Backlog Break - The baffling world of Legend of Mana

Devin on screen

In Backlog Break, Devin Wilger goes through all the games he owns and never got around to playing. This week: Legend of Mana, from 2000.

I remember at the time of Legend of Mana’s release, the reviews were scathing. The game was not what people wanted, or expected, out of a game called Legend of Mana. What they wanted was something closer to Secret of Mana on the SNES, an action RPG that could be played by up to three players and had a fairly decent story behind it, albeit one where you beat up Santa Claus.

On the one hand, I’ve never been a fan of judging something against your expectations of it, because it’s a good way to miss out on great experiences. If everything is exactly how you expect it is going to be, how can you be surprised? On the other hand, I get it, because this game is strange.

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You start the game as a man or a woman, with the default name You. There is a big, empty map and are told a to find a place to begin. You put the single item in your inventory somewhere on the map, and get a home base, at which point the game starts. Through the rest of the game, you are given various items, which are placed on the map wherever you feel like putting them, which leads you to different little stories. The game then functions as a collection of short stories that the player can complete at their leisure. Some have to be finished to trigger others, but overall the game is pretty hands-off.

Very little is actually explained, I was half-way through the game before I gave in and looked up how skills worked – it wasn’t how I expected – and even further in the game when I finally unlocked crafting options, which actually can be unlocked much earlier if you do things in the right order.

It’s not a difficult game, and the combat system feels like a simplistic beat-em-up rather than a sophisticated action RPG like the earlier games in the series. The tiny short stories are also told with minimal, almost abstract dialog, to the point where it can be confusing as to what’s going on. It often feels like the player character is stumbling on stories already in progress and then leaving before they’re finished. It’s a very strange sensation, the idea of being near a story, and occasionally participating in it, without quite being a part of it.

The game is alienating, off-putting, weird and kind of hostile to the player. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, but it’s not the game you expect when you fire it up, and I could definitely see people being turned off by the often bizarre design.

But it’s also absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful water-color pre-rendered backgrounds. The entire design aesthetic is an argument for the continued relevance for 2D art. I found myself playing through just because I kept wanting the see what they had cooked up next, what beautiful painting they would cook up for the next area.

When Legend of Mana works, it works quite well, but just as often it doesn’t, and when that happens it’s mostly confusing. It’s worth playing, but go into it with no expectations at all.

Played on: Playstation 3

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