It feels a little churlish to criticise this Legend of Mana remaster for not making enough effort. It has clearly had a lot of work put into it, above and beyond the norm for re-releases, especially by Square Enix standards. Yet I can’t help wishing for more. Maybe I’ve grown spoilt since the game first came out in 1999, possessed by an unreasonable sense of entitlement. Or maybe Legend of Mana was always a fragile construction that now needs additional scaffolding to support its smartest features.
To be clear, as much as I’m a fan of the Mana series, this was my first time with Legend, mainly because it wasn’t originally released in Europe – a rather cruel move by Squaresoft (as they were before merging with Enix), who blessed us with the seminal Secret of Mana then refused to feed the hunger they’d created for more. In truth, having since played some of the later games, including Trials of Mana and Sword of Mana, I’m not sure they ever really recaptured that Secret magic, but I kept an eye on Legend regardless. As I expected, it’s a fascinating departure for the series with its experimental approach to RPG design, even if it falters in its execution.
This new version is helped along with some valuable changes, too. In practical terms, the standout tweaks are an ability to save almost anywhere, instead of only at designated points, and to deactivate regular enemy encounters. Both are welcome, and I found the latter especially handy when trying to pick my way out of some of the game’s mazy dungeons, keeping focus on where I was going.
The more striking developments, however, are audio-visual. An already superb soundtrack receives an orchestral overhaul (with the option to switch between old and new arrangements), there’s a new animated into sequence and, most impressive, freshly repainted backgrounds that remain faithful to the originals while adding HD crispness and detail. From lush green jungles to a particularly proud pirate ship, it’s a sumptuous world to dive into.
The only question here is whether Square Enix could have gone a step further, redrawing the people and creatures that populate these places as well. Character design in Legend of Mana is entertainingly eclectic, with walking teapots and sea lion pirate captains mingling with the usual spiky-haired JRPG youth. But it’s difficult to see exactly what some of them are as they pixelate under the hi-res microscope – I had no idea that one chap I was talking to was actually a centaur, for example.
On a more functional note, they really should have done more when recreating the scenery to highlight exits and entryways in each screen. It’s very easy to circle around a town or dungeon and not spot a crucial door or passage, because it’s obscured by another object or looks like a dead end. Simply being able to toggle a small arrow over access points would save a lot of hassle.
But then that’s the thing with Legend of Mana – this kind of fuzziness isn’t an accidental oversight, it’s by design. I soon came to realise that its whole modus operandi is a wilful obtuseness, and the remaster makes no attempt to address the frustrations that this causes.
This is an action RPG that sweeps away the breadcrumb trails of plot, quest structure and exploration you’d expect. You’re flung into its world without a goal, left to traipse around looking for things to provide purpose, helping characters you don’t know to do things you don’t understand, because what else is there? Completing short quests rewards you with artefacts, which for some reason transform into towns and dungeons when placed on the world map, so you trot over to these new pastures to find another tale to stick your nose in. It’s boldly different and commendably open-ended. Yet it lacks any kind of driving force.
In the opening hours in particular, I really felt the need for a modern guiding hand.
Tutorials are scattered and vague, while the personalities you meet barely explain themselves as you stumble into their lives. It’s like starting your first day in an unfamiliar job and everyone acting as though you’ve been there for years. Minimal hand-holding is one thing, but there’s a more malignant opacity at work here, in a claggy script that cryptically mixes pertinent information with offbeat humour and expects you to pick the nuggets from the mess.
It’s especially trying because some of the conditions for progressing quests are highly arbitrary and specific. I reached for a guide on a number of occasions – one advantage of reviewing a re-released game – and wondered how I was supposed to figure out, for example, that one task required me to speak to a particular NPC multiple times on different days of the in-game week. Indeed, many quests involve running between locations just to talk to characters in a set order – what nowadays we call padding – often with no hint to nudge you in the right direction.
The other big issue is that, even when you do accompany one of the cast on a proper adventure, exploring various ruins, caves and forests, the action and systems feel disjointed and trivial. Combat is a heavily pared back experience compared to Secret of Mana, with no items in play and only a handful of special moves and magic attacks available at a time. Most monsters succumb to a slow rhythmic swing or stab of your chosen weapon, including many of the magnificently drawn bosses, which intimidate with tough displays then roll over to have their tummies tickled.
This simplicity is perhaps another symptom of the open structure, which can’t guarantee you discover the intricacies of crafting equipment and magical instruments or husbanding pet monsters until late in the game. And because none of these things are necessary, I wasn’t inspired to spend much time on them – it doesn’t help that the processes are long-winded and poorly explained – and then because most of the treasure chests in dungeons offer up crafting materials, exploration felt largely redundant.
Even so, I did eventually begin to ride with Legend of Mana’s unusual flow. There’s something soothing about poking around its spiralling maps, prodding charming little critters until they pop into a shower of jewels. There’s a pleasing pick ‘n’ mix variety, too, since the self-contained mini-quests ensure you’re never stranded for hours in a single location, and can easily drop one for another, or discover something unexpected while touring around.
Plus, once you do run into the same characters a few times and get to know them, and once longer plotlines start to sprout from the noise of ephemeral distractions, some intriguing themes come into play. The open structure makes sense in a game that takes a broad view of human greed, love, sacrifice, animosity and injustice, making the point that there is no single grand struggle that will see good overcome evil, but endless encounters of identities, values, wills and desires.
Despite the shortcomings, I can thus appreciate what Legend of Mana is trying to do, and how it subverts the pompous preoccupations of similar games, including those in the same series. It’s not nearly enough to dethrone Secret of Mana, but it works as a kind of companion piece, the spin-off TV series against the great cinematic epic. It feels like the kind of game I would have loved as a kid, spending two weeks of a rainy summer holiday bumbling wide-eyed through its quirks and mysteries. But through my critic’s eyes, it’s a strong idea smothered by old-school obfuscation. If I demand more it’s only because that idea still appeals, and deserves a chance to truly shine again.
Legend of Mana is available on the PS4. PC and Nintendo Switch – we tested the PS4 version of the game on a PS5. It’s out now.
Legend of Mana is an intriguing curio that still feels original. Its open structure and focus on vignettes over epic adventure are brave decisions and a clever departure from tradition, while the visual overhaul in this remaster gives it a modern sharpness. It remains, however, a very difficult game to find your footing in, with deliberately confusing quests and poorly explained systems. And the combat never grows with the complexity you might expect for an action RPG. A good remaster of a game that really needed a more comprehensive remake to deliver on its promise.
- A tasteful visual update and remastered music
- Bold open approach to RPG storytelling that eventually pays off
- Some welcome quality-of-life additions
- A lot of padding and obtuse quests
- Crying out for clearer tutorials and script
- Combat lacks depth or challenge