Lufia: The Legend Returns


   The original Lufia was a simple, unassuming RPG that won a place in many players' hearts by dint of its engaging characters and amusing dialogue; its sequel was an even better effort that retained everything good about the first while adding dungeons full of well-designed puzzles and a few surprising twists on the average RPG's plot. Both games found success within a limited graphical style, so one would think that the series' standout elements would be a natural fit for the Game Boy Color--and in a sense, they'd be right. Unfortunately, in Lufia: The Legend Returns, Neverland plays again and again to the series' weaknesses rather than its strengths.

 Nice graphics
Ship of fools

   The game is not without its high points, though. Lufia GBC features some of the best graphics ever seen on the Game Boy Color, rivalling those of Enix's recent Dragon Warrior III remake. The enemy art is the best the series has yet seen: a limited palette means that the monster designs are cleaner and better than the muddy-looking creatures seen in the first two games. The limited color scheme of the characters can make them a little difficult to tell apart, but the towns and world map are beautifully done, and the status portraits go a long way toward making up for the featureless character sprites.

   Though they may look a bit alike, the characters all have distinct personalities and decent interplay with one another, which is impressive with 12 separate party members. While the characters can be a little stereotypical (save for Deckard, one of the best and funniest pirate heroes in the genre), on the whole they play their roles well.

   Also of note is the battle system, possibly the best one ever in a Game Boy RPG. It starts out undistinguished with only two playable characters, but as you gain more and more it really begins to shine. Up to nine characters can go into battle at once, and you'll have to carefully arrange them on a 3x3 grid to make the best use of them. Every turn, you may choose one character per column to use, so you'll have to keep the grid balanced in such a way that you can use whichever sort of attack suits the current situation. However, you'll also have to factor in the relative agility, strength, and defense scores for each character when positioning them, as well as a couple of new wrinkles specific to Lufia's grid system.

   The first is a relatively minor but cool twist on the standard "surprise attack"/"back attack" encounters seen in most RPGs: since Lufia GBC's enemies appear on the dungeon maps, it's possible for them to attack you from a variety of angles. Should they attack from the back, the grid is naturally reversed, but they can also attack from the flanks, meaning that one of the two side columns abruptly becomes your front line. Since the game ends when the three characters on the front line fall in battle, positioning your party members properly becomes even more key to making sure you're never caught flatfooted.

9 against 1
Tight formation

   The second is a bit deeper and more interesting. In the first two Lufia games, the characters commented on one another's "Spiritual Forces" which would occasionally manifest as rings of sparkling light. Here, the Forces are back, but this time with a real effect on the gameplay. Every character has a Spiritual Force of a certain color, which can be made more powerful in two ways: either spend Learning Points to raise the Force level, or position the character so that another party member's Force flows into him. For instance, if a character with a red Spiritual Force of 16 stands next to one with 4 yellow, both characters have 16 red and 4 yellow. What makes this important is that the IP system has been revamped so that equipping weapons no longer bestow the special abilities; now you must find and use Ancient Texts found in dungeons to teach the bonus skills. The Ancient Texts' requirements are in the form of Spiritual Force rankings, so characters must be placed properly in order to receive the benefit of the Texts.

   If the system has a flaw, it's that repositioning your party members is a bit too easy and takes a lot of the challenge from juggling so many variables in the grid. The game allows you to completely realign your formation at the beginning of every battle, so if you've made a flaw in your planning, it's a snap to fix. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since occasionally different enemies will require different strategies, but it eliminates any need to plan ahead. The same goes for learning new IP attacks; all that's really required is to move your characters around so that one of them can learn the desired ability, and then go back to your original formation.

 Seen one, seen them all
Dead end

   Still, the battle system is extremely impressive for a Game Boy Color RPG. However, it's unlikely that any system, no matter how deep or flexible, could entertain the player throughout the game as it's constructed. In a near-heartbreaking change from Lufia II, the intricately designed dungeons have been excised in favor of nothing but random dungeons. The ground floor of the first tower is essentially the same as the last floor in the final dungeon, as the same simple generation algorithm is used throughout the game--the only real difference is the type of enemies you'll encounter. And rather than employ a variety of tools to solve a number of fiendish puzzles, simply use your sword to hack at every suspicious-looking or strangely-colored object in the room.

   What's worse, this is virtually all that Lufia GBC has to offer. The story scenes are so brief that the game feels occasionally as if one random dungeon leads directly into the next with no pause in between, and the thin plot is essentially a straight rehash of the first SNES game. Virtually every mini-drama plays out exactly as you'd expect it to--it's not very hard to guess the fate of the brave NPC who leaves his fiancée behind to hunt the evil threatening the town, or to guess who'll win the big gamble: playable character Ruby, or her nonplayable rival.

   While Lufia: The Legend Returns looks good on paper, the long and numbing dungeons effectively kill any enjoyment left over after the pitifully weak story takes its toll. It's not an awful game, but if it could be summed up in one word, it would be "tedious." Newcomers to the series will see little evidence here of the series' past glories, and longtime fans will be disappointed at the jettisoning of many key aspects. The game could have been great, making its mediocrity all the more painful.

Review by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Lufia: The Legend Returns
Developer Never-Land Company
Publisher Natsume
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium Cartridge (16 mb)
Platform Game Boy Color
Release Date  2001
E3: Additional Lufia: The Legend Returns details
6 screenshots
12 character designs
2 wallpaper images
Scenario and Director Masahide Miyata
System Planner Tomonari Matsumoto
Illustration Kame Erika
Music Yasunori Shiono
Akiko Ishibashi
Tomoko Morita
Yukio Nakajima
Full game credits