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The reign of the Seiken Densetsu (Mana) series ended after Seiken Densetsu 3 around the end of SNES' lifespan. Seiken Densetsu 3 never made it to US shores and still remains a cult classic to this day. Many spin-off titles such as Legend of Mana and Children of Mana emerged with their own gameplay quirks. The results on all of them were mixed and my interest in the series steadily withered. Fans have waited over a decade for Seiken Densetsu 4, and on December 2006 Japanese gamers got it. Months later, the game emerges on US shores as Dawn of Mana. Unfortunately, the wait for a new Mana installment is all in vain. What we got is a game that falls short on a lot of areas.
One night, the spirits gather around and recap the events that took place thousands of years before any other Mana installment. From there, players are introduced to the protagonist, Keldric (his friends call him Keldy), who was washed ashore in the holy island of Illusia as a baby. He was taken in by the treefolk tribe and was raised by the village elder. He grew up with his childhood friend, Ritzia the tree maiden. One day, they spotted soldiers from Lorimar venturing into a mystical cavern where the great Mana Tree lies dormant. The two also decided to enter the cavern and encountered a spirit child named Faye. Later on, they met Lorimar's dark king Stroud, who sought an evil sword to open a gateway to Mavolia and needed Ritzia as part of his sinister plan. A string of events occurred and before we knew it, the world's end drew near.
The premise started off on the right foot, but it's not long before major flaws surface. Very little story occurs throughout the game, character interaction is scant, there are no towns to visit, and there are rarely any NPCs to chat as you venture through massive levels. While you may have a spirit child keeping you company, they don't interact much either and it becomes a lonely journey to save the world. The plot also has pacing issues. It moves at a steady pace, but there are times where the plot abruptly moves forward with little explanation as to what just happened a few minutes ago.
Character development fares the worst. The only characters who develop throughout the game are Keldy and Faye, who gets to know Keldy better and supports him throughout the game. The other characters receive very little screen time and mostly failed to keep much of my interest. A lot of drama occurs as you progress, but because of limited character screen time and lackluster execution, the drama was not as engaging as it could have been.
At one point, the story gets increasingly twisted with Keldy's morality being questioned and that's when the plot got me more interested. The problem is that it occurred by the end of the game thus it was too little, too late. The ending also fared well, being the only point in the game leaving some emotional impact. Looking at the big picture, it was a tragic tale, and it's a disappointment that the majority of the plot is stale.
As usual, Square Enix always manages to do a good job in the visual department. This is the first Mana game to convert to 3D and overall, the results are impressive. I was impressed by the imaginative character designs. All the characters looked unique and distinctive while most bosses and enemies were large and gave a powerful impression. Granted, not everyone will appeal to obscure character designs, but I am always interested in these sort of things.
The environments were massive with interesting level designs and some good interactivity. There were times, however, when portions of the levels feel too large and empty; and later on, a lot of level designs were downright confusing and got I got lost too easily. There were also CG movies to showcase some key moments in the story and they all looked wonderful. I was also impressed by the creative paper-style credits sequence. The graphics may have been lacking in raw power, but made up for it in creativity and style.
The music was easily the game's biggest strength. Kenji Ito and Tsuyoshi Sekito were the main composers, and they managed to pull off the best music I've heard in the series. Ito was the man behind a lot of the softer, melodic tunes and they were all excellent. Sekito was behind the grittier and more cinematic tunes. They're not Sekito's best work unfortunately, and I've enjoyed his older works such as that of Brave Fencer Musashi. His songs fit well in the game, but it's something I wouldn't listen to much by itself. For nostalgia buffs, a lot of songs from previous Mana have returned with new arrangements and they're a treat to listen to.
The game featured full voice acting and the English dub was solid, but that's it. The voice actors fit their respective characters pretty well, but the execution came off pretty average. It also felt somewhat out of place hearing the spirits' voices, particularly the females, having heavy European accents such as French and Scottish. It was pleasant to my ears, but Square Enix can do a lot better as seen in their bigger franchises.
Moving on to the darker side of the game, the controls were not very good. Fortunately, combat controls were solid with good response, but everything else had problems. It was a constant struggle to wrestle with camera angles while simultaneously wrestling with bosses. The camera was a bit sensitive to adjust and it tended to zoom in or rotate when close to a wall or when you got hit by an enemy. The problem wasn't bad during regular fights, but it was very frustrating during fights with those massive bosses.
The interface was weak providing a mostly useless radar. It showed icons indicated in certain colors: blue for objects, red for enemies, and yellow for objective points. Although sometimes helpful, it became worthless on environments with extreme elevation, and occasionally the objective markers were inaccurate. A 3D arrow to point you in the right direction would've worked wonders. When the game was paused, there was a map to look at and some helpful options, but they were not to helpful when getting over obstacles. It got worse as the game presented you with objectives, but with no explanation as to what to do (more on that later).
