I've been pondering writing something about why The Legend of Legacy is good for awhile now; the game seems, to me, to be largely misunderstood. But it wasn't until Brandon Sheffield pointed out that when I listed it as one of my favorite games of 2015, I didn't really explain what kind of game it is or how it works that I really felt ready to tackle the topic.
Because it absolutely is one of my favorite games of 2015, and it is overlooked, misunderstood, maligned -- and in particular, I think it's a shame that it's likely to be discounted out of hand by people who might well connect with it like I did.
In fact, I think they're some of the most likely to dismiss it. Many people who have limited time and love the JRPG genre tend to save what time they do have for the big games, but my philosophy is increasingly becoming: Fuck that. You need to dig deep and figure out which titles you're genuinely going to enjoy.
For the right person, I think playing a game like The Legend of Legacy will be more genuinely rewarding than anything else.
The Curse of the JRPG
There are some ideas that have been floating around the console RPG space for more than a decade now; I really identified this phenomenon when I was reviewing games during the PlayStation 2 era, when the JRPGs flowed freely. It's not an exaggeration to say that I reviewed most of them.
One of the things that stuck with me about that era is that despite the proliferation of the genre, many of the games that I cared most about seemed to be all but ignored: Shadow Hearts: Covenant, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and (though it's not really an RPG, it fits the audience profile) Culdcept were very much overlooked. I had people telling me "no thanks" no matter what I said or wrote.
Anyway, I think you can trace the persistent misconceptions about the genre that I have identified back to the fact that Final Fantasy VII was the game that really popularized the genre in the West.
- One is that they're story-driven games.
- The other is that they're not played for their gameplay; their gameplay is something that's suffered for the story -- something you crack through, like the shell of an oyster, to get the soft meat.
These ideas are entirely fallacious, I'd argue, but they're also tenacious.
The Legend of Legacy is clearly a game I play exclusively for the gameplay -- because it hasn't really got a story at all!
People complain about that, as you must have guessed by now, as a big-time failing of the game; I consider it a bonus. I'm perfectly content to play a game that zooms along without superfluous dialogue. Let the developers spend time on what interests them and what they're good at. The fact that there is no story is obviously on purpose, not a mistake.
The supposition that JRPG = story is, well, flawed. Plenty of notable examples of the genre suggest otherwise. I could make a list, and it would stretch back to the 1980s and touch on every notable console platform that has been home to the genre, I'd wager.
And the gameplay thing? Well, I find that to be completely and utterly invalid. It's not that I don't get that some people don't like JRPGs, or just don't care about them. I found this while writing this post, and it made me laugh, but the next day I saw someone say much the same thing about a popular 2015 game, and they said it without a touch of irony.
What they don't seem to realize is that this is not how the genre is perceived by people who do like playing it. Look, it's simple: I wouldn't like the genre if I didn't like playing the games. This seems so incredibly obvious to me that I cannot think why anyone imagines otherwise. It's a seemingly incurable hangover of that brief time when people who didn't like playing them felt compelled to.
Go explore something!
So: What's so durn special about The Legend of Legacy's gameplay, then?
Well, the core of the game is sort of an "explore and conquer" JRPG. The gameplay is centered on wandering around large maps, trying to get more powerful by fighting enemies, and ultimately exploring everything in the world, mapping it, and discovering everything there is to find.
Sure, there are bosses to fight and switches to flip, but that stuff is almost incidental; it's very much about spending time poking around in the world and powering up your characters, and fighting battles that can be genuinely tricky to survive -- and require actual skill with a turn-based battle system.
The basic premise (even a game without a strong story needs a premise) is that a lost island continent has risen from the sea, bringing wilds and ruins full of magical beasts and artifacts to the light. Adventurers descend to explore its spoils and figure out just what the hell is going on. And that's where you come in: You head out, take stock of the wilderness and the crumbling keeps strewn about it, and obtain weapons, magic, and skills to aid you in your quest. You activate elemental devices, and open up more areas, and go on from there.
It's traditional, but in the sense that the tradition -- the true tradition of the genre, as I see it -- is to create games that follow a very basic framework (typically including things like towns, dungeons, and turn-based battle systems) and then tweaking them substantially to bring new gameplay experiences.
The first major tweak to The Legend of Legacy is that you don't simply earn experience points and level up. Nor is there a skill tree. During battles, you'll simply learn new skills on the fly based mainly on the ones you use (it seems the chance to learn new skills increases relative to how tough the enemy you're fighting is.) People tend to think it's random, but it's not -- it's opaque. That's different, and it's an important difference.
Sometimes, when you take down a crazy tough enemy, this happens. And it feels great.
People really dislike this, I've realized. It doesn't seem to make sense from a "classic" perspective -- like old Final Fantasy games that awarded experience points and periodically unlocked new abilities on level up. Never mind, of course, that not every game played by those same rules, even then -- not even Final Fantasy. Never mind that there's nothing objectively better or more transparent about it.
Remember, in 1992, Final Fantasy was weird, too. Final Fantasy is anything but consistent.
It certainly doesn't fit in with the era we live in now, with skill trees that let you plan out your path of advancement hours and hours in advance.
