Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Games That Are Not As Good As You Think: Seiken Densetsu 3

When the English patch for Seiken Densetsu 3 first came out, I played it with my critical faculties pretty firmly in the off position. And who wouldn't? Here was the sequel, long denied us, to the universally-beloved Secret of Mana! With even more gorgeous graphics! The chance to mix and match six characters! Alternate plot paths! And branching class changes! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE NOT TO LIKE?!?! So I tore through it in record time (with Hawk and, I believe, Carlie and Lisa), and it was kind of a euphoric experience, even if I didn't quite have the wherewithal to do it twice more to see the other last levels and bosses.

But that was nine years ago; I barely remembered the game, so I thought it might be edifying to give it another go. And it was. Sort of. I did enjoy it to an extent, but what I mainly enjoyed was basking in the glow of late-SNES Squaresoft graphics, which, in my doubtlessly nostalgia-addled opinion, are the most aesthetically pleasing graphics there are; and the whole Mana ambiance. And it's a good thing that there were these intangible elements that I could fall back on, because they're about the only things there are--in most respects, SD3, I came to realize, is a remarkably poorly-designed game. I can't help but think that graphics and nostalgia had the same effect on a lot of people as they did on me: the average review on gamefaqs is probably a 9+, which this game most assuredly does not deserve.

Where to even start? The story is an inconsequential trifle. Yes, the ways in which your choices of characters, as well as the characters you didn't choose, influence the plot in small ways is pretty impressively done. But the plot as a whole--a clumsy mess involving a whole bunch of evil empires and corresponding sets of svengalis influencing them--is difficult to keep straight and, more to the point, difficult to care about. At one point I had the idea that maybe all this nonsense was meant to be a parody of shallow yet incoherent RPG plots featuring characters with paper-thin motivations, but no--I'm pretty sure it's the thing itself. Secret of Mana may not have had the all-time greatest storyline, but it was pretty damned good: it felt universal and generally epic, with plenty of fairly well-defined characters to love and hate. Final Fantasy Adventure (SD1) also has a surprisingly excellent plot--at the time it came out, it ranked among the best RPG stories ever, which is not too shabby for a Gameboy game. Nothing like this in SD3. This may in part be the fault of the translation--I'm not sure whether or not it was like this in the original, but, while the hacking is immaculate, the writing feels pretty wooden. Still, even with a dubious translation, a game's spirit tends to shine through, so I'm thinking that isn't the main issue.

That wouldn't be such a problem if not for the other rather large design issues, however. Combat, for instance. In SoM, of course, you have to spend a lot of time charging up attacks, making battles fairly slow-paced. SD3 does away with mandatory charging. This might seem to be a positive, but it doesn't work out that way. The controls and hit detection are somewhat dubious, meaning that skirmishes generally boil down to you mashing the attack button and trying to get in generally the right position while a confused jumble of PCs and enemies all do their thing (accompanied by graphical glitches aplenty). There's very little precision, and you never get much of a feeling of control. It kind of sucks, frankly.

And you can expect to be involved in a LOT of pointless combat, due to the terrible level layout. Now, Mana games have never been known for containing too many sidepaths to explore, but in FFA, you could often find hidden weapons and things by poking about, and in SoM, you would sometimes find weapon orbs or at least necessary switches. Branching paths were rarely entirely superfluous--whereas in SD3, they're rarely anything but. Dungeons (and overworld areas, for that matter) quickly become maddening as you stumble for far too long around obtuse maps, fighting through multiple rooms only to come to a dead end with no rhyme or reason and having to then fight your way back. These situations are all over the damn place. And they, too, suck.

People lament the Mana series' downfall, but what I've realized is that what it's downfalling from is only the first two games, making me think that FFA and SoM are flukes more than anything else. Sure, it's disheartening that the games got so bad that the series ultimately self-immolated, but there wasn't ever that much there there.


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