The Mana series has had a complicated history in the West, and it’s one that we’ve gone over to varying degrees in articles about other Mana games. It’s a tale of confusing branding, lightning caught in a bottle, tough business choices, and a creative team that seemed to perpetually have different ideas than what its fans may have hoped. While the series would continue for many installments after, all of that appeared to come to an unfortunate head with the Western release of Legend of Mana ($27.99) on the PlayStation.
The first game in the series released in the West on the Game Boy under the name Final Fantasy Adventure, and was a decent success. The sequel came on the Super NES, sporting the title Secret of Mana in North America. It was a huge success by the measures of the time, and its many fans eagerly awaited the next game. Unfortunately, a variety of reasons led to the Western release of the game that ultimately came to be known as Trials of Mana being canceled. In its stead came a pseudo spin-off of sorts called Secret of Evermore. Conspiracy theories ran wild, and fans were more than a little annoyed.
But hey, there’s always the next game, right? After the Super NES headed off into the sunset, Square picked up sticks and moved to the PlayStation. With the launch of the wildly successful Final Fantasy 7, Square was suddenly one of the star players in the gaming market. Not just in Japan, but in the world. Not every PlayStation game the company released was a hit, but they all had the attention of players. Magazine articles, TV commercials, ads in comic books, and even a few very clever advertising campaigns. This was Square at one of its peak periods, and PlayStation owners hung on their every word.
In the year 2000, the PlayStation was beginning its decline. The PlayStation 2 launched in Japan in the spring, and it was scheduled for a release in North America, Europe, and Australia later in the year. Square had big plans for the new console, with both Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XI announced for it. But it also planned to give the original PlayStation the exit it deserved, with Final Fantasy IX set for release in November of 2000. To lead up to that momentous Final Fantasy finale, Square planned a major event for Western fans. It was called the Summer of Adventure, and it would see the releases of Legend of Mana, Threads of Fate, and Chrono Cross over a three-month span.
Legend of Mana seemed like the perfect lead-off. The game had been a major success in Japan when it released there in the previous summer. It looked absolutely gorgeous. Perhaps most importantly of all, the fans saw it as the glorious return of the real Mana. A proper sequel to Secret of Mana, straight from the same people. But most of the Western fans of the series were missing a very important piece of the puzzle, and it would lead to Legend of Mana getting a chillier reception than it probably deserved.
That missing piece of the puzzle was Trials of Mana, of course. If Western players had played that game, they would have been in a better place to appreciate what Legend of Mana had to offer. Legend of Mana wasn’t Secret of Mana‘s sequel. Heck, it wasn’t even Trials of Mana‘s sequel. But it was that game’s follow-up, and it went further down the trail that it blazed. That trail took it in a very different direction from Secret of Mana, it’s true. But it’s not a bad direction by any means, and I believe the passage of time and the general course of the Mana series in subsequent years has allowed people to take the game on its own terms.
Okay, that was a lot of preamble, but I hope it has convinced you to not dive into this game expecting it to be Secret of Mana. It’s not. For all of that game’s quirks, it was in the end a fairly conventional take on the action-RPG genre. Legend of Mana is not. It’s unashamedly odd. In that sense it echoes its PlayStation stablemate SaGa Frontier, though it’s not quite as opaque. Its characters are odd. Its exploration is odd. Even its combat system is odd. But it doesn’t have it in for the player by any means. It’s really quite an affable game, if you allow it to be what it is.
After the Mana Tree is virtually destroyed in a terrible war, the various lands, cities, and features of the world were stored in special artifacts while the tree recovered. The world is now ready to be rebuilt, and the task falls to you. As you help the people of the world and complete quests, you’ll regain those artifacts. With each one recovered, you’re able to place a new location on the world map. That location will contain new characters, new dungeons, new quests, or other points of interest. Follow the quests and you’ll eventually have the opportunity to bring the story to a close. Or you can continue to explore the world, and see what other people you can help and stories you can learn.
That’s the general structure of the game, and it’s rather open-ended and non-linear in a variety of ways. It wants to stoke your curiosity and if it gets its hooks into you, you’ll find an amazing, compelling experience. It feels like a world full of stories to tell, and all you need to do is be interested enough to follow them to their ends. Some of those stories are happy. Others are bittersweet. Some are tragic. A few are very silly. There’s no grand thread tying most of them together, but some of them are linked in big and small ways. A few of them are particularly long, and those are the ones you really need to keep your eyes on. And there’s no doubt about it, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty with some of them.
While you’re exploring dungeons, towers, and other dangerous territories, you will inevitably end up in battle. When you bump into an enemy, a battle scene will start right then and there. Various weapons offer different skills and special abilities, and you’ll need to learn to make the most of them to survive some of the more challenging encounters. At certain times, you’ll have allies to help you out. You can also raise pets, golems, and monsters to join you. The combat here is a little stiff, and it takes time to get used to it. Once you learn it, it’s serviceable enough. Great? No. But it works well enough.
Back at your home base, a number of activities await your attention. You can forge new equipment, grow fruit, raise your pets, and so on. You don’t have to dig into these systems, but you’ll have an easier and more pleasant time if you do. Indeed, much of Legend of Mana is like that. Does it matter where you place the artifacts you find on the map? Yes, actually. But it’s not vital. Do you have to help out everyone, complete every quest, and make sure it’s all written in journal? No. But while all of that stuff is optional, it’s also the point. Legend of Mana is about getting invested in a world, one little piece at a time. As the world fills out and more characters inhabit it, everything starts to feel more alive. And hey, that was the mission from the very start, wasn’t it?
Square Enix has done an excellent job with bringing this game up to modern standards and porting it to mobile. The game looks great on mobile displays, and the touch controls are more than capable enough to handle the game. But in case you prefer traditional controls, that’s an option too. Legend of Mana has support for external controllers, and it’s another enjoyable way to play the game. The game’s focus on its bite-sized missions makes it a natural fit for on-the-go play, too. You can pop in, do a quest or two, and pop out. Or you can dig in for a longer session and knock out bigger chunks. Experience the world of Legend of Mana at whatever pace you prefer. You’ll get the most out of it that way.
Like a lot of Square’s output from this period, Legend of Mana is rather experimental. The end result is something that tends to be a love-or-hate affair, but at least in my case I find it hard to hate something so utterly genuine. If you’ve enjoyed other off-beat affairs like Romancing SaGa 2 or The Last Remnant, you’ll want to bring that same open-minded approach to this game. I think you’ll find something rather special here if you do.