Sunday, October 10, 2010

Desperately Seiken Densetsu

I was watching some videos of Seiken Densetsu 3 and some comments reminded me of complaints I had with the various games in the series so I thought I would do one of my pointless rants about it like I did with the SaGa games.

You may remember in my SaGa rant I compared the series, which is known both as the "Mana" series in the US and the "Seiken Densetsu" (usually translated as: "Holy Sword Legend") series in japan (I'll leave it up to you as to what name better reflects the series, but the titular "Holy Sword" seems to have become much less important as the series went on), as the "the lovable bouncy tree-hugging hippie child" in Squaresoft's little family of games. What I mean by that is, of the three main Square series, it's easily the most storybook-like. While not always lighthearted, it usually is far less serious and more fantastic. That, and it also has a giant tree who's power gets abused as one of it's most important recurring plot elements.

The plot usually goes like this: There is some giant tree that may or may not be actually a form of the goddess that created the world and has power over all of the world's mana, but bad guys want the power and stuff. One interesting thing is unlike the Final Fantasy and the Saga series, there is apparently some overall timeline of events and inter-game continuity. I say "apparently" because there are so many contradictions and strange inconsistencies that it's hard to tell. But the plot is really not that interesting overall so, whatever.

The gameplay of each game save some of the later ones can be classified as an "Action-RPG" style game, where battles are real time and you move around. Unlike most "Action-RPG" games, most of them are more RPG then action though some elements of Zelda-like action still remains.

The problem with the series is each of the games has at least one notable flaw. And since I did it for SaGa, let's step though each game.

Number 1 - Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden/Final Fantasy Adventure:
If there is one word that can describe this game it's this: Primitive. Of course, it was a gameboy game, and 80% of the games on the system can be described the same way. In this game's case, however fun it might be (and it is fun), it lacks almost all the features people may expect from other games in the series, or indeed most other games in the genre. A good example of this is, you talk to NPCs by running into them. There doesn't seem to be any collison detection with those people too, so you may end up in a situation where you get stuck inside them and they talk to you over and over. Very very annoying. At least it uses a button to attack, unlike some games. Otherwise the gameplay is almost identical to the first Zelda game only with the addition of different weapons, spells, some usable items, and a special attack you can do by letting a bar fill up. There are partners that follow you sometimes but they mostly just throw attacks at random. Enemies do too in a method like the first Zelda, without any sort of AI at all. You could gain experience and level up, which let you choose from 4 stats to upgrade. As for the story you play a guy who is a slave gladiator for a guy named Dark Lord, you escape, discover a plot to find the mana tree, and have to protect a girl who is the only one who can open a way to it with the help of a member of the "Gemma Knights". Overall the game is entertaining but, as I said, primitive as hell. Almost to the level of some armature programmer's first game. Interestingly, it was originally developed as a NES game but moved to the gameboy later. It also was considered a spin off of the Final Fantasy games and re-uses some of the sprites and characters from some of them.

