I finished, but I’ve only just begun!
It’s tough to know where to start with a game as legendary as this one. Released in 1995, Seiken Densetsu 3 is developer/publisher Square’s follow-up to their hit 1993 action RPG Secret of Mana. It’s also the first of the Seiken Densetsu (“Legend of the Sacred Sword”) series to never leave Japan. By 1995, the rise of next generation consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn led to Square deciding that investing the necessary time and money required to translate and localize a massive, text-heavy Super Famicom game like SD3 would be a bit of a fool’s errand. While this may have made good business sense at the time, it was a minor tragedy for English-speaking RPG fans and cemented SD3’s reputation as perhaps the most lamented of the great “lost” 16-bit games. Until 2000, that is, when the first version of the unofficial English fan translation hit the Internet. Does it live up to all the hype? Several times over!
I played SD3 on a reproduction cartridge containing the English version of the game ROM. The label on my copy bears the somewhat misleading title Secret of Mana 2. Many gamers have fond memories of Secret of Mana/Seiken Densetsu 2, but the first game in the series for the Game Boy, released in North America under the title Final Fantasy Adventure in order to piggyback on Square’s most popular franchise, is often unjustly forgotten these days. You can bet I’ll be showcasing Final Fantasy Adventure someday.
Like its predecessors, SD3 is an action RPG with a very distinctive art style that’s cute, colorful, and extremely lush. In fact, you could easily make a strong case for SD3 being the single best looking game ever released for the console. Sprints are sumptuously detailed and sport tons of smooth animation. Even the lowliest generic NPC townspeople in this game show off more visual detail and smoother walk cycles than the main protagonists in most 16-bit RPGs. Many of the backgrounds are positively jaw-dropping and could even be described as painterly. This music is almost as superb as the visuals. While I enjoyed the compositions in Secret of Mana a little more overall, the tunes here are very catchy indeed and the production quality is top notch. Like Square’s other soundtracks from this period, SD3’s is about as close to CD quality audio as it’s possible to get on the Super Famicom. It’s also quite extensive, with over fifty tracks.
This is all probably to be expected, though. Secret of Mana was also noted as one of the most gorgeous console games to date upon its release. Where SD3 really sets itself apart from the rest of the series is in its innovative story structure. The game has six unique protagonists to choose from, each with their own exclusive story elements to experience. There’s Angela the sorceres, Carlie the cleric, Duran the swordsman, Hawk the thief, Lise the amazon, and Kevin the werewolf.
The first thing you’ll do when starting a new playthrough is to select your main character. After that, you’ll pick two of the remaining five heroes to serve as support characters for your lead. This means that you can only ever have three of the six playable characters in your party during any single playthrough. Over the course of the game, you’ll get to see the entire storyline for your chosen lead, an abbreviated “Cliffs Notes” version for each of the two sidekicks, and the three characters you don’t pick at all will only appear in brief walk-on cameo roles as NPCs.
Now, before you get too excited, this isn’t really like having six RPGs in one. It’s more like one and a half. No matter which characters you pick, the overarching plot and quest structure will always be essentially the same. You’ll mostly go to the same places and fight the same monsters and the unique elements of each character’s storyline tend to be concentrated at the very beginning and very end of the quest. Still, it’s really cool to see the same events play out from multiple perspectives and to get more background and dialog for each individual hero. Your choice of main character also determines which of the game’s three villains will emerge as the primary antagonist.
Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to sabotage yourself by choosing a poor character or combination of characters. The designers did a great job of making sure that all the heroes are strong enough to hold their own and the game never gets so difficult that an optimized party or single strategy is necessary to continue. I went with the scientifically proven method of picking whoever I thought looked the coolest. I ended up with Angela, Hawk, and Lise and I did just great. Very smart design on Square’s part.
As if the multiple protagonists angle somehow wasn’t enough to make SD3 one of the most replayable RPGs ever made, there’s also a branching character class system. Any time after reaching level 18, a character can switch from their default class to either a “light” or “dark” class, each with slightly different abilities. For example, Lise the Amazon can pick the light option and become a Valkyrie or choose dark and become a Rune Maiden. Characters can repeat this process at level 38, so if Lise chose to become a Valkyrie, she can pick the light option again to become a Vanadis (light-light) or the dark option to become a Star Lancer (light-dark). There are thus a total of six additional classes per character, representing light, dark, light-light, light-dark, dark-dark, and dark-light. Once you make your choices, there’s no going back, so you would actually need to play through the game four times with a single character if you wanted to experience all six of that character’s class options. That seems a bit excessive to me, but the option’s there if you really want it.
