First Impressions - Seiken Densetsu 3
This is a somewhat fitting game to begin the First Impressions series on, if only because Seiken Densetsu 3 has always been an imposing game. Ever since I first booted up my ZSNES, with a starting library mysteriously acquired by my cousin, the Berserker Ninjaa (Don’t ask. Even he is not sure where he got them.), this game has stared me down, providing a bit of presence to my collection of 16-bit games. Add in the fact that you are thrown in without any explanation of what you are doing, and it can be a tough game to start.
This is not surprising, as this game has never been release on Western shores. In fact, the version I’m playing is a fan translation by Neil Corlett. For some reason, Squaresoft felt that the game was not worth localizing, even though its predecessor, Secret of Mana, was quite popular on the Super Nintendo.
Having convinced the Berserker Ninjaa to try this game blind, just based on my experiences with the previous game, we sat down expecting our adventure to start. What we got was a character selection screen. Here we are given six characters to make an eventual three man team, with little other information to go on. When you move your cursor over the character, you get a name and nothing else, not even any talents or what type of character they are. Therefore, you have no way of knowing if the healer is the short dwarvish girl or that guy with the funny hat in the corner (At my cousin’s insistence, we chose the funny hat.).
After taking a moment, I decided to go with Lise, an Amazonian with a strange bun/ponytail combo and a very large trident…staff…thing. I then waited for my cousin to make his selection (We were playing two player after all.). After probably a minute of me waiting and him failing to move the cursor, we realized that I had to be the one to choose the entire team (And name them. Oh, the griefing opportunities that present themselves). So we chose Duran, the typical warrior/gladiator with a sword.
This exposes a serious flaw in the game. Although it supports co-op, the game was obviously built for one player. The game will routinely inconvenience the second player in preference of player one. This is most obvious when player one dies in battle during co-op play. Instead of allowing their partner to revive them, the game will instead swap player one into another character, even if this means kicking their partner out of the game.
And if you noticed my saying “partner” singular, this game indeed only supports two player co-op, unlike Secret of Mana, which supported three players simultaneously with the Nintendo Multi-tap. This is even more disappointing when you consider that the Mana series is not known for its partner AI. Thankfully, there’s a patch by Parlance that inserts three player co-op into the game. However, it should be known that there’s a part later in the game that can cause the game to crash with three players (Reports indicate that it’s in the ghost ship.). This is due to the lovely forced player switch system that I was talking about, and if player two or three dies while player one is not around and then resurrects a character, the game doesn’t know what to do. However, a little foreknowledge and pre-planning can eliminate this risk (Just have player three take a break during this part of the game.).
Once we were done selecting our characters, one of the game’s six prologues begins. Unlike previous games in the series, Seiken Densetsu 3 does not have a main hero. Instead the character you selected fills in that role, along with his or her companions. Each character has a unique story, which you hear about briefly when you first meet them. However, you personally experience the first character’s story in a prologue at the beginning of the game. This means that there are six storylines that can be experienced in the game, but only if you’ve selected that certain character as player one.
Lise’s story begins with a combat tutorial. And when I say tutorial, I don’t mean putting you with a master trainer of some sort who teaches you the ins and outs of the battle system. I mean throwing you into combat with another enemy, in what is essentially a cage match, and letting you figure out what to do. When you die, the other Amazons who are watching you will revive you with full health so that you can continue fighting. As in Secret of Mana, this allows you to learn what you are doing in a real combat situation, while being absolutely safe from a premature game over.
While the combat in this game is still the same real time combat the series is known for, there are a few key changes. Along with your standard A attack, you have a special move that you can use by pressing and holding B after a certain meter fills. Unlike previous games, you cannot freely run around while you fight. Instead, you are locked into a combat stance when enemies are near. This is limiting, as it is difficult to retreat if enemies get too close, and there is no way to manually guard or dodge. Adding such a feature would help tremendously, as the combat feels stiff without it.
After the battle, I am allowed to roam around the city proper. I am supposed to be looking for Lise’s kid brother, who has obviously never heard of “Stranger Danger”. I come to his rescue too late, as he is kidnapped, and the city begins to burn. Here we get our first taste of combat outside of the tutorial. Whenever you enter a new area with enemies, a list of all the enemies and their levels will appear on the side of the screen, telling you how experienced you should be in order to take on that section of the game.
