A few years into the life of the PlayStation, Square suddenly remembered all the great 16-bit franchises it had lying around the office. "Maybe we shouldn't let these flounder," thought one of Square's brighter executives, and several design teams were quickly assigned to resurrect old glories. Legend of Mana is the follow-up to Square's popular Seiken Densetsu series, released in the US as Final Fantasy Adventure and Secret of Mana. Yet despite its obvious mastery of presentation, Legend of Mana never delivers the level of gameplay needed to match its classic predecessors.
The heart of Legend of Mana's gameplay is the new "land creation system." You begin the game by choosing a male or female player, a starting weapon, and an initial location on the world map of Fa'Diel. From this point forward, the world is literally what you make of it: Artifacts placed on empty ground turn into fully formed, frequently populated environments. Towns, dungeons, forests, plains, oases, and more - everything in the world comes from the placement of artifacts. New environments mean new quests, and new quests mean even more new artifacts.
Unfortunately, the land creation system is responsible for Legend of Mana's greatest downfall: an overbearing sense of fragmentation and isolation. Since you place artifacts wherever you please, there's no sense of "world." Instead, you get a spattering of disconnected islands with little to unite the different environments. This fragmentation extends to the story itself - the game is divided into 60-odd miniquests to uncover and complete. When a quest begins, the name of the quest flashes on the screen; upon its completion, a unique splash screen declaring "The End" appears. Instead of being given a continuous narrative, you feel as though you've been thrust into a lurching ride of a storyline. The bizarre dialogue only adds to the effect - when little sprout children spout lines like, "We have no souls, you know," and "The cow isn't anywhere. He's inside my mind," forming a cohesive narrative is a herculean task indeed.
Legend of Mana also commits the cardinal sin against the Seiken Densetsu heritage - the omission of an adequate multiplayer mode. Previous titles are renowned for their fabulous three-player mode, yet Legend of Mana inexplicably jettisons this series tradition. Instead, the largest party you can have now consists of two characters and a pet monster. When present, the second character can be controlled by another player. "When present?" asks the perplexed reader. Unfortunately, secondary characters join and leave your party throughout the many miniquests, and many adventures are undertaken solo. With three-character parties present at times throughout the game, it would have been nice to see at least token multitap support.
Most of the game's miniquests consist of exploring an environment, clearing it of enemies, and defeating a boss at the end - fairly standard stuff. You can assign two abilities and four skills or spells to your character. Abilities include things such as jumping, dashing, grappling, and guarding. Skills are weapon-based attacks, and spells are magically learned from musical instruments. Repeated use of low-level abilities and skills will teach a character more powerful techniques. Somewhat surprisingly, battles shift from the traditional eight-way movement of the exploration mode to a 2.5D, Final Fight-style, side-scrolling engine. While the new battle techniques help keep things from becoming too boring, gamers familiar with previous titles in the series are sure to notice their degrees of freedom being stifled.
Despite all these quirks, Legend of Mana still has much to offer. The presentation is one of the greatest the PlayStation has seen, and Square's artists deserve high praise for their work. The storybook-art style is undeniably lush - full of vibrant color and an obsessive-compulsive level of detail. The 2D graphics are some of the most ornate ever put to screen. The music is also excellently orchestrated. It's full of authentic-sounding instruments and the tunes fit the various environments like a sonic glove. Gamers looking for the ultimate extension of SNES-style aesthetics will be pleased by Legend of Mana's ornate-yet-old-school style.
And Legend of Mana's greatest downfall - its schizophrenic and disjointed nature - is also its greatest strength. There's a lot to do in this game, all of it diverting and most of it fun. When you're not on one of the many miniquests, you can raise fruits in your garden, catch monsters to nurture as pets, forge your own weapons, play musical instruments to learn magic spells, seek out Elementals, build a helpful Golem, develop your characters' abilities and skills, and more. Gamers who are willing to explore the deepest crevices of the game's offerings and who can overlook the lack of a cohesive, overarching narrative will be suitably rewarded with a heck of a lot to do.
Legend of Mana has all the pieces of an enjoyable game, but there's still some assembly required. A string of miniquests without a cohesive core, Legend of Mana is likely to disappoint fans hoping for a new action RPG classic, but it will entertain those just looking for a good time.