It should be understood that class changing will never drastically alter a character’s role in the party. Using Lise as an example again, she’ll always have the same primary function no matter which classes you choose: She’s a robust “tank” style character that vanquishes foes with her spear attacks. Going down the light path will grant her “buff” spells that increase your party’s stats in combat while the dark path offers “debuff” spells that decrease enemy stats. Ultimately, though, she still remains a fighter type character. Similarly, no class change will ever make Angela the mage into a viable hand-to-hand combatant, but you can tweak her spell selection somewhat. This means that there’s really no way to ruin a character by picking a “bad” class, since the class changes only enhance an already competent character’s core strengths. They never undermine those strengths. Again, this is very clever design.
The main story of Seiken Densetsu 3 involves a fantasy world where the power of magic (mana) has begun to wane. Only the Mana Sword, a legendary weapon used by a goddess to create the world, can possibly reverse this process but it’s sealed away by the power of eight mana stones, each containing the essence of an evil god-beast vanquished by the goddess in primordial times. Three factions of villains send their respective nations to war against their neighbors in an effort to seize all the mana stones, break the seal, and claim the godlike power conferred by the Mana Sword for themselves. To stop them and restore peace, your heroes band together and set out to find the holy sword first. Each hero also has their own individual motives for joining the quest, including getting revenge for a fallen comrade, rescuing a kidnapped relative, and so on. It’s not the most unique premise for an RPG (every Seiken Densetsu game revolves around conflict over the titular sword, after all) but it does a serviceable job of pushing your party to every corner of the game’s diverse and charming world over the course of around 25 hours or so.
I’m very much pleased to report that SD3’s gameplay improves on Secret of Mana’s in virtually every way. Secret of Mana is a very beloved title among 16-bit RPG fans, even a bit of a sacred cow, but I’ve always had major issues with its gameplay. Hit detection felt highly inconsistent, the lengthy charge time on weapon attacks slowed the pace of melee combat to a crawl, and the optimal fighting strategy was usually just to cast the same attack spell over and over again in rapid succession.
Well, SD3’s hit detection has been honed, so say goodbye to well-aimed attacks that whiff for no apparent reason. The weapon charge bar has been replaced by a tech meter that builds as you land blows and filling it up allows you to release more powerful attacks without slowing down combat as a whole. Most importantly, the magic system has been tweaked with balance in mind and you can no longer abuse the trick of repeatedly opening the menu and tossing out an endless stream of spells before your helpless enemy can even react. The end result of all this is that combat in SD3 flows much smoother and feels much more engaging and all-around satisfying. It’s a real joy to beat up on fluffy little rabites and ducks in army helmets this time around. They even improved the pathfinding abilities of computer-controlled party members so that they get stuck on the scenery less often, although this will still happen on occasion.
Multiplayer gameplay also makes a return. I didn’t get a chance to try it out myself, but it seems safe to say that the faster weapon combat and more balanced magic would make for an improved experience.
Is Seiken Densetsu 3 a perfect game? Not quite. I already mentioned that the story a bit on the basic side, despite the promising addition of multiple viewpoints. Not every gamer has a problem with cliche JRPG plots, characters, and dialog. For some, an abundance of familiar tropes might even be desirable; a kind of “gaming comfort food.” If this is you, you’ll adore SD3’s simplistic narrative, in which one-dimensional cackling villains just can’t wait to reveal their “true forms” and mortally wounded characters exclaim things like “Goodbye, cruel world!” If you don’t prefer your RPGs lightweight and corny, though, just be aware going in that this one isn’t packed with thought-provoking concepts and big emotional payoffs.
I also wish that the class changing system could have been made available to the player earlier on in the game. Eighteen levels is a long chunk of time to be stuck in each character’s relatively boring starter class. After the first class change, there’s an even lengthier twenty level gap until the next. By the time you’re finally able to unlock each character’s final, coolest class at level 38, you’ll find that the game is almost over! My party was level 47 when I defeated the final boss and I didn’t even feel like I needed to be that strong. My take is that offering class changes at levels 10 and 30 instead would have improved both the early and late game experience significantly.
Seiken Densetsu 3 is still one spectacular action RPG, however, and a drastic improvement on Secret of Mana in virtually every way. It’s a huge title with so much going on that I didn’t even get around to mentioning some of the major new innovations, like the dynamic day/night cycle that affects enemy encounters and Kevin the werewolf’s transformations. If you liked SoM, you’ll love SD3. If you loved SoM, SD3 will likely secure a place near the top of your personal “best games of all time” list. It plays like a dream, represents peak audiovisual achievement within the 16-bit console generation, and will have you wanting to play through it all over again before you’ve even finished your first go-around.
I just feel sorry for all those sweet little rabites.