounds like you’re dealing with a seriously bad dude, right? Before you can stop him, you get repelled back and end up in a boss fight with some birds. Not sure why, but there you go. Once you beat the birds, the evil teacher succeeds at firing off his cannon, and it ends up making… fireworks. Seriously. Fireworks. The person who asked you to help earlier declares that it was cool, and the quest ends.
Seriously. That’s the end of the quest. Later on, you go to the school and he’s there, just doing his thing. How did he keep his job after taking the book and going all “evil villain” on everyone? No one says. Why was he trying to destroy the earth in the first place? Never seems to come up. This quest in particular highlights my biggest problem with the game: it relies on its gimmicks and aesthetic to the point where the actual story is neglected, ultimately becoming completely worthless. The sidequests that make up the game have no story value of their own, and the characters are written to be so incredibly shallow that it’s difficult to even remember who’s who. At one point I had to go online and Google a character’s name because I couldn’t even remember who they were. When you have to do a Google search to remember who a character is, they’re badly written. End of story.
Why the change from the much more memorable and interesting characters of previous games, then? Because Legend of Mana is non-linear! Kind of! Rather than having a map where places are, you get items, “artifacts,” that allow you to pop up a new location and put it wherever you want on the map. Since you occasionally get more than one artifact upon the completion of a quest, you can tackle one shallow and meaningless quest before you tackle the other shallow and meaningless quest. Or the other way around! Oh, this gimmick was so worth destroying the whole story over! Or not.
Combat doesn’t offer much that previous games didn’t. That is, unless you consider incredibly easy combat to be a virtue. I didn’t die a single time against a single enemy, and I’d be lying if I said I did anything fancy. I literally just sat back and used my bow and arrow by pressing the “shoot” key over and over, and I highly doubt the other usable weapons are a much different experience. It’s truly a strange feeling to get through every boss fight in the game by just tapping a single button over and over.
There are tons of weapon/armor upgrades, some companions you can have join you, and even monsters who you can take care of and bring with you into combat. Ultimately, none of it matters. The game is easy, even without having the slightest clue about all of that. You can apparently make the game harder on subsequent playthroughs by importing your character and choosing a harder mode, but without any kind of compelling story stuff to suck you in, I don’t really know how anyone could play through this game twice. I barely made it through once. I was literally making excuses to avoid having to continue playing.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous. Seriously, look at those screenshots. Everything looks very painterly and beautiful, like a dream come alive. Of course, the lack of story also comes alive and strangles you, but I have to give credit where it’s due—Legend of Mana is incredibly pretty, and there’s really no denying it. One thing, though: Seiken Densetsu 3 did snow better. It’s hard to describe, but the snow in Legend of Mana looks too rounded, as though a marshmallow melted all over. Other than that, though, it’s the graphically superior game, with a very impressive art style.
The music is more of a mixed bag, though. On one hand, some of the music rivals even the more memorable themes in Final Fantasy games. On the other hand, there are a number of piercing, happy, way-too-annoying-and-repetitive songs that pop up out of nowhere and bring the whole thing down. Overall, I have to say that I disliked the music more than I liked it. It’s too bad given how great the soundtracks of other games in the series have been.
Here’s what you should do: