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Legaia 2: Duel Saga Review

Legaia 2: Duel Saga

Legaia 2: Duel Saga was the follow-up to Legend of Legaia, the cult classic JRPG which lit the eyes of many a gamer in the late 90s. Does the follow-up have the same magical world and likable characters as the first game? Does it serve as a worthy innovator that does well by the franchise? Let’s talk about that. Sadly, this game doesn’t get as strong a start as it needs to really impress. The sequel is one of those games that I stumbled upon, and even as a young kid, I could see the cracks in its foundation. To explain why, let me give you a preview of how the story is going to go.

Design and Execution

As with any JRPG, the first thing we need to elucidate on is the story. The narrative structure and the included cast are supposed to keep the player engaged for 50 or more hours, so do they do their job?  The short answer is no. Legaia 2: Duel Saga has a story that is very trope-heavy, and very much unlike the first game in the series, there’s a lot less likable goofiness to the proceedings. This time around, rather than trying to take those same tropes and innovatively try to present them in inspired ways, the second game plays them much straighter. This leads to a fairly by-the-numbers story from the outset, a quality that sadly doesn’t improve as the game goes on.

The player takes on the role of Lang, a very special boy with a very special power and a unique tattoo. Do you see what I mean about trope-heavy? Lang is a member of a small village deep in the woods, excluded from the outside world. Lang and the Hunter Corps of this small village spend the opening of the game hunting monsters in the surrounding wilds, only to have their idyllic lives shattered by the appearance of a strong and terrifying new foe. A mysterious man bearing a tattoo similar to Lang, who the game brands as “Gold Eyes”, shows up to slaughter Lang and the Hunter Corps, doing a basic evil monologue the whole time. It’s during this early tutorial section that the basics of the game shine through for the first time, and a lot of players such as myself fell in love with it. The Arts system adds a layer of depth to the combat, which we’ll talk about later. The enemy designs are also pretty decent and varied for a PS2 game.

But even during this early section, the tropes start coming in hot and heavy. You see, the village deep in the woods holds a unique and powerful secret, the Aqualith. This magic item is a source of potent elemental magic and ties in with the magic of this world. When Golden Eyes beats the snot out of Lang and steals the Aqualith, Lang goes on a grand adventure to chase him down.

Legaia 2: Duel Saga Story

Lang and Kazan going on an adventure

Lang finds himself journeying through a world he’s deeply unfamiliar with, trying to make it through an expansive canyon near his village. The wider world awaits just past a magical barrier, one that’s never explained as to why it’s there. You’ll find this to be a common annoyance with this game where the story just expects the player’s compliance, rather than working to make them invested in the goings on.

And here’s where the other problems start to creep into the narrative. From the outset, the player isn’t given enough world-building to be truly interested in the world or its magic. The player is just expected to trundle through a zone, and do the typical JRPG things: Gather XP and loot; solve the puzzle blocking your progress; fight the main zone boss; get trounced by an even stronger boss that shows up to take the player out; get knocked out; wake up in the new zone.

This exact formula describes multiple zones and story arcs within Legaia 2: Duel Saga, and it’s not a good thing. The structure of the narrative relies too heavily on this setup of cascading problems that Lang must solve to progress. It’s very typical of JPRGs, but boy has it not aged well. A strong narrative can and should deeply invest the player in what’s happening, this game doesn’t even try to do that. You know full well you’re just supposed to go along with the ride and move from forced story beat to forced story beat.

And true to form, Lang gets trounced by another pair of weird and powerful Mystics, Elliott and Marienne, finding himself captured and taken to a nearby castle. A terrible Duke rules the attached village with an iron fist, and seeks Mystics for some grand dastardly design. Lang is very quickly just a pawn along for the ride of the narrative, and has very little real agency in many sections of the game. Even as Lang and Maya escape the castle and head off into the world, it feels like Lang’s more motivated by being the protagonist in a video game and doing the right thing, rather than having actual motivations that make any sense. The Origins (What Legaia 2 calls summons) are powerful, but their overall place in the world is left intentionally ambiguous for much of the game. This will inevitably frustrate some players who are used to a more focused plot.

But it’s not just the slogging story that drags the game down. The characters added to the party in short order through the opening areas also feel like they’re just there, not really doing much. Maya and Kazan, the first two party members, serve to fill the needed tropey roles of healer and tank for the next few sections of the game. And after going on a side quest to awaken Lang’s latent power, the trio is off to explore the world and recruit more allies. What follows is a sometimes funny mix of character beats that does have its interesting takes, but is still very reliant on the player going through the motions.

