USgamer has a disproportionate number of minor Japanese RPG enthusiasts on its team. Where other sites tend to have one or two designated JRPG whipping boys (or girls) on staff, we have four. It's true: We're hoarding.
But even with this dense concentration of affection for such a specific niche, even we don't have time to review every single RPG that comes down the localization pipeline. It's not for lack of love, but more to do with simple logistics. When a game demands 60-80 hours of work for a review that'll be lucky to see a few thousand reads, we have to balance our affections against the logistics of running a website that has to earn its keep. It's an unhappy reality, but in a media environment where instant hot takes and screaming-reaction YouTube thumbnails rule the metrics, measured takes on time-intensive obscurities have become true rarities — luxury goods.
Soon, I suspect, those games themselves will become rarities as well, which makes bringing them to light all the more essential. As the Japanese gaming audience continues to gravitate toward mobile devices, the quirky made-in-Japan niche games that have shifted almost exclusively to 3DS and Vita this generation will be the first to vanish. The increase in cheaply made copycat handheld releases that market themselves with the promise of peeking at (and occasionally molesting) schoolgirl panties isn't a sign that Japan as a whole loves titillation, as some observers bizarrely seem to think; it simply means that console gaming has fallen so far from favor in Japan that for many publishers the only way to guarantee five-figure sales is to cater to the core audience of young men who enthusiastically buy up such gal games. Everything else is slowly drying up, and unless some sort of miracle happens to renew Japan's flagging interest in portables, it'll all more or less vanish once 3DS and Vita go quiet into that good night.
I always feel terrible when a likable niche game slips past our review nets despite the best of intentions, and lately I've been thinking a lot about one from last fall that somehow sneaked its way right past the USgamer front page: Furyu's Legend of Legacy. Published by Atlus in the U.S., Legend of Legacy is infinitely less generic than its title would suggest. On the contrary, it draws its inspiration (and development talent!) from the most defiantly unique RPG franchise to come from the world's biggest producer of RPGs, Square Enix. It's an odd little game, and far from perfect, but it's become my go-to for when I travel. I figure if I keep chipping away at it, an hour at a time when I'm stuck in an airplane seat, I'll have it finished by the time Nintendo sunsets the 3DS platform.
One of the more interesting side effects of the mainstream games industry's steady march toward safe bets and risk-aversion over the past decade has been the rise of "spiritual successors" for franchises and concepts that big publishers now deem too uncertain to commit to. From Mighty No. 9 to Project Eternity, the "games like we used to make but without our original publisher's support" trend has created a vibrant and often exciting new category of video games. In that same spirit, Legend of Legacy's creators consisted of a bunch of former Squaresoft talent who banded together to create a thinly veiled rendition of their previous work. We've seen Square Enix expats riff on heavy-hitters like Final Fantasy (The Last Story) and Dragon Quest (The Denpa Men), but it was inevitable that eventually someone would look to the divisive SaGa franchise for cues.
Granted, SaGa probably isn't the series most RPG fans have been clamoring to see more of. That's especially true of American audiences, who missed out on what was arguably the franchise's pinnacle (the 16-bit Romancing SaGa trilogy) and generally think of the series in terms of SaGa Frontier (aka "that weird unfinished game for PlayStation") or Unlimited Saga (aka "what in god's name is this, I don't even"). Nevertheless, Furyu attempted to capture the spirit of SaGa for 3DS, and largely succeeded.
But what exactly does the "spirit of SaGa" entail? The series, which debuted in the U.S. 25 years ago with the Game Boy's first-ever RPG (Final Fantasy Legend), has mutated considerably through the years. In fact, many SaGa entries literally concern the act of mutation: Beast-race party members in SaGa games have an unsettling tendency to change forms unexpectedly if they consume the flesh of a defeated foe. But, not every SaGa has featured Beasts, or other oddball races like Mechs or Espers (aka Mutants, though not in the same sense that Beasts mutate). Their settings, stories, and themes vary quite dramatically as well.
Really, the central hook holding the SaGa franchise together has been its very specific and very unconventional combat rules. SaGa heroes don't level up the way normal RPG characters do; rather than making big leaps from one experience level to the next and enjoying universal stat tweaks based on general experience, party members in SaGa have always seen incremental improvements to individual stats based on their actions in battle. This has been the case since Final Fantasy Legend, where Mutant characters would randomly gain stat bumps. Over the years, the games have doubled down on that feature, adding in new twists over time. Most memorably, the series adopted a system by which performing different actions doesn't simply confer stat gains on a character, it also gives them a chance of learning a related skill in the heat of combat.
