Final Fantasy Legend (Collection of SaGa) Review (Switch)
Release Date: December 15, 2020
File Size: 219MB
Publisher: Square Enix
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In 1989, Square Enix (or simply “Square” at that time) was very much still in its infancy, but determined to deliver the very first RPG experience on the brand-new Game Boy console. That game would ultimately become Makai Toushi SaGa, better known as The Final Fantasy Legend here in the West. While technically the first SaGa title, it was rebranded in the West to better cash in on the Final Fantasy hype train at the time. And cash in it would, as it went on to be Square’s first million-selling title.
Having been remade and re-released a handful of times over the years, its inclusion in the Collection of SaGa would mark the first “new” release of the game in over 10 years in Japan, and over 20 years in the West. While I’m so appreciative that this game is now so readily available to franchise fans, as well as newcomers, it’s safe to say that it faces an uphill battle when it comes to leave a lasting impression on players in the modern era — at least in its current form.
The plot of Final Fantasy Legend is centered around the four unique worlds connected by a tower, all of which are the handiwork of the Creator. This god of the universe is said to reside at the top of the spire in a coveted realm known as Paradise. Mortal beings, by nature, are ambitious, and it wouldn’t be long before rumors of reaching Paradise would spur on many adventurers to climb the tower in hopes of reaching the supposed holy land. This is just a legend, however, as nobody has actually been able to experience it for themselves.
Now, a group of heroes – the player – assemble with their sights set on unlocking the secrets of the tower. But the question remains: will they find the supreme happiness they seek at the top, or will they discover something else entirely? Final Fantasy Legend is very much an infusion of “the grass isn’t always greener” adage with some biblical overtones; man questions their existence and sets out to scale a tower said to reach god itself, only to find that it may not be quite what they expected.
The Creator, in fact, sporadically appears to guide the team along the way, but this only fuels the suspicion: what are the god’s true motives; does man even have free will? Besides the premise, Final Fantasy Legend is actually light on actual story content. However, some dialogue and certain reveals along the way might fuel further speculation on the player’s part. After all, this is a game coming from an era which generally had very little, if any exposition due to hardware limitations. Either way, the setup is rather interesting and should be enough to push you through to its conclusion.
While Final Fantasy Legend is a traditional turn-based JRPG at heart – fight monsters, improve characters, and travel to different towns and areas – the SaGa brand has always thrown many genre conventions (notably with progression) out the window in favor of more unique, complex, and occasionally convoluted systems. Doubling down on ideas conceptualized by Final Fantasy II a year prior, Legend throws out the traditional experience point / leveling system to pave the way for a multi-faceted progression system based on the player’s chosen party makeup.
The player can build a party of four members, each of which can be from one of the following races: Human, Mutant, and Monster. Humans and Mutants can be either male or female, and all races have their own separate progression systems. Humans rely on performance-enhancing drugs and deep, deep coffers to improve most of their stats — I wish I was kidding. Mutant stat progression is handled in the now staple SaGa method of random, minor (but frequent) increases based on the actions they perform in combat, and can randomly learn (and forget) abilities over time.
Monsters follow their own path, instead relying on nourishment from the corpses of slain enemies in order to evolve and grow more powerful. While these nuances were easily discerned via the accompanying game manual back in the day, the Collection of SaGa version, unfortunately, doesn’t present this information to you at all, making it difficult for brand-new players to get a real grasp of what exactly makes progression tick. Furthermore, it feels like an extreme missed opportunity to have not made the original manuals accessible from inside the game, especially considering the package is part of the 30th anniversary of the series. Because of this omission (or oversight), there will most definitely be an additional, unnecessary hurdle for those not already “in the know.”
On the topic of hurdles, starting out in Final Fantasy Legend can actually be the most difficult task ahead of you depending on prior knowledge and party makeup. You are dropped into Base Town at the foot of the tower, with little more than some companions (after recruiting them at the local guild) and the clothes on your back. It is absolutely essential to play it safe in the early stages, as ignoring healing after even a single random encounter can spell disaster for your entire party until you’ve built up a base level of strength.
