Legend of Mana is a weird game. It comes out of what was, in retrospect, a pretty neat era in developer Squaresoft’s history: the unprecedented success of Final Fantasy VII gave them the capital to do whatever they wanted, and they decided to throw a lot of it at all these eccentric, experimental titles that filled the spaces in between subsequent Final Fantasies (and even Final Fantasy VIII wound up being an oddball by series standards).
Sure, a lot of them – Legend of Mana included – were a hot mess, but they were the sort of mess that could be deeply affecting if you were willing to engage with it on its own terms.
LoM had the odds stacked against it in this regard, as it happened to belong to the beloved Seiken Densetsu series: a lot of people in North America loved Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3), and were really miffed when Square decided to not localize Seiken Densetsu 3 in favor of a NA-exclusive title, Secret of Evermore. So I’d imagine that a lot of western fans saw Seiken Densetsu: Legend of Mana as the title that would finally give them the SoM followup that they wanted. But instead the game threw out most of the series’ tradition in favor of being a bizarre beat-em-up/table-top game fusion. Thus there were a lot of hurt feelings, tears, etc. And everyone generally agrees that the series fell apart after that, and, adding insult to injury, Seiken Densetsu 3 has never officially left Japan.
But I only played SoM for about 5 minutes as a kid, and so I had few expectations for LoM to dash. I loved it, but I also felt totally baffled by it, sinking many aimless hours into it. Eventually I just burned out.
As an adult, however, I feel I have the patience and know-how to fully appreciate LoM for what it wants to be, and to perhaps even cross the finish line.
LoM is very upfront about its artifice. The world starts off completely empty, and you’re given a relic – an item which can become a location if you place it on the map – which gives you a house. Then you get another relic, which allows you to place an adjacent town, and so forth. The world is being created by you as you explore it, and the game never asks any suspension of disbelief about it all, with one of the characters even saying that the whole thing is just make-believe. It’s all underlined by the stylized, hand-drawn storybook aesthetic.
There’s perhaps a minute of exposition sketching out what seems to be the backstory for an epic fantasy adventure. But after that minute is up, the plot is entirely ignored in favor of various episodic, nonlinear quests that take up the bulk of the game. Some of the quests are dramatic, some are silly, and some are just bizarre. It’s a bit like reading the opening lines of Paradise Lost only to turn the page and find that you’re actually reading the Canterbury Tales.
LoM has been heavily criticized for not having much of a plot, but I find that to be more of a feature than a bug. The essential charm of the game comes from exploring the surreal world and its denizens, occasionally becoming the supporting player for someone else’s storyline. LoM is really “about” it’s world, more than anything else.
It would have been easy to spin some tedious, obscurantist metaphysical melodrama around LoM’s setting, and I imagine it must have taken considerable restraint for Squaresoft of all developers to avoid this.
It’s a very, very pretty game, both visually and aurally. I adore the character design, especially. Like Suikoden II, it’s a good example of the glories of post-16 bit sprite work.
The quests and storylines are all over the place. There’s the standard, “let’s go kill that thing!” bunch, alongside with more bizarre ones. Like the one where I had to learn a conlang to sell lamps to dogs in order to keep two lovers together.
When you’re not interacting with the NPCs, you’re usually engaging in some pretty mindless, button-mashing battles (featuring finicky hit detection). But in spite of the apparent simplicity of the combat the various sub-systems are pretty arcane and still somewhat elusive to me. Indeed, it seems like half of the game’s mechanics exist as a sort of black box that fans have spent the past 17 years mapping out. I’m still not sure exactly how important all of this is in the long run.
I suspect a lot of this is the influence of producer Akitoshi Kawazu, a man who specializes in RPGs that require doctoral-level work in order to completely grasp.
In a way, though, that kinda fits with LoM’s aesthetic. If the game is about itself, then tinkering with its baroque mechanics would be just as much a part of the meaning as its weird, DIY setting.