The Legend of Legacy, a sequel to Square Enix’s SaGa series in all but name, makes a great first impression. From its Bravely Default-inspired art style, which mixes pop-up book backgrounds with expressive polygonal characters, to its layered, ethereal soundtrack by Final Fantasy XIII composer Masashi Hamauzu, this is a game that screams “epic.” And that’s before you even factor in a story by Masato Kato, the writer behind Chrono Trigger. It’s also got one of the most unique and engaging battle systems I’ve had the pleasure to experience in recent years – one that rewards dedication, customization, and attention to the flow of combat rather than forcing players to adhere to the tropes associated with its familiar cast of characters. In short, The Legend of Legacy feels like a dream come true for Japanese RPG fans. But it quickly becomes apparent that developer FuRyu just isn’t interested in offering the same type of experience as its famous forebears, and how much you get out of the game will depend largely on what it is you’re looking for in a JRPG.
The Legend of Legacy features seven playable characters, each with a unique backstory and motive for pursuing the mystery at the heart of the game’s plot. Anyone who’s played a Japanese role playing game will recognize the stereotypes these characters are drawn from, from the overeager young treasure hunter and the amnesiac girl, to the holy warrior and the exiled prince. However, your choice of character matters very little, as the real central character in The Legend of Legacy is actually the island of Avalon, upon which the adventure takes place. It seems Avalon was once home to a thriving, advanced civilization, one that successfully harnessed the power of the elements in pursuit of a more perfect existence. For reasons that are hinted at but never made entirely clear, that civilization eventually fell to its own hubris, leaving only remnants of its existence in the form of ruins scattered around the island.
Your role is to make as much sense as you can of that mystery, uncovering Avalon’s secrets as you trek across the island, mapping out its various ruins and exterminating the monsters that have taken up residence in them. Though it’s an interesting story (I like to think of it as a more spiritual take on the events of BioShock), it’s told in such minimal fashion that Kato’s involvement feels more like a highly targeted sales tactic than a genuine selling point. And that’s a shame, because the lack of a truly engaging narrative really detracts from what’s great about the game: its combat systems.
The Legend of Legacy is all about combat, and though its take on turn-based battles and character leveling might feel more than a little tedious if your only point of reference is mainstream JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII or X, it’s vastly more rewarding if you put some effort into it. There aren’t any experience points to track or overall character levels to strive for, and you won’t get your characters where you want them to be by brute-forcing your way through battles. Instead, every character trait–from hit points to the effectiveness of special attacks and spells–levels up independently, and this development is based on the time you spend developing those traits. Want to become more proficient at multi-target bow and arrow kills? You’ve got to spend time development not only that weapon, but the specific attacks that accomplish that goal. Want to get more hit points? Take more damage. If it sounds familiar but you’ve never played a SaGa game before, you might recall a similar system in Final Fantasy II (the Famicom/PSX/GBA version, not the SNES game). It was challenging and even a bit unwieldy then, but it’s great here.
And there’s more. To truly own each enemy engagement, you’ll also have to learn how to strategically command the elements of water, wind, and fire. Using items called Singing Shards, which you’ll find in the ruins scattered around Avalon, you’re able to form individual “contracts” with these elements. Contracts not only let you use specific elemental abilities you find in the field–for example, a water contract allows you to use water shields and healing spells, while a fire contract wil let you increase the power of your attacks and use fire-based attacks–but they also contribute to an interesting game of role reversal as enemies are constantly wrestling control of the elements back from you. If you’re smart, you’ll start most battles with one character absorbing damage while the other two form elemental contracts, then start laying down shields and buffs before you let loose with attacks. If you’re a winner, you’ll learn to anticipate when an enemy might try to draw a contract with an element you’re already commanding, and renew your own contract before the enemy has a chance to use it. Even if you renew a contract without an enemy trying to snatch an element away from you, you’re going to come out ahead, as each elemental contract you form increases your party’s proficiency with that element.
So yeah, combat is complicated (I haven’t even mentioned formations!), but once you’ve mastered its nuances, it can be incredibly rewarding. That said, The Legend of Legacy does hit hard with the occasional difficulty spike, and while I’m generally okay with that–it just means I have to find somewhere else to grind for awhile–I have to take umbrage with one particularly bastardly spike: the final boss battle. No, I’m not going to spoil that fight for you, but I will say this: if I’ve honed my characters to such a degree that they can mop the floor with literally everything else in the game (suck it, Shadow Giant trios!), I shouldn’t be getting wiped out randomly in a single turn by the final boss. In fact, I still haven’t beaten it, and I’m not sure I want to put in the extra several hours grind it’s going to take for my party to even have a fighting chance. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain as this is fairly typical for JRPGs; that doesn’t change the fact that I feel like the game doesn’t respect the considerable effort I’ve put into trying to complete it.
I could go on about this, but this isn’t the place for it. Because despite my disdain, The Legend of Legacy is a gorgeous, unique, and most importantly engaging RPG from a group of developers who’ve had their hands in some of the best games of the genre. It might not have much in the way of a story and it can be brutally difficult (use that quick save feature after every battle and remember to thank me later!), but its combat and character development are as fresh as they come. If you want a JRPG that will kick your ass while giving you plenty of ways to reciprocate, look no further.
Invisible Gamer’s review of The Legend of Legacy is based on final review code provided to us by Atlus U.S.A. The game launches on Tuesday, October 13th, 2015.