Number 2 - Seiken Densetsu 2/Secret of Mana
The next game makes the leap to the SNES and is said to be one of Squaresoft's classic SNES games. It is also apparently a direct sequel to the first game as there are several plot hooks that make reference to it, however there are also several ones that seem to contradict it. The plot revolves around a "Mana Fortress" that was once built as a weapon ages ago which destroyed the world pretty much and a group of bad guys (who may or may not be the same empire Dark Lord ruled) who are trying to find it. Then your character pulls the Mana Sword from somewhere and is tasked by the Gemma Knights to repair it. And their are seeds inside Mana Palaces that are related to something, and elemental spirits that teach magic, and stuff. I donno. The gameplay is interesting because you have three characters in your party and you can control them one at a time or have other players control them. Weapons and magic can be leveled up by use, and there are a verity of weapon types and magic as well as equipment and items. The are a few annoying quirks with the gameplay that annoy me though. One is that when you hit something, you have to wait a bit before your attacks are at full power again. If you don't, your attacks become much weaker. There is a stamina counter measured in percentages that effects how powerful your attacks are. This all is fine in theory, but the problem is that every time you attack it goes down to 0 and hitting a enemy causes it to enter a stun frame which only registers hits after they get out of it. You can MAKE hits on them while they are stunned, but for some dumb reason it doesn't actually show damage until after they return to normal. This means you can rapidly whack enemies and they will get stuck being stunned for a long while after you stop hitting them. This serves to slow down combat to a crawl sometimes. The other huge problem is spells freeze their in place and cannot be blocked or dodged in any way, and the boss battles become spell spamfests for both sides very quickly, making the action again slow down like crazy. Also because spells are unavoidable, some early boss battles become almost impossible because you have no healing and no way to use skill to avoid damage. Overall, it's a good game but can get annoying as hell. Fun fact: Apparently it was developed for a SNES CD addon that never was finished. I wish I could see what was cut so it could fit on a cartridge.

Number 2.5 - Secret of Evermore
Not really part of the series, but I put Final Fantasy 2 in my SaGa rant so and I am putting this here. So there. Secret of Evermore is a SNES game developed by the American branch of Squaresoft back in the day, and may very well be the ONLY game developed by said branch. Although it's gameplay is based heavily on Secret of Mana, it's setting and story is completely different, and seems more to take from old scifi movies and historical settings then the colorful lush fantasy worlds of the Mana series. The story involves a dopey b-movie nut and his pet dog who stumbles across a abandoned mansion and finds a machine that transports him into some kind of virtual world called Evermore created by a mad scientist. One interesting thing is though the story is wacky and lighthearted, the music and graphics are very dramatic and dark, which creates an striking contrast between the goofball characters and the incredibly sinister environments. Kind of like Samurai Jack. The gameplay is almost exactly like Secret of Mana but a bit less annoying in that enemies no longer are locked in stun animations, or at least not as much. One interesting thing is spells come in the form of alchemy formulas which use a system not unlike the Ultima series where instead of MP, spells use combinations of special ingredient items. While this makes it harder to use spells as you can't just rest at an inn to recover them, it makes spells a bit more balanced in my opinion. Some people dislike this game, but I like it better then Secret of Mana in a lot of ways. Also one of the forms your dog can take is a K-9 inspired robot toaster dog who fires FRICKIN LASER BEAMS. HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE THAT?!?

Number 3 - Seiken Densetsu 3
Also for the SNES, Seiken Densetsu 3 is the only one which was never translated, mostly because it used heavily compressed text and was too big for American carts (though some people still unfairly blame Secret of Evermore for being a substitute for it). It wasn't until ages later people learned of it's existence and translated it, and is was considered the most technically difficult translation effort to date. Only though massive effort by a genius ASM hacker did it ever get finished. Of course nowadays ROM translations are relatively commonplace this game was one of the first really big breakthroughs in game translation. But enough about that, let's talk about the game it's self. The story apparently takes place ages before both the other two games, but really has no connection aside from the Mana Tree/Sword and the elemental spirits. The story involves a bunch of villains all going after "Mana Stones" for various reasons and six heroes who try and stop them, although you can only play three of them at a time. The interesting thing is there is some non-linearity in parts and some branching paths. Each hero has his or her own intro if you choose them as the first character and his or her own little section neer the end of the game. In addition the story branches into three paths at the end each with it's own final boss and it's own (almost) final dungeon. The 6 heros are divided into 3 male/female pairs and each pair takes one of these paths. In addition to that each hero can do two class changes to either light or dark, and depending on your choice you get different spells or abilities. This makes the replay value higher then normal but there is still not much difference between all the options. The gameplay is much more refined from Secret of Mana and flows better, but the different weapons and interchangeable armor is gone, as well as weapon and spell levels. The combat is somewhat faster and yet also slower as instead of stamina, each time you hit there is simply a short pause before you can hit again, making rapid attacks impossible but also making the time between attacks shorter. Oddly, the short pause doesn't happen if you don't actually hit anything. Also you don't actually need to aim your attacks this time, as it automatically faces the nearest enemy. You can even hold the button to automatically run up to one. One thing I liked is they brought back choosing what stats you level up, making your growth customizable somewhat. It still has flaws though. It still suffers from spell spam problems, maybe even worse then Secret of Mana did, but now spells just pause the whole game rather then making their target float in place unable to move. This means you will probably spend much more time spamming on the menu button hoping to open it before bosses pause the game, but Secret of Mana sort of had that problem too and it didn't bother pausing at all so its probably slightly less annoying overall. The game also has the problem that as much as one level can make a difference between enemies being almost impossible to kill and being a cakewalk. If you are as much as a few levels under an enemy, they will take 1 HP from most anything. If you are a few levels over, they almost always die in one hit. The later areas can be extremely annoying for this reason. One of the biggest flaws is after a while the story sort of petters out and sends you to a long annoying enemy-infested area after another doing some task or another and offers little in the way of anything new or interesting for a while. It seems like 50% of the game is filler, and not very entertaining filler. Overall good, but lacking, especially later in the game where it becomes way to tedious to be at all fun. It's still probably the best of the series though, because it's all downhill from here.

