Review by Hikuusen
"Repetition kills this game."
Children of Mana is a frustrating illustration of how a few good concepts can be ruined through mindless overuse. Perhaps overreliance would be a better word; after devising several interesting features, CoM's designers apparently called it a day and refused to apply any (and I do mean any) of that creativity to the rest of the game, confident that the bright spots would carry the entire title. Too bad - what they left unfinished drags it down instead. As a result, we have a sporadically, but only sporadically, brilliant RPG that ultimately becomes an unrewarding and utterly cheerless experience.
Consider: Every preview of Children of Mana has raved about the opening movie, and justifiably so. It's beautiful - vibrant, fluid animation in a lissome, viney style that suits Mana's nature motif. Occasionally, the frame rate will dip to Sega CD-level, but CoM actually integrates this into its approach - intricate storybook images dissolve unto each other as pages turning in a book. Did I mention this lasts almost two minutes?
"But is this 'bribe the renters' syndrome?", you may ask. Well, sorta. You get about eight more mini-cinemas throughout the game - not nearly as impressive, elaborate, or long as the OP, of course, but well-rendered and a treat for the DS. (A little cut of the Sword of Mana descending is impressive not only for its smooth animation but for its grasp of how to render quick action.) While they are kinda samey - we get two nearly identical shots of a person praying, and a few more whirling energy vortices than I would like - the cinemas are a high point of the game and an achievement on the system.
But: Most of the graphical inspiration was expended on the movies. The lush jungle waterfalls and spacetime-warped towers of the first levels are vibrant and detailed - just the environments one would want for a handheld Mana game - but they're recycled too often. Later levels, unfortunately, trend to the generic - the desert level, the ice level - and even the Pure Land is a grubby cave with sporadically psychedelic floors. Character portraits are large and pretty, but could change a little from expression to expression; typically, only a hand is shifted, eyes closed, or a mouth redrawn.
Music is bland and forgettable; no Hiroki Kikuta here. Lunar: Dragon Song, however problematic that title was otherwise, utterly kicks Children of Mana 'round the apple barn compositionally.
Consider: You can choose from one of four heroes - pipsqueak child-mage Pop; fleet-footed dancer and musician Tumble (whose name, in a tragedy of translation, is not romanized as "Timbre"); bulky Wanderer, a member of the underhanded Nikita tribe of catpeople; and deadly-dull golden-boy swordstwerp Flick. Flick is the typical Perfect Hero, hardy and good with a blade but rather average otherwise; Wanderer packs a punch, but lumbers about and needs extra space to maneuver; Tumble's small and quick - a bigger advantage here than in other games - and favors the bow, but is a bit more fragile; Pop is tiny and more easily bruised than even Tumble, but is a bit better at magic. (Tumble and Pop are nominally mages, but since magic is, as I will explain, near-useless in Children of Mana, you shouldn't factor this into your decision.)
But: Due to gameplay flaws, mainly concerning magic, the four characters aren't as unique as they should be, and they're not exactly distinctive when it comes to story, either. Halfway through the game, I realized that my Tumble wasn't saying anything distinctive. Upon checking with other players, it seems that all the heroes spout essentially the same dialogue, slightly altered by speech patterns. Since the programmers have taken pains to keep the characters to generic, interchangeable dialogue for space considerations (or out of sheer laziness), you don't see your character grow much as an individual or come into their own as a hero.
Also - this is a side issue, considering the above, but when I picked Tumble, the game whined and stomped and held its breath at my choice. The opening stages have several comments on how a girl is an odd choice for the mission, and Flick conspicuously gripes about how the Mana Sword should've chosen him. Even though the practical differences between characters are relatively small, if I choose to delude myself with a skin slightly different from the de rigeur reliably-faithful-and-dull teenage sword-wielding Superboys JRPGs have been offering up for the past twenty years, the game shouldn't hinder me. If you don't want the player to exercise freedom of choice, don't offer a choice of hero at all.
Consider: To an extent, the game's immediate setting is well-established. A huge disaster swept the world ten years ago; in a small village established near the base of the Mana Tree, disparate refugees have gathered to start a new life in paradise. Three of the four protagonists are underage orphans; there's a real sense of the villagers as a friendly, loose family with no one on whom to depend but each other. That they dwell in Eden among the elemental spirits, in a village seemingly designed by a Mana Thomas Kinkade, is enchanting.
I mentioned that the lead characters were nondescript, but some of the intravillage relationships effectively feed the community feel. In my game, Tumble had a realistic friendship with priestess Tiss. And despite lackluster environments elsewhere, the Village of Mana is so detailed, with shafts of light providing realistic illumination and tiny flowers that blow in the breeze.
But: When you're stuck in one village for the entire game, no matter how gilded the cell bars, familiarity breeds contempt. That's right - you visit no other towns in the entire game. There is, in fact, no overworld exploration; the game whisks your character instantly from Village of Mana to dungeon and back again. You will not be hiking from forest to temple all over your lush and beautiful world, and that is a big letdown from one of the great charms of SD2 and 3.
