Review by darthjulian
"It´s not the Mana game we all hoped for, but a good game nonetheless"
Ever since the release of the brilliant "Seiken Densetsu III" for the Super Famicom in 1995, fans of the series have been yearning for a worthy sequel that would live up to the legacy of the saga, but strangely enough, we never got such a title. "Legend of Mana", the oddball title of the series, was merely some sort of a spin-off for PlayStation, while "Sword of Mana" was the vastly enhanced remake of the very first "Seiken Densetsu". So neither of these two entries into the series that came after part 3 could be considered to be an official part 4, and the same goes for the Nintendo DS title "Children of Mana", another spin-off to the long running SD franchise that accompanies the real part 4 called "Dawn of Mana". And that´s exactly what you have to keep in mind when reviewing this game: it´s a spin-off.
And sadly, you can already see that when looking at the story of the game. Ten years have passed in the chronology of the game since a disaster that cost many people their lives, and those who survived are trying to live a peaceful and normal life again, and that´s also the case on the island of Illusia, where the legendary Mana Tree can be found. It´s also on this island where the four heroes of the game live, namely Ferrik, Tamber, Wanderer and Poppen as well as their good friend Tess, a maiden of Mana. One day, though, when Tess is praying on top of the Mana Tower, a sudden disturbance in the flow of Mana causes monsters to appear all over the world and engulfs certain places in gigantic pillars of light - and the Mana Tower happens to be among them. Of course, one of the four main characters (you decide who, but more on that later) makes his way to the Mana Tower in order to save Tess, and hence our story begins. Unfortunately, it doesn´t really become more complex than that, and the plot twists are either rather predictable or dull, with stereotypes abounding and any real character development being practically nonexistent. Only the four main characters receive some sort of development, as well as Tess and the game´s villain if you´re generous, but apart from them, there´s not a single character with any kind of deep personality or outstanding traits. However, at least the cutscenes for the few story scenes are nicely done, and at certain points you are even being treated to a short and beautifully drawn anime sequence, and amazingly, the presentation manages to make up for the dull storyline at least partially. Nevertheless, you shouldn´t expect a particularly deep or intriguing story as magical as in the old Mana games.
Unfortunately, the gameplay would be the next aspect that makes it clear to us that "Children of Mana" is not a real Mana sequel. Remember "Secret of Mana" and "Seiken Densetsu III"? What helped these two games to create a magical atmosphere was their huge game world consisting of several towns and dungeons of all kinds that were all connected and thus allowed you to travel from one location to another much like in an RPG. That way, these two games were able to create the illusion of being part of these huge worlds, and that there was plenty to explore and find, but that´s not the case here. Let me start with the bad news right away: there is only one town in the entire game. ONE town, which happens to be your hometown in Illusia. It´s not even a big town, and you´ll meet the same persons over and over again there. So instead of anxiously entering new towns and looking forward to their designs, the town in CoM merely serves as a resting place after your long, tiresome stays in the game´s dungeons as well as some sort of a base, where you can buy new equipment and access new subquests. And much like the rest of the game, the subquests consist of one thing only: hacking and slashing your way through nearly endless dungeons. In fact, there isn´t even an overworld where you can travel from dungeon to dungeon. Instead, there simply is a map that shows you the location of each dungeon, and you simply have to click on the name of the dungeon so you can get there with the help of Flammie, your flying dragon. As you already guessed, the majority of the game takes place inside the huge dungeons, so you´d hope for them to be at least cleverly and nicely designed, providing you with an interesting structure and of course some puzzles to solve. But unfortunately, that´s not the case here. Each dungeon consists of several floors, and on each floor, your task is to find a so called Gleamdrop and to carry it to a Gleamwell, so you can proceed to the next floor. These Gleamdrops can be found either by destroying a certain group of enemies or each enemy on the floor your on or by finding it hidden underneath a rock or a plant. And yes, that´s the closest thing to a puzzle you´ll get in the dungeons. Apart from that, all you have to do is to kill tons of enemies, and trust me, there are dozens of them (at times, it can happen that a new enemy appears right after you killed another one...and there are mostly dozens of others on each floor). And thankfully, the battle system is the game´s saving grace. Just like in earlier SD titles, battles take place in a real time realm, which means that you can freely attack your enemies with any of the 4 weapons you can choose from, those being the sword, the bow, the flail and the hammer. This time around, though, you can equip two weapons at once and place them on the two buttons you´ll have to use in order to execute the attack with the aforementioned weapons. By pressing down one of these two buttons for a few seconds, you can also activate the special feature of your weapon. With your sword, for example, you can reflect certain enemy attacks like fireballs or arrows, while you can use your flail in order to reach far away treasure chests. By killing quite a considerable number of enemies, you can also fill some sort of a berserk-gauge, and once the gauge is full, you can execute more powerful attacks than before for a short while. Apart from slicing your various enemies with regular weapons, you can also use magic with the help of the 8 Elementals. You can equip one of them at a time, and each of them has a different effect, even though they´re not exactly THAT useful. Speaking of equipment, this aspect proves to be a weakness of "Children of Mana", since you cannot access the regular menu while you´re in battle; it´s only possible during a "break-screen" that occurs roughly after every fourth floor, where your highscore will be determined and where you can save the game and change your equipment. The only other possibility to make such adjustments occurs in your hometown. Despite the fact that there are dozens of enemies you have to fight on each floor, the game´s difficulty level is not really that high, and even beginners shouldn´t have that many problems with beating the game, since not even the boss enemies are much of a challenge. If you consider that the game is very short as well (it took me 20 hours to beat it), things don´t look very good for the title, since the only way there is any replay value at all would be the fact that at the beginning of the game, you can choose your main character from either Ferrik, Tamber, Poppen or Wanderer, and you can play through the game with another one of these characters again, even though differences between them are rather insignificant, apart from slightly different story sequences and slight differences in terms of strengths and weaknesses (for example, Ferrik is the most balanced warrior, while Tamber is excellent at using magic). Nevertheless, the game can manage to keep you hooked till the very end with its addictive battle system and its excellent controls that always provide you with sufficient control over your character. It might be a dungeon crawler at heart, but an addictive one nonetheless, and this aspect saved the game at least for me.
