Legend of Legaia
   It's not easy to be innovative. It often seems that every character, storyline, or battle system imaginable has already appeared in an RPG. Developers haven't quite reached total stagnation, however, as Contrail proves with its second RPG offering, Legend of Legaia. Apparently taking to heart criticisms that its first work, Wild Arms, was too derivative of other RPGs, Contrail went back to the drawing board and crafted a far more innovative game that breaks new ground in a number of areas, particularly the battle system.
Kick, punch, it's all in the mind

   Legaia's battle system can be summed up as Xenogears on steroids. As in Xenogears, you attack by stringing hits together to form a combo, but Legaia uses the four directions (up, down, left, and right) instead of the usual weak/medium/strong. These various attacks are functionally different; high kicks are good against flying enemies but miss short enemies, who should be targeted with a low attack. Entering the right sequence of directions allows you to execute "Arts", the equivalent of Xenogears' Deathblows. These Arts can be strung together to form massive combos -- for example, if one Art is executed by pressing right, right, and up, it can be linked to another that consists of right, up, and down. Both Arts could be executed in succession by simply pushing right, right, up, and down. Creating combos in this manner is essential to success in Legaia.

   The magic system is equally innovative, and ties in perfectly with the game's storyline. Each party member possesses a Ra-Seru, a magical creature that allows them to absorb enemy Seru (Seru are special kinds of enemies denoted by an elemental sign before their name). Once assimilated, these Seru can be summoned, thus becoming the game's spells. Seru will also gain in strength with repeated use, and sometimes gain new powers -- a heal spell will upgrade to also cure poisoning, for example. In a twist from many recent RPGs, it's very easy to run out of MP. Casting your strongest spells two or three times will exhaust your entire supply of magic, forcing you to smartly budget your MP.

Summoning a Seru

   Yes, if you're looking for more strategy in battles, you've come to the right place. Legend of Legaia featuers some of the most brutal bosses this side of Velius; bosses who will eradicate your entire party in two rounds if given half a chance. Although not quite as impossible as you may have heard elsewhere, most fights certainly can't be won without a struggle. The solution, for once, is not level-building, which actually does little good, given how slowly you earn experience. The bosses can all be beaten by simply devising an effective strategy; it just might takes you five tries to find it. If you're not the type that enjoys a challenge, then for your own sake avoid this game as you would an unmarked package from Theodore Kaczynski.

   Even while you're getting crushed by the bosses, you can still enjoy Legaia's realistic battle scenes. All the attacks are motion-captured and animate fluidly, but the most impressive aspect of them is the addition of many animations never before seen in an RPG: When hit by a strong attack, characters fall to the ground and then pick themselves back up (weak attacks won't even knock a fighter off his feet), and most bosses will limp when low on HP, providing a visual clue that the battle is winding down. Rather than stand in a line for the whole battle, your characters will cross the battlefield to attack an enemy and then stay there. All in all, the battles resemble an actual fight much more than those of most RPGs do.

   Perhaps one of the most intriguing features of Legend of Legaia, however, is a "sensation" that no other RPG offers: the feeling that you're actually beating up your opponents. Every hit of every combo is accompanied by appropriate sound effects and a Dual Shock jolt. It's infinitely more satisfying than just a bunch of numbers bouncing in the air -- nothing beats unleashing a 15-hit combo on a monster and relishing every hit of it. (Just remember that monsters will be all too eager to return the favor.) If you don't have a Dual Shock controller, you're missing out on one of Legaia's best features.

   Outside of the battles, you'll find a unique story. Instead of overthrowing an evil empire or slaying an ancient demon, your goal is to rid the world of a mysterious mist. Seru, the symbiotic organisms that all humans wield, are turned against their owners by this Mist, and the survivors have retreated into walled cities to avoid the rampaging monsters. The only way to free humanity is to revive the Genesis Trees scattered around the world, which will push back the Mist and return the Seru to normal.

We just couldn't resist

   Your party includes but three characters -- Vahn, the generic sword-wielding, blue-haired, hero; Noa, an orphan girl raised by a talking wolf; and Gala, a monk studying the Biron martial arts. Character development is minimal, though the characters do have some interesting personalities. Vahn is just another mute bum, but Noa is cute, and the ever-serious Gala proves a good counterpoint to her antics. One of the major villains is reminiscent of Kefka; he spents a great deal of time jumping around and throwing insults as you before each battle.

   What Legaia lacks in character development, it makes up for in plot and sheer atmosphere -- it's easily one of the most atmospheric games out there. The story of the Mist lends the game a slightly darker feel than most, a mood backed up by the excellent music (excellent except for the dirge-like battle music). Despite using excellent sound samples, the music unfortunately sounds poor through TV speakers -- it's too bass-heavy. A better set of speakers is needed to fully appreciate it.

It's not what it sounds like, honest!

   No game is perfect, of course, and Legaia contains one gaping flaw: The graphics. It's actually a little puzzling how they ended up this bad. Contrail made Wild Arms two years before this game, and it had better graphics. Legaia's characters are horribly blocky, and your party members all seem to have overdosed on hair gel; either that or their hair is made up of about three polygons (we're guessing its the latter). To be fair, the art direction is quite good -- the bio-mechanical enemies and buildings look quite Panzer Dragoon-esque, and most of the dungeons feature well-designed scenery. It's just that everything suffers from such a low polygon count that even the best areas can't really be considered "good". The only saving grace is the inclusion of frequently changing facial expressions on each of the characters. It may not seem like a lot, but it actually adds quite a bit of personality to the cast.

 World Map
The pain, the horror...

   Another extremely annoying feature in Legaia is its world map. Your characters move with such an alarming lack of speed that travelling the map has been known to cause actual brain damage in lab animals. This tortorous experience is only further accentuated by a ridiculously high encounter rate, higher than in actual dungeons. Fortunately, you can purchase items to warp to places you've already visited, and your characters move at a rapid clip indoors, so the situation is far better than it could have been. Still, Vahn's walking speed could have been easily fixed, so it's difficult to look the other way.

   In the end, Legend of Legaia delivers an addictive and innovative mix of traditional game design and a modern storyline... and, hey, the manual even smells nice! It's not an instant classic, but it delivers in all categories save graphics. Recommended for both old- and new-school RPGers alike.

Review by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA.
Legend of Legaia
Developer Prokion / Contrail
Publisher SCEA
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  10.27.98
Legend of Legaia ships
130 new screen shots
6 character renders
North American box art