Legend of Mana Review (Switch)
Square Enix have treated Nintendo Switch fans quite well over the past few years. Despite my recent pleas for more retro Final Fantasy support – please put the upcoming pixel remasters of I-VI on Switch! – they have released quite a few games on the Switch, including a Legend of Mana remaster. Having just wrapped up the excellent remaster of SaGa Frontier a few weeks ago, I was primed and ready to dive into this PS1-era Mana adventure.
Originally released in North America in 2000, Legend of Mana was received with a mixed to moderately positive reception at launch, with most outlets citing the game’s presentation as it’s most praiseworthy feature (and rightly so). It was undeniably ambitious for its time, with many unique features that were perhaps not as technically feasible (or well thought out) as they could have been. As a fan of SaGa, flaws and all, I’m okay with that in theory, but Legend of Mana as a remaster ultimately shines light on its most dilapidated parts rather than making them better. Simply put, the game could have benefitted from a remake over a remaster.
Legend of Mana is easily one of the more unique entries in the Mana series thanks to its free-form narrative system; no doubt a byproduct of Akihiko Matsui and Akitoshi Kawazu – both key players in the SaGa series – playing a part in its development. Instead of following a primary arc with a traditional structure, focused around a singular character and their companions, Legend of Mana puts players in the boots of an unnamed protagonist (male or female) that primarily plays the role of an active bystander across numerous mini-arcs. Of course, there is some backstory surrounding conflict and a Mana Tree – it wouldn’t be a Mana game without it – but that is only really relevant at the beginning and end of the adventure.
These bite-sized journeys eventually lead to an event focused more around the “hero,” but the majority of time is spent observing (and acting within) other people’s tales rather than building on their own. While it is undoubtedly refreshing not having many traditional hero tropes at play, the depth of these mini-arcs and the eventual path to a somewhat overarching conclusion are not overwhelmingly interesting. Legend of Mana clearly leverages its free-form narrative system to push a more aimless tale led by your decisions, and while it does that well, it doesn’t do enough to make most of the characters and events all that memorable.
As the unnamed “hero” of the world, you begin with a clean “world slate” where you must place individual zones (via artifacts) on a grid-based world map. Each placed artifact will create a new area that can be explored, usually in the form of a dungeon or village. Individual artifacts carry certain mana properties, which may have an impact on the behavior of certain zones, the potency of spells used in those areas, and also may be key to unlocking everything in a single playthrough.
As you delve deeper into many of the game’s mechanics – including this – it becomes clear that there is a lot of nuance that just isn’t explained all that well; almost as if you’re playing a SaGa game! Consider having a guide handy if you’re worried about missing something. Otherwise, place your artifacts wherever you want – that’s what I did, anyway.
At the heart of the world lies your humble abode, which not only will provide respite when needed, but will also become a host of an assortment of goodies and mini-games over time based on how you tackle the world and its problems. You can get access to a monster corral (pet raising), an orchard (for fruit), an instrument workshop (for crafting items used in magic, among other uses), a smithy (weapons and armor), and even a golem-creation laboratory! While the basics of all these systems are explained to an extent, those looking to dive deeper may have some trouble deciphering all their intricacies without resorting to an external guide.
Venturing outside of the hero’s four walls opens up opportunities for an assortment of quests that are key to discovering new artifacts that can then build out the world even more. Some areas may only be useful in a single quest, while others may be visited multiple times in order to fulfill an assortment of objectives. The severity of dangers that await the hero will depend on the area’s relation to the hero’s home, with land masses the furthest away naturally presenting more of a challenge than those just outside of friendly territory. Even still, the game features a relatively low level of difficulty despite the scaling at play, but completing the game once and starting a NG+ run will unlock two additional difficulty settings that will test your mettle.
Legend of Mana’s combat system, unfortunately, is neither engaging nor interesting, and is my main argument for the need of a remake over a remaster. The hero has access to two sets of skills, abilities and techniques, with the former primarily focused on utility and the latter focusing more on pure offense. Both abilities and techniques are gradually learned over time, and can then be assigned to certain buttons on the controller for easy use.
