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‘Legend of Mana’: A Mess of a Masterpiece

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“Cherish what you encounter in life.”
Legend of Mana (1999)

Legend of Mana is a convoluted game. One that throws its audience into the deep end and leaves them there. From there, it’s on the onus of the player to understand Legend of Mana. Which is an almost unreasonable request, admittedly. Legend of Mana is an action RPG with: interactive world building, a week system, nonlinear progression, multiple story arcs, crafting, monster raising, and not a single tutorial that ends up fleshing out the title’s many mechanics. The game simply expects the player to take their time and learn through trial and error. Legend of Mana wants players to cherish every little detail, for better and for worse. 

Legend of Mana feels very bold in that regard. It wears its eccentricities with pride, putting its oddest elements forward. The player’s first real act is creating a part of the world, not combat. That alone sets the tone well for the rest of the game. The title’s priority isn’t in action, but in meditation. This isn’t to say combat doesn’t play an active role, but that Legend of Mana is more intent on creating a living, breathing world than it is offering audiences yet another Seiken Densetsu experience. 

For as great as Trials of Mana is, it also marked the third time in a row that the franchise had: told a story centered on the Sword of Mana, ended with the destruction of the Mana Tree, and left players feeling like they ultimately failed in their goals. Which isn’t necessarily a bad approach in a genre where the heroes are more often than not guaranteed to win, but it’s an approach that surely would not work a fourth time in a row. Which is why Legend of Mana intelligently goes the opposite direction altogether. 

The Sword of Mana plays an important role, but only at the very end of the game and never explicitly. The Mana Tree is already destroyed by the time the story begins, and the player’s goal is not to protect Mana, but to usher it back into the world. More importantly, Legend of Mana finally gives the franchise’s world a name: Fa’diel. It’s fitting then that the first game to name Fa’diel is also the only game to emphasize literal world building over combat. 

Legend of Mana
Fa’diel in all its glory.

While the prospect of giving the player a world to create isn’t necessarily unique, Legend of Mana posits a fairly cruel twist early on: the main character is only imagining the world. This ends up being one of the more interesting ways Legend of Mana ends up commenting on what was becoming Seiken Densetsu’s frankly rigid structure. More specifically, humanity’s lust for Mana. All three previous games ended with the Mana Tree’s destruction, and Mana leaving the world due to mankind’s actions. Taking place centuries after the last time the Mana Tree burnt down, Legend’s world is long over and the goal is not to truly rebuild, but to revisit Fa’diel’s memories. 

It should be noted that Legend of Mana is not an abandonment of Seiken Densetsu’s core concepts by any means. While it takes a far more inspired approach to the franchise than its predecessors, its design is very much rooted in the direction the series was going in. With each passing game, more focus was placed on nonlinear progression. Legend of Mana simply brings that philosophy to its zenith, allowing players to whatever they want whenever they want so long as they have the means to do so. 

Naturally, this results in an RPG that can feel aimlessly overwhelming at times. As previously mentioned, the player’s first act is creating Fa’diel itself, but the task itself is anything but simple. Players are made to a select a 6×6 grid on a massive map where they’ll then be spending the rest of the story mode gradually building up Fa’diel. Where a new location is placed ends up playing a major role as each area has their own set of Mana that can affect the areas around them. Quests, shops, droppable items, and enemy levels are only directly affected by the map system. Something Legend of Mana does not make clear. 

At the same time, there’s a very clear reason why Legend of Mana keeps mum on this information: it’s not the point. The map system is meant to reward players who take the time to learn how the Mana system works, how different areas affect one another. The intent is to make the player immerse themselves in the role as a grand creator, to the point where audiences are bound to forget that the game is just in their imagination. Although logic dictates that conveying information clearly should be every developer’s firstmost priority, Legend of Mana is so committed to its central premise that it refuses to stray the course, even for convenience purpose. 

Such an approach can be naturally damning— and in some respects it is— but Legend of Mana is designed around its deliberate lack of information. To say this approach works in the title’s favor might seem bold, but it’s the honest to goodness truth. Legend of Mana would lose much of its personal flavor if it were any clearer with information. This, of course, leads to an RPG that’ll be hard to digest for most audiences, but it also lends itself to a richer experience overall. 

There’s value in slowly understanding the inner workings of Legend of Mana, especially when coupled with the idea that Fa’diel as the player creates is only a dead world’s last lingering memories. With this in mind, it’s only natural the player need to discover everything on their own accord. Legend of Mana also makes use a New Game Plus system where the difficulty can (and should) be raised upon a new cycle. In truth, the game takes after titles like Devil May Cry when it comes to difficulty. The experience really isn’t over until No Future mode is over and done with. By that point, however, players should have naturally built up a better understanding of Legend of Mana’s mechanical and narrative concepts. 

