Genesis Trees. Seru. Ra-Seru. Malevolent Mist. Crystal Grass. Weed Hammers. There are so many things that remind me of 1999's Legend of Legaia it isn't funny. Like most RPG's, Legaia is big on imagination but short on individuality. Well, that last part isn't completely true, the game offering its own unique twist on combat. Still, was this element of the game enough to make it successful in its day, and is it enough to power it twelve years later?
In the world of Legaia, combat is a little more involved than it is in most role-playing games. Characters attack enemies with left and right punches (weapons and Ra-Seru) and high and low kicks. These strikes, when performed in a specific order, unlock “arts,” unique attacks that surpass standard blows in strength and ability. Depending on how they're performed, arts can be overlapped to form combos. In short order these basics are joined by advanced techniques like Hyper Arts (elementally-infused beat-downs), Super Arts (combos ending with otherwise inaccessible moves) and Miracle Arts (ultimate attacks that require a maxed-out command bar and ninety-nine arts points).
So how is all of this action reigned in? First of all, arts consume arts points. Also limiting what can be attempted per turn is the length of a character's command bar. By employing the “Spirit” command, the player can temporarily extend this bar, restoring their AP and raising their defense. Not only is protecting your character in this manner important, the command effectively shaving two-thirds worth of damage off any attack, it's also how your characters fuel their offensive.
Unfortunately, as clever as Tactical Arts System is, things start to slowly unravel when one looks beyond the hand-to-hand combat. As important as it is for your characters to absorb Seru throughout the course of the adventure, the player will quickly discover there is little reason to cast offensive Seru unless they're in a boss battle and can use the Kemaro spell. Faced with such a situation (despite the fact some summons can hit multiple targets) the main reason behind most casting will be healing. Unattractive as offensive magic ends up being, its small potatoes compared to the real problem holding Legaia's combat hostage: money.
So how can money cause a game's battle system to collapse? It's quite easy. We've already touched on the slow pace of combat – multiple menus, watching arts and summons unfold, the need to switch between offense and defense – that's easy to overlook when traveling from A to B. Unfortunately, this forgiveness runs thin when one's faced with the wide gap between the gold obtained from fighting and price of new equipment. So if you love to fill your coffers each time you get to a new town, you're not going to be very happy. What is going to make you less happy is the amount of time you'll have to devote to get the cash.
Now, I'm not against working for money and experience in an RPG, but you'd think by this point in the evolution of gaming this kind of stuff would be done away with. I can see and accept things like this in an older, SNES RPG like Breath of Fire II, but in this day and age (and even back in 1999) it's unnecessary. And this is how combat, Legend of Legaia's “ace-in-the-hole” becomes its biggest liability because of it's over exposure. At this point you may be wondering if it can get any worse. It does. Random battles become tortuous during the final leg of the journey where normal enemies gain the ability to smite your entire party; it's especially painful in the final dungeon where the Seru come in threes.
Beyond the plight befalling Legaia's combat, there's little debate that the remainder of the experience is inspired, adequate, and insipid. Michiru Oshima's music is a great example. The light and heavy earthen tones employed throughout are appropriate on the whole, but it's never anything more than a simple backdrop that can't live beyond its context. Pointed commentary aside, even I have to eat those words upon entering a Mist Generator; the drive and oppression that flows from “The Misty Nest” personifies the evil nature of these infernal machines to a tee. Truth be told, there is nothing special about this composition, but it capitalizes on the kind of synergy that's missing from the majority of the score.
Legaia's storyline shares a somewhat similar fate. Like most J-RPG's, the cliche's are out in force, so don't expect anything to jump out and truly surprise you. As one dimensional as the villains are, it's not like Vahn, Noa and Gala exactly jump off the screen. There is no doubt they are likable, but they don't break any new ground as far as character archetypes go. You have the good old country boy with the mandatory blue hair in Vahn, the disciplined warrior-monk on a quest for revenge with Gala and the lonely, socially-awkward wilderness girl Noa. As if it needs to be said, the type casting continues in battle with Vahn being the all-around character, Noa relying on her agility to make up for her fragile frame and the big bruiser Gala starting off extremely limited but coming into his own late–to-mid game.
Last but not least are graphics. While most people will probably agree that Legaia looks a lot better in battle than out of it, both realms lead to the argument that Legend of Legaia is somewhat dull and uninspired. While this happens to be true given the game's setting and scenario, there are several things that fight against it. Despite the fact the normal, non-Seru enemies could have used a lot more imagination, the Seru themselves are an intriguing bunch that come off as a demented take on Nintendo's Pokemon. Watching your characters bruise enemies with arts along with the visual evolution of your character's Ra-Seru, weapons and armor are sights to behold.
After playing through Legend of Legaia for the first time in over a decade, I've learned that one's memory can be awfully selective. I had placed Legaia on equal footing with the genre's heavyweights only to discover that its shortcomings place it significantly lower. That said, I'm glad I played it and rediscovered the truth. As annoying as some of the situations in game can be, I'm going to go easy on it. While some will see this as a disservice, I can't condemn the game when its ambitions are in the right place. Guilty or not, if you're a fan of RPG's and have a soft spot for the original PlayStation there is no excuse to skip over what Legend of Legaia has to offer - the good, the bad and the ugly.