This time, we plant the tree
Squaresoft was having a hell of a time designing Mana games back in the day.
I was a simple child: I saw a Mana game (or an Evermore!), I rented it and tried it. In the year 2000, I remember picking up Legend of Mana and being thoroughly confused, then slowly understanding it, and coming to love it. I got to relive that feeling 21 years later and it’s been a delight.
First, a bit of background to make sense of some of the whimsical entropy.
A long time ago, the various races of Fa’Diel battled in the wake of a burned Mana Tree (a font of life), and some civilizations were smushed into artifacts. It’s up to you, as a man or a woman hero (your choice), to collect said artifacts, and rebuild the entire world as you see fit.
Legend of Mana was very much a product of its era, when JRPGs like Dark Cloud were experimenting with “worldbuilding” and player choice. No matter how you approach it, there is a Mega Man-esque “end” to the narrative, no matter how you choose to snake through the labyrinth. But ultimately, the lack of direction and the open-ended nature in which to approach everything helps Legend of Mana stand out from the pack, even today.
Again, you’re wandering around this new world yourself, trying to make sense of it amid a very simple combat system and plenty of charming dialogue and character interactions. The flow of Legend of Mana involves the player character typically exploring a town, finding a questing companion (which can be controlled by another player), then heading into a dungeon. After completion, you’ll earn at least one artifact (if not more), which then unlocks a new “main quest,” amid other NPC interactions, and so on. But it’s not always so cut and dried.
Sometimes quests involve conversation puzzles, or pure exploration. And you probably should lean into the journey, because that’s where Legend of Mana really shines. It still looks lovely with or without a remake, but the enhanced resolution does do it favors. The backgrounds are absolutely stunning, and it’s a treat to unlock a new artifact/land just to see how the art team is going to handle it. There are also some pretty insanely weird creatures and characters that only this game can deliver on.
It’s also still going to be polarizing 20 years later. Legend of Mana is likely going to face the same criticisms as Octopath Traveler, in that things mostly feel loosely related, or completely isolated. It doesn’t have a grand villain that makes itself known early on, and even the main questline isn’t really in your face.
But to some, that’s a plus. It certainly is for me, having seen two decades of games follow the same tropes over and over. I think over time, people have come to love this little gem and appreciate it more.
If you crave an intricate combat system, Legend of Mana might not be for you. Dungeons typically involve getting to the bottom (or end of the path) and fighting a boss. “Sticking to them,” like a lot of old-school brawlers, is a sound strategy for the majority of these foes. Combat is extremely floaty, and in some cases, delayed, giving off the air of a classic JRPG while moonlighting as an action system. It’s the single weakest element of the game, but with the ability to turn battles off if you’re winded, you can choose to focus on some of the more flavorful bosses instead.
In the remake, you can even toggle encounters off entirely (with the exception of boss battles), just in case you wanted to take the exploration angle a little more seriously. Oh, and the small quality-of-life option to toggle two-player co-op at any time (instead of being at the whim of an inn or save point) is a Godsend if you’re going at it from that angle.
If you break down the core loop, it doesn’t seem super impressive on paper. And not every zone is a winner. But the slow pace helps you tune into some of the more intimate character moments, and the open-ended approach allows it to gain a little more of an edge in terms of evergreen replay value.
It’s about the micro-level of making a difference in these little characters’ lives and the macro-level worldbuilding. And it’s extremely charming and welcoming — fitting, given the tranquil nature of the art style, soundtrack (which now has a toggle for the new arranged version or the classic tracks), and the core theme.
All these years later it’s a treat to revisit the world of Legend of Mana in any form, much less through an HD modern lens. It’s still unlike just about anything else out there.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]