Review by Arkrex

"The Grinding Game"

Children of Mana is chronologically the first of the series. It is also the first brand-new Mana game since the PS1's reputed lacklustre Legend of Mana. Finally it is the first Mana game I have come to finish, and so here are my opinions on this game which screams "caveat emptor".

Based on the English version:

GRAPHICS - 8
AUDIO - 8
GAMEPLAY - 6
REPLAY - 8
MULTIPLAY - 7
TILT - 5

Children of Mana is not any kind of typical RPG; it is purely a dungeon crawler. There I said it. Those of you thinking that the experience will be similar to the classic SNES Mana games will be sorely disappointed. Those of you with a more open mind, or who have a penchant for grinding endlessly, repetitively, or are able to utilise the multiplay component frequently, well then you may want to give this one a shot. But it's a definite 'try before you buy' type of game.

The Beautiful World of Mana
As some of you may be aware of already, Children of Mana features some pretty gorgeous looking anime cutscenes. The introduction movie sets the scene perfectly and the various interludes scattered about add to high presentation values, typical of a Square(-Enix) production. It is a shame that there are no voiceovers though.

The in-game graphics feature nicely drawn 2D all around; the Mana-style is well represented here on the DS. There are a couple of special effects here and there, mostly from spells, which look nice, but are nothing spectacular. My biggest gripe is that although the visuals are nice, they are highly repetitive and soon you will lament that more environments were not included. Enemies are well animated, but they too are few in number. The framerate is quite stable in single-player mode, but transitioning between menus and the game itself sure takes a while.

The Noteworthy Sounds of Mana
Adding to the feeling that this is a Mana game is the excellent accompanying musical score. The town and main themes are particularly mood-lifting, and the dungeon themes are sound like, um, good dungeon themes. Sound effects are on par with the music quality and feature your usual 'erks and ahhs'. Not the best or most varied soundtrack here, but it does a good job in boosting presentation values.

The Ingenuity of Mana
I will begin my assessment of the gameplay on a positive note. Just like your usual dungeon crawler, the aim of most of the game is to defeat a whole lot of enemies using various means, to gain levels, and to discover a wealth of stat-boosting items. The system at play generally works well.

At your disposal you have 4 different weapons: sword, flail, bow, mallet - and each of these have primary and secondary modes of attacks. Additional attacks are also available once you powerup into 'fury mode'. There are also 8 different spirits that you can choose to tag along with you and they each provide their own unique magical powers. There is a lot of variation at first glance. It is especially fun in multiplay when all sorts of craziness can develop.

Special mention goes to the CRAZY physics used in the game; can you say ragdoll physics in a 2D game? Yeah, kind of. Objects you slam travel in their proper trajectories and anything that comes into contact bounces off appropriately, although exaggerated. You can also bounce yourself off enemies, you can bowl them into surrounding baddies or special objects (which may bounce off in turn or break), and you can bounce stuff at your own teammates just for the heck of it. It does get annoying at times, hitting an enemy into a wall only to have them bounce off and knock you off your feet, but in multiplay it's damn hilarious. Bounce, bounce, bounce!

As you make your way through 8 dungeons of various lengths, you are usually able to save after every 4 floors and review your status and equipment. This is good especially as later on these dungeons do drag on for quite some time with the number of floors increasing from 4 to 17. At the end of each dungeon you are met by the typical boss character which, especially in the second half of the game, are satisfying to defeat.

The Deja Vu of Mana
And now to address the bad... As another reviewer at GameFAQs put it, "Repetition kills this game". This is true to some extent. Although a very nice customisation system via the gem-frame is in place, and the multitude of abilities on offer are plentiful, the fact that the game boils down to hack 'n' slash tosses out those great ideas out the window. You can usually get by most effectively with just your sword (and so hence powering just your sword) with the occasional use of the other weapons when specific situations (eg. obstacles) present themselves. So yeah, 'A,A,A' is something you are going to be doing a lot of, and even then the control of your swings is a tad too rigid for my liking.

Fury attacks do break the monotony when their use becomes available, but again, the swinging hammer fury attack is much too good, and so chances are that you will only use that every time you enter this state. Magic spells are not interchangeable during dungeon crawls, so you are stuck with your chosen one until you are out. Again there is a good selection - 8 spirits giving a primary and secondary spell each - but in single player mode, you probably will want to take the healer (Wisp) with you nearly every single time; the system fares slightly better in multiplay where at least your buddies can back you up. The take-home message is that there are a lot of options, but nearly all of them are not feasible, especially in single player mode.

As to the objectives in the dungeons, there are far too few. To move onto the next floor you have to find a special stone and carry it over to a special warp pad to transport yourself. These 2 things are (usually both) hidden and so your aim is to find them. How? Well either you will have to bash crystals/bushes/rocks/etc until you find it, or you have to take down enemies (the 2nd screen informs you). It gets highly repetitive here, and I especially despise having to "defeat a certain group of enemies" to find it; this entails defeating all of just 1 type of enemy (unknown to you) and the problem not only lies in deciding which ones to target, but the fact that they will only spawn up when you defeat others, and these scenarios usually show with a megaton of enemies too - sometimes it can take up to 20 minutes just to clear 1 floor like this! Grind, grind, grind!

The dungeons themselves, although they look nice, have very plain designs. And there is no variation in terms of randomised layouts that most would come to expect. Placement of the previously mentioned stone & warp pad are changed on subsequent visits, but with lack of variation, this makes things more annoying.

Looking at some specifics gameplay-wise, the status effect system is quite well done. Alas, having to constantly switch items on the go to alleviate your ailment does get frustrating; this is not so much an issue in multiplay where action is real-time without pause and teammates can help you out when you are caught sleeping of turned into a snowman! You will always want to keep healing items out at a button's press since enemies can quickly stun and overwhelm you to 0HP in no time, and that means having to replay all the way from the start again. Not fun.

The End of Mana?
Children of Mana clocks in at around 10 hours or so for the main game. There are 8 main dungeons, but you probably will have to do some extra questing to gain levels or replenish stock items at times. I myself managed it at 10:04, at level 52, playing as the standard balanced character himself. It's a rather short experience for those looking for depth here, but as I've emphasised throughout, multiplay is required to get the most out of this title. There are an infinite number of quests to go through (which are just retreading parts of the main dungeons) and these will net you cash or special item rewards. Along with 4 different characters to choose from (noting that physical brutality wins over magical prowess in this game) and the extensive gem-customisation system, there is a lot to do. But do you think you would want to?

If you are able to multiplay frequently, you will appreciate Children of Mana much more than those who do not share the same privilege. Here you have a dungeon crawler with lots of nice ideas, but a clear lack of followup. Perhaps this is just a taste of what is to come in the future (Crystal Chronicles and Four Swords anyone?), but as it is, Children of Mana is a perfect example of "don't judge a book by it's cover". Buyer Beware.

Final Score - 6.5/10 Fair

29/10/06


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 10/30/06


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