“Mana needs a Hero. This might just be it.”
Using the power of Mana, an action RPG grew strong. Back in the golden days of SNES gaming, many gamers recall being enchanted by the story of a young boy pulling out the fabled Mana Sword and being banished on a quest to put the world to rights by defeating the plans of Emperor Vandole and Thanatos, and restoring the balance to Mana by slaying the Mana Beast. Intuitive gameplay, memorable characters, and a captivating audio-visual experience, all contributed to establishing this game as a firm fixture on many a gamer’s favourites list.
The saga suffered for many different reasons, at least outside Japan; Seiken Densetsu 3 never made the journey West, Legend of Mana sadly didn’t receive the exposure it warranted, and Sword of Mana, a remake of the predecessor to SoM Final Fantasy Adventure, left fans disappointed that it neither lived up to the gameplay value of Secret of Mana nor the spirit of Final Fantasy Adventure.
People awaited a game that would wield the Sword the way they used to know, harking back to days of old.
Enter the World of Mana project, Koichi Ishii’s attempt to bring some life back into the series and take it in new directions outside the realms of the Action RPG, and exploring new platforms and interfaces. The results have met strong criticism and mixed reviews so far, with Children of Mana being well received in Japan but not so outside, Dawn of Mana suffering price-cuts and returns from the get-go, and Heroes of Mana selling very poor Japanese sales as a consequence.
But does history repeat?
Heroes of Mana sees the series take a step into the realm of Real Time Strategy on the Nintendo DS, and will see players experience a mixture between Lost Magic and Warcraft I. The story takes place 19 years before Seiken Densetsu 3, and follows the members of the reconnaissance unit sent by the Peddan Kingdom to investigate the Beast Kingdom of Ferolia. The team, however, are shot down by Ferolian Eagle Ships, labelled as traitors by the Peddan Army, who have decided to take over Ferolia, and now have to set out on a series of missions to alert the realms of the world of the evil plans afoot and stop the darkness that is about to engulf them from another dimension.
While there are few familiar faces from previous games, we are treated to the story behind the ancestors of the main characters of Seiken Densetsu 3 and the fall of the world into the rather broken state in which we find it in when playing said game. There is considerable character development from the beginning of the game, and many links that make for an interesting, albeit linear and sometimes predictable, plot throughout. Those familiar with Seiken Densetsu 3 will get more out of this than newcomers, but that’s not to say it will be unsatisfactory otherwise.
Plus there is a detailed, in-depth encyclopaedia, or Memo, that keeps track of events, characters, units and keywords as the game unfolds, and adds a great amount of detail to everything relating to the game and the Mana series in general.
Game-play – The Touch of Mana
The controls for the game consist mainly of a mix between the D-pad and L/R button to move around the map area, and the stylus for all on screen interaction. You could use just the stylus, as there are touch screen options to switch the map on to the touch area and scroll that way (useful to get from one end of the map to the other) and to rotate, but for minor scrolling your quickest option is going to be combining in the D-pad. This presents a problem if you’re left-handed, since there is no way to switch the D-pad controls over to the ABXY buttons. You’ll either have to get used to touching with your right hand, or rest the DS on a surface to press the D-pad with your stylus hand. Or do away with D-pad control altogether.
All icons on screen are intuitive, and are easy to get used to. You will also be given a tutorial during the first few missions of how to execute basic controls and commands, and can refer to the in-game help-files at any time for a refresher. Unit selection will be mostly done by hitting the Circle Units button, and drawing a shape round the units you want to select. This can be any shape, and is very flexible.
One problem that the game does suffer from, and badly in many cases, is the grid system and path-finding algorithms that will cause friendly units to move awkwardly when controlled in groups, and also give units a tendency to take alternative paths all the way round the map if the shortest route is blocked momentarily. Having a Rabite take a detour all the way round the map into enemy territory and lure them back to your base is not going to do you any great favours. This does not mean that the game is not playable, however, but it will force the player to continuously multi-task and micromanage all units, and may turn off some players.
The flow of the missions will consist, essentially, of using your Gatherer units to harvest Gaia stones (used to build bases within the Nightswan Ship) and Treant berries (used to summon units from your corresponding bases), then building up a small army to tackle the enemy forces as they appear. Standard Fog of War rules apply, meaning you will only be able to see, on map and on screen, the territory already uncovered, and unit strengths are governed by a basic and traditional rock-paper-scissors scenario, with Ground Units being strong against Missile Units, who are strong against Flying Units… and so on. As well as these standard units, you have at your disposal 11 characters, unlocked as the storyline progresses, who increase the abilities of units near them in certain ways. When they are not on the battlefield, they lend their strengths to the Nightswan, making it move faster, summon faster, or build at a lesser cost. They are also generally stronger than basic units, so are good to reinforce against more difficult enemies. Unfortunately, they are expensive to resurrect should they die, and some missions critically state that you will lose if they kick the bucket.
These characters are also enhanced by the use of accessories, which increase their stats and can be found either during levels as hidden items or gained as rewards for completing missions and bonus maps, and elemental spirits later in the game. Each character can eventually have one spirit equipped, and depending on the character will be otorged with either a temporary status-enhancing spell or an offensive spell. Unfortunately, in the midst of battle, the on-screen button to use a spell will only appear when the character is not carrying out an action or recovering from an action, so it’s very difficult to use magic if they are in the thick of it, or if they are capable of physical attacks from a distance.