While weapon techniques are relatively straightforward to learn, abilities take a bit more effort as you have to experiment with different combinations in order to unlock new ones. Ultimately, both of these systems work in tandem since certain weapon techniques do require specific utility abilities to be unlocked first.Having six different skills in addition to a standard combo-able melee swing sounds efficient on paper, especially in the context of a 20-year-old action RPG. The problem is that nothing has changed under the hood to improve the pacing of combat – it feels slow, awkward, and unresponsive. Weapon techniques and magic take ages to execute due to their Dragon Ball-like charge-up times that often result in missed attacks.
Items cannot be used in combat (save for the couple restoratives naturally found in combat), and companion AI is not adjustable at all (unless you have a second local player control them, which will undoubtedly make for a better experience). You have to scramble to pick up EXP and items before they expire, and if you’re playing with AI, you’ll have to compete with them over some of it. In short, everything is just a mess. It’s clear that, if anything, the combat system was in dire need of some changes, or at least some tweaks to make it perform a little more appropriately by today’s standards. In its current form, it gets tedious very quickly and makes the new encounter toggle the unfortunate standout feature of combat. Get the most out of combat by avoiding it entirely!
Pivoting to some more positive aspects, the hero can team up with two companions at once, one support (usually by quests) and one pet (via the monster corral or golem station). As alluded to earlier, a second player can jump in and assume the role of the support companion, but some additional coordination is necessary to insure smooth progression. Since EXP is dropped on the ground and can be shared between the hero and their companions, this can cause some issues.
Pets will retain EXP and levels gained through combat (and can also be raised through mini-games at the corral), but the temporary support companions will have their levels adjusted (scaled somewhat to the game world’s level) if they leave/return to the party. Basically, you are wasting time trying to level up support companions on your own…but they can still take EXP from you. This is yet another flawed system that just needed some adjustments.
To put it simply, Legend of Mana just isn’t that fun to play. Although it boasts an impressive amount of features, none of them are executed or explained well and they all could have used some love and care. While the new (to the West) Ring Ring Land mini-game tied to the monster corral is kind of interesting from a historical perspective, it quickly wears thin from a gameplay standpoint. Legend of Mana’s most heinous and unfortunate crime, though, is just how poorly the combat system has aged. And the truth is that it could have been vastly improved with only a few tweaks (better balancing, less charge-up time on abilities, snappier performance, and toggleable AI EXP pickups).
Presentation and Performance
Twenty years ago, Legend of Mana was universally praised for its exceptional pixel art, beautiful hand-drawn backdrops, and amazing soundtrack. All of this still rings true to this very day, but there are a couple of caveats with this version. The decision to only enhance/sharpen the backdrops is an odd one, since it tends to clash a bit with the original pixelated forms of the sprites. Although I’m thankful that they didn’t opt for one of those terrible sprite filters that have marred countless modern re-releases of RPG classics, I can’t help but feel that it would have been better to simply adjust the backdrops to accommodate newer resolutions, and nothing more.
The general performance doesn’t fare that well. The “remaster” suffix of Legend of Mana is repeatedly tested through frequent dips in framerate, occasional crashes (auto saves are handy here), and a puzzling decision to maintain the original 30FPS design cap. All of these issues may have been present in the original release (I honestly can’t remember), but why wouldn’t they have been fixed in the remaster either way?
What isn’t cause for concern, however, is the game’s soundtrack, which allows you to switch between the original composition and a newly arranged version at any time (both are exceptional)! While Secret and Trials composer Hiroki Kikuta is absent this time around, Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Parasite Eve, Super Mario RPG, etc.) picks up the baton with finesse and without hesitation, creating some tunes that are sure to stick with you well after the credit have rolled. Overall, despite some performance woes, as well as some questionable design decisions, Legend of Mana looks and sounds as impressive as ever.
Legend of Mana is a prime example of a game in need of a remake, not a remaster. While it is aesthetically pleasing, core mechanics are in dire need of rejuvenation, especially when viewed under a modern lens. While I’m a huge supporter of remakes and remasters in general, they don’t always hit their mark and that is certainly the case here. Regardless, the Legend of Mana remaster may still be worth your time if you don’t mind its hiccups and clearly outdated core.