A pedigreed project if ever there was one, The Legend of Legacy could easily have been named for its own lineage — this Furyu-developed RPG counts among its creators some of the legendary minds behind Chrono Trigger, the SaGa series and Final Fantasy XIII. As the latest in a long line of Atlus adventures for the 3DS, it's also following a strong legacy of JRPG gems on Nintendo's portable powerhouse. Happily, it's easily able to measure up to both its ancestry and contemporaries; with deeply satisfying battle mechanics, a wonderful atmosphere and a fascinating fusion of old-school sensibilities and innovative ideas, The Legend of Legacy is a delight for RPG fans.
Our legend begins on the island of Avalon, a newly rediscovered holy land that holds traces of lost gods and a bevy of secrets to unearth. After a very brief bout of world-building you'll pick one of seven adventurers and set off to explore the island. There's Eloise the alchemist, Liber the treasure hunter, Bianca the optimistic amnesiac, Meurs the elementalist, Garnet the loyal holy knight, Owen the mercenary, and Filmia the musical frog prince — a clear highlight — and each character has their own reasons for wanting to explore Avalon. They're all fun to use, too, and though each character starts with a fixed team of two of the others, you can recruit more members to your party and swap between them as you progress.
If this seems like a slightly sparse setup, it is. Though there's a quietly building overarching narrative, The Legend of Legacy is light on moment-to-moment story, and it's very happy to let you loose into its world after just a few minutes of exposition, rather than a few hours. This isn't a bad thing at all, of course, and it will be a huge positive for old-school aficionados; in its sparse dialogue, understated story and relatively restrained characterization, it calls to mind Famicom Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests more readily than any of Square-Enix's recent output.
Once you jump into the action, The Legend of Legacy's gameplay loop settles into a comforting cycle of genre standbys: exploration and combat. In the game's sole town of Initium you'll be able to come across maps of various uncharted areas of Avalon. Once you have a map you can set out for that territory — through a menu-like cartographic conceit, as in Fire Emblem: Awakening — and start exploring. Within each area there are several different sections to comb, and a stylized map on the bottom screen will auto-fill as you explore. Once you're satisfied you can head back to Initium to sell your filled-in map — earning significantly more money if it's 100% complete — and then stock up on new ones to head for further parts unknown.
While there's no 'overworld' in the traditional sense, within each map area you'll move around as you would in any other typical JRPG. One key difference is that there are no random battles; instead, in the grand, player-friendly tradition of EarthBound, enemies will appear as generic, shadowy figures on the field, and you can engage them or run away as you see fit. Once you do start up a battle, The Legend of Legacy comes into its own with a deep, dynamic combat system that really steals the show.
Battles in The Legend of Legacy are turn-based, but they're much more involved than similar systems, thanks especially to the idea of 'formations'. Formations act like a bundle of orders for your party, and assign each character a 'stance'. Different stances can emphasize Attacking, Guard or Support roles, and give boosts to stats accordingly — a support stance might grant you increased speed and healing ability, for instance, while a Guard role could let you block attacks for the whole party. The starter 'Pegasus' formation involves a beefy character soaking up damage in the front line while the other two party members get in quick jabs from the side, and using it effectively in battle requires playing to those strengths. You can create and save up to six formations to fall into whenever you like, and you can switch setups mid-match, so there's plenty of room for on-the-fly strategizing.
Along with formations, elemental affinities come into play in The Legend of Legacy, and not in the way you might expect. Instead of a simple weakness chain (though there's one of those too!), elements here are comprised of capricious, suggestible spirits that influence events both on and off the battlefield. There are four elements to keep track of — Water, Air, Fire, and Shadow — and their balance shifts continuously as you walk around the map. An Elemental Scale in the top right of the screen helps you keep an eye on the current standings, which become important for battles; if you go into a fight in an area with a strong Fire elemental contingent and very few Water representatives, for instance, flame-based attacks will be stronger while water will be weaker. You can actively help turn these tides as well, by forging 'contracts' with one of the different elements during battle, and once you're in accord with a particular element you can access powerful "charm" spells of that type to attack your enemies, heal your allies or protect your party.
It seems like a lot to think about, and it is, but it's very well implemented; the elements add strategy to both fights and exploration, and after a few hours of play tuning into the elemental balance comes naturally; it starts to feel like the Avalon equivalent of checking the weather. Even the way the elementals themselves are presented — as a swirling collection of shimmering lights flitting around above the battlefield, visible by holding down 'Y' mid-fight — makes them feel like an extra layer on top of the battle and a part of the wider world, rather than just another combat mechanic.
