The idea that modern games tend to hold your hand has been around for awhile. It’s not exactly incorrect – in a world where it’s easier to teach players how to play via in-game means rather than a bulky manual that bumps up production costs, you’re going to feel a little more guided in the early stages of most games. On the other hand, other games just kind of fling you into the deep end and tell you to swim.
Look at the SaGa games, for instance, or for a more recent example you might want to think about the remaster of Legend of Mana, the 1999 JRPG from Square offering vast amounts of adventure for the curious gamer to discover – it’s entirely willing to let you find it on your own.
Insofar as there’s a plot, we only know that the world of Fa’Diel is a pretty barren place and has been lacking a bit on the soul side of things since everyone forgot about the mystical power of Mana. Your character – who you’ll create by choosing a name, a starting weapon and a homeland on the map – is entreated by the Mana Goddess to help bring the wonder back to people’s lives by reminding them of Mana. Sort of, anyway. Really, you’re mostly thrown into the mix and told to have fun.
From a gameplay perspective, Legend of Mana might be one of the most unique adventures Square’s ever released. Let’s talk about the plot first, such as it is. See, the game’s divided into a hundred or so quests, which are little mini-stories that you’ll come across as you explore the world. These have clearly defined beginnings and endings, so you’ll know when you’ve found one and when you’ve finished it. This game’s all about exploring the world, finding new quests and completing them as you’d like, then getting out there again and finding more.
It ends up feeling much more open than your average JRPG. There’s three “main” plotlines and following them through to the end will allow you to finish the game, so with enough exploration and persistence you’ll find a way to wrap things up one way or the other.
Even the way that you’ll find these quests is unusual, though. See, unlike your average RPG, you’re going to assemble the world of Fa’Diel piece by piece. Completing quests typically rewards you with artifacts. These can be placed on the map you’ve chosen during character creation to add a point of interest. You’re then able to visit those points of interest to find more quests, battle more monsters and collect more loot, which, in turn, will probably result in more artifacts!
Place those, do more stuff, get more artifacts, repeat forever – or at least until the game runs out of artifacts to give you and you’re ready to wrap things up. It’s a unique gameplay loop that wasn’t really matched by anything at the time and remains a little unusual even today.
Of course, that’s not all that’s going on here. Legend of Mana is also unique for the absurd, unnecessary amount of system depth it’s got hiding beneath the surface. You start with a basic weapon and the ability to jump, crouch and dodge around. Over time, though, your options will expand significantly. For instance, combining those abilities will teach you new special techniques for your weapons, as well as more advanced abilities like a ninja somersault and a fancy illusion dodge.
You can also cast spells using magical instruments. If you’re feeling lonely you can bring along companions who offer their own combat abilities and can offer combination buffs to your character.
That’s just the beginning, though, as the abyss grows even deeper. If your weapon’s not really cutting it – pun intended – why not make a new one? Learn to be a blacksmith! Collect materials and make a new weapon, then start tempering it with basically anything you find! Slap some cabbage on that sword, maybe it’ll help! If your hammer’s not smacking hard enough maybe it just needs some eyeballs! There’s a method to the madness but you’ll need weeks to figure it out without a guide. Forget about all that, let’s make our own magic instruments by hunting down Mana spirits and collecting their magical coins! Or do both! Or don’t do either of them!
Meanwhile, if those companions aren’t doing it for you, raise some pets! Feed them to increase their stats! Naturally, if you’re going to feed them, you’ll need to run your own vegetable garden full of bizarre plants to make sure you have enough food, so you’d better get to work on that as well. How about you just forget about puny organic meatbags altogether and build, then program your own robot party member? Naturally, that’s got its own ridiculous custom AI system that you can work on as well. After you’ve played a bit and unlocked all its systems, Legend of Mana ends up feeling like a crazy JRPG version of the Elder Scrolls games – the really good ones, I mean, like Morrowind. Go nuts!
While going nuts, you might take a second to appreciate the presentation in this remaster of Legend of Mana. It’s mostly nice – the new font and redrawn storybook-style backgrounds are positively lovely, for instance, and while I haven’t gone back over the game line-by-line I’m pretty certain that there’s been some retranslation and rewriting of the game’s original script for the better. As beneficial as this is, it’s slightly disappointing that character and monster sprites appear to be the same ol’ pixelated fare from the PS1, which leads to something of a contrast with the beautiful backgrounds.
Still, this remaster is a better-looking game on the whole. There’s also a couple of nice new features like fantastic remastered music, the long-lost PocketStation game Ring Ring Land and the ability to save and resume your game anywhere.
Legend of Mana isn’t going to be for everybody. It’s one of those games that’s got plenty of good stuff buried inside and ready to dig up, but it begins by handing you a shovel and telling you to get to work. The popularity of games like Breath of the Wild suggests that the world might be ready for this sort of experience, though. Either way, this remaster is a fantastic way to play a fantastic game, and is without question worth a look for anyone who enjoys RPGs, exploration or growing hedgehog cabbages and then using their juice to make their legendary axe slightly sharper.