After we defeat all of the enemies and speak to the king, Lise’s prologue ends, and the opening credits begin to roll. The main part of the game, which is the same for nearly every character (With the exception of Carlie.), begins in the city of Jad, which has fallen under the control of the Beast Men. Because of the occupation, I am unable to buy weapons, armor, or items, and the only way out of town is blocked. Seiken Densetsu 3 uses the old school approach to RPG progression in that it doesn’t tell you what to do next. Instead, you are left to figure out things for yourself by talking to the various NPCs in the game. In this case, I am supposed to sleep in the inn and progress the time to night.
Like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, you can wake up either during the day or at night. However, it also has an active day/night cycle, à la The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, which progresses both in the field and in town. The game also has a week system, where certain elements are stronger on certain days of the week. The exception is on Mana Holy Day, the game’s version of Sunday, where all elemental power is balanced.
Once it is night, I am able to leave the city. Unfortunately, the path to Wendel, my next destination, is blocked by an invisible barrier, so I have to go to the nearby town of Astoria in order to find a way to bypass this obstacle. Again, I am left without any clue of how to proceed, and after an hour of speaking to villagers and fighting through enemies, some of which are sleeping, I still have no clue what to do. Finally, I decide to sleep at the inn, whereupon I am immediately treated to a cutscene. After following a light through several areas that I’ve already traversed, I receive the aid of a Mana Fairy, which allows me to proceed through the barrier.
It is at this point that my cousin is finally able to join me. Together we are able to make it through the cave to Wendel. After buying a few supplies and learning more about the plot, we head back into the cave to find our first elemental spirit: Wisp. We also learn how to use spirit abilities, as we use the fairy to cross a chasm.
Soon we come face to face with our first boss, a giant crab that fills up half the screen. Graphically, this is probably one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a Super Nintendo game, not just because of its huge size, but also because of the texture, which reminds me of Yoshi’s Island. Because of the crab’s size, it is almost impossible to avoid getting hit. It is only after a couple of deaths that we are able to defeat it.
Shortly afterward we receive our final companion, a half-beastman by the name of Kevin, and end our first play session. Because of our troubles in the game, I looked up a guide online in order to get a better sense of the game’s systems, so that I might know what I’m doing the next time we play. This marks the first time that I’ve ever had to seek an outside source to learn how to play a game. I suspect that if the game would have been released in North America, all of these systems would have been explained in a very comprehensive game manual.
Similar to the original Pokémon games, Seiken Densetsu 3’s difficulty is somewhat determined by the character you select. There is Carlie – the healer, Kevin – the beastman, Angela – the sorceress, Duran – the warrior, Lise – the amazon, and Hawk – the ninja. Depending on who you choose, you will face a different series of bosses at the end of the game, some of which are harder than others. Therefore, Carlie and Kevin can be seen as Easy difficulty, Angela and Duran as Normal, and finally, Lise and Hawk as Hard.
The game also features a class/promotion system, which determines what special ability and spells your character can use in battle. However, you can only promote your character twice in the game, once around level 18 and again around level 38, and then, only at mana stones. Each time you promote your character, you must choose between two classes: a “Light” class and a “Dark” class. “Light” and “Dark” in this case has nothing to do with alignment, but rather with what strengths your character has in battle. “Light” classes focus more on spells and abilities that benefit the party (i.e. healing spells, buffs, and status afflicting magic), while “Dark” classes focus more on offensive spells and abilities.
With this knowledge, I was able to get a sense of how my ignorance had affected my party. By choosing Lise, I had set us on the hardest possible path in the game. Not only that, but because of my cousin’s insistence, I had chosen Kevin over Carlie, which meant that we were short a healer. While it was true that Kevin could eventually learn healing spells, that wouldn’t be until after he was promoted at level 18. Until then, we had no healing magic and would have to rely on items.
Knowing this, we set out to complete our last hour of gameplay. Overall, things went well. We were more competent in battle and were keeping our healing items stocked. We only got stuck one time, and that was when we had to find the path to the dwarven village. Again, the answer was unintuitive, as we had to save at a certain golden mana goddess statue after having to pass it to discover a dead end. By the end of our playthrough, we had found the village, met a dwarf named Watts, who was a regular of the series, and faced another boss, a giant mole, which we beat with ease.
Overall, I enjoyed Seiken Densetsu 3. It added complexity to the genre, such as an active day/night cycle and an elemental week system, both of which were advanced for its time and that we don’t see enough of even in our modern era of gaming. Sure, the game might be difficult, but it’s a kind of difficulty that I, as an RPG fanatic, don’t especially mind. The game challenges me to take my actions into account, giving me a dynamic sense of risk and reward. And above all, that is what I want most out of an RPG.