Square Enix's methodology for remastering Legend of Mana is an admirable one, retaining much of what made the original game special - even where it won't hold up great in 2021.
Of all the companies with a lavish back catalogue of classics to use and abuse, Square Enix seems to be one of those most confidently diving into its old work. We’ve seen bare-bones ports of the PS2 Kingdom Hearts games, previously unlocalized Japanese versions like Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age, and of course lore-bending, earth-shattering remakes as with Final Fantasy 7. But a contender for the best style of remastering, for the most eager stroking of nostalgia may very well be that on show in the new HD Remaster of PS1 classic Legend of Mana.
Legend of Mana was always the next obvious Mana series do-over, as its direct predecessors, Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana, have both been remade as 3D games. Legend of Mana takes a different approach - keeping the original spite-based visuals to retain an exacting recreation of it as fans remember it - or at least, partially.
Characters, monsters and other more ‘active’ elements of the game world are lovely sprites, unfiltered and unashamed of their pixelated nature. Meanwhile, more static elements such as backgrounds have been given a high definition makeover where everything just looks a little… smoother. That sounds like the sort of description that sets alarm bells ringing - we see a lot of terrible vaseline filters over classic games - but these elements look good, with little to no detail lost. Crucially, the part of the game you’ll be most focused on retains its original appearance.
It’s a combination that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought was a good one on paper - but in practice, it works remarkably well. The two styles don’t clash; and while initially it might feel a little strange, pretty quickly the two intertwine and cease to feel like two separate art styles - they complement each other. The painterly background undoubtedly look better on modern displays than the original PS1 versions would’ve in their original presentation, while the sprites ‘pop’ against those backgrounds thanks to their pixelated nature. It works, and it looks pretty damn nice.
Better than the visual splendor is the audio, which has also seen a significant upgrade. The original soundtrack from Street Fighter and Kingdom Hearts composer Yoko Shimomura has been lovingly remastered - and the arrangements, well, slap. There’s no other way to put it. Those who are in it for an as-they-remember-it experience have the option of flicking back to the original PS1 versions of tracks if they wish, however.
Then there’s the game. Legend of Mana is a great, classic Japanese RPG - but it’s also unabashedly of its time, a game arguably released before the developer desire to streamline, simplify and declutter the genre really took hold. It all holds up well enough - but with the same caveats and understandings one would’ve had to concede back in 1999. There’s some very welcome quality-of-life changes - but the more frustrating aspects of the game that polarized at release remain present in this rerelease, for better or worse. If it were changed much more, it simply wouldn’t be Legend of Mana.
The combat is the same action-driven fare that the Mana series is known for, albeit in a form that’s slightly slower in tempo and a little more rigid-feeling. It’s simple enough to grasp and have immediate fun with, but also undoubtedly rich with complexities and depth, especially when you dive deep into the minutiae of character growth and progression.
The narrative is delivered with a similar sensibility. It’s the story of a world already broken, with the protagonist essentially rebuilding and recreating the world as you progress through the game. That progression is non-linear, with a great degree of player choice in what you do and when. This is unique and effective, but it contributes to an overall feeling that sometimes this title is a little too obtuse for its own good.
Probably the most damning thing I can say about this aspect of the game is this: if you’re a completionist, you almost certainly won’t be able to do everything you want to do in this game without consulting guides, many of which will be decades old, back from the original release. The original released right at that time when games being like this began to no longer be acceptable - and that hasn’t been improved significantly for this re-release.
I do love some of the quality-of-life changes, however. The ability to toggle off enemy encounters basically allows you to make the process of fumbling around the world for your next step easier, for instance. Saving can be done anywhere, which feels fairer and breezier, and especially more suitable for the Switch version.
To a certain type of player, Legend of Mana is likely to be considered the perfect remaster. It touches up the visuals, but not too much. It makes quality-of-life changes, but preserves the original design and difficulty - warts and all. Some may find that preservation detrimental, with this twenty year-old game showing its age - but it does also make this the new definitive way to experience a classic.
Review code provided by publisher. Tested on Switch (Primary) and PC.