A Solid Entry for the Mana Series
Having a chance to play Children of Mana by Square Enix allows me to play a game from the World of Mana series for the first time. To those unfamiliar with the franchise the "Mana" series is another set of video games from Square Enix revolving around the fictional world of Mana. The second game, Secret of Mana (1993), is widely praised and placed alongside lofty company such as the Legend of Zelda. But since the series hasn't been entirely successful, and Children of Mana (the subject of this review) was considered to be an OK addition, but nothing special. Having spent roughly 20 or so hours in completing the main campaign and doing several side quests I am here to argue for a more complex picture. Children of Mana does a lot of things right; its presentation is one of the best I've seen on the DS and its RPG elements has some nice wrinkles to it. But it falls short on a couple of key areas that prevent the game from being more entertaining than it can be.
That being said I would also like to note that the review is incomplete in some areas. Because I do not have two copies of the game I can not make a definitive statement on the game's multiplayer component and experience. Also, I did leave a lot of side-quests undone, so I can't tell you how many side quests there are other than saying "a lot of them". That being said, I can comment on the quality of side quests and the other components of significance beyond multiplayer.
But first of all I have to talk about the introduction, which is without question immaculately done:
I don't really know which is better: The soundtrack or the graphics. You can certainly make a case for both. The orchestral soundtrack seems to come straight out of an fantasy adventure movie, a mixture of idyllic nostalgia, brewing trouble, the aforementioned adventure, the eventually triumphing over all odds and an overarching sense of wonder. Sound effects? Spectacular. There is variety of SFX, all of which are clear and detailed. The art style resembles that of a beautifully drawn manga with (again) the fantasy element, incorporating tropes like young adventurers, magical creatures, scenic forests and the magical sword. The animation is also exquisite, without any hitches, looking so much like a real animated production. There's little to nothing to complain about the opening, the game's key strength and one of the best I've seen for a DS game.
Once you have subjected yourself to the high of the introduction you actually get into the game. You get to select out of 4 RPG character archetypes (All-Around, Mage, Brute Force, All-Around but as a Girl) and start your adventure. You play as one of the villagers of Illusia. However your idyllic lifestyle is shattered when there are reports of abnormal weathers and the appearance of monsters everywhere. You, being a skilled warrior, answer the call to first rescue Tess, the village shrine-maiden, and later uncover the origins of these disasters. In doing so you tango with a man of black clothing (obviously a bad guy) and finally put the abysmal situation to rest.
The story is simple fantasy fare. You play as the hero who attempts to stop the evil from ruining everything. There is some talk about why the Mana Goddess (the deity of this game) does not intervene. There is a lot of intrigue if you care to delve into the details; you learn that your village chief is once an adventurer hoping to re-flower his desert homeland, for example. Your characters are standard archetypes. Tess the shrine-maiden is more than meets the eye, Moti is your calm and collected village chieftain, and Watts is Moti's hot-tempered friend. The story is not great, but at least there are some fun tidbits.
Once the first couple of main quests are done the game opens up a bit. You operate in a hub world represented by your village. In there you can enter side-quests, buy new items or start the main quest to continue the story along. You can interact with the villagers and some might present new quests for you if certain conditions are fulfilled. For example you can get an item from Person X, then talk to Person Y, who gives you a quest because you have an item from Person X. Through that system there are many new quests and new subplots that emerge, which helps the game's replay value.
Equipping new weapons and armor is a straightforward affair. There is a distinct hierarchy between what is better than the other; the only reason why you can't wear the better armaments straight away is because you need to reach a certain level (ie. only can equip at lvl 54+). But the star RPG element of Children of Mana has to be the gem system. It starts off simple enough; you have a number of gems to put into the frame. By putting those gems into the frame you can moderately increase your stats like attack and defense.
But midway into the game the process becomes so much more complicated. That is because you can fuse gems together for a price to create new gems and new effects. Some of the effects are really bizarre. For example, there is a certain gem that allow you to walk on spikes without hurting yourself. There is one that can help you differentiate between actual treasure chests and chests that are actually monsters that can hurt you. There is even one gem that revives you upon death... but sets you on fire for a moment after doing so. In sum there are a lot of gems to fuse and experiment on, and that customization part is the design highlight for Children of Mana.
