Not as bad as the meta scores suggest
Dawn of Mana is the last game in Squaresoft’s tree-hugging action-RPG franchise. It’s the most ambitious of four titles released under the World of Mana umbrella, an initiative intended to boost the franchise into mainstream popularity. Despite being universally panned by the press, it had quite a lot going for it. It made the transition from 2D to 3D for the first time, and introduced several new ideas to keep things fresh. The series has had its ups and downs over the years, and this game is certainly no exception, so how did it turn out?
Game Play Innovations
In most action-RPGs you approach monsters and wail on them until they die – lather, rinse, repeat. One of Dawn of Mana’s most unpopular ideas is the introduction of a new physics system. Instead of just running up to enemies and attacking them (which you can do, but isn’t very effective), you are encouraged to stun them first.
Keldric, the main character, has a vine whip that can be used to grab objects (and enemies) in the environment which can be swung around. Despite feeling a bit haphazard, you can clobber enemies with all kinds of things, which adds some much needed strategy to the proceedings. You’ll have to use your surroundings to your advantage.
Enemies will remain stunned for a short period of time, and every hit you land on them will yield bonuses that increase your character’s level. So, while it’s possible to simply attack them the old-fashioned way, it’s much more rewarding (and fun) to use objects in the environment to loosen them up first. Despite critics claiming the system is “broken”, it does work and it can be quite addictive to pummel your foes into submission. However, because enemies respawn endlessly in some areas, fighting can become a bit of a chore.
Chapters and Levels
Dawn of Mana doesn’t feature the open world of earlier Mana titles or other action-RPGs in general, as it’s divided into 8 chapters which can be replayed whenever you want. It will take around an hour to an hour and a half to complete each chapter (total playtime 10~12 hours). You’ll be graded based on various factors at the end of each chapter, which encourages you to replay stages for higher marks.
At the start of each chapter your level is reset to 1, which many critics loved to hate. It really isn’t as bad as it sounds though, because your character never really needs to be much stronger than level 3, and there are permanent bonuses that you can equip to boost stats of your choosing. You will typically reach at least level 3 through the natural progression of each stage, so it’s just the game’s way of encouraging you to actually fight monsters rather than running passed them.
Mana’s Major Mistakes
There are four main issues with the game which are likely to frustrate everyone who plays the game. The first is that it can be quite difficult to navigate certain levels, since the game’s radar doesn’t take height into account. This is especially harmful in areas that are vertically-oriented. I consider myself to be a fairly seasoned player and even I got stumped for awhile on a couple of stages simply because it wasn’t clear where to go.
The game is also touchy in some key areas. Ladders require that you position your character with a ridiculous level of precision before he’ll begin to climb, for example. And as mentioned earlier, the vine whip isn’t always accurate.
One of the major disappointments is that several boss fights are poorly designed and/or unintuitive. In the latter half of the game, the bosses’ attack patterns become much more varied, which makes them more difficult than they really should be. As a result, boss battles take way too long and are often more annoying than they are clever.
And finally, the camera can sometimes make it very difficult to see what is happening. The camera functions like in most other 3D action games, meaning you can move it around using the right analog stick whenever you want. It’s not an ideal system, but its problems are hardly unique to this game.
Dawn of Mana’s biggest strength its is presentation, which comes close to that of the contemporary Kingdom Hearts games, but here the characters and costume designs are much more unique and imaginative. The settings feature some interesting layouts and are beautifully lit. You’ll fight across varying landscapes as well as fortresses and ruins.
The attention to detail carries over to the characters’ faces which are very expressive in the many in-game story segments. There are also a handful of pre-rendered CG movies for the big battle sequences, which meet the expectations of a big budget Square-Enix title.
Likewise the soundtrack is fantastic, and is almost entirely new material save for a few welcome orchestral remixes from classic Mana games. It even made its way into my regular rotation. The voice-acting is also pretty good and won’t grate on the player. It’s a nearly faultless production from the audio-visual perspective and still holds up several years later.
With Dawn of Mana Square-Enix was mostly successful in bringing the Mana series into 3D. The introduction of a physics engine adds an extra layer of sophistication to the battle system. It falls short in a few key areas, but is not the unmitigated disaster the press made it out to be. It’s a shame that its poor reception killed its chances, because the Mana series’ original characters, setting, and story are much more intriguing than those seen in the Kingdom Hearts games. If you’re a fan of the earlier Mana titles, don’t let the overly-critical reviews stop you from experiencing the last chapter in the series.