Also, the actual plot sucks. The Mana King is out to Destroy the World (tm); you have to stop him, globe-hopping via Flammie to stem trouble spots, and find out why. This primary plot vein never yields gold and ends kinda nonsensically. That the Mana King has all the depth and subtlety of Snidely Whiplash doesn't help. This isn't a deal-killer in itself - SD2's plot wasn't hot stuff either - but in a game with no exploration, a bad story is one less motivator to slog through all the fighting.
Consider: Hey, the touch screen!
But: It's useless save for arranging Gems (see below). Most of the time, using the D-pad and A is more efficient. At odd junctions, though, the game won't accept touch-screen input at all; certain text screens must be advanced by pressing A. If you've been navigating with the stylus, it's awkward to have to fumble back and forth.
Consider: Dungeons are designed to be torn through quickly and efficiently. You get 6-15 smallish levels per dungeon; in each level is hidden a Drop of Light, which your character must haul to a stationary Fountain of Light to warp to the next floor. Drops and Fountains are located by hacking down plants, smashing rocks, or defeating enemies; once you warp up, there's no going back - like a shark, you move forward or you perish.
For navigation, the DS's bottom screen is devoted to a radar that reports the position of treasure chests, enemies, and uncovered fountains. Every four levels, you get a trip to the menu screen, where you can upgrade equipment, switch out your gems, and save. Beat the dungeon boss, and the game gives you a score for the run based on the time elapsed, enemies slain, and chests opened. Score high enough, and you can choose a lolly from the dentist's treasure chest - I mean, a weapon, piece of armor, healing item, gem, or "random bonus" as a reward. (Note: whenever I chose the "random bonus", I got a lowly Chocolate Bar. Others report that the "random bonus" is actually plucked from the other choices - in other words, the game simply rescues you from your own indecision.)
But: Thanks to the enormous number of enemies in each level, you'll be spending way more time than perhaps intended. That you quite frequently must kill all the enemies to find the Drop of Light and exit doesn't help.
Not only do the "good" features fail the make overall gameplay "quick and dirty", they help prevent the game from succeeding as a genre title. Good dungeon crawlers do interesting things with level design, pose a variety of puzzles. Not so Children of Mana; each dungeon has only two or three different (and puny) level designs, so you'll be replaying the same level numerous times on one crawl, with little otherwise to engage your brain. Furthermore, the overly detailed level map really cuts down on the challenge and sense of exploration; you never have to hunt for treasure chests or get a grasp of your surroundings.
Consider: Children of Mana co-opts two features from Final Fantasy VII, to good effect. The first is the Fever gauge, which fills as your character attacks or is attacked; once full, a press of Select will enable your chara to unleash super attacks for a limited time. Timing Fever, though, is tricky; you don't want to waste it on a scattering of small enemies, but if you save it, you won't be earning points toward your next Fever. In addition, once you hit one of the save points that come up every four levels, your Fever gauge will reset to zero, so you can't store your Fever forever. Then there's the issue of which Fever attack to use - each weapon has a different one - and, really, whether to unleash it at all; sometimes, a Fever attack can expose you to more harm than a normal one!
The second FF7-adaptation is the Gem concept. Like Materia, Gems bestow upon their bearer stat boosts, weapon & magic boosts, immunity against certain status conditions, and even special attacks. Instead of weapon slots, though, gems fit into your character's "Mana Frame", a small frame initially 2 spaces by 2 spaces which can be expanded by finishing certain tasks. Gems come in different sizes and shapes, with the more powerful ones taking up more room, natch. You find gems in treasure chests, as a reward for dungeon speed runs and quests for the Badgers' bounty-hunting guild, and - most interestingly - by fusing less powerful gems for a (substantial) fee at a shop in town. Playing around with the different combinations takes time, but it's necessary to get some of the killers in a timely fashion (hint: get Robin Hood and Sword Master ASAP!). Boosting a chara with gems is also necessary to survive the dungeon, and some gems take away as much from one stat as they add to another, so choose wisely!
But: The same features that make it easier to survive in dungeons totally rob the challenge from boss fights. Only two (the very first, which you encounter with a paltry inventory, and a later boss that requires a couple tricky hits) pose any problem. I have had eight-second boss fights. On multiple occasions. Powerful gems and fast bowwork, in fact, whittled one fight down to three seconds.
Taken alone, the above issues would make Children of Mana a deeply flawed game, but nothing more. They build up, however, to the game's dealbreaker, its ideas on combat.
Again: Combat boasts a terrific weapon system. As discussed, the support subsystems aren't bad either.
Yet: There's so much combat you'll want to shoot yourself in the head. Did I mention how much magic stinks?
Since combat is the meat, potatoes, aperitif, and central problem of Children of Mana, let's discuss at length.
First great idea - you can equip two different weapons at once, each keyed to a different attack button. Second, the programmers have given you a complement of four distinctive weapons.