It's that element Furyu chose to emulate with Legend of Legacy, and in doing so they created an undeniably SaGa-like experience with this new game. You begin the adventure by selecting one of seven protagonists — a common SaGa trope that appeared in SaGa Frontier — and go forth into the world. You'll immediately recruit two of the other potential protagonists as party members, and the other four hero characters fall into your team along the way. There aren't really any story events to drive the team together; they all just sort of show up in the hub city and will happily join your retinue at a word, allowing you to swap them into and out of the active party.
Legend of Legacy doesn't have much story to relay, though it appears your choice of starting character will color the narrative to a certain degree. Rather, the game places its emphasis squarely on exploration and combat. You venture out into different areas of the island your team hopes to explore, hunting for shrines and opening paths to new areas. Combat has a borderline-random approach, in that enemy forms materialize randomly on the screen and make a beeline for the party. There's no mechanic driving modifications to these encounters, though; you can't sneak up on enemies from behind for initiative, and if a monster silhouette catches up with you as you're trying to run away from an encounter, you don't begin the battle at a disadvantage.
The battle system itself more than makes up for any lack of nuance in these collisions, though. It requires considerable planning, with the placement of your party members and the roles you assign them playing a key role in your combat efficiency. You won't survive long in Legend of Legacy unless you set up several different combat formations for your team in advance of battle, determining a strategy for your three warriors that boosts their role, specialties, and bonuses. You can use the basic fighting formation, for example, but enemies will quickly make short work of you if you do. Without a designated defender, no one in the party benefits from defensive perks. But create an arrangement in which one character takes point as the tank, and they'll protect the entire party while taking far less damage per enemy attack. There are several different roles to choose from, including attacker, defender, and support, and you can swap configurations at the beginning of every party turn to better adapt to the tides of battle.
For basic battles, you can frequently steamroll enemies with a single defender and two attackers. But when you're outnumbered — which happens frequently — it's better to turtle up and play even more defensively, with one character blocking attacks, a second casting buffs and making use of healing skills, and the third attacking. In a particularly tough battle, it's not even a bad idea to spend the first few turns of combat not attacking at all, but rather doubling down on defense and boosting your party's health and endurance.
Legend of Legacy places a certain emphasis on the elemental nature of the battlefield, which may remind RPG veterans of Chrono Cross' "field" effect. Four different elements act as general combat modifiers, and by using special abilities to bend the elements in favor of your party, you can increase your own strength and defense — possibly even activating other effects like health regeneration — while weakening foes. However, enemies can make use of this same power, and battles become a sort of tug-of-war as you vie for elemental domination while keeping an eye on the skill points you need in order to activate those abilities. SP regenerates slowly each turn, so it's not one of those games where you can use your magic spells a few times before being forced to return to an inn to rest up. Even so, you still need to keep an eye on your party's mana pool. You also need to have a wide array of party configuration presets on hand for when your opponents change up their own tactics, such as making use of skills that can break your tank's defense.
Being a lost child of the SaGa series, Legend of Legacy naturally makes use of the same use-it-or-lose-it stat system that began with Final Fantasy II. The more a party member employs a certain skill, or uses a specific weapon class, or casts a given spell, the more adept they'll become with that technique or tool. Your tank will gain more defense boosts, develop new shield skills, and grow in durability. Your attacker will become stronger and come up with a wider array of attack options with their preferred weapon. Your mage will gain more spirit points. You acquire these boosts seemingly at random, sometimes going many battles without a bonus and sometimes acquiring several in a single encounter, but generally speaking the more you perform a specific action the better you become at that action.
Growth and money gain come at a fairly slow pace, which is a big part of why it's going to take me so long to finish Legend of Legacy. It's a very grindy game, encouraging you to make multiple forays into the field before you're properly girded for the next region. You can gain a bit of an advantage at times if you have the money for it: Wander over to the town's port and you can send a trade ship off to faraway lands. Depending on your investment, there's a solid chance the boat will return after a while with ridiculously powerful gear in tow... though, in keeping with the random nature of the game, you could also end up blowing 5,000 precious gold pieces on nothing of use.
Legend of Legacy really feels like one of those games that isn't meant for everyone, which is a big part of what makes it so noteworthy. This sort of unapologetically niche creation has become a rarity at retail; it's more the type of game you'd expect to see show up on Steam after a small Kickstarter campaign. (And even those are becoming something of a rarity.) If you've ever lamented the fact that they just don't make RPGs like they used to, you owe it to yourself to check out Legend of Legacy. It may not be precisely what you've been pining for as your classic-style RPG fix, but it really does a great job of recapturing that offbeat, second-tier console role-playing feel that flooded the U.S. market in the late ’90s and shifted over to portables once the big systems went HD. It's hard to say what the future holds for handheld gaming, or if companies like Furyu will continue to support them when there's so much money to be made in mobile gaming (not to mention such huge Asian mobile audiences that requires less cultural adaptation than bringing games to the U.S.). Legend of Legacy feels like one of the last of a dying breed. I know it's easier to love what you've got after it's gone, but why wait?