Review by WishingTikal
"Mashing the A button has never been that fun... NOT"
What made the first Mana games so enjoyable was their Legend of Zelda style of gameplay, where you'd travel across a huge land and into dungeons, immersing you in the adventure. Children of Mana keeps the hack 'n slashing, but takes out the huge land and the adventure feeling, leaving only the bare dungeons. So we get a mere hack 'n slash dungeon-crawler. Maybe that's what the developers were aiming for -- after all, it takes a lot less efforts to make a dungeon-crawler than a full fledged adventure... but I call that being lazy. It seems nowadays we are flooded with dungeon-crawlers, but I doubt that's really what gamers want. What happened to working hard to create a great game?
The story in Children of Mana is pretty basic, just enough to get the game started. You'll need to save the Mana Tree, once again, just after the villagers had started to settle a new peaceful life. A strange and menacing character appears and you find the Sword of Mana to defeat evil. It never really goes any deeper and there is no character development, but for a dungeon-crawler it's fairly alright. When you begin the game, you can choose from four different characters, but the three others never join you on the quest (unless you're playing multiplayer, but on single player, it's the whole game by yourself). It's kind of disappointing since the intro shows all four characters traveling together and promises a grand adventure.
Talking of intro, let's start with that. A beautiful animated sequence welcomes you, showing an epic quest accompanied by an enchanting musical score. This obviously got me very excited about the game, but what the intro shows is nothing like the game. Once you've chosen your character, you start in the Mana Village, the only town in the entire game. It's not very lively either, only three houses you can enter and a few NPCs to talk to. The village is even so small it almost holds into one screen. The good thing about this small village though is that it looks absolutely stunning. 2D can really look better than 3D at times. It's lush with details, a great palette of colors and nice shadings. The character sprites are a bit disappointing if you compare them to the rest, very small and GBA-esque, but the portraits next to their dialogue box when they talk are all very pretty.
From the Mana Village, you can access the point-and-click world map (you don't travel on it, simply select locations), which also looks as stunning and gorgeous as the town. I still can't get over how beautiful the world map looks, but that's where the pretty part of the game stops. Each location on the world map leads you directly to a dungeon. Dull dungeons is all the game is made of. Not only are the dungeons boring because all you do is hack 'n slash your way through them, but they also don't look on par with the rest of the game. The graphics are completely different, like they weren't even made by the same people. They would look good on GBA, but on DS I can't help but expect more. Even Sword of Mana on GBA looked better than Children of Mana's dungeons. I wouldn't mind this if the dungeons were fun, but they're not, so a gripe like this is quite a deal.
The dungeons are filled with enemies, treasure chests -- and no puzzles. Their design is totally linear, you follow a set path with chests in some corners and enemies, always more enemies, along the way. Since you attack with the A button, the whole game is about pressing A (or mashing, actually) continuously. It's pure hack'n slash, no strategy or variety involved. Needless to say, this gets very monotonous. Not only that, but I was actually afraid my DS's A button would eventually die while playing the game. To move to the next floor, you need to defeat all the enemies until you find the one that holds the key. The number of enemies in the dungeons is simply outraging, there is way too many for absolutely nothing. The only redemptive aspect about these hell-ish dungeons is the beautiful music.
You get four different weapons for your personal use throughout the game; the sword, the flail, the bow and the hammer. At least they have an use - the flail can pull far away objects across a pit while the hammer can smash big obstacles - but it's still a limited use since the emphasis is placed on the sword, which is definitely far more effective to defeat enemies. A magic system is also present in the game, but very disappointing. There are eight elemental spirits with each their own different attacks, but you can only take one with you in the dungeons. The healing spirit is definitely the most useful to bring along, but since each spirit only has two different spells, it makes the magic system pretty worthless.
Another flaw in the same vein is how you can't equip new weapons and armors you find in a dungeon until after you're back in the village (or at specific save points). This is rather annoying and has no reason to be. There's one aspect in the game however that is very interesting; the gems. You can equip gems to your character which all have different shapes and proprieties. Since you have limited space to equip them on your character, you'll need to manage the space according to the shape of the gems you want to equip. Quite hard to explain, but it's a neat idea that works well with the stylus (and that's all the stylus is used for except menus).
That pretty much covers the whole game. After you've cleared a dungeon and beaten the boss (which resumes in still even more button mashing), you'll head back to the village where you can choose to go to the next dungeon or level-up some more by completing sidequests. The sidequests are unfortunately as boring as the rest of the game, since they only consist in visiting the same dull dungeons again to retrieve items or to defeat the outstanding amount of enemies, over again. You get an item or money reward for it, but honestly, once you've completed a dungeon you won't feel like doing it all over again so the sidequests really feel like a chore. Plus, without these sidequests, the game is only about 10 hours, with a meager eight locations to visit.
Children of Mana is a poor attempt at dungeon-crawling. I suppose playing with friends on multiplayer makes it a tad more enjoying, but mindless hack 'n slash button mashing perhaps is not what you'd want to be doing with your friends. As people said, Children of Mana is more like a portable FF: Crystal Chronicles than the Mana game fans are waiting for. Unless you're really craving for tedious dungeon exploration, since the game is only dungeon after dungeon with nothing else to do, I see no reason to get this game.
Presentation Great cinematics, easy to use menus, charming game overall. DS functions are barely used though. 8/10
Gameplay Too much button mashing, not enough variety to the game. Going through bland dungeons over and over quickly becomes dull. Gems system is nice but limited. 5/10
Graphics Beautiful and stunning 2D graphics when it comes to the main village and the world map, but the dungeons look on par with GBA and even worse. 7/10
Music Gorgeous and epic musical score, good sound effects. 9/10
Replay Value Four different characters to start over the game with, countless sidequests, although very tedious. Multiplayer is a nice add but I doubt anyone would go through that game a second time. 6/10
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 07/17/07, Updated 03/01/12
Game Release: Children of Mana (US, 11/01/06)
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