As you and the party explore the world, the slow drip of character backstories plays out in a very predictable way. Kazan takes Lang under his wing and slowly reveals his past to his young pupil, the grizzled and traumatized old man that he is.

Maya journeys along with the party, but is little more than a potion-throwing bot in the early game. Did I forget to mention that she’s mute and her healing-focused Mystic power won’t awaken the ability to attack until dozens of hours into the game? We’re also going to have to wait until we progress through another unexplained magic barrier to get more of her backstory. If you’re fine with this kind of storytelling, that’s OK, but it’s definitely dated against the likes of Final Fantasy XVI. That game’s narrative takes a much more refreshing and engaging set of trope-laden characters, presenting them in a very engaging way. But sadly for Legaia 2, there’s not much subterfuge, backstabbing or interesting characterization to be had here.

As Lang and company explore more grandiose environments and solve devious puzzles, they’ll slowly uncover a grand plot to destroy the world. And now, the Aqualith must be taken and combined with other elemental stones to reset the balance of power. See what I mean about being absolutely burdened with tropes in Legaia 2: Duel Saga?

Legaia 2: Duel Saga Review

So the story isn’t great, but what about the rest of the game? There are areas where the game shines though, at least for me. The combat in Legaia 2: Duel Saga does borrow somewhat from the original game, but with a few notable exceptions. And it’s these changes that I actually like. The first game required you to spend AP on all of your Arts, making it much harder to look stylish in combat and remain effective. The second game changes this, and makes some substantive changes to magic as well, more on that later.

The Mystics and their Origins is one of several things that the second game adds on top of the systems taken from the first game. Some people hated the change away from the first game’s more robust combat to a more tropey summoning system, but for those fans that came into the game without that bias, it works OK. Yeah, it’s a bit lazy in terms of writing, but it at least allows for some fun tactics in combat.

That Arts system I mentioned earlier is one of the main ways in which this game both borrows and innovates on the franchise’s established elements. You’re given a certain number of Art Blocks, and the idea is that you input a series of directional inputs to do a certain attack. Lang’s basic attack at the beginning of the game is called Blade Dance, and uses the following inputs: Down, Left, Left.

Players are given a basic set of attacks to start, but must use their brainpower to unlock more. You need to enter random combinations in the hopes of finding more Arts, and it’s going to take a while. Each member of the party has their own set of inputs for dozens of Arts. There are Normal Arts, which are your basic attacks that build up AP. You then spend AP on Super, Hyper, and Variable Arts. There are also character-specific Mystic Arts that consume MP and require the character to have less than 50% HP remaining. These are your most powerful moves, and are meant to be used to finish out a tough fight. Both this one and the first game in the franchise utilize the Arts system and a stylish presentation to make the combat much more interesting.

Hyper and Variable Arts are the game’s go-to superpowered attacks, meant to be used on the bosses in a pretty basic rhythm. Just use your Arts in a way that chains them together and does tons of damage. For example, Blade Dance and Hawk Stroke can be combined with the following sequence: Down, Left, Left, Down, Down. These two Normal Arts give Lang 32 AP and enough opening to use a Super Art on his next turn. You’ll find yourself going back to basic Arts a lot and having to redo their inputs hundreds of times throughout the game. The game stores discovered Arts for easy inputs later, thankfully. Before long, you will have an established combo sequence that you use in pretty much every fight as you’ll have more than a dozen Art Blocks to fill up on each character’s turn.

This game is lucky that it was released in 2001, long before the age of the video game guide had taken over. Many gamers like myself probably gave up and looked up a walkthrough for the Arts combinations at some point, but we all likely spent some time grinding random encounters to try out possible combos to discover new Arts.

Legaia 2: Duel Saga Arts

Lang using a Mystic Art

OK, aside from combat, what else is there? In typical JRPG fashion, the puzzles and expansive maps make a strong showing in Legaia 2: Duel Saga. Many areas of the game require the use of intuition and context clues to make it through. Players will often need to use their Origins to solve puzzles, sometimes also returning later with a new ability or party member to unlock some hidden path or bypass an obstacle. There are multiple massive dungeons in this game that can be a real challenge to get through, either due to bad RNG causing a party wipe, or a frustrating puzzle. You’re probably going to be a bit annoyed by this as a new player.