While the gameplay and story of "Children of Mana" are a mixed bag, there´s at the very least no doubt that the game is pure bliss in terms of technical aspects, beginning with the graphics. Judging from the earlier Mana games, we have come to expect vibrant, colorful and gorgeous graphics for each installment of the series, and "Children of Mana" does not disappoint at all in that regard and fully manages to deliver. The character sprites have been drawn with extreme care and attention to detail and provide the eye of the gamer with an impeccable 16-Bit look and charm that´s simply fitting for a Mana game, even though it´s a little disappointing to see that they´re not as big or detailed as the character sprites in "Sword of Mana". But at the very least, they feature some excellent animations as well, breathing life into them and and truly making them a part of their environments. Speaking of which, the environments feature excellent designs as well, even though certain locations seem to be lacking a sense of being special and outstanding, and in fact, the Mana Town is one of the few places that really seems to be straight out of a fantasy tale, but nevertheless, the environments in combination with the characters look awesome and embody the advantages of 2D graphics on every level. Especially the impressive boss enemies will make you question the need of 3D graphics, as do the great lighting and magic effects. Another visual treat are the gorgeous anime sequences. You can already take a glimpse at their beauty in the opening cinema, and there also are a few of them later in the game, during some key story sequences. They, too, feature the typical Mana style many gamers have grown to love so much, being colorful and vibrant and managing to let the characters appear in a new, more detailed light. At times, it makes you wish there were more of them, but what actually is there is simply magnificent (and it makes me yearn for a real Mana anime series, to be perfectly honest), and even if they can sometimes appear slightly grainy, it doesn´t detract anything from their splendor. Last but not least, each important character of the game got his own portrait for the dialogue sequences in the tradition of games like Lunar and Grandia, and just like there, these manga-portraits of the characters reflect their feelings according to the current situation, which means that the expressions of the characters can change during a dialogue, and it´s quite a useful tool for the means of telling a story. Overall, there´s absolutely nothing wrong with the graphics, and in that regard, "Children of Mana" lives up to our expectations without a single doubt. Another proof by Square-Enix that even 2D graphics can still be stunning in the days of a 3D overkill.
The Mana series is also well known and highly regarded for its excellent musical tracks, and some of the titles in the franchise encouraged gamers to buy the official soundtrack based on the beauty of the music. Well, maybe that´s a little far fetched for "Children of Mana", but even though memorable tracks are rare here, the music still is beautiful and fitting throughout the entire game. That´s especially important for your long stays in the dungeons. After all, repetitive music in a huge dungeon might very well be able to drive you insane, but fortunately, the dungeon tracks are very atmospheric, while the town theme as well as the music during the story sequences are very good as well. The sound effects are pretty solid, too, and the only downside to the audio I can think of would be the lack of voice acting. It would have been a nice addition at least for some of the story sequences, but nevertheless, "Children of Mana" sounds great for a DS game.
Whether or not you are going to like "Children of Mana" depends on how you approach the game. If you expect this to be the second coming of "Secret of Mana", then you are going to be disappointed for sure. It simply is not meant to be. Instead, it´s an intriguing spin-off that focuses on long-winded dungeon visits and tons of battles, making it a pure and utter dungeon crawler - a dungeon crawler with a lot of charm and heart, that is. If you are searching for an action based RPG that you can play for a couple of minutes and have some fun with while it lasts, then "Children of Mana" might be a good choice for you. And if you´re a fan of the Mana series, anyway, then perhaps this game might enough to keep you entertained while waiting for a real successor to the series that can reach the brilliance of part 2 and 3. For what it is, though, "Children of Mana" does a good job.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/13/07
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