My experience with the Mana series hasn’t been incredibly extensive. I’ve played bits of the original trilogy via the Collection of Mana, and previously reviewed last year’s Trials of Mana remake. The series strives on reinventing the wheel and experimenting with new gameplay mechanics, which I value greatly in the RPGs I play. Personally, I feel that Square Enix has been on a roll lately in terms of remastering their older titles. SaGa Frontier Remastered’s was one of the best ones I’ve ever seen from the company, redoing the presentation to stay faithful to the original while perfectly making it work for 16:9 displays. I guess Square has no urge to stop, as they’ve collaborated with M2 to bring back their cult classic PS1 title Legend of Mana. I’ll cut the fluffy prelude: From a purely artistic perspective, this is one of, if not the, best remasters I’ve ever seen with Square’s name on it.
Legend of Mana itself was a game I never played before now. Hearing it shared some developers with the SaGa games perked me up immediately though, and setting my expectations accordingly was not unwarranted. For all intents and purposes, this is a SaGa game without the name and accented with the gorgeous visual spark of Mana. Flawed, obtuse, yet so clearly ambitious and boundlessly charming.
Progressing through the game is entirely nontraditional and open-ended. You begin the game by picking a spot on the map for your adventure to take place in. The various locales that once populated a gorgeous world were removed and placed in artifacts, and obtaining them is your key to rebuilding it. Outside of a few early tutorials (which require you to seek them out, unprompted), you are given no directions. Your choices and where you go will decide how your story plays out, leading to an immense amount of replayability.
Despite that dreaded concept of the game bending itself around your choices, it’s worth mentioning that Legend of Mana ends up being a rather comfortable game despite that. There is an overwhelming amount of systems and ways for your game to play out, but it still manages to have a constant sense of relaxing vibes. The dialogue from the colorful cast of NPCs rides this line between strange and endearing, which makes you want to explore and engage with the world. There are seemingly always new things to discover, and the obscurity helps convey that feeling. While some might not like that kind of game, those who enjoy that style will find a lot to love.
Artifacts are gained from clearing one of the plethora of episodic story arcs (going as far as being bookended by fancy title cards, something it shares in common with SaGa Frontier), and then placed on the map by the player. It is frequently described in artistic terms, like painting on a canvas, and I definitely believe that feeling was intentional. You rebuild the world yourself, crafting your own journey. It’s a fascinating way to build a game, and even with the SaGa influence it quickly becomes its own thing. A guide would surely be helpful to those who need it, but is almost antithetical to the core ideas the game feels designed around. You stumble across story arcs by accident, and they all feel similarly important. Legend of Mana is teeming with life and realism, despite the fantasy setting it takes place in.
To add to the layers of bizarre game design on display, the battle system of past games has been changed for that of a side-scrolling beat ’em up. Frankly, it can often feel stiff. Something about moving and chaining attacks together doesn’t feel the most responsive, but it is not necessarily bad to the point of being unplayable. I have very little experience with that genre of game, but I still found it rather enjoyable once I started learning new abilities for weapons and experimenting. That’s really what the entire game is asking of you anyway, to experiment and find out what works.
New to this remaster is the ability to turn off the encounters, with the exception of bosses. I didn’t use this feature myself, but it was definitely one I was happy to see in the game. Encounters happen almost every time you enter a new screen, and in the more maze-like locations, they can drag.
No review of Legend of Mana would be complete without mentioning the music. I had heard that Yoko Shimomura had composed the soundtrack for the original game, and I value her work immensely among Square’s numerous brilliant composers throughout their history with games. I know how Mana games typically sound, and I know how Shimomura games typically sound. Both of those did not nearly prepare me for the brilliant score that was awaiting me. The early moments have songs that feel very “Mana”, a comforting and whimsical set of tunes that make you feel right at home.
The second you walk into any of the main combat zones, however, you are surprised with music that breaks all previous conventions for the series. I haven’t heard any of the Kingdom Hearts games reach this level of epic, it’s breathtaking. What only makes it better is that the soundtrack was given a rearrangement for this new version, overseen by Shimomura herself. You can switch between the original or new OST, but I found the new tracks so incredible and faithful that I kept it with the new music the whole time.
Finally, to circle around, this is one of the most beautiful remasters of a 2D game I have ever seen. The backgrounds seem to have been painstakingly redrawn by hand to seamlessly support a widescreen display. What makes this endlessly more impressive is that these backgrounds are rarely entirely static. There are some that have animation attached to them, the best example being a talking tree you meet early on. It’s breathtaking to see it in motion, and elevated a game already beloved for its gorgeous art style.
All of the UI and art has been upscaled to match, making almost the entire game’s new aesthetic flow together wonderfully. A choice was kept to keep the original character sprites as pixelated as they were in the PS1 release, which could be taken as a jarring comparison to the original backgrounds. I found it to be a good choice overall, as the sprites were beautiful as is, and changing them too much could take away from the original style by accident.
Legend of Mana offers players a world begging to be explored, crafted, and built around their own creativity. Games to have come out since its release have likely taken the ideas further, but for 1999 there really wasn’t anything like it. Out of all the Mana games I’ve played this is easily the best one. There are so many reasons to revisit it thanks to how open progression is. Your natural curiosity is rewarded around every turn, and your choices actually shape the world. I can see how my playthrough could differ greatly to that of someone else’s, and I’m excited to continue to revisit it throughout the years. I hope this is the template Square is basing their next console Mana game on, because this is truly something special. Even if it isn’t though, I’m happy enough that the bar for remastering sprite-based games has been raised once again.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Square Enix