Swords are fast and powerful, but can attack only in one direction; not good when you're mobbed! Flails whip out 360° around the player to knock back approaching enemies, but they're rather weak and, as the game progresses, slow. Bows, on the other hand, are quick and can reach all the way across the screen, but, without powerups, they hit only one enemy at a time and are hard to reaim. Better find a safe spot to shoot, or you'll be attacking something far away while getting smacked by monsters right in front of you. Finally, powerful hammers knock foes far back into each other for a satisfying pinball effect (and big multi-foe damage), but their range is nil and sloth is deadly - miss, and you're a sitting duck. In addition, each weapon has a different secondary effect when powered-up (hold A for a bit, and the sword forms a barrier against projectiles, the bow lulls enemies into a stunned stupor) and a different super-effect during Fever (a Fevered hammer turns its bearer into a slow-moving, but invincible and death-dealing, whirling dervish). Certain weapons also have a practical use - hammers are needed to shatter rocks and ice, and flails pull the contents of chests and Light Drops across crevices and treacherous terrain. You'll often be forced to juggle the optimal weapon for an area and the tools you'll need to find Light Drops and Fountains.
All this adds up to what I cannot deny is a superb weapon system, the best vein of strategy in a too-straightforward game. But, it's not *quite* fully utilized - had this been a Zelda game, we'd have had complex puzzles requiring the player to reflect projectiles and charm enemies and take complete advantage of these nifty abilities. And repetition kills here, too; the enemies are samey, with few if any special abilities, so your weapon is too often a matter of sheer personal preference instead of strategic importance.
Also: Magic sucks, and never stops sucking. You choose one of the eight Mana Spirits for a partner before a dungeon haul; summon them in battle, and upon their slightly-delayed arrival, one of two things can happen. Run into them, and you'll be healed, have your status condition removed, or get an Ice Sabre/Flame Sabre/etc. weapon effect; let the Spirit go, and after wandering off a bit, they'll unleash a magic attack. Problem - the spirits near-always wander off in the wrong direction. If they do actually wind up near your foes, they're unlikely to hit, as the spell effects extend from the spirit in a very narrow and oddly-defined geometric area - an X, a cross, a very close circle. This geometric-pattern idea is meant to add a bit of strategy, but in a game where your tiny enemies bounce around like Superballs, planning their positions ten seconds in advance is, shall we say, a tad optimistic. Magic of any stripe is way too weak to be of consequence, anyway (Wisp's healing magic regenerates just *30* HP!); you'll stick to weapons and items for the entire game.
AND, ABOVE ALL: Lord, oh, Lord, is there combat, and after a while, it becomes apparent that the programmers sought therewith to define the word monotonous. As explained, the game itself consists of nothing but moving from level to level in the combat arena. Moving from level to level most often requires that you clean out a dungeon, or at least a good portion. Any other activity - puzzle-solving, exploration - is kept to an utter minimum. Even battle tactics, as explained, are negligible and direct; most of the time, it's hack-until-dead, swatting legion upon legion of flies. It is utterly mind-numbing.
And everything else in the game leads back to combat. There's very little story in the main game. Want a shred of character development? Then go on a sidequest through a dungeon run. Want a new shiny? Then do a dungeon run for the Badgers' Guild. The dungeons don't change on replay; they just have more levels and stronger enemies. Plow through the game, and you'll have done nothing but replay the Light Drop-Fountain fetch-quest about eighty times. Are you a completist? Then you can triple or quadruple that number. *Every single feature* in the game revolves around replaying dungeons. For the most part, you won't get to strategize. You won't get to think. And thanks to the repetitive backdrops and middling music, you won't even get to sightsee along the way.
It is so cryingly tedious. I cannot possibly overemphasize that, and I am an RPG player from way back. I have ground levels. I have endured the worse monotony of the genre. This takes the cake. I actually began dreading the prospect of more sidequests - more game - anything that would get between me and the end of this wretched experience, which boils down to - are you able to press the A button over and over, unthinkingly, without any variation, without visual or aural respite, for 18 hours?
I did (albeit with great difficulty near the end), because I thought, hey, this's a Mana title. It might pull a rabbit out of its hat. It is my duty as a reviewer to inform you that it does not. You get a perfunctory end to a blah tale; there's not even a mini-movie to mollify you. What, may I ask, is the point of a Mana game wth no enthralling music, and no solid story, no exploration, no puzzles, either, and (save for the mini-movies) no big, beautiful graphics? (The DS screen size does work against this game; I've always associated Mana with the bold and colorful, but the sprites here are often dinky.)
Y'know, my previous DS title was another disappointing handheld installment of a hallowed RPG franchise, Lunar: Dragon Song. Academically, it's worse than CoM; its combat is completely broken, and it forgets the very foundations of the Lunar story. I'd give it a lower score - and yet I'd replay it before CoM, because, thanks to the combat issues, I've developed the same visceral, conditioned reaction to the latter title that a lab rat has after several run-ins with an electroshock switch - "Heck, no. Not again. Not ever again." I am giving the game a 5 for its good features, which deserve recognition and a better showcase than Children of Mana. But the combat tedium overwhelms absolutely everything, and the game is less than the sum of its overused, half-finished parts.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 07/18/06
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