At one point in Legend of Mana I visit a city where all of the students have boycotted school. The professors continued to teach an empty classroom while all of the children wandered the city, each having their own reasons for truancy. One student in particular put it the most succinctly by saying “When I have a good dream I like to skip school and go for a walk.” Legend of Mana is one of those games where I feel it is better to let the game lead you along, leaving yourself free to make your own adventure.
All too often when somebody picks up an older game (especially an RPG) they feel obligated to sift through mountains of guides in order to get every last side-quest, piece of equipment, and master every ability and tactic. At this point the player is probably better off making a shopping list or finding tasks around the house they can put that surplus of productivity towards. I shouldn’t dare mention the possibility that the player will miss some item or bit of dialogue that would render their game “incomplete”. This nature of gaming is ultimately self-destructive as videogames somehow become ruined because the player wasn’t following a guide to the letter.
Legend of Mana is a challenging case because the storyline is not something we have come to expect. In any good adventure it is all about the journey and not the destination so it is little wonder that players will find themselves disappointed if all they want to know is what happens in the end. In the beginning the Mana tree, the source of all power and emotion, is destroyed and its remnants lost to time and war. As a hero or heroine the player re-creates the world and eventually restores the Mana tree to its former glory. That’s the extent of it really. In fact it’s fair to say I just spoiled the ending for everyone who hasn’t played the game. The motives of the hero are never explained, there are no discussions involving the heroine’s past or how much she loved her daddy, and you can bet that the protagonists will play third-party to almost every situation. They’re also not very talkative so don’t expect much in the way of conversation.
The storylines in Legend of Mana are found in the 67 quests that the player can accept over the course of the game. New quests are commonly discovered when new lands have been created. These new lands are created through the usage of artifacts, which are typically awarded upon completion of quests. It’s a cycle that has been a part of the RPG genre since the dawn of time but it’s not usually so blatant. In other games killing all of the monsters in a cave would likely cause the guard at the bridge to move away, leaving the path open for the player to reach a new land with new tasks. In this game somebody hands you an object, you place it on the world-map, and suddenly you have a new town or dungeon to explore. The stories can be commonly described as poignant. Some are sweet, others bittersweet, and some are even just plain sour. There are those times when a quest is resolved and all that is gained is a feeling of emptiness. “Why did things go this way? Did it really matter? Should I have even bothered?” Chances are good that you’ll find yourself dissatisfied with the results of a number of quests and in a way it adds to the appeal of this game. Some quests are part of a larger storyline and it’s up to the player whether they want to continue forward or leave things as they are. There are three main storyline paths to follow and once at least one of those is finished the way opens to the final dungeon.
The game itself is an action-RPG which…well…let me just break it down. All you really need to do is hit the X button until the enemy you’re hitting keels over and coughs up experience gems or items. It’s perfectly acceptable to beat this game with the absolute bare minimum of strategy, even if that means ignoring the hundreds of skills and weapons that can be attained. If you want to read a guide there’s probably some explanations on how to attain the best weapon or which abilities are the most useful but that sort of thing is likely only necessary for the two harder difficulties that unlock upon completion of the game. The default setting of this game is so easy that the player should have no problems experimenting with every weapon and ability to find something that suits their style of play, or to just mess around and maybe have a bit of fun.
I can’t stress this enough. This game will become a lot less entertaining if the player spends their first play-through buried in a guide to figure out the tons of sub-systems that go into this game. The combat is exceedingly simplistic but weapon-creation, animal-raising, golem-building, tree-farming, and even the placement of artifacts on the world-map have a guide or three tied to them. A playthrough that doesn’t involve any of the optional aspects of the game will probably run just north of ten hours. At this point the only difference that comes from a guide-based playthrough will be that all of the numbers will be higher.
This is all tempered by the chance that the player can easily miss some important quests. Legend of Mana isn’t very good at pointing out when quests are available and sometimes giving the wrong answer in certain situations will lock the player out of a world-changing event. This is a very bad thing as it means the player is all but required to consult a guide as the potential for getting stuck is fairly high. Furthermore this is like sneaking a peak inside Pandora’s Box. In the worst-case scenario the spoiler-free guide that tells the player where to go next to trigger a quest will lead to a complete explanation of the weapon-building system and before long the entire game is laid bare. Underneath the gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds and the whimsical and surreal characters lies one of the most infuriatingly complex games in Squaresoft’s library and the people who tamed this beast and lived to write a guide about it probably climbed mountains in their spare time. I can not stress this enough. Use this first playthrough to ignore the machinations that hold the game together and do your best to enjoy what lies on the surface.