I can’t believe it, they made a good one. I mean really good. Arguably one of the best RPGs on the SNES good, and it never officially left Japan… Screw you Square!
Seiken Densetsu 3
After how unappealing I found the first two games of this series, my hopes were low for Seiken Densetsu 3, and this is the perfect example of why I love being proven wrong. While there are a few issues that keep the game from being perfect, it is pretty damn close. Coincidentally, the game just had its twenty year anniversary on September 30th of this year; it’s almost like it was meant to be! I’m sorry everyone, but I need to warn you now that this segment of SSS is going to be a gush-fest. This game is absolutely amazing, so much so that even if every other game in the Mana series was completely terrible, it would have made this series playthrough worthwhile for me.
Beauty Casts a Dark Shadow
While there is a lot of steep competition, this may just be the best looking game ever made for the Super Nintendo. I don’t just mean one of the best, I mean actually fighting for the top position, especially when it comes to RPGs. Everything is richly detailed to a point that I was frequently left in awe that the console could handle this level of graphical fidelity, though, to be fair, the console couldn’t handle this level of graphical fidelity as evidenced by a game crashing bug that would occur if you cast spells too quickly on some of the larger bosses. Luckily, this is an easily avoidable glitch that only occurs on the original hardware, so if you are playing with the fan translation it is unlikely that this is something you will have to deal with.
Secret of Mana had a beautiful soundtrack, but with the exception of a few key songs it is trumped completely by Seiken Densetsu 3. Just listen to it. Seriously. Do it now. The soundtrack is so consistently good that it becomes mundane, as you just expect every song to fit as perfectly as the last, and that is a kind of contradictory statement I never thought I would be making. It knows when to be melody-centric, and when to lean on ambiance; it knows how to perfectly set a tone at every moment, and it is just beautiful. As much as I love video game music, I would never recommend someone play a game just for its soundtrack, but this game may just be worth playing due to its soundtrack alone. Hiroki Kikuta, this may be your best work; congratulations.
What may strike some Mana regulars as odd, however, is the drastic shift in tone this game provides; everything in this game is painted as much darker, both visually and metaphorically. Even the iconic ‘Mana Theme’ has been altered in this version, with a morose arrangement that makes it clear that a struggle is imminent. Upon first viewing the graphical change, I was left a bit surprised, but also a bit excited to see something new from the series. There is no denying that it will leave some people missing the brighter and more colorful worlds of the rest of the Mana series, but it is a sight to behold either way.
Finally Some Stakes!
I’d like to present to you a dramatic re-enactment of Final Fantasy Adventure’s story:
Plot: “Go kill Dark Lord! The most obvious and evil villain of them all!”
Hero: ‘…..’ Translation: ‘…Okay!’ *
Now a look at Secret of Mana‘s much more complex plot:
Hero: ‘……’ Translation: ‘Uh oh! I’ve stumbled into a dangerous situation!’ *
Plot: “Yes, and now you must save the world!”
Hero: “……” Translation: ‘But why me!? I’m just a kid?’ *
Plot: “BECAUSE I SAID SO! Now get back to work!”
* Translator’s Note: Yay for silent protagonists.
To be fair, the Sword of Mana remake did address this issue a bit by at least giving the main character a revenge arc (which is immediately ruined when he finally achieves said revenge and then says he never wanted it in the first place, the filthy liar). Aside from that retcon however, the main characters have absolutely no stake in the events happening around them. It is a fairly common tool in fiction to have the main character be an optimistic youth who stumbles into some position of great responsibility, but it is an uninteresting trope, especially when handled this lazily. This trope is normally used to convey a coming of age story, where a character actually has to grow and change. But none of that happens in the previous two Mana games, making the plot device all but pointless. Seiken Densestu 3 finally breaks the mold by giving the player something to work with.
Don’t get me wrong; the storylines in Seiken Densetsu 3 still aren’t anything innovative or remarkable. But the fact that the heroes and villains finally have some sort of motivation besides, ‘I am doing this because the plot demands it’, really helps add a level of completeness to the game. In a story driven game (so, for example, almost every RPG ever made), it is important to give the player a reason to sympathize and care about the characters on at least the most basic of levels. Even simple motivations like Lise searching for her kidnapped brother or Kevin seeking a means to revive his dead dog really help to make the story feel like it has actual purpose. Not every story needs to be a grand epic, but it should at least give you some semblance of motivation because if the characters don’t care, why should you?
