I cannot properly review this game, a remake of a very very old game, without a proper history lesson. If you know the lesson, skip the next three or four paragraphs and begin reading.
Those who fail to learn the lesson of history are doomed to repeat it…
More than a decade ago, Squaresoft began what would turn out to be their big action RPG series: Seiken Densetsu (literally “Holy Sword Legend”). Before it would become a series, the first title in the game, released on the original 4-bit Game Boy, came to America under the guise of a sub-series: the new name, Final Fantasy Adventure, used to generate sales. Despite the improper title and obscurity of this first game in the Seiken Densetsu series, it has been one of my favorites to date.
Two more installments came in the 16-bit era for the Super Famicom: Seiken Densetsu 2 (entitled “Secret of Mana” for the American gamer) and Seiken Densetsu 3 (never released in America). The second game followed a somewhat linear storyline, and was clearly a direct descendant from the first in the series for anyone who followed the plotline. The linearity obscured somewhat further in the storyline of the third game: as the second game left the world with no mana tree, yet in the third game there was a mana tree indeed. These SNES games were some of the few games of the era that allowed up to three players to enjoy the action RPG goodness together.
The fourth game in the series, and decidedly the most open-ended, was the PlayStation’s “Seiken Densetsu: The Legend of Mana” (or just “The Legend of Mana” in North America). As I understand it, this game combined elements from the three previous “Mana” games and added elements of its own: specifically, a complex weapons/armor upgrading system, musical instruments as sub-weapons, growing vegetables, and a multitude of side-quests. Add to this the beautiful graphics, and you have yourself quite a game.
So as you can see, Square had come a long way from the first game in the series to the multi-faceted elements of the fourth game. But most gamers will agree that the one thing Legend of Mana lacked was plotline and strong character development. The first game in the series, however, had a strong basis for a cohesive plotline, and plenty of characters that could’ve been expanded upon. Knowing this, Square Enix worked with developer Brownie Brown in the creation of “Sword of Mana” (known also in Japan as “Shinyaku Seiken Densetsu”), a remake of exceptional proportion: graphics and music updated to the capability of the Game Boy Advance (that’s going from 4-bit to 32-bit, much like the transition from FF1&2 to FF Origins), a plotline going far beyond the scope of the original game, and much-appreciated character development for every character, making them complex enough that you begin to wonder who is good and who is bad. Let’s take a closer look…starting with the graphics.
All the colors of the rainbow…
Game Boy Advance has seen a number of much-desired remakes in the short amount of time that it has been available in America: but this game is, to my knowledge, the first game to transition from black-and-white to color. Yet, the game stays true to the basic design of the world map, city names, regions, and climate zones. And my oh my, is it beautiful. The color palettes used from area to area are consistently stunning. Fair amounts of detail have been put into over 100 enemies (all of which you can look at in “Popoi’s notebook”); the character’s face is given further artistic detail when speaking, and there are a number of “villager” images, many of which are rarely repeated.
Being of 32-bit capabilities, it wasn’t difficult for Square to take some of the more familiar images from Legend of Mana and stick them in Sword of Mana. Your “house” in Legend of Mana, featuring L’il Cactus, weapons upgrading, animal raising, and vegetable growing, have almost entirely ported over as a mini-house that you can grow using an item and a little pot found outside of towns in Sword of Mana. The “Hot House” cuts out the animal-raising feature (though I’ve heard that the animal feature was in development and later “dummied out”, and that traces of this can be found using utilities like GameShark on the cartridge). Two of the “talking faces” from Legend of Mana find themselves in a less animated form in Sword of Mana (the tree is in the hot-house orchard, the cave now in front of Gaia Cave, a staple “Mana” dungeon). In fact…many of the elements of the graphics (and the gameplay, no less) are a conglomeration of all four previous Seiken Densetsu games. But, I’ll go into further detail on that later.
Animation of characters in battle is generally smooth; background stills are amazing; what few “cut-scene” animations the game has are fun to watch; the “Mana Sanctuary” is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in a 2D game; nothing is hard to figure out when looking at it, and no one can complain about the general beauty of the game. My only complaint is the lack of cut scenes…there could have been more, especially with significant character confrontations. They didn’t “push the envelope”, but they made great use of the technology available to them and designed some awe-inspiring images. Conclusion: 91%. Moving on!