So there is a lot going for the game so far, but actually playing the game is where some problems arise. Children of Mana is what I would call an Action RPG, although some classify the game as a hack-and-slash. The latter feels like an apt description because for most of the campaign you are going to travel into dungeon after dungeon wiping out legions of monsters and other nasties. Like the Dynasty Warriors series (and I do not mean this as a compliment) the game can get tedious and repetitive.
Let me give you the picture of how I went about the gameplay. You start off at a point, and suddenly monsters all appear. You give a thwacking to the monsters and one of them drops something called the Gleamdrop. You carry this Gleamdrop into a location called the Gleamwell, and you are teleported to the next dungeon. This is the primary gameplay formula for Children of Mana. Sometimes the Gleamdrop (and even the Gleamwell) is hidden somewhere else like a shrub you need to destroy, or sometimes you just need to kill a specific group of enemies. You also fight in different locales such as icy castles, deserts and so on. However, you are essentially doing the same thing in the next hundred or so dungeons, main quests and side quests alike, and for me it can get boring just to find both things to move on to the next map. At the near end of the game I feel more relieved than excited when I just finished a dungeon.
Feeding into the tedium is also the combat system. Not to say that the combat is entirely bad but you mash buttons a lot. Specifically you mash the A and Y buttons, the primary inputs that allows you to swing 1 weapon designated to each button. Press the X button to consume a candy bar to restore HP instantly (or other items to achieve other results). Holding down B summons up a Spirit of your choosing (from the Village), which has an offensive and defensive ability. However, I did not find much use for them unless you create a character whose main attacks revolve around them (which I didn't).
There is not much strategy involved, even in most boss battles, because the most simple solution to every boss usually include mashing A or Y. Playing any defense is counterproductive, as many monsters can break through your guard, so again you are going to spam your attacks.To be fair there are some nice positives. The weapons at your disposal have some interesting touches. The sword is mundane but the flail allows you to grab onto certain areas or pull enemies to you. The bow can create music that briefly paralyzes monsters, and the hammer can destroy certain debris and knock your foes away like billiard balls. Again, nice ideas, but you don't see them come to fruition because you are too busy spamming buttons. The tedious and repetitive manner of the gameplay is Children of Mana's most glaring shortcoming.
As noted before, I finished the game in slightly over 20 hours, without searching in every nook and cranny for sidequests. So coming back full circle I would like to once again comment about the presentation outside of the introduction. Certainly the rest of the presentation cannot match that of the opening but it is still a beautiful game to play. I am not someone who likes 2D sprites but Children of Mana still maintains that storybook look to it, especially when talking about the village/hub. The dungeons however, do get recycled a lot and look less impressive; they all look grey or blue or brown depending on the location without the detail that you see in the village's color scheme. Monster sprites do get recycled and are only differentiated by their different color palettes. Thankfully, the animation still retains some fluidity.
The soundtrack for most of the game is all minimalist, meaning that they repeat after it reaches the end of its segment. Some tracks did grate on my nerves because of its repetition, but there are some highlights, especially Longing (Village Theme) and Desire Not Forgotten, the tunes that emote nostalgia and sadness/loss respectively. I find that they are the best soundtracks outside of the opening because they seem to be the most emotive. That being said, they are not as good as the opening music. Sound effects, such as cutting a monster with a sword, takes a bit of a nosedive and is reduced to various slapping sounds.
So where does that leave Children of Mana? I can't really give it 3 stars because it does so many things that modern RPGs incorporate, and its system of inputting and fusing gems is quite spectacular for its time. So is providing hidden side quests that can be accessed only in certain situations. The backstory in the game unrelated to the main plot is also copious. In short there is alot of content. But at the same time giving it a 4 stars is not entirely justified. Yes there are the elements that are great, but the gameplay is best described as basic and monotonous too. So in the end I think giving Children of Mana 3.5 stars seems to be the best fit. I would recommend it to RPG fans and World of Mana fans who own a NDS or 3DS.