Seiken Densetsu 3 strikes a remarkable balance in this regard, giving just enough plot to keep the game going while primarily focusing on its gameplay, which is where the game’s strength truly lies. I was still made extremely happy that the game actually gave me characters worth caring about; Lise, Hawk, Kevin, Duran, Angela and Carlie all have their own personality traits and motivations. Can the same be said about Randi? How about Sumo? Did you even know that those were the default names of the characters in Secret of Mana and Sword of Mana respectfully? I have a feeling that most people don’t.
Seiken Densetsu 3 has a rather unique storytelling mechanic that changes a few key boss fights and sections of the storyline depending on who you choose as your main character at the start of the game. This system leaves me a bit conflicted, as I do think it is a nice touch that provides a bit more uniqueness per playthrough, but it does not change enough to warrant multiple playthroughs on its own. This makes me feel that this innovation has gotten a bit more praise than it might otherwise deserve. I have never been a fan of games with small/artificial changes or choices thrown in to give the illusion of replay value. Games like Star Ocean that keep you from unlocking every possible character in a single playthrough just because they want you to replay the game is something that infuriates me, especially when said games are generally thirty plus hours long and only offer the slightest of story differences anyway. There are exceptions of course; games like Mass Effect that are built around choice offer quite a bit more in terms of replayability in this regard, and I loved those games. It is just the small changes that make me feel like I’ve wasted my time.
This brings up an argument about ‘replay value’ that I’ve wanted to express for quite some time, and now is as good a time as any. Do you know what you have to do to give a game replay value?
Make it good. If a game is good, people will play it more than once, whether it offers you arbitrary choices or not. I don’t believe in locking bits and pieces of content behind a second playthrough, especially when it is integral to the main plot. Things like special powers/weapons or small story touches that aren’t necessary to the plot are fine, but to me there is a large difference between giving a replay bonus, and holding part of the game hostage. I know I could be in the minority on this and that is fine; it is definitely more of a subjective way of thinking than an objective one. It, along with my hate for silent protagonists, rests among my many game design pet peeves.
The point of this tangent is not to say that Seiken Densetsu 3‘s alternate stories aren’t worth experiencing, or even that they are bad, just that not enough is changed to warrant a replay based on the story differences alone. Luckily there is more than enough depth and variety in its gameplay to make up for that, and make this a game that should definitely be played more than once. This makes the story differences the icing on the cake, rather than the main incentive. In that regard, it was well handled. The game provides a full experience no matter who you played as, and that is why I feel it succeeds.
The Great Expedition
Much like previous Mana entries, the entire world is connected on a screen by screen basis. Unlike the previous games, the screens are quite a bit smaller, creating a more intimate connection with the world. This means more screen transitions, but it also lends itself better to the gameplay style Seiken Densetsu 3 implements, mostly because of how it positions enemy encounters. Every screen acts as its own battlefield with a set amount of monsters appearing and ‘Victory’ being awarded if you dispatch every enemy on the screen. That is not to say that you have to kill every single one; you will still gain experience for each individual enemy defeated. It is strangely invigorating to see the ‘Victory’ prompt pop up when you clear an area, especially when you take the combat’s fast pace into account.
The areas are a bit more natural in design in a way that I felt helped the game’s exploration rather than hurt it. It was a great mix of dead ends and correct paths that made me feel like I was actually exploring as opposed to being railroaded from one location to the next. It also helps that all of the screens have landmarks and unique aspects that make it easy to tell when you have been to a location before, so you won’t generally get lost because of repeated tile sets.
The interconnected towns and dungeons lead to a bit more backtracking than I think most people will be comfortable with, but the fast pace of exploration and combat (especially when going through areas that are a lower level than you are) means that things are never too bogged down, even when the second half of the game has you returning to a few previously explored dungeons to find plot MacGuffins. In those cases, the enemies have been bumped up to be more comparable to your level, meaning that it is still an exciting experience.
Perhaps the most important of all changes to the exploration is the fact that your team mates will very rarely get stuck on walls, and thank goodness for that. Even if your party members do get stuck on something, the game wisely ignores them and doesn’t halt your progression like the previous title did. That, along with the fact that screens are now much smaller, means that it is almost completely a non issue.
The game also implements a real time day and night cycle, as well as a weekly calendar that has minor effects on the gameplay. Enemies will generally be more powerful at night and thus give extra experience, and the power of certain elemental spells will increase depending on which day of the week it is. There are some other things affected by this too, like Kevin the beast man becoming more werewolf-like at night and thus increasing his effectiveness in combat tremendously. While this isn’t something that affects the gameplay a great deal, it is still an interesting bonus that gives more authenticity to the world and its lore.