Ito’s back, and he’s ready to rock!
Kenji Ito, original composer for Seiken Densetsu (FF Adventure), the Romancing SaGa series, and a few other titles in and out of the Square production line, hadn’t been doing much in the last few years. I think it was because of this that many people got very excited to hear that Kenji Ito was back to beef up his original compositions, rather than leaving someone else to do it for him (though I would’ve been fine with Yoko Shimomura stepping in, personally).
I’m not judging the original composition alone: this music, on its own, is as close to perfection as I have found in the world of video games. The music corresponded to dungeons, towns, and events just the right way in FF Adventure. As Thom Yorke says, it’s “Everything in its Right Place”. But now, on the GBA, Ito had the task to upgrade these fine compositions with the technology presented to him. Did he do it?
Yes…and no. I’ve heard a number of complaints from people who said the synth upgrade wasn’t enough of an upgrade: some of the bass lines sounded as if they were straight out of the original FF Adventure synth. Something about it just didn’t feel right, they told me. It felt artificial.
I think people had too high of expectations: this is still a handheld system here. The music can’t be perfect. You can’t expect the symphonic versions to just be ported over. However, I do share this lament: something felt artificial. The remakes weren’t generally as inspirational; few improvements were made. And how could they be made? For example, the standard ‘overworld’ theme in the beginning has beefed up synth, but it feels even less impressive for it. I don’t know how to say it…but it was grounds for me to lower the score from the Game Boy version to the Game Boy Advance version. Maybe I’m just suffering of nostalgia overload, but I gave sound a 94%.
One notable exception for the music: Again, Mana Sanctuary was amazing. The music there blew me away. It was good in the Game Boy version too…but it’s just outstanding in Sword of Mana. The song is hypnotizing; truly, I think it’s one of the best songs Ito has given us.
Alright, what are we looking for in an action RPG’s gameplay? Entertainment. This breaks up into (reasonable) challenge, fun factor, and the availability to go beyond the storyline (i.e. – sidequests). What does Sword of Mana dish up? – A lot of everything you wanted.
You see, Sword of Mana is most definitely a conglomeration of other Mana titles. I will explain every last aspect of the gameplay that I can, and will show you how very little of it is new, and how very little I care that it is re-used…because this game is ludicrously enjoyable.
In the original game, you played as one guy: The hero (with no default name other than “Hero”). Most of the game was spent hunting down a girl that was kidnapped (though she’s on your team at the beginning and end of the game). When she’s not with you, you’re either on your own or you have someone else (Bogard – an old warrior, Lester – the lute-playing bard, or some old robot) following you around to kill the baddin’s. But that’s no good for this up-to-date game…because when you start the game, you either play the path of the Hero or the Heroine…that was a bold move. Of course, these paths intersect practically all the time; but there are a few dungeons you’ll never visit as the girl, and a bunch of cut-scenes you’ll never see with the guy. It is worth going through the game with both characters, guy and girl (unlike Legend of Mana…where gender didn’t really matter much). More on that in the story section.
In Seiken Densetsu 3, of the six characters available you could choose three for your party: each with a pre-defined class. From there, that base class would evolve much like many strategy RPGs have their characters’ class evolve. The end class would be one of four results, each of the four being ridiculously powerful. But, Duran was purely a warrior, Carly purely a cleric, etc. In Sword of Mana, the class system is back, and it’s your choice how your main character will turn out…the problem is, no one really explains that to you. One villager in one town has something to say about it, and instruction booklet vaguely tells you how it works…but for specific class guides, you’ll need a walkthrough.
Your class starts out…classless. Every time you go up a level, you get to assign one point to either Warrior, Monk, Magician, Sage, Thief, or “Random”. Besides Random, which doesn’t affect class and randomly boosts stats, each “class” level will give different upgrades to different stats. This is similar to the level-up system of the first Seiken Densetsu, but more advanced; and also similar to the level-up system in Seiken Densetsu 3, but more well-defined. A “warrior” level-up will boost your HP some, your attack some, your defense a lot, and your speed some (every level up is a plus 1 in speed, except thief which is plus 2 in speed). Monk will up your HP and attack more than warrior. Magician upgrades MP, magic attack, and a bit of magic defense. Sage reverses to give emphasis to magic defense.