For me, though, it fits the game's theme of swashbuckling adventure and mystery; more important is the fact that it's a ton of fun to be surprised by what you learn. Even when it backfires (as in, "I really needed to heal right now, but I learned how to heal a status effect instead") it adds a pinch of spicy unpredictability to the game. It really hooked me and put a smile on my face -- a genuine "this is fun, and I want more of it" smile, while I was playing. Since you learn the new skills while the battle is still in progress, there's a very tangible, immediate sense of reward.
There's another point to be made, here: Because you don't slowly and steadily advance simply by accruing points, there's no reason to fight endless battles. It's much better to seek out tough enemies and try to persevere, and strategize to win, than it is to stop and grind on enemies which are easy (and not coincidentally, boring) to defeat. That this ties into the game's focus on exploration, is, of course, no accident.
The fact is, the game is tough by design. The enemies are strong, and use abilities mercilessly; they will not go easy on you or act "stupid" just to give you an easy time. Their abilities are not crippled. And all that means that to fight effectively, you have to strategize with the abilities you have got. You have to choose carefully, and consider what the best course of action is, turn-by-turn, character-by-character, and (crucially) enemy-by-enemy, prioritizing which ones to take out first when confronted with an encounter with a bunch of foes.
As of 20 or so hours in, this is my favorite enemy in the game.
This is amped up by a system that's, come to think of it, kinda like Final Fantasy XIII's Paradigm Shift. There are several stances, and different special abilities are best suited to different stances. On each turn, you select a party formation and then pick the abilities you want to use. But unlike XIII, it's a traditional turn-based system; like I said, you strategize turn-by-turn, to deliberately select the abilities you think will help you make it through the battle.
Oftentimes, you have to keep shifting strategies, or you're going to lose. Sometimes, a risky play pays off; sometimes, it digs you into a hole (that you now have to try and climb back out of.) And because it's turn-based, you have time to think; time to pick and choose. That is what's fun about the game. It's tough but fair!
In fact, the game has one subtle but significant touch that takes it from the realm of relic to friendly modern game -- which is that you can run from battle with a 100 percent success rate, at any time, as long as one character is still alive. The catch is that running from battle dumps you back at the entrance of the dungeon.
Since the goal of the game is to explore the dungeons (and fill in their maps by doing so) this is a choice you really have to weigh. It's against the goal of the game, but so is dying. It's always there, and it keeps the game from being frustrating, but you don't want to do it unless you have to. But when you do have to do it, it's such a relief. (Oh, and you can save anywhere, too.)
Very often, people confuse "simple" with "simplistic", and I think The Legend of Legacy has fallen victim to this sort of misguided thinking. It confounds players' expectations of what an RPG is. But, look, this idea that games are endless buffets of zillions of kinds of different things to do and collect and kill is actually pretty recent, or at least, it certainly didn't hold sway during this genre's formative years. If you want a sprawling JRPG that is completely in-step with the times in that sense and more, you can always play Xenoblade Chronicles X. If you want a more focused and quicker-paced game, The Legend of Legacy is there for you.
The fact of the matter is that the people who made this game had a very specific aim: To deliver a honed RPG experience that focuses on a very specific sort of play, in which exploration, discovery, battle, challenge, and surprise are the most important, and other things that the game could have done are, as it turns out, not important at all. And that's deliberate; it's not some sort of error. It's reflected in other decisions, too: The large numbers of optional bosses, and the scarcity of both money and really good equipment.
The fact that there is a large number of weapons and each has its own set of associated skills, but the game doesn't tell you which work well with which character nor what abilities you'll learn as you use them, well… I think it illustrates something about the game, as soon as you stop looking at it as a bug and start perceiving it as a feature. You're supposed to be figuring this stuff out, and, let me clue you in: You can.
The game has most often been compared to the SaGa franchise, for a lot of reasons that seem to make a lot of sense when I hear them; I can't really speak to that, though, because I feel like I never quite got any of the SaGa games that I did play, which is something I'm going to have to remedy some day.
In 1991, I was not complaining that this game did not have a story.
The game Legend of Legacy does put me in mind of, surprisingly, is Shining in the Darkness, which came out on the Sega Genesis in 1991. I hadn't really thought about it in years. No, Legend of Legacy doesn't look anything like it, but it gives me the same vibe when I play it. Shining in the Darkness was a huge first-person dungeon crawl with turn-based battles, and very challenging; I'd make it a little bit further, each go, and then limp back to town to lick my wounds and, if I got lucky, upgrade my gear. I never beat it (because I somehow never realized that developers, back in the day, were expecting you to bust out graph paper and make your own maps -- I wish somebody had told me) but I have such fond memories of it. I certainly didn't expect to be back in that headspace now.
Don't mistake my reverie for nostalgia. The Legend of Legacy is not a nostalgia trip. I brought up that example simply to illustrate that the genre has always had variety to it, and brought different kinds of satisfaction to its players. If there's one thing I want to communicate to you, it's that The Legend of Legacy is seriously fun to play, as Shining in the Darkness was.
That's what gets me about it: the designers focused the gameplay to providing one specific kind of experience, and I really enjoy that experience. I can sit there with the Masashi Hamauzu soundtrack pushing me along, and just happily try and figure out how to do what I want to do. And this time, it's okay to forget the graph paper.