Number 4 - Legend of Mana
If there ever is a game I have mixed feelings about it's this one. Released for the first Playstation, this game certainly has an edge in the eye candy department. Wonderful hand-painted backgrounds, cool music, flashy effects, huge bosses, ect. The problem is, the game isn't really that good. First of all, the story tries to do a SaGa-style thing where everything is more or less a collection of sidequests. It is siad to take places ages before even Seiken Densetsu 3, but it's impossible to tell really. Apparently the world has been more or less destroyed following a war involving mana and everything in it has been turned into these artifact things. I think. It never really is clear. Anyway you can find and place these artifact things on a world map to rebuild the world, but there is almost no point to this except some special things involving "mana levels" which is never really explained. Yeah this game likes to not really explain things. Unlike SaGa however, there really doesn't seem to be any explanations at all no matter how hard you look. Anyway, things happen, and then suddenly you use the Mana Sword as an artifact to make the Mana Tree and fight the dark version of the Mana Goddess. And thats about it. Yeah. Well okay there appears to be lots of backstory and side quests but none of it really builds to anything, unlike most of the SaGa games where there is usually at least one main thread connecting everything that happens. There are however three "main" quest threads that lead to the final battle, but they are sort of unrelated to anything but themselves. Gameplay-wise Legend of Mana actually has a fair amount of depth to it. You can learn special moves and attacks, forge weapons, make magical spells by combining instruments with cards given from elemental spirits (which in this game seem to be creature types and not unique characters), make yourself a robot-like golem partner, capture and raise monsters, and even harvest fruit. The problem is that all of that is almost entirely pointless because combat is a complete joke. Combat in Legend of Mana resembles a old arcade-style beat 'em up in almost every way. It even annoyingly locks the screen when you encounter enemies in a similar style to old arcade games. The thing that is different is combat is easy as hell. Like even way beyond Symphony of the Night level easy. Enemies mull around and attack very rarely (with the exemption of zombies who will kill your ass dead. Frigging zombies... They are always annoying in all the games in the series) and do almost nothing to avoid hits. You can repeatedly attack most enemies with your weakest attack and they will do almost nothing to you. Bosses are no better, letting you wail on them almost without retaliation. In addition special techniques and boss attacks have long flashy pointless animations that play before they are used, letting any target easily step out of the way far before the attack. Then they have a pointless cooldown animation after also. And during all this, the user can't be harmed at all. The thing is, this is not even the animation of the attack it's self I am talking about, just the pre-attack and post-attack flashes. They are pointless, useless, annoying, and idiotic in every way and who ever thought such things are a good idea in a realtime game is a complete idiot. The thing is though there are lots of short attacks without those problems anyway so it just makes those attacks utterly retarded. Bosses usually use nothing BUT those types of attacks making boss fights ridiculously easy because you can just mash the button and back off when he starts to use an attack then go back and mash some more. If there is any game I wish had the source code available somewhere it is this one, because this game more then any other is one that has the potential to be good if it were just done RIGHT.

