Legend of Mana is an HD remaster of the 1999 PS1 action RPG game developed and published by Square Enix and unfortunately is one I didn’t get to play at release, mostly as it only saw releases in Japan and North America.
Now that I’ve had the chance to play it, however, I find myself thinking that I’m 22 years too late to the party with dated elements painting my nostalgia-less experience quite poorly.
Choosing your name and character you begin your journey to discover the mystery of mana in the world around you and eventually figuring out that it’s your job to save it.
With an action battle system that lends itself more to The Legend of Zelda than the more famous turn-based JRPGs Square Enix is best known for, you attack enemies when they appear on screen with numerous combos and special attacks as well as with partners that join you on your quests. It’s well animated and combines a relatively large customization system for improving weapons and acquired moves, but your use of it is all dependent on you figuring it out yourself, just as an in-game character muses about life ringing true for the game itself ‘You have to cut through the rocks to make a path’.
It’s hard, but worth it – for some.
For me on the other hand, rather than adding to the challenge of the title, it feels like you are wasting your time with it – and it’s positively frustrating. Getting stuck in a maze for hours on end and not being to escape, resetting in hopes that it might remove you from it, and then considering starting an entirely new save file just to avoid it again is not my idea of fun.
This type of gameplay was far less grating when getting a new video game was limited to birthdays as a kid, but with 20 years of advances and the digital age we are now spoilt for choice, and I simply have no patience for it. Funnily enough, if this was a modern 3D Open World game I would praise this feature to no end, as you would be forced to interact with the world around you and experience everything on offer, but Legend of Mana doesn’t have an awful lot of interaction at its disposal.
What it does have however is an impressive flexibility that allows you to amend the world around you. Acquiring special items allows you to spawn new areas in an empty map and these areas can interact with each other via their stats, even going as far as changing if amended significantly enough by the adjacent areas. It’s a nice touch, even by today’s standards giving you a feeling of a living breathing world.
In addition, you have the freedom to choose which quests you undertake and only need to complete fractions of three main story sections to reach the final section to complete the game. It’s a malleable experience that allows for different spins of the same dice over multiple playthroughs.
This is a double-edged sword though, as the story is largely sacrificed to achieve this freedom, making characters feel like a shadow of what they could have been with a fixed map and story, which personally, I would have been more in favor of. Without it, your adventures feel stunted, with quests that finish before they begin and minimal character interaction.
Interestingly one of the things that the original is best known for is its soundtrack, and it’s still fantastic, being one of the game’s few timeless aspects that any RPG would love to call their own. The variety of tracks can just as easily inspire you to ‘cut through the rocks’ as it does provide a nostalgic feeling of home. Having said that though, until recently I was of the opinion that a great soundtrack can raise the quality of a game, and potentially bring a game out of an average malaise with its emotive and atmospheric audio, but Legend of Mana might have just provided me with an example proving otherwise.
Mana series creator Koichi Ishii originally had even grander ideas for the project but ran out of time and budget and you can absolutely see the grand concepts at play here, but unfortunately, its actualization negatively affects the rest of what’s on offer. Even the visuals and the soundtrack’s best efforts are in vain, with the lack of consistent storytelling preventing a distinct atmosphere from being established and wasting attempts to endear you to the characters.
The remaster itself offers a few minor improvements that add to the experience such as the ability to turn off random battles, an updated soundtrack – as well as the ability to access the original’s from the main menu – and character art, but the biggest change is the HD upgrade of the backgrounds and aspect ratio. This, in theory, is a great idea, but in my opinion makes the same mistake that many HD remasters of older games make – the unadjusted original assets stick out like a sore thumb compared to the upgraded ones, in this case the 2D sprites against the new backgrounds, and it makes the previously lauded visuals look disjointed and out of place – especially on a large TV.
The original Legend of Mana is far from awful, but its unfulfilled potential probably would have been better served as a remake rather than a remaster. As ever patience and an online guide is mandatory to deal with its hands-off retro gameplay, but add the ‘improved’ visuals from the remaster and the title not only begins to show its age but does so less than gracefully – even if it is the ‘best’ version available.