Once you’ve reached level five in one of the classes, you have chosen your path. If you attempt to avoid this is as long as possible by reaching level 4 in all the classes first (which is what I did), you become a Valkyrie (comparable to Lisle, the Amazon Princess, from Seiken Densetsu 3). As you reach higher levels, you will be given a new class title with better upgrades. Unfortunately, the bonuses for class level-ups isn’t as rewarding as in SD3; generally, just some large status upgrades and a specific attack bonus with a specific weapon that suits your class. While we’re on to that…
Weapons, weapons, weapons. There are 9 weapons in the game, 3 for each type of weapon: Jab weapons (Flail, Bow, Lance); Bash weapons (Rod, Knuckle, Morning Star); Slash weapons (Sword, Axe, Sickle). The main character will have a choice of 8 weapons (hero doesn’t use the rod, heroine doesn’t use the sword). All of your side characters that join you throughout their game have their specified weapon (exception: the robot has a unique laser attack). Enemies have strengths and weaknesses on weapon type, so you change weapons often to fight. Weapon levels go up based on usage.
Magic goes back to its roots in the first game, where you would cast spells by the tap of a button, rather than going into a menu every time to cast a spell (which is the way it worked in SD2 and 3). A tap does a supportive spell, holding it does an attack. Attacks vary based on which of the 8 elements used and which of the weapons is being used…hence, 64 different types of magic attacks (there is no such thing as sword magic attacks…as far as I know). Magic levels up through usage as well, but only by attack usage and not support. For each element, the game actually has another seven spirits for the element to add to the one you find through the storyline…thus, you find eight spirits for each element if you subquest as hard as possible. If you find all eight elements, you get a major attack spell that automatically hits every enemy on the screen. This takes a lot of work to achieve.
Upgrading weapons and armor is done by finding the proper materials and then taking them to Watts (your personal blacksmith). By “Forging” an original weapon with a new material, you get a much stronger weapon. For slight improvements, you can “temper” weapons and armor by using one of the same material and adding a vegetable or fruit…better fruits and vegetables come based on what day of the week it is (the weekly calendar, based on the elemental spirits, was a tradition started in SD3…the game transitions through day and night based on leaving and entering different screens). Combining 2 of 8 different kinds of seeds is how you produce fruits and vegetables in your garden, and they are used for one aspect of upgrading your weapons. This upgrading system originated in Legend of Mana…yet again, more conglomeration. Ultimate weapons are forged from Crystal, and the strongest attack weapons are forged with Aerolite. The male’s armor is typical warrior armor, whereas the female’s armor is more like a magician (robe rather than mail, hat rather than helm). Each piece of armor can be forged and tempered just like a weapon. It gets a tad bit confusing, but it makes things more customizable… based on how you temper, you can also add elemental attributes and immunities (or added effect for your weapon) to status effects such as poison or paralyzation.
There is still plenty more to say about fighting…I was basically attempting to send your head awhirl to show you just how much work it takes to get into the game…but when it comes down to battling, it’s all very simple again. Discover your enemy’s weakness, then hack and slash him to bits.
Either I’m getting much better at games (which could be the case), or this is the easiest Mana game to date. I died once during the whole game, and I wouldn’t have died…had I known that letting your main character die automatically ends the game. You can hit select to play as your support character…and there are items to bring people back when they die…but apparently these items are only for the support character, because when the main character dies, it’s Game Over. As I was saying, the game is pretty easy. The biggest factor, I feel, is allowing the party to carry more than nine of any item (a huge drawback for SD2 and 3). Healing items are inexpensive, so there’s no good reason to end up dead. The lack of challenge to complete most events keeps Gameplay from getting an absolutely perfect score.
Like subquesting? You’ve come to the right place. Side quests are many in this game (upwards of 30)…some are simple, some are complex, and a few will take the whole span of the game with careful attention paid from town to town to complete. This sort of anal-rententive-attention-to-detail required to get Li’l Cactus to fill in 50 entries in his journal is just what the true RPGFan wants in a game. The best part is, for those who don’t want to complete all 50 entries, there’s no “special bonus” to the ending that you’re missing out on…just a few poems and some weapon upgrades.