Number 5 - Shin'yaku Seiken Densetsu/Sword of Mana
This game is a Gameboy Advanced remake of the first game. It somehow managed to ruin it. I know, I am shocked too. Maybe it's the infusion of extra angst to the story line. Maybe it's the altering of the basic but functional magic system to one that is dependent on the weapon you have equipped and is much less useful in general. Maybe it's the fact that it is utterly boring and ridiculously easy. I donno. How did they mess up this game? The original was simple and fun, if they had done the same thing with some of the annoying aspects fixed it would have been great, but somehow they ruined it. After this game, my love for the series was over. Legend of Mana was disappointing but had they fixed it's problems I would forgive them. But this... this is just... UGHHH!

Number 6 - Children of Mana
A sort of realtime semi-rougelike game for the DS, only the dungeons are boring as hell (and possibly not random, I forget, but they might as well be, because they look repetitive enough). It's biggest problem is there are only a handful of different items and spells to get. One interesting thing is it has a sort of bouncy physics system in play and you can knock enemies and objects around into one another, which is sorta fun, but never gets used for anything interesting. It also reuses a lot of graphics from Seiken Densetsu 3. Over all a lazy attempt to cash in on the name.

Number 7, 8, and 9 - Friends of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 4/Dawn of Mana, Heroes of Mana
Never played any of these, and likely never will (I may take a look at Heroes of Mana, but I doubt it). Friends of Mana is a strange mobile phone MMORPG. Japan stop with these strange MMO games I will never be able to play already, I am getting sick of it! At least develop for flash, java, or something else I can use on my PC too. Seriously. Anyway it doesn't even have it's own wiki page so bah. Dawn of Mana is for the Playstation 2 and apparently the official forth game in the series, even though I was pretty sure Legend of Mana was known as Seiken Densetsu 4 at one point. Anyway it apparently gets rid of all the RPG elements and is just pure action. So yeah. Pass. Heroes of Mana is a real time stratagy game like Warcraft (not World of) for the DS. I never like those types of games very much, but if there is enough RPG stuff too, it may be fun. I will need to check for videos of it or something.

So there you go. As you can see, I felt the series was always kind of flawed and it rapidly went to crap after 3 and never recovered, but hey, maybe one day they will get it right. Heres hoping.


  1. You know, I've only ever played the SNES Seiken Densetsu games. I ended up enjoying Secret of Mana more than 3 because it was a lot simpler, and there wasn't any need to worry about optimization like in 3. The annoying thing about 3, I found, was that you either needed to optimize (and wreck the game) or make a terrible team (and the game wrecks you). No "middle ground" where a player that doesn't really get the finer details of optimization but still gets the concept of party balance can fit in. I wish I knew of more RPGs that had a similar engine as SoM's, turn based gets kind of boring without a deep strategy to go with it, and action based is boring if it goes too deep with the strategy. All the games I manage to find seem to go and do the game design choices that annoy me the most.

  2. That goes into what I was talking about with levels too, how enemies are either way too weak or ridiculously powerful based on only one or two levels difference. Honestly it's a problem with all level-based RPGs but SD3 has it particularly bad.

    That reminds me of another gripe of SD3 (and most other RPGs): Equipment is almost pointless because it's simply linearly acquired. Every town or shop has equipment that is simply BETTER then the one before it, making equipment quickly become obsolete. Whats the point of having equipment if it isn't used to gave you special attributes and such? In addition the interface SD3 uses is painfully slow for equipping stuff.