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The Game That Never Ends
By: Michael Beckett
Legend of Mana takes the openness that has been the hallmark of the Seiken Densetsu series and brings it to a new level. It is completely up to the player when, how, and even if the stories contained in the game resolve. The makeup of the world and the people who exist there are left to the player to decide, along with the personality, fighting style and even appearance of the hero. While Legend of Mana does provide a very fine role-playing experience, it’s main flaws spring from the lack of any in-depth tutorials, the lack of any real direction as to where to go next, and a lack of the sort of over arcing plot that so many RPGamers have come to expect from their games.
In a nod to Legend of Mana’s predecessors, its combat system is nearly identical to the previous Seiken Densetsu games, with a few inexplicable alterations. A brief overview; combat takes place in real-time, with players and monsters moving on a 3D field. Freedom of movement is nearly complete – one must equip a skill to jump and therefore move in true 3D – but for some inexplicable reason the player can only attack right or left. The hit area is wide enough and long enough that an enemy above or below can still be connected with, but it makes planning and being certain of hitting one’s foe somewhat awkward. Also, while Seiken Densetsu games have always had three playable characters, Legend of Mana supports only two players at a time. Perhaps someone fears the multi tap?
Level ups are handled in a straightforward fashion, but the game’s weapon creation scheme is a wonder to behold. While at first quality results may be hard to find, as the player amasses more skill and understanding of the art of blacksmithing – and in Legend of Mana it truly is an art form – the stronger and stronger weapons he will be able to produce, even learning how to create items and weapons that alter the player’s most basic abilities. However, the very, very basic tutorial included with the game does little or nothing to aid the player in discovering the more advanced techniques of blacksmithing, Golem creation, and magical instrument creation. This lack of instruction makes the item creation systems appear random and poorly thought out, when in fact they are highly complex systems with a great deal of effort put into their creation and implementation.
Control in Legend of Mana can be a bit confused at times, but for most part is well thought out and implemented. Menus seem a bit overly complex – a bit like the game itself – but a bit of learning goes a long way.
With a soundtrack written by the illustrious Yoko Shimomura (Super Mario RPG, Kingdom Hearts), what could possibly go wrong? As far as I’m concerned, absolutely nothing. Ms. Shimomura’s work has been consistently fine in the past, and her work on Legend of Mana lends a mythical, mysterious air to the surroundings, melding with the beautiful watercolored backgrounds and wonderfully designed characters and monsters to create an atmosphere steeped in wonder. From the home town of Domina to the legendary Mana Tree itself, Legend of Mana’s visuals and music work together with a surprising harmony that speaks well not only for the flexibility of the artists involved, but also for the skill of the director who brought them all so perfectly.
While Legend of Mana’s combat system and plots are nothing new, it has something of a gem in its incredibly in-depth item creation schemes. Still not enough to carry the originality by themselves, these systems get something of a boost from the unique and intriguing characters present in the stories. Add to that the format of the game – sort of a short-story game – and the result is a highly unique experience.
It would be a mistake to treat Legend of Mana as a single flawless narrative. There are, in fact, three or four major tales to be told within the universe of Legend of Mana; The story of the ancient people of Jumi, and the serial murderer who stalks them for their gemstone hearts; A brother and sister, dragoons to dragons on opposite sides of Light and Dark; A contest of wills between a woman and her dying friend over the demon who stole her heart; and the overreaching story of the resurrection of the Mana Tree, and thus the world. The main character plays more as an extension of the player into the game universe than as an actual character taking part in the narrative, a feeling enhanced by the main character’s lack of any lines, and therefore any development as a character. Your main goal as Mana’s chosen one is to resurrect the world from the slumber it was placed in at the end of a great war millennia ago. Therefore, the only thing needed to complete the game is to place the artifacts that open up new areas, thus resurrecting them. Actually entering them and becoming involved with the people who live there is completely up to the player.
The stories of Legend of Mana have to do with wide reaching themes, such as the acceptance of fate and the redemption of the lost. They tend to speak for themselves, but the fact that it’s not necessary – or even, sometimes, possible – to complete them all does occasionally fracture the narrative. This coupled with the lack of direction the game provides can lead people to believe that Legend of Mana might have lost some of its plot somewhere in translation.
Every part of Legend of Mana was indeed translated, and translated well. There are no noticeable errors in the script or menus, and the dialogue comes off feeling natural and appropriate for the characters speaking them. Squaresoft has a history of consistently fine translations, and Legend of Mana doesn’t seem to have provided their Localization departments much of a problem at all.
In Legend of Mana, it is not possible to see everything the game has to offer in one single play through. The completion of certain events will preclude the completion of other events. Luckily, the game has an extensive New Game + feature which carries over not only your character and his or her equipment, but also everything he or she did during the last game, all the monsters raised and all the items created.
Time to complete is over 10 hours – after approximately 10 hours of gameplay, the Mana Sword the artifact which unlocks the Mana Tree, becomes available. Entering the Mana Tree starts the brief chain of events which will end the game, but the player always has the option of not using the Mana Sword or entering the Mana Tree in order to complete more events and hear more of the story. The game’s difficulty is Easy – very few enemies or even bosses will provide you with much of a threat, especially after mastering blacksmithing. However, due to the game’s lack of directions, players may well wish to have a player’s guide or FAQ in order to find most of the events.
It’s best to approach Legend of Mana with a learning attitude. Starting a game without reading the manual or investigating any of it beyond the main line plots is a recipe for instant dislike. With several main line plots, a combat system strongly reminiscent of the earlier games in the series, and some of the most beautiful and artistic visuals and sound to be found on the PlayStation, Legend of Mana is a game for those with patience, a bit of artistic sense, and enough time to blow on The Game That Never Ends.
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