In the waning years of the last millennium, Squaresoft was high off of Final Fantasy VII’s monumental success, and unleashed a salvo of roleplaying games on Sony’s PlayStation console. They were wildly imaginative games that, despite not having the budget of a mainline Final Fantasy title, had a creative and technical mastery that deserved just as much attention.
The finish line at the end of the generation bought the “Summer of Adventure”: Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, Threads of Fate, and Legend of Mana. Me, as a young teen, had the summer sprawled before me to delve into these new RPGs. I filled notebooks with information and light sketches of characters. I fell asleep in the dim glow of a tube TV with Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, or Yoko Shimomura at just the right volume to not disturb my parents. Halcyon days.
Legend of Mana was an endless fascination. Admittedly, it’s one of my favorite games ever. Rather than tell a typical story from start to finish, everything had a modular design. Stories told within this world – split up into individual events and scattered about – with the intention of you finding the next chapter rather than simply proceeding to it. You wander… and wander… and wander… and all the while, becoming a storied traveler in your own right, becoming intimate with every area, every character.
Set in the fairy-tale land of Fa’Diel, everything is painted with bright and cheerful colors and a slight, endearing exaggeration much like a pop-up storybook and the characters that inhabit them. There’s a unique charm to penguin pirates who can’t handle the cold, a hapless bard navigating his romantic life, and a merchant who is always looking for the next quick buck.
But… underneath the surface something runs through several major “arcs” composed of several events featuring recurring characters. Here the tone shifts, and for a moment the fairy tale seems to recede into the background as the story begins to interrogate a character’s pain, or loneliness, or existential dread existing between inexorable cycles of nature… or responding to despair with love. Moving from event to event, some of these scenes lingered in my mind, now 20 years older, unmooring all of my ruminations from back when I first witnessed them, as if to pick right up where I left off.
While Legend of Mana’s script isn’t as voluminous as its contemporaries, there are many times where I recall the Jumi, Matilda, Larc, Diddle… and so on quite vividly. The game’s event structure lets you carry these scenes with you as you explore the map from corner to corner, and they accumulate like a traveler’s log in their cadence. A fairy tale that isn’t afraid to crack you open and scoop you out will always remain one of my favorite kind of stories.
Of course, all that’s lifted up by a remastered soundtrack that is sublime. The original is one of composer Yoko Shimomura’s best works. Well, it’s really her best game soundtrack. The new instrumentation choices do quite well in replicating the original sound, and when it does diverge, brings such a fresh breath to the work that I paused many times just to take it in. There are several songs that swap in live instruments and honey the scenes that contain them. Of course, you have the option of switching between the original and remaster soundtrack in the settings menu, but the remaster version is such a great job I never felt the need. The title screen is just a taste – and there are many stellar arrangements that made my heart swell.
The game’s visual presentation also greatly benefits from a measured hand. Pre-rendered 2D backgrounds have been upscaled for a HD presentation, and look sharp. The game’s original sprites are rightly preserved as they are, and despite being super-imposed over an upscaled background, retains a clean, colorful and appealing look. The English text has also been tidied up a bit, with enough characters to add spaces to items. If there’s one creature comfort that would have gone an extra mile here, it’s additional help text while crafting in the game’s many tertiary crafting systems that save you a jump to an encyclopedia. Players may also want more direction about where to go next to fulfill a certain event, as many times it’s not always an easy guess. (Thankfully a quick-save feature relieves some pressure for some of the stingier ones.) There are also some small localization updates for some text and names, but yet another light touch.
Many of the game’s systems are preserved in amber, including combat. Two-player couch co-op is still here, and while I wasn’t able to test this mode out with a partner, it seems to have all the same functionality as the original game. One small problem is that the game tends to stutter when certain techniques are deployed in combat, but happens pretty infrequently. Otherwise, the game performs quite well. One welcome addition is the addition of “Ring Ring Land,” originally exclusive to a Pocket Station device only compatible with PS1 consoles as an in-game minigame accessible through the menu.
All-in-all Legend of Mana Remastered (though it seems to have dropped the “Remastered” bit in the logo) is a fine way to experience this Squaresoft gem. If you have access to a PlayStation 3 or Vita, you’ll probably have the option to download the original “SD” version of the game for a fraction of the price, but I feel that the restraint used in adapting this game for HD platforms has served well. The shining star is the remastered OST, and the clean-looking HD presentation using both 2D sprites and hand-drawn artwork has given one of my favorite games a great update.
Disclaimer: PlayStation 4 review code provided by the publisher Square Enix.