Note: On June 24, 2021, Square-Enix will be releasing an HD remaster of Legend of Mana. I assume that they will not be screwing with it too much based on its MSRP, but do not take this review as a recommendation of or statement regarding the upcoming version. However, some of these screenshots will be from the HD version, since they look really nice.
In 1999, Squaresoft released Legend of Mana on the Playstation (PS1), the fourth game in the Mana series and the first to be released in North America since Secret of Mana. American audiences largely disliked it, as it was significantly different from its classic SNES predecessor. But young Drinking with Skeletons was a big Squaresoft fan, and was eager to play this new adventure. And for many years, it was his favorite game, and remains high on his list to this day.
Call to Adventure
Legend of Mana doesn’t offer a tremendous amount of backstory or opening exposition. Long ago, the Mana Tree provided all the world with infinite, magical power. It was the source of life, and brought joy to the world. But people coveted its power, and eventually it was the center of an apocalyptic war. Powerful magicians sealed away parts of the world in Artifacts, and the world was turned into a barren, lifeless wasteland. You are tasked with finding the Mana Tree, and to do that, you will have to rebuild the world.
It’s a weird setup, but Legend of Mana is a deeply weird game. Upon starting up a new game, you will choose your avatar, your starting weapon, and which blank patch of the world will be your world map. Then, you are handed the Mailbox Artifact and told to place it on the map, which creates the Home location. This is quite literally your house and associated spaces, such as your garden and monster corral. You’ll poke around and notice that there is a weird cactus baby in your room who has nothing to say, and nobody else to speak with except a Sproutling, a bizarre, androgynous plant child who spouts a bunch of nonsense and hands you the Building Blocks artifact, which allows you to place the town of Domina. And so the rhythm of the game is revealed: place Artifacts to unlock new areas, and then explore them.
What you’ll soon find is that the game is divided into discrete quests. You’ll bump into characters who are trying to resolve some issue, and you’ll get roped into helping. The screen will dim and the name of the quest will fly onto the screen, and once the quest is resolved you’ll be treated to a splash page before being dumped back to the world map. It’s an extremely odd structure for a game. You know you need to find the Mana Tree, but there is quite literally no guidance whatsoever on how to do that. You’ll just wander the lands, rebuilding things and helping people resolve what are often extremely low-stakes problems until, suddenly, you’ll find yourself able to tackle the final area of the game.
Depending on how you go through the game, you may find yourself facing down the final boss surprisingly quickly. Besides just starting over, however, the game offers a robust New Game+ mode if you want to continue exploring the world.
A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
The formless structure of Legend of Mana would be more of a problem if the world of the game and the characters inhabiting it weren’t so darn charming. The entire game has a gorgeous fairy tale aesthetic that prioritizes whimsy and variety over coherence. You’ll meet pirate penguins, horny centaurs, unscrupulous rabbits, depressed monkeys, and many more as you quest for the Mana Tree. Their plights range from comically minor misunderstandings to being the victims of genocide, and the vast gulf between the extremes makes Legend of Mana stand out as unique but also helps drive home the stakes when things take a darker turn.
As befitting an RPG, you’ll be able to recruit party members. You can have one at a time, as well as either a pet monster or a golem. Most of the party members are tied to specific storylines, and will generally only be available to travel with you for those quests, at least until you finish them. Two orphaned wizards, Bud and Lisa, can be taken under your care fairly early on and are available anytime you don’t have someone else who needs to be present for a quest. I believe there are a total of ten NPCs who can join you throughout the game.
I’ve avoided talking about the mechanics of the game so far because it’s not as interesting as the rest. It’s a 2.5D action RPG. You’ll run into monsters, and you’ll beat them into submission with your weapon and skills. There are a lot of weapons to choose from, and you aren’t locked to any particular one. You can also have two support skills equipped at a time, such as Jump or Dash. As you use support skills and combinations of support skills, you’ll unlock new support skills. And as you use support skills while having certain weapons equipped, you’ll unlock new special moves that you can unleash when your super meter is full. You can craft your own equipment (and I’ll talk about crafting in its own section) to further customize your character. And I can hear you asking: wait, is he describing an Elder Scrolls game?
Yes, Legend of Mana is essentially a bizarro-world proto-open world RPG. You don’t have a lot of direction or restraints, you have tons of customizability that is founded upon using skills to unlock better skills, and the gameplay boils down to a pretty shallow beat-em-up. Despite the flashy special attacks and screen-filling bosses, you are unlikely to be wowed by Legend of Mana’s simple and frequent combat. It’s the weakest element of the game, exacerbated by the odd XP system–you have to literally pick up experience crystals dropped by enemies, and they aren’t automatically shared with party members, and if a party member picks them up you don’t get them–and the fact that enemies respawn whenever you move to a new screen, making revisiting lower-level areas far more tedious than it needs to be. But at the same time, it means that the game is accessible and not too difficult.
