Review by discoinferno84
"The kids are alright..."
The DS has gotten some great additions to its library as of late. Games such as Metroid Prime Hunters, Tetris DS, and yes, even Brain Age have proven their worth in a seemingly endless lineup of highly anticipated games. However, for all of those absolutely must-have titles for the DS, there are tons of others that run the risk of fading into obscurity. And do you know why? They're not necessarily crappy and utilize the DS to its fullest extent. The problem is availability. While American gamers are limited to the games released for the United States, there are plenty of Japan-exclusive titles that will never enjoy the same kind of recognition or popularity. Unless you're willing to do some research and start importing, you'll likely never get to play any of these games from the other side of the world. While many may not care about such an issue, there are missing out on some of the great DS games out there. Games like Seiken Densetsu DS: Children of Mana.
That's right, boys and girls. The latest entry to the Mana series has found its home on the DS, picking up where its GBA predecessor left off. It's been a while since the events of Sword of Mana took place, and the realm of Illusia has finally started to settle down. Everyone lives in small townships scattered across multiple continents, each person living a seemingly simple and humble life. In the center of everything lies the Mana Tree, the all-important source of the world's magic and its subsequent beings. Of course, this kind of peace can't hold up for very long. Mystical beasts and dangerous monsters have begun to roam certain areas and ravage the various lands, prompting a handful of unlikely heroes to go on a quest to find answers and hopefully set things right once and for all.
At least, I think that's what the plot is. Considering the amount of text and dialogue that Children of Mana has, being unable to read Japanese might present a problem. But aside from understanding what's going on, gamers won't have a problem starting the game and saving the world again. You'll be able to choose among four horribly cliched heroes (a girly-looking teenage swordsman, a female archer, a Mini-Me magic caster and a fat merchant dude? Come on, Square-Enix, you can do better), each with their own specialized stats for attack power, magic, and other basic traits found in any RPG character. Once you've chosen your character, you'll end up in a town, get introduced to a few key characters and aspects, such as combat training, weapon and armor shops, mini-sidequests. Once you've gotten all the mandatory intros out of the way, you'll be sent off to rid Illusia of whatever new threat that has reared its ugly head.
However, saving the world isn't quite the same as it was in the previous Mana games. Once you've left your hometown, you'll be whisked away to the nearest area to do some good ol' dungeon crawling, leveling, and boss beating. The majority of Children of Mana's gameplay takes place in extremely close-quarters locales, like a lakeside caverns, scorching hot sand dunes and abandoned castles. The goal of each area is to find a pear shaped Mana Egg, nab it from the clutches of your enemies, and bring it over to the corresponding magic portal located somewhere deeper in the level. Once you've been beamed away, you'll find yourself in a new area of the dungeon, with yet another Mana Egg and magic portal waiting to be used. Rinse and repeat a few times, and you'll get to face some fearsome (though not very difficult) Mana-infused bosses. That's assuming of course, that you can make it through the areas alive. When you first enter one of these dungeons, you'll likely find yourself severely outnumbered; a single Rabite may not be the most dangerous of foes in the World of Mana, but taking on seven at once is not for the faint of heart. However, such an abundance of enemies makes for some fairly easy leveling; increasing your stats will grant you access to better weapons and armor back in town. Should you fall in battle, you'll be whisked back to your mentor in town and have to start the dungeon over from scratch.
Thankfully, you aren't completely helpless. Your character will be able to wield four weapons, each with their own attack power, range, and special ability. Two weapons can be equipped at a time, utilizing the A and X buttons respectively. While the sword seems like the standard three-hit combo machine, holding down the appropriate button and charging your attack will turn the sword into an all-purpose projectile deflector. The other weapons have similar features, including a stun projectile for the Bow, a long-ranged grappling hook for the Flail, and a devastatingly powerful smash with the Hammer. Some of these features are not just for thrashing baddies, either- there are plenty of spikes, chasms, breakable obstacles out-of-reach ledges and other problems to overcome. Also, knowing when to use these weapons in battle can prove even more effective; should you knock a single enemy back into a group, they'll end up smashing into each other, racking up damage and inadvertently killing each with little effort on your part. Should you rack up enough hits, a small meter on the bottom of the screen will max out, allowing you to enter Fever Mode' which basically lets you deal out more damage and attack at much higher speeds.
Of course, you can't be an unstoppable killing machine the entire game; taking on half a dozen enemies at once with nothing but a few weapons is bound to take its toll somewhere down the line. Thankfully, you and up to three of your friends can link up wirelessly to take on Illusia's worst (and some fairly slowed-down gameplay) and save the day. If no one else is around, you can still go solo and choose among eight Mana Spirits, each with their own unique abilities that will provide support during the adventure. Many of these strange little critters offer the usual kind of backup, like casting Heal spells, increasing defensive power, getting rid of status effects, etc. However, the Mana Spirits aren't just there to make your character stronger; they'll shoot out beams of light, blasts of air, fireballs, and a few other nasty surprises. Should you run out of magic, there are a handful of restorative items at your disposal that can be assigned to Y button and used whenever you need it, no menu browsing required. Considering the versatility of your arsenal and gear, it's a fair bet that those baddies don't know what's coming for them.
Considering how much time you'll spend slashing and bashing your way through the various areas, it's little surprise how much detail was put into this game. Should you let the intro run when you first turn the game on, you'll be treated to a fairly lengthy animated movie, complete with renderings of the characters and the dungeons. The in-game sprites aren't quite as stylized, but you'll still be able to make out the spiky hair, remarkably ornate costumes, glowing auras, and even a few tinny battle cries. All of the attack animations and graphics, including the various magic spells flow well together, despite the occasional slowdown when there's too much going on at once. The gangs of enemies are just as detailed, ranging from brightly colored Rabites, hooded anthropomorphic archers to psychedelically colored bosses and everything in between. Even the areas, while not nearly as detailed as the characters, still have a certain charm to them; you can see the snow slowly falling onto icy grounds, the flowery gardens and shingled roofs of your hometown, and even the differences between lighted and shadowed parts of the level. On top of all that, the game boasts a great soundtrack, offering a handful of lively tunes to keep the dungeon crawling from getting too boring. Of course, you'll probably be too busy killing Rabites to notice.
Children of Mana is the game that DS owners and handheld RPG enthusiasts have been waiting for. Sure, the DS has Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, Lost Magic, Tao's Adventure, and a few other less than memorable role-playing games to grab gamers' attention. But for those of you looking for that one great RPG for your DS collection, this game might be your answer. While the game slows down at certain points and has a fair amount of difficulty, it's still a force to be reckoned with. It continues the story from the previous installment of the series, has a handful of playable characters, decent multiplayer, a varied arsenal of weapons, intense combat mechanics and magic systems, and everything else you could want in a quality handheld title. If you don't mind the extra work of importing and the occasionally difficult language barrier, this game is definitely worth looking into.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 04/30/06, Updated 08/31/07
Game Release: Seiken Densetsu DS: Children of Mana (JP, 03/02/06)
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