IGN Review of Legend of Heroes III: Song of the Ocean
Nihon Falcom knows how to make RPGs. After all, this is the company that brought the classic Ys franchise to players everywhere. Yet, even with this pedigree, it's possible for mistakes along the way. Take, for instance, the Gagharv Trilogy that comprises the Legends of Heroes series. Deciding to sink three games into the same world is a dangerous proposition, because if it's too bland or extremely linear (among other faults), you've damned all of the titles to mediocrity. Plus, just because you're trying to make an overall storyline across the trilogy, you may find yourself tied to some game mechanics that don't necessarily work for each game. Surprisingly, however, the recently released Legend of Heroes III: Song of the Ocean changes some of the issues that plagued the first two titles, resulting in the strongest game of the series.
A standalone story set in the same world (albeit on the southern side of the massive mountain range that divides the Legend of Heroes landscape), Song of the Ocean takes place in a realm known as Weltluna, which was once the center of an ancient civilization known as the Water Tribe. The tribe was extremely powerful, and wielded songs as easily as a magician cast spells. Their shining achievement was a masterpiece comprised of 24 separate verses which, while powerful on their own, was said to have the ability to save the world. Unfortunately, the Water Tribe and their mystical song vanished, becoming known as the Lost Melody, until a legendary musician resurrected the lost verses, calling the song the Water Melody. Fearful of the combined power the verses had, he etched the verses on stones and scattered them throughout Weltluna.
Players take on the role of a young musician known as Forte, who's dedicated to playing music with his best friend, Una and his accomplished troubadour grandfather McBain. In fact, they've even formed a traveling music company. One day, McBain receives a book with some of the lost phrases of the Water Melody, and the trio accidentally stumbles upon a magic map that shows the location of the 24 magic stones. Eager to recover the entire Water Melody, the trio, along with McBain's faithful dog Jan, set out across the world of Weltluna in search of the stones and adventure. Along the way, the company will gather new party members (topping out at six characters at a time) as well as attempt to make a name for themselves as musicians.
The game draws upon a number of the conventions from the previous titles in the series across the 30-50 hour long game experience. Players will wind up traveling around to various towns, castles and other locations, helping out the various citizens of each town to accomplish different tasks. You'll wind up solving various issues that crop up here and there, such as lost children or threats to the town. However, just like the previous two games, Song of the Ocean has the same plot development issues. You're not really allowed to explore the surroundings and environments around the world because you're linearly forced in one direction; even attempting to deviate away from an area that the game wants you to explore throws up an invisible roadblock as well as an admonition that you're not doing what you need to do. You're also still forced to take on every task in a town, so expect to backtrack back and forth around a city a lot, especially if you have to try to find a specific character that has some need. While it would've been great if the "History" feature had been changed to actually copy down objectives to help you out on these repetitive trips, there's no such luck.
New to the supposed "exploratory" nature of the Legends of Heroes franchise are massive tuning forks that are scattered around the landscape. While these might seem to be simple landscape markers, they're actually bonus areas where you can adventure in limited battle arenas called scenes. Much more than simple areas to gain additional experience, these locations give fans of the story a chance to access the skills and abilities of the previous heroes from Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch and Tear of Vermillion if you happen to have saved game data on your memory stick. Players can even add these characters to their party if they complete enough scenes, giving Forte and his company stronger characters to play with. This is a great incentive for owners of the previous two games, and gives a nice bonus to completing the trilogy, as well as new skills that can be used in battle.
Speaking of battle, the encounter system from previous games has been retained within Song of the Ocean. Instead of random battles, you'll have the opportunity to see what monsters are around on a map at all times. You'll also note the kind of disposition they have towards you and your party, whether it's fearful, neutral or hostile. This means that once your party has become sufficiently strong enough, players can pick and choose which monsters you'll want to engage and which ones you'll dismiss as insignificant. Of course, choosing to enter a battle will present you with a number of options, such as launching an attack, using magic, skills or items within a battle, or potentially running away.
However, Song of the Ocean provides a couple of variations within the battle system that previous titles never had. For one, while characters will gain skills as they gain certain levels, players won't have access to magic spells unless they equip the various magic stones they'll collect along the way. Another variation is that enemies now have elemental attributes that can be exploited, such as using water spells against a character with a fiery nature to harm them. Finally, players will be able to combine spells into an attack known as Ensemble Magic, which strengthens the effect of the spell being used in battle.
However, even with these tweaks, battles can still suffer from some of the same issues that plagued the previous games. You'll still slog through a number of insignificant monsters (many of whom you could clear within a turn or two of battle) simply because the monsters prefer to charge you instead of run away. Many of the skills that you'll get are still useless compared to the spells that you'll inevitably unlock with the magic stones. Stat boosts are great, but many of your characters are strong enough to fend off the monsters that you'll face without any additional help. Finishing moves are still included, although it can be a bit harder to trigger them in Song of the Ocean than the previous titles because it's not a standard option on the battle menu. Plus, you've still got a number of bonuses that unbalances battle thanks to your pets that will cast healing or attack spells before a fight begins.
While you'd think that Song of the Ocean would handle the pet system differently because one of your initial party members is a dog, it retains the same issues that shone through in Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch. Your animals will display various attitudes towards you at random without for no reason, regardless of whether or not you praise, scold or feed them. Plus, since you have no control over their moods, you have no idea when or if your animals will join you in battle. In fact, players can ignore these animals continually until it brings you an item, at which point they're simply a fetch mechanic used to track down random items in the world. It can be a bit strange as you continue through the story and watch a parade of animals following you: Jan, followed by your pet, and later on Rick the desert rat. It sometimes feels like you're the Pied Piper or Doctor Doolittle.
There's one thing that can be said about the Legend of Heroes franchise, which is that the art style has remained exactly the same. That means that you'll see detailed sprites and environments, and a couple of abbreviated animated cutscenes. While there's still no voiceover, the music is quite nice, especially with the number of songs that you have at your disposal to perform in the various performance spaces around the world.
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