Where the game gets deep is in the more unusual systems. Rebuilding the world allows you to customize your difficulty to a degree: the level of an area is determined by how recently you’ve added its Artifact to the map as well as how close it is to Home. If you place your house in a corner tile of the map, you can maximize the difficulty of the final area by placing it in the opposing corner after you’ve filled the rest of the map. Alternately, you can save a spot next to your house to significantly reduce the power of enemies in the final dungeon when you get there. It’s easy to understand and lets you decide how much you want to spice things up.
Less understandable is the element system. There are a bunch of elements in the game corresponding to mystical spirits, like Dryad, Salamander, and Undine. These elements are displayed on the world map, and do…something. I am honestly not sure how they work. They affect the strength of enemies, I think, on the days of the week–each of which also corresponds to a spirit–as well as your gardening. Beyond that, I have no clue.
Even more esoteric is the game’s crafting system. First, you can grow vegetables at your house by feeding seeds to a talking tree named Trent. These are somehow affected by the element values I discussed above. You can use the many fruits and vegetables Trent produces for a variety of things, most notably for feeding to pet monsters. Whenever a monster levels up, it will eat whatever you deposited for it in the corral, which will impact its stats.
Next, those monsters are recruited by going out into different areas and finding where they can spawn, usually the location of a defeated boss. You’ll use food items to lure them close, then snatch them when they aren’t looking. I have no idea if there’s a way to determine what an egg will hatch into, but the sentient demi-human monsters can only be recruited through special means.
Then there’s magical instruments. Go to the same spots where you might find a monster egg and sometimes you’ll find spirits. Play music to lure them close, then speak to them to get coins, which you can combine with other materials to produce more instruments, which are actually the game’s magic system.
After that, there’s golem making. Build a golem from equipment–which determines its base stats–and then use more equipment to make special attacks for the golem, which are slotted into a visualized AI routine to determine the range at which the golem will use them and which abilities it will prioritize.
And finally, blacksmithing. I do not understand blacksmithing. It is the most esoteric system I’ve ever encountered in a video game. I don’t know what determines what special traits are imbued into weapons. I don’t know what any of the special traits do. All I’ve ever managed to do is ruin otherwise perfectly good equipment.
It’s frickin’ nutty. Especially because the game isn’t remotely difficult enough to need crazy crafting! None of it is well-explained, seemingly because they want you to experiment, but it’s so impenetrable and unnecessary that you may well never want to engage with it beyond doing the quests required to unlock all your crafting options.
A Beautiful World
I mentioned before that Legend of Mana has a gorgeous storybook aesthetic, but I want to reiterate that it’s a very pretty game. Hand-drawn, 2D backgrounds teem with life and personality. It has a slightly fussy style that has always made me think of Scandinavian art, though I honestly could not tell you why I associate the game’s look with that. But regardless, it’s lovely.
And to accompany that loveliness is one of my favorite Squaresoft soundtracks. Yoko Shimomura (perhaps best known for her work on the Kingdom Hearts series) delivers a stunning and diverse tracklist that shifts from hominess to adventuresome to melancholy. Boss fights deliver exciting guitar riffs, while abandoned, bejeweled cities offer up aching sadness. A few unique tracks that only play once or twice in the entire game are sprinkled throughout to accentuate important moments. It’s a triumph.
End of the World
I understand why people don’t like Legend of Mana. It’s a directionless game that offers shallow combat wedged between incomprehensible side systems. It’s 90% side quests, and I don’t mean in the “you can dick around instead of doing the main quest” sense; the side quests are the main quest, in a way. It’s gorgeous, but repetitive. It’s not much like its predecessors.
But if you value charm and whimsy and want to find out what a Boink is and how it figures into the game’s fast travel system (such as it is), you may find Legend of Mana to be one of those games that is truly unique. It has some real flaws. But they are flaws in a game that isn’t like much out there, and will probably never be improved upon. It’s a bold, strange experiment, and a delightful one.
- You can play multiplayer in two ways. A second player can simply take control of whichever NPC happens to be traveling with you. Or you can insert a second memory card into the PS1 and have your friend’s character come along. This is utterly pointless for the second player, and I think it blocks progress in quests that require an NPC until they leave.
- The game had some cross-functionality with other Squaresoft games if you had save files from them on your memory card. A Final Fantasy VIII save would make your tutorial monster egg hatch into a chocobo, for example.
- The writing in the game is weirdly subtle at times. I didn’t understand the end of the Matilda/Irwin arc until over a decade later.
- I don’t really want to give a ton away regarding how the game works, but after completing a quest you should go back to your room and talk to the cactus.