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Children of Mana
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Square Enix
Genre: Action RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 11/01/06
Japan 03/02/06
Official Site: English Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 85%
Sound: 85%
Gameplay: 75%
Control: 85%
Story: 73%
Overall: 75%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Who's afraid of the big bad boss?
 
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Frosty, the snowman...
 
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The requisite dark and mysterious bad guy.
 
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It's a dungeon crawler, but a very pretty dungeon crawler.
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Neal Chandran
Children of Mana
12/28/06
Neal Chandran

The Seiken Densetsu (Mana) series has been a source of joy, as well as disappointment, for many RPG fans. Seiken Densetsu 1 (Final Fantasy Adventure) was a fine handheld action-RPG in the days of the monochrome Game Boy. Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana) was one of the finest action-RPGs on the SNES system. Too bad the equally wonderful, if not better, Seiken Densetsu 3 was never released in the US; US gamers got Secret of Evermore instead. Legend of Mana for the PSone enticed gamers with its storybook visuals and soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, but ultimately polarized them with gameplay elements that were either described as "innovative" or "clunky." The GameBoy Advance saw Sword of Mana - a remake of Final Fantasy Adventure with stunning visuals, redone dialogue, and a choice between playing as the boy or the girl in independent storylines. The game had potential, but ultimately many gamers found the gameplay lacking. I believe there have been some Seiken Densetsu mobile phone games in Japan as well.

Cut now to Children of Mana for the Nintendo DS - another handheld Seiken Densetsu game. What's the verdict on this one? Is this a return to form for the Mana series, evoking the golden-age awesomeness of Seiken Densetsu 2 and 3? Or is this another letdown in a long string of disappointments that has plagued the series for years?

Here's the short version of this review:

The game is a pretty and reasonably fun, if repetitive and simplistic, dungeon crawler with a solid soundtrack. Like Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast, single player mode can be monotonous, but multiplayer is much more fun. Also like Phantasy Star Online, Children of Mana does not quite live up to the golden age era of its namesake series. The gravest flaw I see with Children of Mana is that the game does not offer full Wi-Fi support. The only way you can play multiplayer is if you gather a few DS and Children of Mana owning friends in your bedroom for some local multiplayer action.

In other words, if you're expecting a return to the majesty that was Seiken Densetsu 2 and 3, Children of Mana does not deliver. All hopes now rest in future series installments to bring back the magic. Children of Mana is like a pretty girl with a sexy voice, but a completely vapid personality; fun for a couple of days, but you get bored of her after a week.

Do you want a more in-depth, detailed analysis of Children of Mana? In other words, the wordier long version of this review? Well, here you go:

One thing the Seiken Densetsu games always do well is the visuals. Even from the humble days of the monochrome Game Boy, each Seiken Densetsu game has done the best it can to create that storybook appearance from a childlike fantasy tale. It is very clear that a lot of love has been put into the visuals of Children of Mana. The game opens up with a full motion video anime introduction and periodic anime cutscenes to drive the story. During conversations, lovely hand-drawn portraits of the characters accompany dialogue boxes. The environments are bright, lush, and colorful. The weakest part of the graphics is the character sprites. Sword of Mana's sprites had more lavish detailing, and that game was on the less powerful GameBoy Advance. I also didn't like that even though I could choose the color of my main character's outfit, the portrait still showed him/her in his/her default colors.

In short, the visuals are generally solid and evoke the kind of storybook scenery expected from a Seiken Densetsu game.

Another area where the series has always done well is in the music. Even the worst Seiken Densetsu games at least had good music. Children of Mana is no exception. The music in the game is quite good. The dungeon themes sound appropriate for the respective environments and the town theme sounds appropriately comfortable, like the feeling of home. The sound quality through the DS' small speakers is very good, and the compositions have many layers of instrumentation. The music is the kind of orchestral fare you would find in a fantasy RPG. The music may not compel you to rush out and buy the soundtrack, but within the context of the game, each theme is quite good.

Okay, so we've established that the game is pretty and sounds good. However, the gameplay and story do not fare so well. Though I did have fun with the game and the story wasn't a complete wash, I speak for pretty much everyone that we expected more from a Seiken Densetsu title.

Yes astute readers, I said dungeon crawler. It's a dungeon crawler similar in vein to games like Phantasy Star Online, where you have one town as home base and a cursory story has you questing through a bunch of multi-tiered dungeons. The dungeons in Children of Mana are not randomly generated and often have rather small tiers. There is also a map screen with radar showing where the enemies are on the bottom DS screen. For main plot sequences, the dungeon layouts are all the same. There are a few other layouts for various sidequests, but nothing drastic. Again, think Phantasy Star Online.

Play begins when you select your character. Ferrik is a balanced male warrior. Tamber (who I played through the game as) is a female warrior who's weaker than Ferrik but faster. Wanderer is a niccolo (a rather large anthropomorphic cat) who is big and strong, but slow and terrible at magic. Poppen is small and weak, but highly skilled at magic. You can change your character's name and choose from four different outfit colors for the sprite (but the dialogue portrait will always show the default colors.)

Of course, you'd have to be completely masochistic to choose Poppen because magic is completely and utterly useless in this game. See, the game operates on a really fast pace. Enemies move quickly and spawn quickly, so you need to strike quickly. Magic is slow and not always reliable. When your character sets out from the village, he or she can take one elemental mana sprite with them as a companion. There are eight to choose from and each comes with an offensive area attack and a defensive spell, such as status ailment recovery, HP recovery, temporary invulnerability, or even temporarily imbuing your attacks with the sprite's respective element. When you want to use magic, you need to hold down the B button then let it go to summon the sprite, which costs MP. The sprite will hang out for a second or two, then launch his/her attack. If you touch the sprite before it launches its attack, you get the defensive boost.

