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Legend of Mana
Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
My God, this game is gorgeous. Without a doubt, Legend of Mana is the most beautiful game I have ever played on the PSX when it comes to 2D graphics. Every location is lushly drawn and colored; each screen looking like hundreds of hours of work went into making it look just right. The South American temples look appropriately South American, the caves look dark and damp, and the forest looks lush and full. I spent a lot of time just wandering around looking at the scenery. The character and enemy sprites are good as well, although basically just a step above the previous games in the series. That’s a Good Thing, however.

The music in the game is good, with appropriate music for fights and boss fights, and nice music depending on wherever you are in the world. Lumina’s theme is one of my favorites from the game. The sound effects are passable, with nothing particularly stunning, but nothing that drove me to irritation, either. Special note must be taken of the game’s style of presentation, something that resides between a storybook and a last work of da Vinci. Everything, even the crazy character designs (mmm... teapots and onions!), just feels right. The Mana series has always been an amalgam of genres when it came to presentation and character, and Legend is no exception to this rule.

First of all, a warning: all of you out there expecting a Secret of Mana 2 (or 3, for the more Japanese-savvy), look somewhere else. Square took the general mythos of the Seiken Densetsu series (elemental spirits, the Mana Tree, wacky character design, that dude in the turban behind every counter), and formed a whole new beast out of it. At first glance, it may seem a lot like the previous games, but a little gameplay will reveal something completely different. Some people will dislike the free-roaming, do-what-you-please atmosphere of Legend of Mana. Others, like me, will enjoy every second of it.

That being said, Legend of Mana is very much a game of doing what you want to do. As you play, you create the world map by placing “Artifacts.” Each artifact does two things: it creates a new land for you to explore, and it raises particular Mana levels for itself and the lands surrounding it. These Mana levels are useful for opening some of the quests, as well as changing the difficulty of the enemies inside of each land. Completist freaks like me will want to know the internal mechanisms of the Land-making process; people who just want to play the game can get by with just placing artifacts as they gain them. This duality is very nice.

Each land, be it a town or a location (like a forest, ruins, or even the Underworld), presents you with options. You can explore it on your own time, just soaking in the gorgeous graphics, or you can undertake quests. These quests sometimes start as soon as you go somewhere, or they require certain prerequisites to be met. As you complete quests, you gain new Artifacts to open up new lands, and perhaps nifty new weapons and armor.

Because of this, Legend of Mana is closer to its non-linear (and oft-maligned) cousin SaGa Frontier in gameplay than any of the other games in the Mana/Seiken Densetsu series. Don’t worry, however; this game doesn’t have the “play the game nine times to truly beat it” problems that Frontier did. Despite its non-linearity, it is often intuitively obvious where a new quest would show up, and the game is kind enough to point out when you’ve completed one. Simply going to new lands as you open them is often good enough to keep you going on quests for a while.

And if you tire of the quests, you can play around with the many tweak-fiend options that Square has come to supply us with regularly. You can grow fruit, which you then proceed to feed to monsters that you catch (in cute little eggs, no less) to bring with you on your adventures, you can forge and tweak weapons, and you can build golems to help you. All of these have quests that you must do to open them, but the persistent can open a dearth of entertainment possibilities. And don’t forget to play music for the spirits!

Of course, the core of the Mana series has always been the combat, and in Legend of Mana, the system has changed once again. Instead of always being in battle mode while you walk around on the world map, you shift into fighting whenever enemies present themselves. This keeps you from running away from battles, which is sometimes a pain, but the battle engine itself is a whole lot of fun. You can assign special moves to the shoulder buttons, and as you use moves, you learn new ones. You can cast spells as well. No more meter-charging -- as you attack, your Special Technique meter rises, and when it’s full, you can unleash whatever attacks you’ve learned. Your health is instantly recovered after battle, and if you die in a fight but have teammates, you will get revived after a certain amount of time.

Legend of Mana is not without its flaws, however. The helper A.I. is close to nonexistent, with spellcasters using spells that have no effect, and both NPCs and pets picking up the “experience crystals” that get you experience only by chance. The boss battles have a habit of being almost trivially simple, as well. The multiplayer, while present, lacks the elegance of Secret of Mana (and there’s no multitap support!). And sometimes the non-linearity catches up with you, as the over-arching storyline is more of a theme than a real plot-pusher. But beat the game, and you can play it in a more difficult mode, which definitely makes it more intriguing. And when you just want to relax for a while, you can run around and grow some fruit and raise your animals.

But Legend of Mana never runs out of charm. From its whimsical character designs and lush graphics to the excellent translation (no more Xenogears-style dryness, hurrah! hurrah!), there is always something to keep you interested. And chances are great that after you beat the game, you’ve only seen part of what the game can offer. Another time or three through, and you’ll have fully immersed yourself in the unique world of Legend of Mana.

The first time through, Legend of Mana is probably going to stump you more on the puzzles than on any of the battles. The enemies tend to be sinfully easy. After you beat the game once, however, you have a choice of making the game a good bit more difficult, which is a Good Thing.

Game Mechanics:
Despite the changes in the battle system, Legend of Mana’s combat never grows old, much like the earlier games in the series. The control scheme itself is intuitively simple, and you’ll pick it up within minutes of playing the game. The status and equipment menu leaves something to be desired, however, as I’ve often popped over to the wrong menu because I accidentally tapped up or down when I was trying to push right. Arg.

Legend of Mana is not for everyone; it is more of an artistic expression than a rigorous gameplay experience. If you’re looking for heavily plot-driven role-playing, then you’ll want to look somewhere else. But if you want a beautifully styled game that keeps you going the whole way through (and then again) with its visuals and setting, you can’t go wrong with Legend of Mana.

-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

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