Review by TIDQ
"Children of Diablo isn't a bad game, as long as you know what you're getting"
One thing has to be made clear right off the bat. Children of Mana is not a console-style RPG. It is a dungeon crawler. When people see the Mana name, they might instinctively hearken back to games like Secret of Mana, Sword of Mana, and maybe even Seiken Densetsu 3 if they've played that as well. They'll think, "Boy, I'd really like to play another action RPG like Secret of Mana. I'll just pick up Children of Mana, and it'll be great, just like those carefree hours I spent on the SNES." Well, Children *is* an action RPG, and the combat will definitely feel familiar, but you won't be exploring the world. You won't be seeing more than one town. What you will be doing is revisiting the same places multiple times with slightly randomized floors to level up, get items, make money, do quests, and advance the story. It's much like a watered down version of Diablo with cuter enemies. If this sounds completely horrible, Children may not be the game for you. If you like grinding and dungeon crawling with colorful Mana characters, maybe you can get enjoyment out of this game.
The game starts with choosing one of four heroes. Each one has different strengths, and you'll have to alter your combat style a little bit depending on which one you choose. You'll either be strongly relying on physical attacks, strongly relying on magic, or a balance between the two. The story is the same for each character. There are some dialogue differences, and some unique items that only one hero can get, but mostly the difference is in the stats. Once you've chosen said hero, an adventure of whimsy is right around the corner.
The game begins with our hero in the Mana Village on the island of Illusia. This is the only town you will ever see. There are other nations out there, but who needs to visit them? All the hero wants to do is visit each of the dangerous zones around the world that will help him quell the mana surge. In the village, our hero will take care of all the duties he can't do on the battlefield. He'll take quests, save his game, buy and sell items, change his elemental spirit partner, chat with villagers, and mess with his gems.
Outside of town, the hero will do battle in a host of familiar areas, like the desert, a tower, an ice palace, a swamp, a ruins... you know, the typical RPG fair. Each dungeon is divided into floors or "zones." In each zone, you have to find an egg and use it to unlock the corresponding portal doodad. Then, you advance to the next zone. There are a requisite number of zones you have to pass through before completing a mission or reaching the boss. The bottom screen on the DS will give clues as to where the egg and portal are in each zone. For example, to find the egg, it will say "Eliminate all enemies" or "Hidden by a plant." In the case of the plant, you'd have to start hacking down plants in each corner of the zone until the egg pops up. Over the course of the game, you will probably go through a couple hundred zones, and since there are a ton of enemies, this can take a while.
One common thread I've seen used in nearly every opinion piece on Children is the word "repetitive." If going through 200 zones, which repeating scenery, sounds like it would get repetitive over time, well, it does. That's probably the major downfall of the game, is that not enough mixes it up. Each dungeon has maybe 8 different zone layouts. Like, there will be a zone in the desert area with a series of moving sand traps that loop in circles. You will see this layout every time you go to the desert, at least once, and the only difference is where they hide the egg and portal, or what's in each treasure chest. Overall, it's not very much difference, and you'll feel tired slogging through the same stuff over and over again. Maybe it will still feel fresh after a few hours. Maybe it can still be fun after ten hours. This isn't a ten hour game though, and it will start to get a little old eventually.
Another problem with the grind of the game is the meleeing weapons. The game has four main weapons for you to choose from and upgrade, and they're the bow, sword, hammer, and flail. The sword, hammer, and flail are all close-range weapons basically, and while they're good at killing things, they do the job so much slower than it should. This is for two reasons. First of all, when you attack something with a close-range weapon, the enemy gets knocked back. If you've ever played Diablo, you know how Knockback makes battles against tons of monsters longer, because you hit the enemy once, and then you have to wait for them to come back to you. It's the same in this game, and made worse because the enemies move towards you rather slowly. It wouldn't be as bad if you could chase after the knocked back enemies after you hit them, but you can't really do that either. That's because the second major problem with the weapons is slow recovery time. If you use the flail, for example, you'll knock an enemy back. Then, you'll be stuck in place, unable to move or attack for probably a second and a half, before you can do anything. Not only does this make it hard to go after enemies, but it leaves you very vulnerable for a short period of time. There are gems that supposedly make you use weapons quicker, or more rapidly in succession, but they don't work. Or rather, they do something, but they don't help recovery time, which is the only thing that really matters. So, what we're left with in close range combat, is the hero hitting an enemy, then being frozen for a couple seconds, then waiting for the enemy to come near him again before he can get in a second hit. This makes close combat much more slow and boring compared to Secret of Mana or similar games in the series. The two alternatives to using close range weapons are using the bow (which is a great weapon, but not as handy in close range), or using Magic. Unfortunately, magic isn't a very good option for one of the heroes in particular, the Wanderer.
