Guest article by Matt Hobbs
"A lost masterpiece."
"A forgotten classic."
"One of the best games ever."
And naturally, Seiken Densetsu 3 (lit: "Legend of the Holy Sword"), the sequel to the wildly popular Secret of Mana (which was itself "Seiken Densetsu 2″ in Japan) is often showered with such praise. But does it deserve it, or is it yet another overpraised piece of garbage? The truth is somewhere in between.
Infamously and tantalizingly featured in numerous gaming magazines as being slated for release in North America, under the name "Secret of Mana 2″… but this never materialized. To this day, SD3 remains the *only* World of Mana game *not* to see an English release. As a result, it was wrapped in mystery for many years, until it eventually saw an unofficial fan translation. RPG fans everywhere rejoiced.
Right from the start, you’re asked to pick a protagonist and two companions from a team of six RPG staples. You have Duran, your brash sword-wielding mercenary; Angela, the sexy yet somewhat clumsy sorceress, Kevin, a half-man half-beast who can turn into a werewolf; Lise, a strong-willed amazon princess; Hawk, a gentleman thief; and Carlie, a young half-elf half-human girl who was obviously intended to be cute, yet just comes across as annoying much of the time. Each of these six characters has their own strengths and weaknesses, and each brings something completely different to the table. The plot is pretty straightforward "save the world", but it’s made somewhat more interesting by the fact that the game differs in places depending on who your chosen protagonist is. That said, you aren’t actually getting six separate stories ala SaGa Frontier; while each character has his or her own distinct intro sequence, the core of the game remains largely unchanged, and unfortunately ends up being essentially a pair of world-wide fetch quests, broken up by events in-between. First, you search the world for the eight elemental spirits (all of which you’ll recognize from Secret of Mana), followed by some character-specific events that generally amounts to the same thing, then a quest to seek out and destroy eight legendary "God Beasts", which leads into the final sequence of events which are, again mostly the same.
There are three "paths" through the game, which cover the stories, shared antagonists, and a few unique dungeons, of three pairs of characters: Duran/Angela get one path, Hawk/Lise get another, and Kevin/Carlie get the last. Interestingly, you are not actually required to pair these characters at any point, though doing so does result in extra scenes and the story overall making more sense. This setup already adds some replay value, as unless you pick the exact same team setup again, no two playthroughs will be *exactly* alike. The differences aren’t always significant, but it’s nice to see that effort was put into keeping the game fresh through replays.
The gameplay is simple, yet deceptively deep at the same time, with the main draw being a simplistic class system. At level 18, characters are allowed to change to one of two classes, one "Light" and one "Dark", which both grant new — and often completely different — skills, and better stats. You can change again at level 38, once again having a choice between two classes, which themselves are based on whether you picked Light or Dark earlier. This means each character has a total of seven classes: the default, the two second level classes, and four third level classes. It ultimately doesn’t matter which classes you pick, as they’re all very powerful, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in mixing and matching certain characters/classes to make a nearly unstoppable team.
There is a downside to this, however. First off, the game expects you to have changed classes before certain points in the game, or you’ll be brutally slaughtered. This entails a fair amount of level grinding, which affects many gamers like kryptonite affects Superman. Second, there’s a lot of overlap between certain classes in what skills they can use. While this is generally not a problem, the game does not tell you what new classes *do* when you change; you’re left to figure that out for yourself, which could result in teams with completely redundant skillsets, such as one character possessing a skill that one of his/her allies can *also* use, *and* multi-target on top of that. There’s rarely, if ever, a need for multiple characters to have the same skills. Reading an FAQ on the class system can be an enormous help in developing a team that works well together. One good example would be Angela and Duran or Kevin. Being your token mage with a wide variety of spells at her disposal, Angela is going to burn through MP quickly. In certain class setups, Duran and Kevin are both capable of learning Tree Saber, which enchants one ally’s weapon with the ability to drain MP from enemies on attack. This combination can result in Angela having nearly limitless MP, greatly increasing her usefulness. However, it can work in reverse, as it’s entirely possible to end up with no characters capable of using healing magic, forcing you to rely on items to heal.
Combat is rather standard action RPG fare: gone and forgotten are the very irritating "percentage meter" and painfully slow charged attacks from Secret of Mana. There’s a short pause between when you attack once and when you’re able to attack again, but it’s no longer the three second wait between two attacks. In place of the charge attacks is a meter that builds up as you attack enemies. When it’s full, you can unleash a much more powerful physical attack at no MP cost. As you change classes, you gain access to second and third level super attacks, which do more damage at the cost of taking longer to use, and can sometimes even hit all enemies on the screen. These are very useful, as the enemies are not going to go down as easily as their Secret of Mana counterparts; especially bosses.
