Towards the end of the Super NES’ lifespan, I played a groundbreaking title that remains as one of my favorite games to this day. This title, known as Secret of Mana, is still considered the pinnacle of the Action-RPG genre by many. Even Square’s own successors failed to have the kind of impact of Secret of Mana. What’s worse is that most of them weren’t even fun.
Well, there were a couple Square-developed Action-RPGs during the SNES era that attempted to dethrone Secret of Mana, but neither managed to succeed. The only one of these that reached America–Secret of Evermore, was an outstanding title to those who gave it a shot, but in the eyes of many, this American-developed RPG failed to live up to its predecessor.
There are a variety of reasons why it didn’t do so well, but one of these was not due to Secret of Mana’s success; it was because Square refused to release Mana’s successor, Seiken Densetsu 3 in the U.S. Many RPG fans were angered by Square’s refusal to release Secret of Mana’s sequel abroad, so they unfairly blamed it on Secret of Evermore.
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In reality, this decision had nothing to do with Evermore’s release–it was because Seiken Densetsu 3’s six character story was on a massive cart that wouldn’t be profitable to release in America. Seiken Densetsu 3 may have been worth releasing post-Final Fantasy VII when RPGs were all the rage, but it was simply too expensive to release on a Super NES cartridge.
Despite Seiken Densetsu 3 never being officially released here, an English version is available. Back in the early days of the Internet, RPG fans were clamoring to play import titles that would never see the light of day outside of Japan, so they had to resort to unconventional means. Some fans decided to take up programming and Japanese, so they could play Japan-only titles like Seiken Densetsu 3, Star Ocean, and Final Fantasy V.
Some of these titles have since been released, but Seiken Densetsu 3 has yet to make it here. Fans have been asking for this 1995 title for over a decade, but it’s unlikely that Square will ever answer their plea. First of all, not many people know of the title, and second, after the abysmal performance of recent titles in the franchise, we may never see a Mana game again.
Frankly, that doesn’t bother me all that much, since Square Enix seems incapable of making a Mana title that captures the magic of the first two games. In an ideal world, I’d love to see an excellent Secret of Mana sequel, but the closest we’ll probably ever get is Seiken Densetsu 3.
I originally heard of this elusive foreign title back in the year 2001 when I was playing Starcraft on Battle.net. An online friend of mine introduced me to the relatively unknown successor to Secret of Mana known as Seiken Densetsu 3. I’d actually heard about the title’s supposedly amazing graphics while in Japan shortly after its release, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to play it.
After some convincing by an online friend, I began my foray into the world of import games. Seiken Densetsu 3 was too difficult to play in Japanese due to the text’s abundance of kanji, so I played the much more comprehendible fan-translated version.
What I played impressed me for a variety of reasons. I appreciated how Seiken Densetsu 3 included three-player multiplayer unlike Legend of Mana, and I loved its gorgeous visuals and unique soundtrack, as I did with most Mana titles. The altered gameplay systems and enhanced replay value also impressed me in 2001.
Eight years later, I decided to give the game another shot. This time, I played with actual controllers and another player, so I had a genuine Mana experience.
I found that certain aspects of Seiken Densetsu 3 still impressed me–the artwork, animations, soundtrack, character customization, and replay value, but I soon realized that there was a reason I had forgotten much of the experience: It was the repetitive gameplay that threw out most of the good elements of the previous Mana titles. I’ll get to what went wrong with the gameplay in a moment, but first, I’d like to describe what Seiken Denestsu 3 did right.
Like the other early Mana games, Seiken Densetsu 3 has wonderful character artwork and whimsical environments. Seiken 3’s six characters all have plenty of personality, and the world around them is rich with detail. It’s a darker world than Secret of Mana to be sure, but the level of despair felt in the game world is something that was found in few other Super NES games.
As with Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3 has a massive world that can be explored almost entirely on foot. You’ll find a few other methods of transportation, but most of the time, you’ll be wandering from area to area seamlessly. This really immerses you in the world, and makes you feel as if you’re traveling with the characters.
The wonderful music also puts the player in an adventuring mood. Much of the music feels Celtic-themed, and it’s generally quite energetic. There are fewer notable songs than in Secret of Mana, but there are enough to keep you engaged in Seiken 3’s dark world.
Besides having nice artwork and music, Seiken 3 also featured three-player simultaneous gameplay. This feature was present in its predecessor, but it’s worth mentioning, because this would be the final Mana title to include such a feature (excluding Children of Mana). It’s a blast being able to run around the entire world with friends, so it’s unfortunate that future Mana titles didn’t include such an option.
Being able to play with three friends is great, but where Seiken Densetsu 3 really shines is with its innovative character system. In Seiken Densetsu 3, you’re able to choose from six characters. You’ll encounter all six characters over the course of the adventure, but you can only have the three you select at the beginning in your party throughout the entire game.
Depending on what characters you choose, you’ll have a different opening and ending dungeon. This means that you’ll only learn certain characters’ backgrounds, and that you’ll encounter different final bosses. There are three different possibilities, and I have encountered two of them (the third is a surprise final boss from Secret of Mana). This unique character-select system gives Seiken Densetsu 3 replay value that few other Action-RPGs have.
A final gameplay enhancement worth mentioning is the level-up/job class system. In Seiken Densetsu 3 when characters level up, they’re able to choose from seven different attributes such as strength, agility, intelligence, vitality, etc. Unfortunately, many of these aren’t explained, so if you aren’t an RPG nut, they’ll fly over your head. Still, it’s nice to be able to tweak your stats even if it’s more complicated than the stat altering system found in the original Seiken Densetsu.
