I’ve been a fan of the Mana series (or Seiken Densetsu, if you want to impress your local otaku) since Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu II) came out on the SNES. They are hands-down one of the prettiest, most charming series out there. In addition to Secret of Mana, I’ve played Seiken Densetsu (released as Final Fantasy Adventure on the Gameboy in the US), a translated ROM of Seiken Densetsu III, and Legend of Mana for the Playstation. That last one is my pick for the prettiest and most charming of the litter.
I originally bought it years ago and kept it for a few years before selling it. I remember being very satisfied with it. Recently I reacquired it and started playing again. It’s every bit as pretty and charming as I remembered, and sports a wonderfully colorful cast of characters in a colorful, quirky world. I’m particularly fond of the pirate penguins, who are proud to be pirates but are really just playing at being pirates (I love that they have to talk their walrus captain into threatening them, “I’ll kill ye all!” and then cheer when he does so). I like the school of magic, where one of the professors was trapped inside his own magic circle and now looks like a floating stained-glass window – and I like how he’s annoying and obstructive to the other professors, but they can’t do anything about it really ‘cause he’s apparently got tenure or something. I still get a smile when the principal of the magic school, who is apparently a demon, steals an ancient grimoire with intent to use a spell in it for “creating and controlling stars” to destroy the world (just ‘cause he can), only to find out that it’s just a recipe for fireworks – especially since everyone involved (including the professor who rushed off to try to stop him) decides that the result was kind of cool, then just goes home and forgets about the whole episode. The fortune teller, who tells fortunes by reading fruit, always cracks me up with her dubious and bewildered attitude toward the cryptic messages that the fruit gives her.
I’d love to see this kind of setting and color applied to a tabletop RPG sometime. It reminds me of a children’s story more than anything, but with a slight amorality, and somehow its darker elements don’t seem out of place to me. You know, when I put it that way, it occurs to me that it reminds me, in terms of tone and emotional scope, of Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey comics more than anything else.
As far as the mechanics go, I’m particularly fascinated that the Charm stat doesn’t influence social mechanics (since there are none), but rather determines your ability to inflict status effects on enemies. I also like the “abilities,” which are little moves like backflips, slide kicks, and grapples that you gradually unlock. You equip two at a time, and they have a heavy impact in combat. The workshops provide a great deal of mechanics to explore, and I’m particularly fond of the golems, who must be programmed by fitting Tetris-like blocks (each representing an action) into a grid.
But, there’s some problems.
First off, something that really gripes me (and did when I first played the game too): I don’t like being railroaded into murdering the last three dragons in the world in order to advance the storyline. This ties back into the comparisons I made regarding Chrono Trigger vs. Chrono Cross. In some other game (Shadow of the Colossus, for instance), I wouldn’t mind stuff like destroying ecosystems or rare and beautiful creatures, but it really irks me in this game. It’s the one element of the storylines that does not fit in. (Take note that these dragons keep out of trouble, and one of them even fosters and watches over a tribe – they’re not out burninating the countryside or anything.)
Something I noticed this time through is how passive your role is in the game. The majority of the “quests” consist of watching other people have stories, while you run along behind and kill monsters, then kill a boss at the end. You’re rarely actually a protagonist in the game.
The dungeons, while always pretty, are irritating. The layouts are very convoluted and hard to keep in your head since they don’t align to any form of grid at all (the screens don’t connect cleanly, and aren’t even in any uniform size), and there’s no map features. Couple that with the fact that the enemies respawn when you leave the screen, forcing you to fight them again and use up all your cognitive space; by the time the battle’s over, it’s hard to remember where you were going.
As fun as the workshops are to interact with, the designers made a major misstep in not making it necessary or even particularly meaningful to do so. The game just isn’t difficult enough (it’s really really easy) to require that you develop good equipment or pets. For one thing, you level up way too fast, and actually have to actively avoid leveling in order to maintain even the slightest level of challenge. I ended up using crappy equipment made out of bones and stuff just ‘cause I thought it was cool, and never suffered for this decision at all. While you can go and seek out rare and wonderful materials to try out, there’s no reason to do so other than to find out what happens. I have to admit that just trying things out engaged me for a very long time – but once the novelty wears off, you’re left to realize that there’s not actually much of a game there.
Still, though, I have to come back to the setting. It’s one of the few that really grabs my attention and speaks to me, for some reason, and keeps me playing the game even though I know that the battles are just a chore and the workshops just a tacked-on, inconsequential feature.