Young Wain is the protector of his small village; it’s not a tough gig, with just the occasional blob-creature to slash on the outskirts, but things are about to change. As a spiritual force awakens inside him, the powerful Sinistrels re-emerge to release a threat of “unseen terror on the land”. His bloodline and a “thread of destiny” draw Wain into a battle to save the world; yes, it’s your typical RPG set-up. Lufia: The Legend Returns is the third entry in the series that began on the SNES with a decent first game and a very good second one, but how would the series fair with the move to the Game Boy Color?
Much like the story, the gameplay in The Legend Returns sees you doing the standard RPG things — wander around from location to location, fighting a variety to monsters to level up whilst collecting gold, weapons, items and spells to help you out. Things begin with the arrival of adventurer/fortune teller Seena to Wain's village; after a brief chat she fires a bolt attack at him just to see what he’s like as a fighter. Wain storms off in a huff but it’s not too long before the pair have teamed up for an adventure.
You’ll meet a varied group of characters on your travels, though you’ll also encounter a generic bunch named things like “Sister” and “Grandpa” in multiple villages. Though not particularly original the story remains reasonably entertaining, with some interesting developments and some humour spread throughout to keep players' attention.
The series’ move to an 8-bit handheld has unsurprisingly led to downgraded visuals. Everything has a simple look but for a system with a 160 x 144 screen resolution there’s a surprising amount of detail in the imagery. At times there’s a lack of polish such as the way flames in a fireplace remain static and some locations resemble each other quite closely, but for a GBC title there’s not much to complain about with the graphics.
The music is impressive; some tracks are quite simple whilst others have a bit more going on, though they manage to avoid turning into a beeping mess. There’s excited battle themes, whimsical village tunes and plenty of others that always manage to be a good fit for what’s happening on-screen. As well put together as the music is however, some of it can get repetitive; spend too long on a section and you may find yourself sending a finger towards your 3DS’ volume slider.
Your adventuring will see you travel across four continents, so there’s a lot of content in the game to keep players busy. As you move around the overworld map there’s the typical random encounters to contend with, but elsewhere things are a bit different. For the game’s multi-levelled dungeons and caves the various ghosts, golums and other ghastly monsters can be seen moving around on the screen. Walk into them and battle will commence, but if you prefer you can just avoid them. Holding down the A button to charge a wave attack can be used to stun the various nasties if you suspect you will still cross paths, but you shouldn’t avoid every battle as you need to level up your characters. It can be difficult to judge how much of a balance to strike between fighting and legging it, particularly in the early stages as some encounters will sap energy and give you little in reward. On the other hand you may be too cowardly and later find yourself in a battle your team is not strong enough to win – and no amount of restore point abuse will change that.
During your quest you will have to make use of different items, weapons and spells; it's here that things get complicated. For example: skills can be learned from ancient text scrolls and should you wish to teach someone a skill you must bring up the ancient text menu, then go to the wave sub-menu where you convert learning points (acquired from battles) into spiritual force points. If your chosen character now has enough spiritual force you can then go to the scroll menu to teach them the skill. Luckily this Virtual Console release includes the standard electronic manual should you find yourself wondering what IP Skills are for.
Another feature of the caves and dungeons is that the layout is randomly generated. Whilst this may sound like a good idea; a different experience each time, in reality it is poorly executed. The problem (ironically) is that each floor becomes extremely similar. Whilst there is the occasional hidden passageway to be uncovered with your sword there are no puzzles, so instead you just wander around collecting items and fighting monsters on route to the next floor. Some stages have a lot of floors and your search for the staircase that will allow you to search for another staircase quickly becomes dull, though in an act of mercy the random nature of the stages sometimes places the required staircase just a few tiles away.
A better feature is the game’s combat system in which up to nine characters can be included in your party. A variety of warriors are met during your adventure including gambler Ruby, elf Milka and Deckard (a pirate, not a Blade Runner). They have different strengths and you can rearrange them on the 3 x 3 formation they are placed in. Even if you have a group of nine, only three characters can be used per turn (one from each column). Strength of attacks and vulnerability decrease as the rows move back so those at the front have the strongest attacks, but will also take more damage. Additionally the game features colour coded Spiritual Force powers where lining up characters who share one of the four assigned colours will increase their abilities. The system is explained early on in the game but takes some getting used to — nevertheless, it’s one of the better parts of the title.
This is a big adventure with plenty to keep players occupied. It looks good for a GBC title and features some decent (if sometimes repetitive) music and there are a few features to set it apart from other games; unfortunately one of those features is the randomly generated sameness of the dungeon floors. There are other problems such as overly complicated menus, but the combat system is a good one. Lufia: The Legend Returns is not a bad game, but it's unlikely to excite players the way previous games in the series did.