Difficulty-wise, the game is considerably tougher than Secret of Mana, but not always for the right reasons. If you’ve played SoM, you no doubt know just how overpowered magic is in that game, and how it could quickly put an end to boss battles. Well, not only is that not going to work anymore, but the enemies often employ the same tactics on *you*. Not just bosses, but starting disturbingly early on, *regular enemies* will begin throwing spells and special attacks at you. And the damage is not trivial: An enemy’s regular attack may deal 5 damage or less… these same enemies’ spells/special attacks on the other hand, tend to deal over 100 damage. There is no stopping these attacks, and there is no avoiding them: The game literally freezes while the attack is performed; many of these attacks, particularly later in the game, also hit the entire team. With your HP capping out at 999 (and then that’s only if you grind to prohibitively high levels), and the strongest of these attacks being able to do upwards of *400-600* *unblockable* damage to your entire team, battles, both regular and boss, often end up painfully luck-based, as you simply pray enemies don’t use these attacks. Worse *still* is that many enemies will use these as an instant counter to *your* spells or special attacks. God help you if you’re fighting *multiple* enemies who do this; a mid-game boss battle against three Machine Golems is *much* tougher than it needs to be because of this. The fact that they can all use their stupidly overpowered hit-all attacks as they please makes you want to end the battle quickly via magic or special attacks of your own… yet this is a phenomenally bad idea, as you’ll get countered by *all three* Golems. This is just straight up going to kill you. Yeah, it’s not much fun when enemies basically have an "I win" move they can use whenever they damn well feel like it.
Compounding matters is that the leveling system is rather strange and cumbersome. At level up, you *do* gain HP and MP, but you’re only allowed to raise one of six stats, and only then by a single point. It’s not a unique system by any means; Shin Megami Tensei did it years before, for example, and Bethesda’s RPGs would use this system as a staple decades later. But what makes this setup irritating in Seiken Densetsu 3 is that the game arbitrarily caps off certain stats until you’ve raised others, essentially forcing you to build a "balanced" character, often by way of raising stats that character has no particular use for. Another factor is that raising certain stats is how characters learn new skills. Angela learns her skills by raising her intelligence, for instance, while Hawk’s are learned by raising his agility. At no point are you actually *told* this, however, so there’s a good chance you’re sinking points into stats they actually *need* raised (such as vitality in both cases), wondering why you’re not learning anything new. Finally, at high levels, you may find that *all six* stats are capped, resulting in nothing more than a tiny HP boost as your reward for a half hour of grinding. Why even have such a growth system if you’re going to use it to railroad players? The entire point of a "choose your own stat boosts" is to allow the player to create as balanced or lopsided a character as desired.
One final unfortunate aspect of the overall gameplay is that many aspects rely annoyingly on blind luck. I’ve already touched on how luck-based battles can be… but it doesn’t stop there. Remember that second class change I mentioned earlier? Yeah, about that. While the only requirement for the first class change is to be at level 18, the second one requires, in addition to a high level, a special item to "break the seal" on that class. The method for obtaining these items is needlessly convoluted and random: You first have to kill random enemies, hoping one will drop a "??? Seed". The game does not tell you which enemies may drop these, and only the last enemy killed has a chance to drop anything *period*. The drop rate of these is fortunately not as horrible as you’d expect, but having to farm random drops is *never* anyone’s idea of fun. But even when you get the seeds, the random chance doesn’t end, as you have to plant them at inns, where they’ll grow into a *random* class change item. While the game is merciful enough to limit the potential results to both characters you have with you *and* the current class path you’re on, that still leaves only a 1/6 chance of getting the item you *want*. Getting the ultimate equipment once you’ve *achieved* this last set of classes is just as frustrating, possibly moreso. Again, you’re blindly hunting seeds from enemies, this time "Weapon/Armor Seeds". Planting these causes a random piece of equipment to grow for one of your three characters. And since each character has four pieces of equipment, and what appears is *random*, you now have only a 1/12 chance of getting what you want. This sort of double randomness nonsense is totally unnecessary and detracts from the overall experience.
Now that I’ve gone on far too long about the gameplay, I’d like to close this thing by covering the last aspects of any given game: The audio/visuals. The graphics are widely hailed as some of the finest on the SNES, and by and large they *are* indeed very pretty… so long as we’re talking about nature. The plains, forests, mountains, caverns, deserts, snow fields, and jungles are amazingly well-crafted, complex, and very detailed. And it’s the subtleties that really impressed me: The little animated odds and ends, the numerous tile variations that give these areas a very weathered, natural look. Unfortunately, it seems man is not as skilled as nature was in this world, as anything man-made looks amazingly bland and repetitive. Every house interior in the game uses the exact same tileset, barring palette changes for certain regions, and the decoration is sparse. Castles are even worse in this regard, as it’s not uncommon to find numerous rooms that are completely empty. No decoration, just a small square room made of bricks, lazily thrown together, and often just for the sake of trapping you and forcing you to fight a few enemies to escape. I’ve seen amateur RPG Maker games with more detail than SD3 castles boast. The contrast between man-made constructs and natural environments is so jarring that it literally feels like two different games mashed together at times.
Finally, the soundtrack , which is one of the few areas in which I feel does indeed deserve all the praise it gets. From the wild, upbeat "Swivel" played on the Molebear Heights and Golden Road, to the intense drum-filled "Rolling Cradle" played in some boss fights, this is truly Hiroki Kikuta’s crowning achievement, and one of the best soundtracks on the SNES. Each song (and the soundtrack is fairly large) is perfectly suited to where it’s used. With a surprisingly large number of boss themes, and most major cities having their own theme, there’s a lot to like here. I’d say more on the subject, but despite being a game music fanatic, I am horrible at actually *describing* music, or why I like it, beyond "I just do". Fortunately, this is a common soundtrack, easily-found on the internet, so it’s best to seek it out and let it speak for itself. If you can play SPC files, I’d highly recommend grabbing the SPC set from SNESMusic.org.
Anyhow, in conclusion, Seiken Densetsu 3 *is* a decent enough game, but as for the title of "best RPG ever", its broken gameplay and too-heavy emphasis on blind randomness keeps it from reaching that lofty goal.