Legend of Mana is a beautiful game. I don’t mean that aesthetically—though it is visually impressive—but in how it is designed. From its world structure, to its combat, to its narrative design, Legend of Mana is a game that feels like a journey unique to each player. Though I did not play the original, released back in 1999 for the PlayStation, the remaster is an experience I quickly grew to love. Though there are flaws, I can’t help but admire what Legend of Mana sets out to do.
For one, there is no main quest to pursue. In the world of Fa’Diel, the Mana Tree burnt to the ground centuries ago, and you play a silent protagonist who is tasked to restore the world to what it once was. This involves finding Artifacts, which are magically empowered items that contain lands that were protected from the disaster. By using these Artifacts, you can place the lands onto the world map in any order that you choose. These lands contain additional Artifacts, and through exploration and completing quests the land is built out more and more.
With that simple direction, you are thrust into the world and left to explore it at your own pace. Without an overarching plot thread to follow, Legend of Mana is primarily about discovery. Each new land promises new monsters to fight, quests to complete, and secrets to uncover. This lack of direction may be unappealing to some, but I was enraptured by it. Discovering something new always felt natural, as if I was obviously meant to explore in the order I did even if that isn’t the case.
What’s more, the order and placement of each land determines whether certain quests or items even appear in a given playthrough. Each land has several elemental attributes assigned to it, which will affect other lands that are placed directly to it. If a certain element isn’t at the right level, you may miss out on an entire quest. Couple this with the fact that completing certain quests before others will lock you out of them, and you have an experience where it’s difficult to see everything in one playthrough.
And that’s perfectly fine. But while I liked the concept of Legend of Mana’s structure as a theory, in practice it has limitations. Namely, there are times when there is little in the way of clues or explanation as to how to advance, causing you to run around in circles trying to find exactly what you need to do to progress a quest. And since each land can be composed of two dozen individual screens, if not more, it can get tedious quickly. The remaster does add the option to avoid battles, which does make crisscrossing an area quicker. But just a little of additional clarity could prevent this while retaining the focus on discovery. That way, I could have made use of the crafting system earlier than I did due to a lack of direction.
“Touching on themes of love and rebirth, these are stories that are touching and worth experiencing.”
It’s important to note that while there isn’t a main quest to follow in a linear order, there are multiple plotlines to work through over the course of the game. While there are a couple dozen stand-alone quests and a few short questlines, much of the game can be divided between three separate storylines. These include the persecution of the Jumi, a dying race of humanoids whose hearts are jewels located on the outside of their body; a war between dragons and the brother and sister pair who serve opposing sides; and a love story between four childhood friends that involves the potential end of the world. Touching on themes of love and rebirth, these are stories that are touching and worth experiencing. Though there are times when I wished that a more linear plot would be nice, I realize that one would ultimately be a detriment to Legend of Mana in the end.
Unlike the experimentation found in the game’s structure, the combat is straightforward in comparison. Much like other games in the Mana series, Legend of Mana is an action-RPG wherein you fight enemies in real time on a static screen. There are many different weapons to choose from, such as a sword or hammer, each with their own rhythm to get used to and techniques to take advantage of. While you learn techniques through battle, you also have access to special moves such as a jump, backdash, or guard, that you can assign to two of the face buttons. Though I wish there was a greater range of movement options available, as even upgraded special moves feel too limiting, fighting in general feels good.
“Fortunately, Legend of Mana is great to explore thanks in no small part to the remastered visuals”
If only there was more of a reason to make use of these techniques, at least on normal difficulty. Save for some boss fights, most encounters involve walking up to an enemy and hitting normal and heavy attacks repeatedly. The ease at which you can roll through most encounters discourages experimentation, which is a shame. There’s an interesting level of depth to fighting once you factor in crafted weapons and magic, but you rarely have an opportunity to use it at its full potential unless you purposefully seek it out or are playing on a harder difficulty. And even then, I’m not sure it’s necessary.
Fortunately, Legend of Mana is great to explore thanks in no small part to the remastered visuals. The aspect ratio has increased, and along with it came higher resolution backgrounds that do much to make the game feel like it has popped out of the pages of a storybook. The sprites for characters and enemies still retain a similar appearance to the original version, which were beautiful even back in 1999. Redrawn portraits, alongside a revamped UI, are little touches that are welcome as well.
Special mention must also go to Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack, which features new arrangements that are a delight to listen to. Of course, you can choose to listen to the original versions if you so desire, but the new arrangement is stunning. Shimomura is arguably one of the best composers in video game history, and Legend of Mana is a fantastic example of how she can channel passion and emotion so easily into her work.
Legend of Mana is a remaster worth playing, particularly if you have not played it before. It’s design is bold and uncompromising, both for better and for worse, but it nonetheless creates a sense of adventure that few other games can match. And for that, I adore what Square created, flaws and all.