It’s interesting to see how the Mana series has been treated over the years, both by Square and the general public. Secret of Mana was widely considered one of the best RPGs of its time and even today carries quite a bit of clout, but many of the other titles either didn’t get localized or arrived overseas years after their initial release. Legend of Mana—the fourth entry in the series—was one of the earliest to be localized, but it was met upon release with middling reception. Now, over twenty years later, and following on from 2019’s Collection of Mana and the Trials of Mana remake the following year, Square has finally seen fit to bring this misfit classic back into the light, and while many aspects of it still hold up, it is unmistakably a very weird game.
The narrative of Legend of Mana is… confusing, to say the least. You begin as a nameless, self-insert character, and you’re tasked with effectively creating the world as you explore it. The story goes that the legendary Mana Tree burned down centuries before the events of Legend of Mana and the world of Fa’Diel was subsequently broken up into fragments called “Artifacts” which were then scattered. Broadly speaking, there are three ‘arcs’ to the story, but they can be experienced in any order you choose and are each comprised of a series of sidequests that can also be played in a very loose order.
Considering this non-linear approach, it’s certainly advised that you approach Legend of Mana with an open mind. If you come into this expecting a typical RPG story (or even a ‘normal’ story in general), you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Legend of Mana plays more like a collection of loosely connected fairytales all set in the same world, connected to each other in various thematic ways. And while you can tease out a ‘main’ quest over time, it’s so esoteric and airy that it could hardly be described as gripping. That’s not to say the storytelling is weak, however, as topics like love, war, genocide, and persecution are all explored in ways that can be shockingly hard-hitting.
Gameplay is much the same in its structure, which is to say that it’s often hard to grasp and poorly explained, but not necessarily low quality. The basic loop consists of placing “Lands” on various nodes of the world grid, which then allows you to enter that land and interact with any towns or dungeons that might be contained within. Every Land has at least one quest for you to fulfill, and most quests will award you with at least one new Artifact to place a new Land and repeat the cycle. As you can probably guess, this means that there’s quite a bit of player agency to toy around with. The flipside to this, however, is that there is next to no direction about what to do next.
Some quests are good about pointing you in the right direction, while others give only the vaguest of suggestions as to where you should go. In the latter case, it can then be quite frustrating when you basically have to trial and error your way through until you finally find the NPC you needed to speak with to get things moving again. This is by design, of course, as it’s clear the developers want to encourage you to engage with more of the world and really dig in, rather than simply sprinting from point A to B as efficiently as possible. Still, those of you who don’t have the patience for this more hands-off approach to quest design will find that Legend of Mana can more often than not be a challenging experience to parse.
Similarly, this isn’t exactly a game that we’d recommend to completionists, as there’s plenty of missable content along the way that you can unknowingly lock yourself out of if you don’t have a guide open on another screen. Again, this is by design, as it’s clear that Legend of Mana expects you to play through multiple times via new game plus if you want to see all that it has to offer. Not only are branching paths and dialogue options plentiful among the dozens of quests here, but the order in which you complete quests and place new Lands also affects the kind of content you can engage with later. This isn’t strictly a good or a bad thing, but it is at the very least an interesting one.
Of all things, combat is probably the most straightforward aspect of Legend of Mana. Enemies roam the map in dungeons and can trigger a live-action encounter that takes place right there. Once in battle, things feel a bit like an upgraded take on a beat ‘em up, as you string together myriad combos and special attacks to lay waste to your foes. If you have a friend nearby, you can also have them hop in and take control of one of your many party members, which can add a fun dimension of co-op to the experience.
The main issue, however, is that it’s rather clear that this title released a couple decades ago. The mechanics of the combat are good, but actually executing these moves feels quite rigid and clunky, which can make the moment-to-moment action feel sub-par. Now, the Mana series was one of the first notable examples of live combat in an RPG, so it’s hard to expect too much out of a pioneer, but it’s tough to look past the flaws when many years of iteration in other games have vastly improved upon this foundation. Combat is certainly playable and still fun, but we’d advise you to manage your expectations coming into it.
In case you haven’t yet gathered, Legend of Mana is consistently and amazingly strange in how it presents itself, but perhaps this is where our main criticism of the experience lies: it’s far too opaque for its own good. There’s nothing wrong with turning RPG tradition on its head and trying bold new ideas, but it’s critical that a game teaches the player about those ideas. Case in point, your stat growth via leveling up is strongly tied to whatever weapon you use most, but the player is never told how or to what extent. Outside of reading detailed guides from the internet, you basically just have to fumble along and hope that you aren’t making things needlessly difficult for yourself down the line when the enemies start hitting back harder. Legend of Mana is full of things like this, which can lead to a bizarrely disappointing experience when you realize hours later that you’ve been doing something wrong or completely missed a semi-important part of the gameplay loop.
One thing that’s impossible to miss, however, is the stellar audiovisual presentation Legend of Mana has to offer. Despite using pre-rendered background for most of the maps, it’s hard not to be awestruck by the thoroughly detailed vistas you explore. Whether it be a sprawling castle town or a lush jungle, the environments are colorful and positively packed with all manner of tiny things that make the world feel like a ‘lived-in’ place. This is all strongly supported by the similarly whimsical soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, whose gentle and fantastical style perfectly matches the fairytale aesthetic here.
We feel it also needs to be mentioned that port developer M2 has done what it can to make this feel like the definitive version of this classic. Alongside the remastered soundtrack and touched up visuals, little quality of life things like the inclusion of autosave or the option to toggle enemy encounters on and off help to make Legend of Mana feel a little less dated. There’s even the Ring Ring Land mini-game thrown in, which was previously exclusive to the dinky Japan-only PocketStation peripheral.
While there’s no mistaking this version of Legend of Mana for a full on remake à la the recent Trials of Mana, this is nonetheless easily the best way to play this game now.
It’s easy to see why this was such a polarizing title upon release. There’s a lot to love here, but Legend of Mana can be tiring in how much it likes to play ‘hard to get’. All the ingredients and individual pieces of a strong, impressively innovative RPG are present, but it feels like the developers simply tossed all these ideas in a bag and shook it vigorously, rather than taking the time to lay out all those ideas in a coherent and curated fashion. We’d give this one a recommendation, but only to fans of the genre, specifically those who prefer more experimental titles. If that doesn’t describe you, there’s still a good chance you’ll find something to like about Legend of Mana, but just be aware it may be more of a mixed bag.
This post originally appeared on Nintendo Life | Reviews