It still pays to be cautious even after that initial hump due to how punishing character deaths can be, though. Party members can be rendered permanently dead if you expend all of their hearts, of which they have three. While there are ways to combat perma-death, it is better to simply avoid dying altogether. SAVING is your best friend, and can be done any time from the main menu. It would have been nice to see additional save slots added with the Collection of SaGa package, but that is really only an issue in this first game (there are multiple slots available naturally in Legend II and III).
This extreme level of challenge does fade away rather quickly, then the game progresses much more smoothly and is more enjoyable thereafter. Although Final Fantasy Legend features a host of bosses that can be menacing in their own right, the consistent challenge lies surprisingly in the random encounters, which are frequent and rarely escapable. It is the kind of JRPG that requires smart use of resources and lots of grinding for progression. Intelligent resource usage plays a factor in both money and gear, as the former can be hard to come by while the latter has its own limitations.
Most weapons and abilities in the game use a charge (or durability) system. For weapons, items, and spellbooks, this means that they only have a set amount of uses before they are no longer usable. Abilities have charges too, but are recharged after using an Inn, even if they are completely expended out in the field. The potency factors of both weapons and abilities (ie. what improves their damage) are hidden, as well, so be sure to either reference a guide or simply experiment with equipment to find the pieces that best suit the strengths of each character.
This is easier said than done, though, for cash flow can be a whole other issue entirely for certain party compositions. Gear quickly becomes incredibly expensive, and one could easily make bad purchasing decisions considering there is no in-game reference to their performance values. A limited inventory system makes purchasing and hauling around stuff even more of a challenge. On top of that, the game does not remove key items from your inventory when they are no longer of use, leading many players to hold on to “dead items” for way longer than they should (thus eating even more into the limited inventory slots).
Overall, Final Fantasy Legend provides a rather by-the-numbers adventure despite boasting some impressively complex mechanics and progression systems, especially for such an old game. It goes without saying, though, that the absence of detailed explanations and certain obscure plot progression points – due to original limitations, developer oversight for this package specifically, or otherwise – will make this game far more difficult to approach without prior knowledge of mechanics, or again, an external guide. The game can absolutely be done completely blind, but expect some serious, frustrating hurdles should you choose to do so.
Final Fantasy Legend boasts a rather impressive visual package for a year-one Game Boy title. While slowly scaling the tower, the team will come across a traditional fantasy world with rolling hills and castles, an island-peppered oceanic world, a world with dwellings atop the clouds in the sky, and even an advanced, ruined world that’s now terrorized by fearsome beasts. Individual assets and character sprites are limited and frequently repurposed, but that is to be expected given both hardware limitations and a lack of development experience on the platform. Even with these limitations, it does a great job of providing unique and varied landscapes for the player to explore.
Before Kenji Ito would become a staple in the SaGa franchise, longtime Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu would be tasked with composing for Final Fantasy Legend. Never settling for anything less than perfection, Uematsu orchestrates a soundtrack that helps bring the world to life despite innate limitations. The tower theme does an excellent job of conveying the seemingly insurmountable task of “climbing a tower to god” from an audio perspective, while the ominous dungeon tune will send chills down your spine, especially if you can take advantage of audio panning with headphones or a surround sound system.
Having the Final Fantasy Legend trilogy easily accessible in the modern era is a huge boon from both a consumer and historical perspective, but more could have been done to make this entry in particular more palatable for the average player. The background skins and speed-up toggle are great, but an in-game reference or manual would have made the many ill-defined mechanics a whole lot easier to process.
The original game shipped with a color manual that described these nuances to new players, and a digitized version of that here would have been wonderful for both nostalgia seekers and newcomers alike. That’s not to say that the game is impossible without a guide, but its age, technical limitations, and certain design decisions have not done it any favors when viewed under a modern lens. And if you’re a brand-new player, good luck figuring everything out without some sort of reference. All that aside, Final Fantasy Legend is still a fairly entertaining adventure once you get over the initial difficulty hump, but should still be considered a mere prelude to the vastly superior SaGa entries that would follow shortly thereafter.