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Fried Take - "The Legend of Legacy" (2015)

It's been a while since we had something that felt like a classic, quality JRPG, with no pandering to a demographic hungry for skimpy costumes, no attempts to make the genre seem "accessible" and "modern," and no glorified teen angst wrapped in a billion convoluted nonsense words. Just a vast fantasy world to explore and grind levels through, full of challenges and mysteries. The market's hurting for more titles like that.

Now, after several bosses and dozens of deaths, and with only a fraction of the sprawling map uncovered, I can say in full certainty that The Legend of Legacy is everything I want in a classic Japanese role-playing experience... and then some.

In this game, nothing is made readily apparent to the player. The narrative, where to go, how to progress, how a map is laid out, what enemies to avoid... almost everything is obfuscated behind a thick cloud of smoke, and from behind it, you can practically hear a voice screaming, "figure it out!"

From a narrative standpoint, this might seem like a risky approach to take, but it ends up working in the game's favor. Choosing from one of seven different protagonists, players have to navigate the story by talking to other characters, exploring every inch of every map, and do a bit of guesswork to figure out what, exactly, is happening. Each narrative overlaps with the other, and players can recruit the other protagonists into their party as they go on. While selectively learning about each character's varying motivations, details about the mysterious land of Avalon, its tumultuous past, and uncertain future trickle into the story, weaving thin bits of silk into the narrative until players are left with a rich, complex, colorful tapestry.

Perhaps a game that lacks the emotional gut-punches of a Final Fantasy or the interpersonal drama of a Persona could be considered behind the times, but I never got that feeling here. The lack of detail and overall focus on world-building here feels like a deliberate choice, and it pays off by crafting a world that I felt genuinely sucked in to, perhaps more than any other title this year.

Aiding that emphasis on exploration and discovery is a system of progression that is downright ingenious. Instead of telling players where to go, and how to get there, and what to do once they arrive, The Legend of Legacy is content to simply sit back and say, "eh, do whatever." Skip an entire dungeon and head straight for a boss area, or meticulously track down every sub-boss and item to prepare yourself. Grind levels on hordes of enemies or find items that buff you for big fights. While, yes, there is a very, very loose structure that you're supposed to follow, how you build upon that structure is up to you. By buying a map in the hub town, you gain access to a whole new area, and you're free to go exploring. That's that. The world is, essentially, yours for the taking.

The worlds are colorful, vibrant, and teeming with life.
This approach is part of the reason that this game works so well. So many RPGs, particularly recent ones hailing from Japan, boast vast plains and wide oceans to explore, but so few actually capture the joyful, addictive feeling of risk-and-reward exploration and discovery. This game is one of the few. At no point has the illusion of Avalon being a real place been broken for me, and I suspect that moment won't ever come. Ruins, forests, valleys, fields and more are contained on this tiny cartridge, and rendered with more care and attention than perhaps any other title on the console, even the deservedly popular, exploration-focused Etrian Odyssey franchise. It's a genuine joy to explore every level, which in turn fills out a map for you to sell in town for a high price. So, not only is exploring each new place fun, it's lucrative.

Within all of these places are enemies, of course, and the way you tackle them is a delicious blend of old-school strategy and new-school innovation. A three-person party goes into battle against up to five enemies, and from the outset, players pick the positioning of the characters. You can stand in the traditional horizontal line formation, bracing everybody for full offense, or put one character in front of the others to sponge up any oncoming damage. You pick up more formations as you progress, and as the characters train in certain roles, they become more accustomed to them.

I say "accustomed" because in The Legend of Legacy, the traditional "leveling" system has been thrown out the window in favor of a more specialized approach. There are no "levels" for each character, per se; instead, stats and attacks of each character become leveled up individually based on how one plays the game. If a character uses a sword a lot, they're going to learn more sword moves; the more they use those moves, the stronger those moves get. And if a character acts as a damage sponge for the entire party, they're able to block more moves and soak up more hits, their HP and Defense boosting accordingly.

This system is brilliant. In a wealth of role-playing games, characters either gain arbitrary levels and players root through stats screens to figure out what a character is good at, or players use attribute points to stat out a character however they want. Both of these are great systems when used right, and I'm not trying to knock them in any way. That said, seeing a developer take the initiative to deviate from the norm is refreshing, and the fact that it works in such an intuitive, substantial way is significant. Taking an older style of gameplay and reframing it in a new way is no easy task, yet that's exactly what FuRyu has done here.

Each character has their own reason for joining the fray.
It's a good thing, too, that the core gameplay is so tight and intuitive, because some of the challenges facing players are downright heinous at first glance. Seemingly minor threats will wipe a party of characters out without a second thought, and boss encounters will often happen out of the blue, no foreshadowing whatsoever. But thankfully, players can save the game anywhere, at anytime, and it's a feature I'd encourage anyone to use liberally. One save can mean the difference between a fun challenge and a frustrating exercise in backtracking.

Even when your entire party doesn't wipe, however, it's still best to try your hardest to keep everyone alive, thanks to a Dark Souls II-esque health penalty system. See, your party will start at full health at the outset of every battle, but if a character falls in that battle, their max HP gets bumped down a notch until you go back into town and rest up at the inn. If that character keeps dying, their health will keep getting decreased, eventually reaching a comically low level, until restoration.

This, on top of the core difficulty, has lead to many critics deriding The Legend of Legacy as "too hard." Personally? I find anyone who says that to be utterly full of shit. "Too hard" has never, isn't, and will never be a legitimate complaint, at least as far as I'm concerned. There's "obliquely designed," "mechanically unsound," and about a billion other things you can say, but "too hard" translates to "I wasn't good at it and therefore it's bad" in my book.

None of those above terms apply to this game, either. The challenge in The Legend of Legacy comes purely from the game's staunch refusal to handhold and coddle players, instead opting to throw them in and force them to formulate their own strategies, cultivate their own strengths, overcome their own weaknesses. It's a game that isn't insurmountable, just stubborn.

But out of that stubbornness comes some of the most rewarding experiences in my recent gaming career. For example, I ran into the first major boss really early on in the game. It completely wrecked me, and every time I came back, it took me out in a new, surprising, and disheartening way, without fail. Each time, I left the area and explored, charting new maps, getting new equipment, learning new strategies. By that fifth or sixth time, I came back to the boss, ready for a fight. I got exactly what I came for. Even though I was properly leveled, probably overleveled, the boss kept me on my toes. I couldn't just tank through with strength alone. I needed to think. I needed to plan. Slipping into a steady rhythm, and almost wiping a few times, I finally managed to take it out.

The art direction and designs are among the best on the 3DS.
That several hour attempt at cracking the code for defeating a boss, learning its secrets, schooling myself on the lore behind it, gathering items that could reverse its attacks... it's very telling of the type of player The Legend of Legacy demands. It's only for the most attentive and patient players, the type of person who doesn't want to just breeze through a game and move on to the next one. It demands your attention in every possible way, and if you give it anything less than your undivided focus, you're doing a grave disservice to the experience as a whole. It's not "too hard." It's not "repetitive." It's a demanding, challenging, intricate game, the type of experience that we rarely get these days, and certainly not from a full-price retail game.

In a marketplace where developers scramble to try and figure out how to make games more accessible, more able to be easily played through, FuRyu has stood up, put its foot down, and said, "to hell with that," producing a challenging, complex, engaging piece of interactive art. From top to bottom, it's a nuanced and dense experience, all at once. This, coupled with some truly stellar music and a gorgeous art direction, makes The Legend of Legacy one of this year's best titles, and perhaps one of the best role-playing games I've ever played.


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