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The RTS/RPG hybrid was a somewhat innovative genre to throw onto the Nintendo DS. LostMagic was the first to do it, and other companies have since imitated it. Square Enix did so twice, using different developers. One such game was Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings. But before that, there was Brownie Brown's "Heroes of Mana."
Heroes of Mana is, without question, the worst game in the Mana (Seiken Densetsu) series. Why is this? Because, unlike every other game in the series, Heroes of Mana attempts to break into a new genre. And in doing so, it falls flat on its face.
Heroes of Mana is a direct prequel to Seiken Densetsu 3, which is the only game in the series that has yet to reach English-speaking players. It's a shame, too, because the game is basically a bigger and better version of Seiken Densetsu 2 (known to English-speaking gamers as "Secret of Mana"). In my opinion, if there's anything good or redeeming about Heroes of Mana, it's that it takes place in the same setting as Seiken Densetsu 3, exactly one generation beforehand. In fact, some of the "heroes" that join your party are cited as being the parents to protagonists of SD3. So, unlike many Mana games that struggle to establish a good timeline with character relations, at least Heroes of Mana has this much going for it.
In this story, you start as a group of five scouts, from the remote nation of Pedda. You're sent to check out the beastmen kingdom Ferolia, but when you get there, it seems your nation has already arrived, and they've already started a war. You're already recognized as enemies by the beastmen, but when the Peddan troops claim they don't know you and, therefore, you are also their enemy, you are trapped between a rock and a hard place.
The leader of your group, Roget, is forced to make some tough ethical decisions. Ultimately, he decides to join with the beastmen, as we quickly learn that Pedda's intentions seem entirely evil. And though the original members of the party choose to stay with Roget, some of Roget's old friends in Pedda are appalled by his decision to abandon his home country and defend each and every country they target. The game goes forward with you going to Altena, Laurent, Wendel, and all the other countries of the world, in an attempt to stop Pedda from taking over the world.
The villains' motives are the generic power-hungry, world-dominating motives you'd come to expect. And, of course, they align with an ancient evil to make progress in their plans. You get the idea. It's been done before.
The dialogue is fairly well-written, and the translation is strong. But the extremely linear presentation hurts the experience, as most Mana fans would much rather have some free exploration to learn about the world they're in. Which brings us to our next topic...
Every Mana game in the series has been an Action RPG of some sort. The first was Final Fantasy Adventure, which played like Legend of Zelda, but with experience points. This first game was remade, for GBA, by developer Brownie Brown. The remake, Sword of Mana, was one of my personal favorite handheld RPGs from Square Enix. Brownie Brown started out strong with this title, and their original series Magical Vacation (the sequel, in North America, being Magical Starsign) was also an enjoyable experience. But with this game, Brownie Brown really dropped the ball. And here's why.
Brownie Brown attempted to make an RTS, but they had no idea what they were doing. Troops move on an isometric grid similar to a turn-based strategy RPG (like Final Fantasy Tactics). However, the lines aren't demarcated. Generally, RTS games don't have troops move in this fashion, because with AI, you need to allow troops the freedom to move around properly. And here's when things get even more ridiculous: two troops cannot occupy the same space ever. It doesn't matter if it's ally and enemy, enemy and enemy, or ally and ally. They simply cannot be in the same space. And here's the real clincher: if no simple path exists for a unit to move to its destination because it is blocked by other units, it will stop until you command it to go elsewhere. Think about this. In this game, there are two materials you need to collect: minerals (for buildings) and berries (for units). You send out some basic gathering units (Rabites) to pull some minerals back to your ship. You send out six of them, so you can (presumably) collect the valuable minerals in short order. Three rabites crowd around the mineral spot, collecting the precious stuff. The other three rabites stand directly behind the others, waiting their turn. And what do you think happens next? In any other RTS, the line would move smoothly, with the first three rabites heading straight to the ship and the next three going towards the mineral spot. But no, not in Heroes of Mana. Those six rabites will stand still. And they will continue to stand still, forever, unless you tell all six rabites to walk away from the stone, then specify the three with minerals to head back to the ship and the other three to get minerals. A time-consuming process to be sure. And considering you ought to be commanding fighting units, including the precious "heroes" on your side, to effectively take care of the enemies, this waste of time makes the game nearly impossible to play.
Indeed, of the 27 missions in the game, I got stuck on more than half because of stupid, glitchy problems that are purely the fault of the developer. One of the worst missions was mission 19 because it relies so heavily on gathering materials, and if your gathering units come into the line of sight of any enemies, it will clue them in to your position and you'll be wiped out in no time flat. Awful...just plain awful.
If you're masochistic enough to subject yourself to such a horrid game, you may find the occasional diamond in the rough. There was plenty of potential for this game to be enjoyable such as customizing your heroes' equipment (including Mana Spirits for spells and abilities), using the ground/flying/heavy/missile units strengths/weaknesses effectively, and summoning each of the eight dreaded Mana Beasts to lay waste to all foes on the field. But none of these things, fun though they may have been, can shine through the cloud of dust and muck that is the basic, broken gameplay provided by the developer.
It stands to reason that if the gameplay, as a whole, is bad, that control (understood as a subset of gameplay) is also bad. If there's one thing Brownie Brown screwed up on worse than the AI programming, it's the controls. Why? Simple: touch-screen only controls.
There are a few button-based functions, including camera control (D-pad, L+R). But for the most part, all functions are handled by your stylus. And I hope you're extremely accurate with your touches, because the slightest mis-step could have you giving the exact opposite command you wanted for your troops. Though there are some handy "group selection" buttons at the bottom of the screen, individual unit selection, as well as destination selection, are extremely annoying things to control. You have to touch at the ground where the unit is currently standing to select it...and since the diamond grids they stand on aren't demarcated by any lines, this can be difficult. It's even more difficult if the troop you're trying to select is in transit. For example, if you're commanding some units to go attack an enemy, trying to select said enemy can be a challenge all its own.
So, the game is already broken in terms of programming, but the controls are also such a hassle that all fun that could possibly be had with this game is sucked right down the drain.
You know there's a problem when the only enjoyable visual for a game, by far, is its opening anime sequence. Such is the case with Heroes of Mana. Though there are some CG-style cut scenes for summoning Mana Guardians, and the still character portraits are decent, the opening anime is the only thing I truly enjoyed. In-game graphics are really, really dumbed-down sprites. Battle animation is weak. All in all, an unimpressive collection of visuals from Brownie Brown this time around.
Thanks to Yoko Shimomura, this game has great music. But, like many RPGs out there, the beautiful music cannot salvage the terrible game. For this reason, I would strongly recommend audiophiles to just import the soundtrack rather than bother playing this game.
Let this game serve as a warning to Square Enix: we don't want an RTS for the Mana series. And even if we did, we would only want it if the game wasn't broken from start to finish. I have a lot of respect for developer Brownie Brown as well, and I hope they also learned a lesson from this failed experiment: stick to what you know, and refine that process until your market is saturated. Then, and only then, is the risk of making a potentially horrible game worthwhile. Heroes of Mana is a scar on an otherwise decent series. Let's hope this never happens again.