When I was little I did not own many games for my Playstation. I had some sports games from relatives that did not know me well, some THQ-made licensed games from grandparents with the best of intentions, and some RPGs that I bought for myself - those were my favorites. The vast majority of the RPGs I enjoyed were from Squaresoft’s late-90s hit-factory; however, there was one game that I loved as much as the PS1 Final Fantasies: Legend of Legaia. This seemingly forgotten gem was loaned to me by one of my friends in 1999 and he hasn’t seen it since. Now Legend of Legaia’s story is almost purely JRPG genre fare, complete with teenagers trying to rid a doomed world of darkness; but, there was something about its combat system and its magic system that are still compelling to me.
Legend of Legaia’s combat system was purely turn-based with a unique input system. Rather than simply having a normal menu with options like attack, skills, or magic, Legend of Legaia had ordinary item and magic use with a more complex attack system. Selecting attack took you to a sub menu where you could choose which combination of right/left punches and high/low kicks to form an attack combo. These attack combos could then trigger specific “arts” or special attacks based on the specific combinations; for example, Vahn, the main protagonist, would perform a summersault kick if you entered high/low/high. The lengths of your combos were limited by an attack bar that filled up as you entered commands. This attack bar would vary in length on a per-character basis and it would increase as your characters gained levels, allowing for more and more powerful arts and complex art combos. The number of arts you could perform was limited by an AP or action point meter that prevented you from simply unloading your best attacks every turn. This meter refilled a little by not performing arts on turn, or a lot by defending (the game called it’s defend move “spirit,” but it was essentially the same as defend in most traditional RPGs). On top of refilling your AP meter, defending extended the length of your attack bar for one turn after defending. This balance between attacking, defending, and unloading spirit-boosted super combos made a deeply interesting and re-playable combat system out of what is usually taken for granted in JRPGs.
Rather than creating a bunch of skills that you have to learn as you level up, Legend of Legaia gave you a fighting game-esque combo system and left it up to you how best to use it. Just entering the correct attack commands unlocked new skills, rather than artificially gating a bunch of skills behind a level wall as so many games did. This allowed basic fights to be a place to test out potential combos and discover arts rather than purely repetitive auto-attack-fests. The attack bar also allowed each of the game's three main characters, Vahn, Noa, and Gala, to be defined and unique in combat based purely on the length of their attack bars. Noa was a pure attacker because her bar allowed for long combos. Vahn was in the middle between physical and magical attacks as his bar was in the middle. Gala was best used as a caster because he simply could not unload physical attacks like his companions due to his short attack bar
The second cool system that Legend of Legaia introduced was its magic system. The vast majority of the spells in the game were unlocked by fighting elemental monsters called Seru, the game’s main source of monster chaos. When fighting a Seru, if a character delivered the killing blow with a physical attack, there was a small chance that the character would absorb the Seru and gain the ability to summon it during a battle. This made every fight with a Seru a constant juggling act to give the last-hit to the character that most needed that Seru’s magic. You could not really auto-attack your way through a fight with a Seru, because doing so could cause your characters to miss out on valuable spells. There were even some early Seru bosses that offered you a one-time early chance to gain insanely powerful magic early in the game. The random chance to gain magic again added variety and thought to what could have been a tedious combat system. Furthermore, magic leveled up as it was used, which incentivized you to use it as often as your MP allowed, rather than hoard your MP for boss fights as so many RPGs require.
Legend of Legaia certainly did not rewrite the book on narrative and setting, but its achievements in combat design are a lesson that should not be forgotten. In a way Legend of Legaia asks the question, “what if every character attacked like Sabin from FF6 and learned magic like a Blue Mage from FF5?” I think that it proved that combining those two designs was one hell of an idea.