Graphics – Giving Mana a new dimension
The maps on which missions take place are in isometric perspective, in a similar vein to games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, but have a more 3 dimensional character to them in that you can rotate them during play in 90 degree intervals, allowing you to see behind obstacles if your units go behind them (trees, hills, under bridges, etc). The area of movement is also not limited just to one layer, being able to have units go over and under certain parts at the same time.
The units themselves are 2D sprites placed on top of the 3D map, and distance or height can distort them somewhat at times. The animation is detailed and smooth, and sprites are colourful and very much in keeping with the style of design that is characteristic of the Mana series.
The character designs when it comes to dialogue are basic in that there is no animation to them, and the same artwork is used in several places, but in themselves they make a break from the chibi-ish style.
At key points in the game the storyline is punctuated with still or FMV cut-scenes that have been used to their best effect, and in the right quantities. The animation on the FMV’s is well executed, and Actimagine’s video codec has once more proven to be an excellent keeper of video quality.
Also in addition to the FMV cut-scenes, later in the game certain magical skills each come with their own FMV sequence, following the same trend as Summons in later Final Fantasy games. The designers have included the option to skip these scenes should on wish to, which is quite welcome as they can tire if seen too many times (how my memory aches at the thought of Bahamut Zero).
Sound – The return of Shimomura
One highlight of this game is the return of Yoko Shimomura as soundtrack composer. Best known for her involvement with Kingdom Hearts and her previous contribution to the Seiken Densetsu series with the soundtrack for Legend of Mana, the soundtrack for Heroes is nothing short of impressive, mixing the unique style of Shimomura with influences from some of the themes created by Kikuta in Seiken Densetsu 3. While in the game itself, the sound is quite substandard due to compression, the CD boasts a high quality sound as one would expect.
Creating a whole new set of melodies, the tracks fit perfectly to all situations in the game, and are varied enough to not get too monotonous. Tracks of particular mention are the heroic main theme “To the Heroes of Old”, the sinister “Ring of Revolving Fate” and the rocking “Battle Vs Celestan”.
They mean Baxilios… really…
As far as sound effects go, there is nothing too impressive to mention. They is neither a huge variety, nor are they of tremendous quality, but they are there to outline basic actions taking place and do the job as well as expected.
Neither the Japanese nor the American versions of the game have any voice-acting, during the game, dialogue or cut scenes, and any dialogue text is intonated by the usual “beep-beep-beep” alternative, varying in tone depending on the character talking. However, this is not too overpowering, and the developers again thought with the gamer in mind and provided the option to skip dialogue or advance it to the end of the current line, doing away with the beeping, a vast improvement over their ventures in Sword of Mana and the dialogue of doom.
Multiplayer and Wifi – Get yourself connected
No wifi! That’s it, Square burns to the ground!
A disappointing discovery is the lack of Wifi Multiplayer once again, being limited to DS-to-DS multiplayer, with both players requiring a copy of the game, meaning that unless there’s someone in your neighbourhood, its just you and the computer, I’m afraid.
There is Wifi though, in the form of an on-line ranking system. Every week, certain maps will be flagged for scoring, and your scores will be uploaded on to the ranking table to accumulate points and unlock more items and maps. If you haven’t got a map that is up for ranking that week, the game will unlock it also, meaning that to get the full 43 bonus maps you’ll want to be connecting every week to try and unlock them all as soon as possible.
Replay Value – They’re coming back for more
With 26 main storyline missions, 43 bonus maps, and an added level of difficulty once you’ve completed the game once, there is hopefully enough play-time and challenge to keep players interested in the game for some time to come. Plus there is always the added mission to climb up the ranks and make it to the top of the leader table on Wifi and unlock as many items as possible.
Overall – Is it Mana enough?
Overall the game is quite the hit or miss. With points such as the path-finding and lack of Wifi Multiplayer hitting quite hard against the positive points of the game, such as the general audiovisual beauty and “Othello” game-play (takes a moment to learn but a lifetime to master… though maybe not quite a lifetime), it will come down to whether these negatives are subjectively negligible or not. It won’t live up to PC-based Real-Time Strategy games because of the small screen and limited interface options (it’s a hand-held, enough said), and whether or not Mana fans will feel at home will depend greatly on their own flexibility to delve outside the ARPG genre and engage with the storyline leading up to SD3.
As a follower of the series myself, and also being fond of RTS games, I at least think it does an acceptably good job of bringing RTS to the DS and incorporating the Seiken Densetsu world into that mold, while keeping to the dark storyline feel of the Gameboy and SNES classics in the series and colourful ambiance that we’re grown to know and love.
Storyline: 9/10 – Engaging, and detailed Memo add extra depth to characters and world
Graphics: 9/10 – Excellent for the DS
Sound: 4/10 – Nothing extraordinary effects-wise
Soundtrack: 9/10 – Another hit from Shimomura
Game-play: 7/10 Easy to learn, but certain items are cumbersome and detract
Multiplayer: 3/10 Lack of Wifi Multiplayer a huge let-down
Replay Value: 8/10 Should keep people coming back for more
At least rent it out and give it a chance, I think you’ll grow to like it.