Originally released on PlayStation 1 in 1999 as the fourth Mana series entry, bucked the loose traditions of the previous three entries to try some new things. The result was a game that is utterly beautiful and unique in its storytelling, yet also over-designed in its mechanics. Now Square Enix has remastered this unique gem for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Steam with some additions, and it’s a little more pleasant than it used to be.
Welcome (back) to Fa’Diel
The most obvious change in this remaster is the graphics. Characters and objects are still sprite-based, but the environments are all smooth and have a hand-drawn look to them. It’s unsettling at first, but you get used to it quickly overall. This also extends to the galleries, upscaling the text and using clean art assets. The aspect ratio has likewise been updated to 16:9 from 4:3.
Legend of Mana contains a bunch of quality-of-life features on Switch like quick save, ability to turn off enemy encounters, and additional languages, with a separate pause menu for accessing them. You can also choose between classic and remastered soundtracks. Western players can additionally finally experience Ring Ring Land, a minigame that previously made use of the Japanese PocketStation accessory. Finally, load times are almost all gone.
Legend of Mana is perhaps most famous for its Lands system, in which players build their own world map as they go along by placing items on a grid. A town or a dungeon pops up, and the silent protagonist travels to these areas. Here they can meet various NPCs who may join the party for a short while, fight monsters, and embark on quests. The whole game is composed of these short vignettes (67 in all), and while each is done separately and in any order, distinct plot lines start to emerge as you go along.
Interestingly, while the stories of the first three Mana games focused on the dangers of imperialism and/or industrialism, Legend of Mana takes the opposite approach. Its main conflicts arise out of a kind of despondency of the characters and of the world. The major storylines arise from old grudges that get out of hand, and it all leads to a critique on the corruption of the spirit. There’s a focus on individualism, to the point where every person seems to view the world differently (and indeed, every player will have a different experience). This is painted in both a positive and negative light, and I followed along with increasing interest as somewhat insignificant background details became the crux of the story.
Gameplay alternates between talking to folks and beating up monsters. Battle takes place in small areas and is more reminiscent of beat ’em ups than other action RPGs. Basically, you encounter a monster, fight it and its friends, and get items or XP (which drop to the ground and must be collected). The action is slow but methodical, especially compared to in Secret and Trials of Mana. You really need to commit to your actions. A second player can also join in on the fun, taking control of either the current NPC or the protagonist from their own game. Your stat increases depend on what weapon specialty you chose at the beginning of the game and what weapon you favor in fights, and you gain skills by using other skills. You cast spells by playing different songs on different instruments made of different materials. There are dozens of options, and it goes pretty deep.
In fact, Legend of Mana has many mechanics jammed in, but few of them actually matter and the game explains almost none of them. It expects you to have read the instruction manual. Showing up in certain places on certain days of the week affects everything from which element is strongest in the area to whether or not you meet an important NPC. There are things you can experiment with again and again and get different results. You’re rewarded for playing it repeatedly. It almost feels like the game wants you to live in it.
When it comes to the little details, this Legend of Mana remaster does a lot right and a lot wrong. I like that it keeps many of the original version’s visual effects, like the screen wipe transitions. However, I disliked how muddy it still looked in many places, like the world map. I liked the gorgeous sprites and how they integrated with the hand-drawn environments. I disliked how it was difficult to tell where your character could walk and where the exits were, even with the upscaled artwork. I liked how customizable the main character was. I disliked how many systems there were and how complicated everything was at times. I really liked the gorgeous score by renowned composer Yoko Shimomura. I disliked how it was often mixed poorly, overwhelming what was happening on the screen.
Mainly, I liked how Legend of Mana feels like a good Dungeons & Dragons campaign. There are story hooks everywhere, and you can choose to follow them or leave them be. You can focus on physical attacks or magic attacks. Your NPC companions leave you to go be in their own stories. Despite looking like a cozy fantasy world, there are some dark things happening in Fa’Diel. Early on in the game you can encounter a straight-up murder. Around the same time, you can participate in one yourself. Doing some quests early actually blocks off others, and you’ll need to go back in a New Game Plus if you want to experience them.
Legend of Mana is a fitting name
Legend of Mana isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t back in the day, and that might be even more true now, as the game can feel frustratingly outdated or adorably retro. Still, it’s a wonderful adventure that rewards experience and always provides excellent music, beautiful scenery, and an interesting world. If you like quirky games from the late ’90s, non-linear storytelling, or just want bite-sized adventure on your Nintendo Switch, give this one a shot. Just remember to tell Lil Cactus all about it at the end of the day.
A review code for Legend of Mana was provided by the publisher.