Let the Battle Begin!
In my Secret of Mana article, I brought up the argument that Secret of Mana plays more like Final Fantasy XII’s Active Dimension Battle system than it did like an actual action RPG, and Seiken Densetsu 3 brings this argument full circle by embracing a more automated structure that is more in line with that philosiphy.
Your party members attack automatically based on how their AI is set-up (which you can alter to your choosing, though I found the default set-up more than sufficient), and you can also automate your main character’s attacks by simply holding down the attack button as opposed to having to mash it over and over again. While this lack of interaction may seem uninvolved (and admittedly early game it stops just short of being boring), it doesn’t take long for the depth to surface.
Even though your normal attacks are automated, each hit you land fills a charge bar, and once it reaches a certain level of charge, you can unleash a far more powerful attack by hitting the special attack button. The meter charges quickly, so to maximize your effectiveness and damage output, you have to be paying attention. It becomes even more interesting as you level up, granting you up to three separate charge attacks based around the same meter. This creates a tier system, where if you want to pull off a lower level ability you have to make sure to use it before the meter gets too full. This provides enough control for a more basic player and will get you through the game well enough, but if you truly want to maximize your damage output you will have to pay attention to all three characters meters, not just your lead characters. That is where things can get hectic and highly entertaining, especially when the automated battle mechanics make it so that you can quite easily clear out entire areas in a minute or less.
The game allows you to switch between any of your party members at will by pressing the select button. Even more brilliantly, it allows for a temporary control shift by pressing either the L or R buttons, meaning you can gain and relinquish control of one of your partners just long enough to execute a special attack or reposition them without having to cycle through all of them one at a time, really giving you a better sense of control over the battle.
A common complaint I hear about this game’s battle system is how much it restricts your movement, and that is true. Once you enter battle your characters go into a defensive stance that cuts their movement speed in half, so dodging hits is next to impossible, making this a much truer stat-based experience than its predecessor. This didn’t bother me at all, however, as the game is designed rather well around this mechanic. Even though the movement speed is halved, the overall speed of battles has doubled or tripled, and the hit and run tactics of this game’s predecessor are thankfully removed.
Your inventory space is still limited, but not in a way you would expect. While you can keep a stock of 99 of any item, you can only carry 9 of each into battle, creating a great balancing tool that I would love to see used in more games. It left it perfectly balanced such that you wouldn’t have to run out of a dungeon for more supplies, but you didn’t have infinite healing items to consume in every battle. You aren’t made invincible because you have a lot of expendable income, and I found that quite refreshing.
Another large improvement over the previous titles is how magic is handled. The game still pauses while you select your spells, letting you choose and then target at your leisure, but every spell has a charge time, meaning that your spells aren’t spammable in an infinite loop like they were before. Spells are still extremely useful in terms of buffing, damage output and healing, but it no longer breaks the game’s balance, which makes for a much more entertaining experience. I will point out that I feel the game’s combat is better suited to a physically oriented team than a magic-based one, but both are completely viable options, and I enjoyed playing with both.
This is also the first time in the series that I found the boss battles to be exciting. The bosses in this title have enough HP to make the fights last long enough to actually feel like an event rather than a slightly bigger common enemy, and their attacks do enough damage that they are at least partially imposing. The item limitations and the length of the battles actually had me concerned that I wouldn’t pull through in a few of the fights, and that meant that the bosses actually held some weight. While I never ended up dying in the game, I felt there were times when it was actually a possibility, which the earlier games never even came close to achieving.
I don’t have a single complaint when it comes to how combat is handled, and the fact that it blends so seamlessly with the exploration is really what makes this game shine. Its gameplay doesn’t feel like a bunch of separate elements, instead feeling like one complete, well-tuned machine. It’s the type of system that really goes to show that when a game is accomplishing something correctly, you don’t even really notice all the little workings within.
Character Development: It’s not Just For Story Anymore
If all the above wasn’t enough to convince you, perhaps this will: the leveling system and character progression has been streamlined brilliantly. No longer do you have to spam attacks and spells to level up skills, search for weapon orbs, or have an abundance of useless weapon types cluttering your inventory. The main mechanics are much more typical to the JRPG formula, where each of the main playable characters has a specific weapon and armor type that only they can use. You are mostly going to be buying these upgrades, saving the game from being too padded or overly obtuse (unless of course you farm for the ultimate equipment, but that is your choice and is rather unnecessary for this title).