Thanks to the focus on formations and the elemental system, battles in The Legend of Legacy have a unique feel, but there's more to it than that; right off the bat you can tell that Avalon does things differently. First off, your characters won't level up with experience; rather, individual stats (Attack, Guard, and Support) will increase based on the actions you take in battle. Spend a few rounds protecting your teammates and you'll see your Guard stat rise, while whaling on enemies non-stop will increase your Attack. Similarly, skills can evolve the more you use them; they might level up to do more damage or even 'Awaken' into new, more powerful variants.
The biggest change from RPG business as usual, however, is that your party members will regain all their HP after every battle. This doesn't make the game easier; in fact, individual battles are significantly more difficult here than in most RPGs, and thanks to the importance of formations and the relative strength of ordinary enemies, spamming 'Attack' is a totally non-viable strategy. These tough, engaging fights are possible precisely because your HP won't carry over between them, which lets normal battles matter in and of themselves, and not just as part of a larger process of attrition. It's a refreshing change of pace — rather than trying to get you in and out of encounters as quickly as possible, The Legend of Legacy aims make them worth fighting, and it largely succeeds; we felt invested in fighting enemies right from the get-go in a way that's usually reserved for bigger baddies in most RPGs.
That said, there are a few issues with this approach. While encounters aren't random, and you can technically run away from any you don't want to fight, they still felt a bit too frequent given the length and commitment each battle entails; we spent a fair bit of time actively running away from enemies just to space the battles out more. And while the battle system as a whole is a delight, individual elements can start to feel repetitive — the elemental balance and customizable formations keep the mechanics fresh, but after fighting the same set of three enemies twenty times in the same area we found ourselves wishing for more variety in our foes, at the very least.
In fact, a bit more variety wouldn't hurt in general. Battling and exploring are both lots of fun, but the gameplay loop doesn't really let up; you'll head out to explore a new area, battle as much as you can, and return to Initium to restock and rearm your team before heading out to press on ahead. In this sense it's reminiscent of Etrian Odyssey and other classic dungeon-crawlers, but it's lacking both the environmental puzzles and map-making elements that keep those games interesting for longer sessions, as well as explorable towns that give traditional JRPGs a sense of scale and wonder; taken all together, these are noticeable absences. There are a few fun extras to make up for it — including an intriguing StreetPass feature that lets you send out ships to explore the high seas of local Wi-Fi and bring back the asynchronous spoils — and Avalon is still a lot of fun to dip into; it's just best enjoyed in shorter spurts that let you really appreciate the intricacies of the combat and the atmospheric setting.
That atmosphere goes a long way, too, since The Legend of Legacy is absolutely gorgeous. It sports a subtly colourful storybook look that calls to mind a more muted Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, and it's completely committed to its aesthetic. Foreground elements like trees and boulders are rendered in a watercolour style and hoisted up individually as you pass within range, making walking around Avalon feel like flipping through the pages of a life-sized pop-up book. It's a breathtaking effect that looks amazing in motion, especially with the 3D slider turned up, and it's one of the coolest graphical tricks we've seen on the system since Bravely Default's citywide pan-outs — which are incidentally present here as well in Initium. Elsewhere, the presentation owes a lot to its 32-bit forebears, with chunky chibi character models and dramatic, dynamic camera angles during battles that reminded us of a much smoother Final Fantasy IX. One of the coolest nods to these influences is the wide variety of visually interesting screen transition effects that trigger when you enter a battle, replicating the impressive feel of PSOne-era loading screens, but without all the waiting.
All in all, it's an incredibly stylish presentation, and it's matched in kind by the music. Composer Masashi Hamauzu — who's previously scored SaGa Frontier 2, Unlimited Saga, and Final Fantasy XIII — has put together a beautifully unique soundtrack that layers melodic piano, synth, strings over birdsong, pad hits, and experimental noise. It's an enchanting fusion of organic and futuristic sounds, and a huge part of the charm of exploring Avalon is in discovering new soundscapes as you go. The soundtrack is accompanied by excellent audio design in general, too. The Legend of Legacy makes great use of its audio space, and a good pair of headphones is recommended; ambient noise and off-screen animal calls contribute to the feeling that there's a real, living world behind the glass. There's very little voice-over work, with only a storybook narrator providing occasional commentary, though that's in keeping with the game's old-school, story-light sensibilities, and the silence feels very natural in context.
The Legend of Legacy plays like a love letter to JRPGs, and just how much you enjoy it will hinge on what it is you love about the genre. If you're after world-spanning scale, intricate stories and complex character interaction, you'll likely end up disappointed — all of these elements are either backgrounded or absent from Avalon entirely. But if you love RPGs for the sense of exploration, engaging battle mechanics, and overall atmosphere, you're in for a real treat; The Legend of Legacy plays to these strengths and delivers a lovingly crafted adventure with a gorgeous graphical style and an outstanding soundtrack, easily earning its place in the 3DS' pantheon of portable RPG gems.