There is one great saving grace for this game in regards to the combat though, that does somewhat make up for the sluggish melee and repetitive screens, and that's the control. I cannot emphasize this enough. I cannot be thankful enough to the programmers for figuring this out. A lot of people praise the "ring" menu system from Secret of Mana, for simplifying the tedious menu screens of many console RPGs, and it's true. The ring system did make Secret of Mana better than a set of traditional menu screens would. However, in the heat of combat, you had to open up the rings to cast a spell or use an item or change a weapon, which brought all the action to a screeching halt for a few seconds. Now, that's largely over with. In Children, when you enter a dungeon, you're allowed one elemental spirit who can cast two spells, and they're both mapped to the same button. You don't have to open up a menu to cast a spell. Furthermore, you get to assign the item of your choice to ANOTHER button. You don't have to open a menu to do that. Also, you can equip two different weapons simultaneously, and assign them to two MORE buttons. So you can cast spells, wield two weapons, use items, and activate Fury without opening a freaking menu. The L and R buttons will open up mini ring menus to change the item assigned to the item button, or to change the two equipped weapons, but you'll only rarely have to do that. Overall, it's a system that works so easily, and gets rid of all the freaking menus in the middle of combat. It's such an improvement on past games. There's still a traditional menu that you can access outside the dungeon, or after every four zones, where you can change gems and equipment, and save the game. There's no need to mess with that in combat though.
One thing that's integral to many dungeon crawlers is the level of customization. There is some of that in Children, although perhaps not as much as one would like. The hero can hunt for items, and either keep them or sell them and buy new stuff, but the equipment options aren't special. The only difference between all the armors is their defensive value. Likewise, the only difference between all the weapons is their attack value. There are no special traits that would cause you to pick and choose equipment for customized purposes. You just get the best stuff you can equip. That aspect is very bland. The "gem" system is a bit more customizable. In the game, you get a rid with a number of gem slots. You put in gems that you find, buy, or fuse together, and they imbue your hero with extra traits. Some of these are straight up stat increases. Some of them increase stats of specific weapons. Some of them give weapons new properties. Some of them increase experience or MP recovery. This is the one part of the game where you can really tailor your character to your style. If you have a Wanderer character, and you like the flail, you can fill out your grid with gems that maximize the flail's potential, and this will specialize your hero. It's not a very deep system, but it does add some badly needed customization.
The story is only passable. It's not so gripping as to keep you wanting more. You have to enjoy the gameplay to want to keep going, because the story probably isn't going to motivate you. This isn't helped by the really flat characters. Almost nobody important to the game has a personality to speak of. The good people are nice, and the bad guy is mean. Oh, and Watts is hard on his assistant. That's the extent of personality in the game, which is a little troublesome for an RPG. The graphics and sound on the other hand are quite pleasing. The excellently drawn 2D graphics remind me a lot of Legend of Mana, and the score is nicely done as well. In fact, the aesthetic appeal is one of the strongest aspects of the game.
Overall, if you like a grind-it-out game where you can enjoy just levelling up and smacking bad guys, there's some fun to be had here. There's nothing unforgivably wrong here, or brokenly flawed. It's just that what they did, they could have done a little better. It's not an overly difficult game, or an overly frustrating game. It's fair, it's got a great control scheme, it's pretty, and it's easy to pick up. It just could be a little more exciting. It *should* have been more exciting.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 01/30/08
Game Release: Children of Mana (US, 11/01/06)
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