The changes to the leveling system don’t stop there however. In Seiken 3, you’re eventually given the option of changing job classes. Once your set of characters ranging from thieves to knights hits level 18, you’re able to pick between two different classes for each character.
Each character’s classes are unique, so you can’t change someone who is a magic user into a knight for example. However, you can make some important decisions with each character. For example, you can turn a knight into a fairly strong fighter with minor healing abilities, or you can choose to make him a burly warrior that lacks the ability to use magic.
You’re also able to choose between two additional job classes after you gain twenty more levels, but this time, you have to find items to aid the transformation process. This is a hassle, but it opens up even more abilities.
Sadly, this is where Seiken 3’s improvements end. Having multiple stories is a nice bonus, but you’ll likely only want to play through the game once (if even that), due to it being a massive grindfest. Over the course of the game, you’ll witness story sequences sporadically, but most of your time will be spent in seemingly endless labyrinths.
On the overworld and in dungeons, there’s a never-ending supply of enemies. While this may be true for most other Action-RPGs, the difference here is that the confusing level design will force you to re-enter old rooms and fight the same enemies ad nauseam. Each dungeon has multiple paths that lead you to dead ends, so you’ll spend much of your time lost in dark caves with similar looking rooms.
This would all be doable if it had the combat system of Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy Adventure, but sadly, Seiken 3’s watered-down combat will make you dread entering each room. First of all, your weapons have to be unsheathed upon entering battle. This is done automatically, but once it happens, you’ll enter what I call, “The Battle of the Buttons.”
See, Seiken Densetu 3 has you pressing a button to execute a sword swing as you would in any other Action-RPG, but the difference here is that it doesn’t work half the time. Your sword attacks slower than your eighty old grandma swings her cane, but it’s made worse by the fact that when you press buttons, sometimes nothing happens. I played Seiken 3 both on Super Famicom and on computer, so I can verify that this isn’t simply an emulator issue.
Even doing simple things like entering the menu is a chore. You’ll find the familiar “ring system” made popular by Secret of Mana, but oftentimes, it takes forever to access the menu. This can be especially painful when fighting cheap end-of-game bosses that spam powerful spells.
This time, you can hold more items (up to nine instead of Secret of Mana’s four), but that’s the only improvement made to the combat. With unresponsive weapon attacks and slower spells, battle is something that a sane person would never look forward to.
Even worse are the neutered charge attacks that were an integral component of Secret of Mana. Charge attacks still exist, but your bar is represented by little lines that seem to build up randomly. Once this bar fills on a rare occasion, you can press the special move button to execute your single charge attack that doesn’t look much different from your regular attack. Thankfully, you’ll get better specials at some point once you change job classes, but it takes far too long for that to occur.
Another disappointing aspect of Seiken Densetsu 3 is the removal of magic and weapon levels. Now, only certain characters have magic, and they’re usually equipped with a limited number of spells. Many of these spells take forever to cast (until you get one of the final job classes), so you’ll spend plenty of time waiting during battle. Unfortunately, bringing a spell caster along is nearly essential, because weapons alone aren’t enough to defeat certain enemies.
It’s also too bad that weapon levels were removed. Now, a character is stuck with a certain type of weapon throughout the entire game, so if you get sick of the instrument of pain he wields, you’re out of luck. You can purchase new weapons as you would in standard RPGs, but they’re all of the same type, so the only thing that will be apparent on-screen is that you’re doing more damage.
Unfortunately, things only get worse. What’s worse than this degradation of Secret of Mana’s weapon and magic system is that you have a loss of control over your characters. Secret of Mana allowed you to take control of your AI characters on the fly simply by pressing X. This would allow you to cast spells without having to switch characters, and it would be done without interrupting gameplay for more than a couple seconds. Sadly, you can’t do this at all in Seiken 3. You can switch to another character, but you have to press select, and it usually takes too long. Time is of the essence when fighting difficult bosses, so it’s a shame that there’s no way to cast spells with an AI character.
You might think, “Well, why not let the AI be responsible for itself?” Unfortunately, it’s generally incompetent, and the options you can assign it in the menu are even worse than those found in Secret of Mana. In Secret of Mana, you could set the AI to be more aggressive or steer clear from battles, but in Seiken 3, there are no such options. You can make an AI character attack the enemy you’re fighting, but oftentimes, it will slash at the air. This makes playing by yourself a burden that shouldn’t be experienced by anyone.
It’s too bad that Seiken Densetsu 3 has all these gameplay deficiencies, ’cause it could have been an amazing game. If the team who produced it had spent more time on level design and had incorporated the job system along with Secret of Mana’s speedy battle system, it could have been an amazing game. Sadly, it ended up as a grindfest that’s hard to stomach in this day and age. Seiken Densetsu 3 might be worth playing for those who appreciate the artwork and music found in the Mana games, but its additional features such as including multiple stories aren’t enough to make one suffer through twenty hours of grinding. After eight years, I’ve changed my mind: Maybe Square shouldn’t release this title here.
- Features three different openings and endings
- Six different characters to choose from
- Includes a wonderful Celtic-styled soundtrack unlike anything else on the SNES
- Amazing monster and environmental artwork
- Features plenty of character customization and job classes
- The last Mana title to feature three-player multiplayer throughout the entire game
- Features some of the coolest looking bosses to ever grace a video game
- Battles are incredibly slow
- Buttons are sometimes unresponsive
- Equipping weapons is a slow and painful process
- The few included charge attacks are underwhelming
- Characters can’t switch weapon types
- Casting the limited selection of magic spells is agonizingly slow
- Character attributes aren’t explained
- You can’t cast magic with AI characters without switching to them
- It’s easy to get lost in some of the game’s bland dungeons
- Battles are too frequent
- Bosses are usually stationary
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