Hit me baby, one more time. Then one more. Then maybe three more. KEEP HITTING ME, I LIKE IT.
Some JRPGs are designed with a story in mind that they want to tell you, more an interactive novel than a tactical challenge, like the Lunar titles. Many try to take the middle ground, and engage a player to thinking through a fight with their given party, the elemental rock-paper-scissors approach like the Pokémon franchise. And then… then there are the games that don’t give a hot-goddamn about your feelings and actively try to punish you for liking video games. And that’s The Legend of Legacy in all its middle-fingered glory.
There are seven different protagonists from which to tell the story of the island continent Avalon, from the cheeky heroic kid Liber to the frog prince Filmia (whom I picked because he’s a frog with a crown and a spear). The story itself is clear enough from any protagonist’s eyes, but really there’s just enough to promote exploring the depths of the different maps. This is good, because if you ever find yourself having to put it down for any length of time, such a system is easy enough to pick back up. This experience is based around the actual gameplay more than it is about the narrative, even with the occasional adorable dialogue or lovely character designs.
The continent itself is filled with locations to choose from and explore, all of which have their own visual style and selection of baddies (though in true JRPG fashion, there are plenty of palette swaps to go around), daunting “sub-bosses” (just overpowered and mostly optional opponents) and usually (but not always) a major fight at the end of the road. Generally, the goal is to fill out the map you’ve either been given, purchased, or discovered through a previous map, and sell that for a tidy profit that can upgrade gear and buy new items. It's a straightforward format for the genre, and selling the maps is a nice touch to push for exploring an entire map so that you can explore for both booty and blueprints.
Whether you’re a hardened veteran of the JRPG genre or a fresh-faced n00b, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the fact that every environment is reminiscent of a storybook. Walking through the opening forest is a sight for the eyes: plenty of details on trees, sparse enemies, your walking character, and any noteworthy baddies. Everything stationary not only appears similar to a pop-up book, but actually pops up when they’re approached and appear on the screen. The moving characters are 3D models on top of this backdrop, but they don’t clash, only glide in a more detailed, more fitting way than Square’s painted backdrops of PSOne were performed (Parasite Eve being a lovely example). Walking and letting the map’s features pop make them look fantastic with the 3D on, which I think might be the first time I’ve said that about a game on the 3DS.
These enemies are strong from the get-go, and it doesn’t get any easier the further you get into the game. Every enemy will appear onscreen—no surprise battles—only the escapable chase of death via JRPGs like Lunar with shadows that will follow if you get too close and attract their attention. Some can be held back by obstacles in the environment or even crap out after a little distance, but others will follow you to the gates of… well, the gate to another map. The enemy shadow that clashes with your protagonist (whomever that might be, I’m partial to the froggie fella) usually determines the enemies contained, but there are a few surprises, and the enemy ranks can fill up if you’re not careful.
And these battles take place in the classic JRPG format: head into menu-based battles, select what to do on your turn, and let the fight play out until it’s time to select again. Thankfully, you can change your team’s formation—attackers up front, everyone defending, some mixture of attack and defense and support—between each turn, so you’re never stuck in a single routine or set-up for the really tough fights. Characters don’t really level up as much as their skills do, and further skills are unlocked through using a particular weapon. Every character appears to have a weapon group that fits them best, but even with less-apt weaponry, you can jump into battle and beef up.
Besides new weapons are the shards from singing idols dotted across each map, and like the various country-specific shows, these idols can sing. These singing idols (and singing shards as well) can be equipped to take advantage of an environment’s Elementals, or element-specific ghost-spirit things, and use additional attack and defense magic similarly to any other weapon (so long as the Elementals are in the area and can be called upon).
And those battles, no matter how much you think you’ve prepped for, will show you that you have no idea what you’re talking about. On one boss I thought I’d prepped enough to at least have a good go, but when two of my three team members were killed inside of four turns, leaving my protagonist alone with no healing spells to clean up, I knew I needed more than to grind another hour or two. Even after or during tough fights, there can be a penalty to endure; if your teammate is knocked out, you can heal them, but every time they’re either knocked out or hit while knocked out, their overall life bar goes down (and can only be restored after sleeping in the inn). You can run from a tough battle, but you won’t just escape the fight, you’ll escape to the first entry point of the map you’re on. If that wasn't enough, after a fight your HP is restored, but your SP/magic points are NOT. Though you can use an item to restore them, no items can be used within the battles themselves.
Oh, and occasionally an area entered is riddled with “limited visibility," and your map isn’t useful. These areas can contain useful items and weapons, but they’re also littered with what looked to be multiple variations of a steampunk devil. THEY JUST MURDER YOU, the whole time giving the false impression that you just might make it through. They can be almost as difficult as a boss battle, which is great for morale when you can somehow squeak past them with substantially-lowered life bars and all your SP spent defending yourself. And there’s rarely any gain other than the experience itself, so really there’s no good reason to go fighting them. It’s fine when running is an option, but occasionally… well, hope you saved recently, because if you didn’t it’s time for a real-world tantrum.
I do appreciate a difficult game, really I do. I adored every minute of Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold. I live for boss battles in Mega Man that make me hold my head in my hands afterward. But I don’t think I’ve played something quite so unforgiving and ass-kickingly hard as The Legend of Legacy, at least in recent memory. There’s so much about it to like—the wonderful visuals, easy-to-understand battle system, sensible leveling system and just enough personality to make a call to arms charming. If it didn’t make me also consider punching either myself or my system, this could be one of my favorite games. But for now, I think I’ll pop back in something like Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash! to keep the mood light and not so punishing.