Each time you level up, your HP and MP will be raised automatically, and you are then given the opportunity to choose one of six stats to level up as you see fit. Depending on your progress through the game you can only level up each stat to a certain point per character, keeping you from making overpowered combinations and keeping the game’s difficulty and pacing rather well aligned. In fact, the game caps all of your characters’ stats at around level 55, meaning that every level after that will just boost your HP and MP, which I think is an extremely intelligent choice when it comes to keeping the end game entertaining. It is also worth mentioning that the game’s experience curve seems to work in reverse of most games, remaining fairly consistent until the last third or so of the game where leveling up becomes rather easy, which also keeps the flow fun.
The most interesting thing about the game’s character progression system, however, is its class system. Twice throughout the game (at level 18 and 38) you are given the opportunity to change each character’s class to another form, giving them more and varying abilities depending on which you choose. Each character has a class tree that splits twice, giving each character four potential final classes to choose from. If you take into account the six playable characters, you have twenty-four different possible classes to play as, and even more remarkable than that is that every single one is useful.
By far the game’s best mechanic is this class system, and how it affects the game on such a fundamental level. While it will be most player’s instinct to choose the usual tank, healer and mage setup, that is far from the most useful party build; in fact, it might be detrimental. In Seiken Densetsu 3, the best way to form a party is to choose characters that can build on each other’s abilities. For example, if you want a party primarily built of physical fighters, you would likely want a buffer, a debuffer, and a fighter, all of whom can put out physical damage. It’s the first time I’ve seen a game handle its party build system this way, and it was extremely successful. This is the mechanic that truly makes playing through the game more than once entertaining, just experimenting with the builds and creating a party that you like. I really can’t stress enough how amazingly handled this system was, and how enjoyable it makes the experience.
This does come at a bit of a price, though; if you aren’t willing to put in the time and effort required to choosing your team before you start playing the game, you may end up making the game tremendously more difficult for yourself than you need too. There are 24 class options after all, and not all of them are going to work well together, so it is basically required that you plan out your character progression paths before the game even begins. While this may be a turn off for some players, I didn’t mind at all, and once that progression was chosen I never had to consult any kind of walkthrough again for the duration of the playthrough.
Someone Call the Exterminator!
Alas, not all is well in Seiken Densetsu 3. Let’s not sugarcoat things here, this game is littered with bugs and coding errors (as was common with Square’s SNES line up in general). The evasion stat plays no part in accuracy or dodging in the game, and critical hits don’t work as intended. Equipment with elemental affinities don’t actually have said affinities (another common issue with old Square titles) and the on-screen display of your MP sometimes lags if you are casting spells to quickly. There are other such bugs that would obviously point to this game not being perfect, but what is odd is that none of it really matters. Despite these issues (or perhaps because of the need to circumvent them), the game has been made remarkably well-balanced, so much so that fan attempts at ‘fixing’ some of these bugs has resulted in some enemies becoming completely immune to physical damage because of the evasion stats, to name one example. In other words, the game had a lot of coding issues, but none that hampers the gameplay experience.
If I really wanted to get nit-picky (which I feel obligated to do after the amount of praise I’ve given this title), I would mention that the game’s menu screen is a bit overindulgent, to the point that it is a bit laggy. The fact that you have to farm for certain items to do your second class change can be a bit annoying, and when you are shopping for restorative items, you can’t buy them in bulk, which means that if you want a full stock, your thumb may get tired. When it comes down to it, the fact that I have to try this hard to find things I don’t like about the game is just a testament to what an amazing overall experience it turned out to be.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Well, this was an incredibly welcome surprise. I am so glad that this series has at least one game that I can fully and truly recommend. It is a shame that this game was never officially released outside of Japan. I’d like to personally thank the fan translators, and all fan translators in general for their hard work and the number of amazing games that we would never be able to fully enjoy without them. That’s it! Since this title doesn’t have an official Mana name, I am forced to give it a name on behalf of Square. It’s a tough call, but I think I will have to settle on Magnum Opus of Mana, because I highly doubt they are going to top this one. Seriously, I enjoyed the game so much that I didn’t take enough notes when I first played it, so I had to play it a second time before doing this article.
Next time I will be tackling the highly divisive Legend of Mana. I hope to see you there!
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net