Where the system tends to really break down is in the slogs of boss fights in this game. After bashing your head against the puzzle directly preceding a boss fight and a dungeon bursting at the seams with monsters, a lot of players will find the boss fights a bit uninspired. There will be several times when the basic idea is to use your Arts and MP to deal damage as fast as possible against a big sack of HP, while using one party member to heal and cure status conditions. Now imagine doing that in two back-to-back dungeons with one party member that can only heal. That’s the climax of the first 10-15 hours of the game. It’s during these combat gauntlets where one element of the game’s combat manages to shine, though; equipment.

The player will find various craftable weapons, armor, and jewels throughout the game, each with their own effects. Most players will find that status effects are pretty annoying, so trying to prevent as many status effects as possible is the way to go, even above boosting your core stats. Some fights in this game are flat-out impossible if you don’t have party members who are immune to mind control effects like Bewitch or Spellbind. That means you’re going to spend as much time as you can farming Gold to buy basic charms, then combining them to try and find recipes that give you useful protection magics.

Legaia 2: Duel Saga Crafting

Making Accessories in Legaia 2: Duel Saga

And for you packrats out here, there are dozens of items to be found for each character, as well as a mountain of side quests, mini-games, and more to uncover the best items in the game. It’s in the side content that the game actually finds some of its most fun moments. Some of the characters you meet and their interactions with the party are genuinely funny or fun to watch. Despite its tropes and sometimes irritating gameplay, there are flashes of inspiration to be seen in Legaia 2: Duel Saga.

Now, for one of the more negatively-received changes from Legend of Legaia to this game. The magic system is going to anger a lot of fans. The monster-capturing system from the first game is gone, replaced with elemental magic determined by each character’s attached Origin. Lang uses Fire magic, Kazan has Earth and so on. There are a few twists with certain characters to keep in mind. Maya has a healing-focused Water Origin, but her unique lineage allows her to use all types of elemental magic in her attacks. There are also magicless party members who use brute strength and big weapons to deal massive damage.

Without the monster-based combat of the first game, some fans will find the tactics a bit hard to get used to. But for me, this system is actually an improvement. The Origins allow each character to feel a bit more unique and each has their own role and playstyle. Some folks may find that the more slow and methodical battles from the first game were a benefit, but I personally don’t. This game already has enough bloat slowing it down, it doesn’t need to make the combat more tedious.

Functionality

In terms of polish and presentation, there’s not much to criticize here. Sure, it definitely looks extremely dated and boring by modern standards, but it works fine. Being a PlayStation 2 game, don’t expect any grand vistas or extremely pretty particle effects here. Some of the game’s areas are pretty visually flat and lifeless, but they serve their purpose. At least you can tell where you are and where you’re supposed to go. Even during emulation, when most bugs will be more noticeable, the base game is rock solid in terms of FPS, visual clarity and stability.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues, but they’re pretty minor. A few random frame drops here and there is nothing to really complain about. And there are even some moments where unintentional hilarity creeps in. I always get a good chuckle when I think about this game and how the voice-over would often be out of sync with the animations in some scenes. This is particularly noticeable in the post-battle scenes. And yes, the voice acting is pretty bad. If you’re someone who finds bad VA charming, you’re right at home with this RPG.

Is Legaia 2: Duel Saga Worth it?

If you still have a PS2 lying around and want to go on this particular JRPG romp, you might be shocked at how easy this game is to find. Unlike the classics of PS2 JRPGs (cough, cough .Hack//) this game is relatively affordable for a used copy online. For the $20-$30 you’ll spend on it, you can expect a passable 50+ hour RPG to be waiting for you.

And if you don’t have the retro hardware available to play it, the game runs fairly well on PCSX2 emulation. And it can be tweaked with a combination of graphical enhancements and some mods to address certain issues. The PS2 UnDub project fixes that one weird thing with the dub where the voice-over sync is lost in some scenes. Although as with all emulation, you’re going to be fiddling with the rendering settings to get a true console-like experience. All in all, genre fans looking to revisit a classic will likely have other more popular titles they would rather play again instead. Honestly, if you’re not someone who grew up playing this game like I did, it’s a tough sell.

So why write this review for a 22-year-old game? With the recent release of Final Fantasy XVI, the genre has never been more popular and polished. If you’ve just finished that game and feel a desperate need to see where the roots of the genre have grown into a beautiful flower, you could do worse than Legaia 2: Duel Saga.

Verdict: Average, a workable reminder of the roots of classic JRPGs, maybe a few too many rough edges and bad design decisions for some.

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