It's when you're surrounded by swarms of nefarious nasties that a mana sprite's area attack would be very helpful. Unfortunately, holding down the summon button leaves you vulnerable and oftentimes the speedy enemies hit you before you can summon. In addition, the delay between the summoning and the area attack is such that you can run out of the swarm, the swarm follows you, then the sprite's area attack hits nothing, because the sprite is slow to follow you and react.

Since magic is so slow in a fast paced game, it's useless. You're better off using one of your four weapons. You start out with a sword but eventually gain a flail, a bow, and a hammer. Each weapon has an additional function other than its strike (i.e. the flail can get you across chasms or pull items towards you). Each character can wield all four weapons, and stronger weapons can only be used once your character is at a specific level. You can map a weapon to the A and X buttons and use the right shoulder button to switch them out. The left shoulder button switches out the item you have equipped to the Y button.

The best part of the character building system is the gem system. It's simplistic, but effective. You have a "gem frame" where you can put gems of various shapes and sizes and they'll imbue your character with various attack, skill, and stat boosts. You can find gems in dungeons, buy them, earn them in sidequests, or fuse them at the gem shop.

Other than that, it's a pretty straightforward dungeon crawl RPG made easier by small tiers and an automap. You basically go through dungeons, kill lots of monsters, defeat a boss, have a story cutscene, go back to town, lather, rinse, repeat. The only semi-twist is that you have to satisfy a condition on each tier to find a "gleamdrop" and carry it to the "gleamwell" to get to the next tier. Between story related dungeon crawls, you can talk to people in town and do sidequests for them (these may have an impact on the plot) or you can go to the Dudbear shop to do quests for money or a prize. The Dudbear quests are like the jobs list in Car Battler Joe for the GBA, except that all the Dudbear quests are the same.

For those wondering, the Dudbear quests are all "go into the dungeon and kill a whole bunch of monsters." Even the quests that say "find an item" are basically kill everything in a dungeon and the item will be in an empty room at the end. It would have been more dynamic if the hidden items were actually hidden somewhere in the dungeon and had to be found; (even Car Battler Joe had a some dynamic jobs like that where finding items really meant searching for them.) In addition, the Dudbear quests are constantly recycled, have no bearing on the plot or each other, so there is no reason I can see to even do them, except for money and prizes.

One thing I never understood is why handheld RPGs still insist on using save points or save intervals rather than a save-anywhere system that's convenient for gaming on the go in quick bursts. Sometimes a battery can run out while you're running after a save point and rob you of progress. Sometimes you'll have to stop and save quickly after being called in from a waiting room.

What's worse, in Children of Mana, you can only access the main menu in the village or after every four tiers in the dungeon. The main menu allows you to save, manipulate your gems, check your status, and a bunch of other things. That's right, you can't even access the main menu in a dungeon until the game lets you. That's a bit silly if you want to change out your equipment immediately after you've gained a level. In addition, there is no way to load up a save in-game. When you die in a dungeon, you're sent back to town where you have to start the dungeon all over again. If you want to return to your previous save, you'll have to turn off your DS and turn it back on to load up your save.

Lest I forget, this is an action-RPG, control needs to be talked about. Control felt a tad loose and slippery to me, but I got used to it. In addition, though the character sprite can move in eight directions, diagonal movement is really slow when your character is really close to walls. There are also occasional weird physics where strikes can not only send enemies careening into each other, but can send you flying without any hint of warning. I expected tighter and less slippery controls from a game with this kind of action-RPG heritage.

Wi-Fi support would have boosted the gameplay score a few points. As with Phantasy Star Online, the monotonous and repetitive single-player mode amplified all the game's flaws, but the chaotic killing sprees with friends in online mode were so much fun, I forgot all about the gameplay flaws and limited dungeons. I spent hundreds of hours on Phantasy Star Online in the Dreamcast days. However, Children of Mana does not have full Wi-Fi support. It only has local Wi-Fi, meaning that the only way you can do multiplayer is with a group of DS and cartridge-owning friends at your house. I do not understand why full Wi-Fi support was excluded from Children of Mana. This game screams, cries, pleads, and begs for full Wi-Fi support.

In a nutshell, the gameplay is fun for the first handful of hours, but it gets really old, really stale, and really repetitive really quickly. The game can easily be completed in around 20 hours, but by the 11th hour, most folks will already be sick of it.

The story is a typical simple RPG tale. There was a calamity ten years ago that nearly destroyed the world, but now people, niccolo, and sprites are living in peace on the island of Illusia. However, there is a sudden disturbance in the world's mana flow and it's causing monsters to appear and it seems the world is in danger of destruction again. And the Holy Sword selects your character to save the world. The story is rudimentary and not very involved, but there are occasional FMV anime cutscenes, which are always cool.

The story plays out the same regardless of which character you choose in the beginning. Each character has his/her own introduction where they talk to an important character in his/her life then go visit a girl named Tess before she goes off to do her Mana prayers. Personally, I thought Tamber had the most legitimate reason to visit Tess and she felt the most natural to me to be the main character. There are a few character-specific sidequests in the game and some variations in dialogue, but no drastic changes in storyline dynamics.

So it looks like Children of Mana is another nail in the coffin of the Seiken Densetsu series. But because the series experienced such greatness with Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana) and Seiken Densetsu 3, gamers still cling to vestiges of hope that the series will one day have that long-awaited triumphant return to form. Here's hoping that future Seiken Densetsu installments will meet those elevated expectations.



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© 2006 Square-Enix. All Rights Reserved.


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