All things considered, it’s a rather jarring approach to a series that always opted for more character driven plots. Legend of Mana is more conceptual, more thematic. At the same time, characters are far more fleshed out than they’ve ever been. It’s not unusual for even the smallest of characters to have some degree of depth or nuance to them. The more open ended approach to progression means that multiple characters have their own isolated story arcs or side quests where they’re the main focus. In a plot driven game like Secret of Mana, this approach might be awkward, but Legend of Mana thrives off it. 

Specifically through its three major story arcs: the Faerie arc, the Dragon Emperor arc, and the Jumi arc. Trials of Mana played with the idea of multiple story arcs in a single game, but its approach meant that players could only experience on arc per playthrough. Legend of Mana not only allows players to play through all three arcs in a single game cycle, they can be completed in any order whatsoever. Better yet, while the three major arcs are self contained plot-wise, they’re all thematically relevant to the game as a whole. 

Legend of Mana

Despite being the first game in the series to feature a silent protagonist, Legend of Mana has a far stronger story than any other entry in the franchise. Cleverly recontextualized as the embodiment of love, the Mana Tree is finally given its raison d’etre. Where previous games used Mana as a mystical force of energy, Legend of Mana twists Mana into something tangible and clearly understandable. More importantly, love as a concept is intelligently expanded on within each arc. The Faerie arc focuses on romantic love, the Dragon Emperor arc focuses on familial love, and the Jumi arc focuses on platonic love. As a result, audiences are shown a more nuanced understanding of love without being bogged down by a script that runs itself in circles. 

Just about every side quest focused on a different side of love, whether it be a family’s love, a partner’s love, the pursuit of love, or the complete absence of love. As far as love goes, Legend of Mana is one of the most thematically cohesive video games of all time. It certainly helps that the script is far and away the series’ best, both in terms of general writing and localization. Similarly to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Legend of Mana places an emphasis on NPC’s lives. With a silent protagonist leading the way, it’s important for the side characters to fill the void and develop meaningfully. While some characters end up more fleshed out than others, all the story arc relevant characters come out as some of Seiken Densetsu’s best. 

Escad may be a hero trying to get revenge on the demon Irwin, but he’s also a blatant racist who can’t comprehend that a human might love a demon. Elazul is presented as almost manipulative and cruel, but it’s made clear that his interpretation of love is keeping the people he cares for safe even at the expense of their individuality. Larc positions himself as a proud warrior in control of his destiny, but it’s ultimately revealed that he’s not only insecure about his own abilities, he’s seemingly been living in his sister’s shadow for ages. Legend of Mana takes its time to ensure that the main cast is anything but flat. Even the most minor of NPCs end up having some layer of depth to their character.

That said, for as strong the story and character writing is, it is difficult to actually make progress at times. This can result in Legend of Mana feeling needlessly obtuse, especially in the midst of a story arc. There’s nothing like spinning the wheels of a story arc only to realize that reaching the next step is much more time consuming than it initially seems. This method to story progression has likely, and understandably, halted many the playthrough. 

Of course, in a generation where information is readily available at all times, it’s by no means unreasonable to consult a guide for Legend of Mana. It’s a very complicated RPG, after all, and most players will naturally be eager to not only make progress but to dive into the title’s richer mechanics. Weapon/armor forging and tempering in particular are incredibly difficult to understand at first, but with a guide to lead the way the workshop very quickly becomes one of the most engaging areas in-game. In fact, weapon forging and tempering becomes downright necessary for the higher difficulties. Should a player transition into No Future without understanding how the system works, they’ll be forced to check a guide just to stay alive. 

That said, it is worth mentioning that this free for all approach to game design does make Legend of Mana one of the best RPGs to just adventure in. Every area is designed to have a clear, distinct purpose. While players may not find a new quest at every turn, they’ll either better understand Fa’diel’s rich lore or acquire some new item or monster. Casually adventuring is one of the best ways to take advantage of the game’s Pet mechanic, a system which allows players to find eggs, hatch them, and raise monsters to battle alongside them. 

This is to say nothing of how well Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack meshes with Shinichi Kameoka’s art design. Legend of Mana’s hand painted backgrounds are simply sublime with Kameoka taking an almost watercolor approach to the game’s aesthetics. The art ensures that each location has a clear visual identity. While the track placement does end up falling back on a few go-to songs, Legend of Mana is arguably Shimomura’s best work, eclipsing her work on the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Shimomura’s score feels fresh, inspired, and at times even unsettling— perfect for a game as fresh and unsettling as Legend of Mana

If there’s one flaw that sticks out like a sore thumb, it’s Legend of Mana’s difficulty. A big reason why No Future feels necessary for the experience as a whole is because of how pitifully easy Normal mode can be. While it starts promising enough, the difficulty curve is basically non-existent in Normal, likely to ensure that players don’t make the game too hard on themselves due to faulty map placements. On one hand, that’s a very thoughtful consideration to make in a title that’s otherwise fairly unhelpful. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be possible to kill the final boss in a single hit. 