There were numerous problems with collision detection as well. The game used a Havok Physics engine for more interactive environments, but it's a double edged sword. Keldy and enemies flew backwards a wee bit too far and were sometimes thrown all over the place like a rag doll. I didn't find it horrible, but it was pretty annoying when to run down to an enemy you had flung too far. While there were a lot of objects at your disposal, it was difficult to target them properly at an enemy, and numerous times, I wound up hurting myself. The useless lock-on system targeted enemies or objects in awkward places or even behind walls or cliffs. It was also inaccurate when grappling an enemy and hitting thin air despite the enemy being right in front of me and not moving.
Because of crummy controls, the gameplay suffered some heavy blows and prevented it from being a decent action game. Then again, there is not much to the game either. The game contained 8 chapters, each with a single, but massive, stage for Keldy to go through. Each stage culminated in a boss fight, and after beating a boss, you will be ranked and rewarded based on your performance.
Each stage was split into five segments, except for the six segment final stage, each with a savepoint and usually an item with full recovery. Each segment contained an objective, but most of those were going straight from points A to B, occasionally needing a key dropped by a nearby enemy. Sometimes, there were some additional tasks to do in order to get to point B, but without one spec of information on what to do. Sometimes I got cutscenes showcasing the objective, but they were too vague to figure out. I'd eventually figure it out thanks to objective points on the radar, but I found myself running around in circles most of the time for tasks that could've been explained easily.
The leveling system was pretty obscure. You gained experience for your HP, weapon, and magic by earning medals from enemies. In order to gain medals, you needed to get them to panic by ramming an object into them, throwing them into an object, or even throwing them into another enemy so they would both panic. Smacking around a panicked enemy earned me medals. A lot of times, it was tedious to make enemies panic long enough to earn medals and it was disheartening to have my level reset to one at the beginning of every chapter. On the contrary, it wasn't too bad, as the level cap for Keldy's sword and Faye's magic are level four, both which I managed to max pretty easily. It did give the game more of a skill-based approach and kept me busy each chapter, but it sometimes felt like I was doing all this panic work when I didn't have to.
Permanent power-ups were obtained through earning emblems- equippable items that enhanced a certain trait. To earn them, you would have to meet certain conditions as you play through the game. A few were simple to earn, only requiring killing a certain amount of enemies or obtaining a certain amount of medals. Most of them were a pain to earn, usually dependent on earning the coveted S rank in various levels. Earning S ranks was near impossible, due to the stringent requirements of a flawless run: completing the stage quickly while killing lots of enemies, taking little damage and other conditions that were tough to pull off all at once. Emblems were a great help, but earning some was more trouble than it was worth.
As Keldy gained levels with his sword, he became able to pick up larger enemies and utilize new attack skills. The additional actions were mostly meant for cheap thrills, but they could be helpful too. As Faye's magic leveled, the MP pool increased and she learned additional support magic abilities. Sadly, I found most magic to be useless except for healing, because healing items were scarce.
Keldy also had projectile attacks at his disposal. His default projectile was weak, but it has its uses. There were elemental bullets to be found, each with its own status alignment or trait. There could be devastating results of the right bullets were used on enemies weak to a particular element, but there were a few I found pretty useless. Elemental bullets were also very scarce, usually hidden in obscure places.
The game was quite short, roughly about 10 hours or even less. Each chapter took me an hour or two to finish, and that's with me getting lost 3/4th of the time. There was shop where I could spend spend lucre (the game's currency) on various things. It consisted mostly of unlockables, such as music and movie clips. You could also buy some emblems instead of unlocking them, but they are expensive, especially due to how scare lucre is. You can also buy items and pet eggs to be used in arena mode.
You unlock arena mode around chapter three. It consists of stages where you have to beat all enemies in a time limit. They can quite fun, and there are 32 stages to complete which you unlock in certain conditions or beating a chapter. You can also have up to three pets in your squad, but their AI is pretty stupid, idling around and barely fighting.
Upon completing the game, you earn hard mode and completing the game in hard mode unlocks ultimate mode. It caters well to hardcore gamers and some emblems and stages can only be unlocked in the harder difficulties. All of these unlockables and extras will keep perfectionists pretty busy.
This all goes to show that eye candy and excellent music mean nothing if everything else is weak. The game had potential and I had some fun with it, but it never expanded its more interesting concepts and the controls became increasingly frustrating. I did not enjoy this as much as previous Mana installments. Given its short length, it can be easily beaten with a rental and sports some fun if you keep your expectations low, but it's definitely not worth retail price. Hopefully future Mana installments will recapture the greatness the series once had.