Legend of Mana

That said, the higher difficulties really do help Legend of Mana’s combat shine as it has arguably the best battle system in the franchise. A side scrolling action RPG with a Y-axis, getting used to moving around and attacking efficiently takes some time, but the core battle mechanics are incredibly fun to play around with. While the main character can’t pick their stats ala Final Fantasy Adventure or Trials of Mana, weapons actively influence stat growth per level. Paired with the return of multiple weapon types from Secret of Mana, and there’s a lot of build variety to experiment with. 

Abilities also play a role, allowing the play character to actually block and dodge mid-battle. If that weren’t enough, players can learn new abilities by pairing them together. By using Defend and Lunge, players can learn Defensive Lunge, an ability which allows them to dodge while also defending enemy attacks. Weapons have their own techniques as well, and new techniques can be learned by pairing certain abilities with certain weapon types. Using a sword with the crouch ability, players can learn the Rising Sun technique. Every single weapon has at least ten different learnable techniques, giving players an endless amount of variety in combat. 

No Future helps the combat shine in a way that Normal doesn’t. Since enemies have insanely high health pools in this mode, the player has to really dive into the core battle mechanics. It’s important to learn how to weave in and out of battle while also cutting combos short in order to fill up the special meter for more techniques. High level play ends up surprisingly fast and in-depth as a result. Bosses that were mindless on Normal pose genuine challenges on No Future. That said, even No Future can’t save Legend of Mana from its most glaring flaw: the level design. 

When it comes down to it, getting lost in Legend of Mana isn’t a possibility— it’s a given. For as beautifully realized as the world visually is, this does result in dungeons that end up difficult to traverse. While each screen has their own set of landmarks, it’s easy to get disoriented in a single location. Fa’diel’s emphasis on realistic world building means that stages are perhaps too cohesive for their own good. Multiple screens realistically blend in and out of one another, potentially tricking players into believing they aren’t making any progress. This is especially frustrating to deal with in Gato Grottoes’ cavern dungeon where every room looks frustratingly similar. 

Legend of Mana

However, it’s this very approach that best exemplifies Legend of Mana’s best qualities. It commits to its concepts in spite of itself. Legend of Mana is content in being an at times frustrating experience if it means Fa’diel ends up more cohesive as a result. Similarly, Legend of Mana is willing to keep players in the dark so that the essence of discovery is never lost. The gaming medium has a level of interactivity exclusive to itself. All art can make its audiences feel, but only a game can give audiences the feeling of control and the emotions that come with it. 

Legend of Mana is a game about being in control at all times. It’s a game about allowing the player the freedom to do whatever they want, even if it means abandoning Fa’diel mid-dream. Legend of Mana understands its medium to a fault. In embracing those faults, however, Seiken Densetsu is able to pivot into one of the most eclectic and meaningful titles to release on the original PlayStation. After three games of refining the same concepts over and over again, Legend of Mana offers a fresher approach to not only the franchise, but the genre. It is at times messy, but always beautifully so. 

As strange as it might sound, there is value in playing a video game so overtly flawed. What value is there in playing an RPG that leaves audiences frustrated and confused? The value of creating a world without any guidance. The value of exploring a world without any direction. The value of meeting the incomprehensible on its own terms. It all links back to how the game presents love. One can’t be guided towards love. Love is directionless and incomprehensible. At the same time, meeting love on its own terms will naturally allow someone to better understand what it means to love. For better and for worse, every aspect of Legend of Mana’s design is tied around the same core principals: love, freedom, and freedom of love. 

Legend of Mana wants its audience to cherish what they encounter, not just in the game, but in life. Fa’diel is a reflection of the real world. It has dozens of races because Earth has dozens of races. Love is depicted maturely because love is a mature concept that deserves more than just a secondhand mention. The game can feel aimless because life itself is often aimless. It’s an RPG that’s almost painfully difficult to understand at times, messy to a fault. In many respects, Legend of Mana is a mess; but it’s also a beautiful, somber RPG about not just love, but life. Legend of Mana breaks some of the simplest rules of game design, but it does so knowing that even a masterpiece can, and sometimes should, be a mess. Imperfection is the essence of expression, and few games are as meaningfully expressive as Legend of Mana

Legend of Mana

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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