Based on all of these complexities, and the fact that there’s a boy’s quest and girl’s quest, the replay value for this RPG is high. One can beat this game (without much trouble or necessity of a walkthrough) in 15-18 hours. To “complete” the game with nothing left to do, I’d estimate 32-38 hours.
Brownie Brown created a disgustingly enjoyable game. I cannot get over how much fun I had in playing this game…and I’ll probably play through it a few more times in the next year or so. I give the gameplay a 97% for reusing almost every positive aspect from all four Seiken Densetsu games.
How many times do I press the B button to get back to the real game?
Seiken Densetsu’s “ring menu” (originated in SD2) is a game staple…and it’s always been fun. Yet, it can also become unwieldy. Things get pretty bad in Sword of Mana…You can go into as many as six submenus looking to pull off some obscure action. However; I recently discovered that my italic subtitle alluding to the problem of leaving the menu is inaccurate: hitting the start button will take you out of the menu, no matter how far in you originally went.
Besides the difficulties in navigating the menus, there are a few other complaints I have. Sword of Mana breaks Seiken Densetsu territory by incorporating a jump feature…yes, a jump feature. It’s sort of a clunky jump though…you only move forward a bit when you jump, and that’s only when you are holding the run button and pushing as hard as you can with your thumb in one specific direction (okay, so I’m exaggerating). Jumping is in the game for the purpose of overcoming various height-related obstacles, and it adds a bit of depth to the gameplay…but it is one of the more difficult things to execute properly in the game.
Controlling the fighting is standard, and it’s fun. Some problems with timing in commands from previous Seiken Densetsu games has been fixed. For example: In Seiken Densetsu 3, one could see that a character has died, and one goes to the menu to use an angel grail…but the game won’t allow the angel grail to be used because the game hasn’t recognized the character as dead yet, even though health is at zero. This bug no longer happens. When you use an item, it happens immediately, which can keep you from ending up in a tight squeeze that’s the game’s fault instead of yours.
Being an action RPG, control is pretty important…and I think there could’ve been some improvements. But, due to the improvements being made on predecessors in the series, and the awesome “jump” ability added (even if it is hard to do sometimes), I’m giving control a solid 90%.
No one’s right, and no one’s wrong…
With the war in Iraq being a big issue, Square Enix took the philosophical core of the debate and shoved it right into the middle of the dialogues in Sword of Mana. Is anything worth the cost of lives lost? When the line between “good guy” and “bad guy” blurs, why take action?
Many of the major battles (read: boss battles) involve people you never intended to fight. Whereas the original Final Fantasy Adventure was straightforward “kill the bad guys, protect the good guys”, Sword of Mana shows protagonists who care about every death, wishing none of it could happen. The characters are portrayed as experiencing guilt and shame for every human (and “Mavole” — humanoid underworld folk) they strike down. The level of character development is striking. Every character that joins your party has a story to tell; and each story is relevant to the premise for the game.
What’s most striking is that, while the storyline has expanded, it hasn’t really changed. The plotline stays true to the original. Events happen in generally the same order, with the same characters facilitating you. Due to her being a playable character, the Heroine’s origins are finally explained in great detail (the “Mana Clan” is never seen in Final Fantasy Adventure).
Another major issue is the issue of belief. An oppressive regime is out to stop the heretics from holding Mana Power and believing in the Mana Goddess. What is fact and what is mere legend that was fabricated to boost morale among the people is also addressed: heroes of old tell the heroes of new not to believe the fairy tales that they believed…but what if the heroes of old were wrong for disbelieving?
All of these questions, all of this solid development of plot and character…in a Game Boy game? Surely we have entered an era of opportunity for handheld RPGs…because this is some good stuff. The game is not too long nor is it too short…the story is told in perfect timing for its size and scope. I don’t have a single complaint about the telling of the story, and I very much enjoyed it. Staying true to the plotline of the original game was another big plus. I’m handing out a 95% for the storyline.
Do the math, kid…
Seriously, if I may get a little personal here: I haven’t played an action RPG combining so much nostalgia with so much worthwhile gameplay and a new character development EVER before. Most remakes bore me…this is a TRUE remake. Square didn’t just rehash…they remade. They made significant improvements…it’s practically a new game, but it’s still the same old story. Same names of people and places, same sequence of events and plotline, but worthwhile additions to both. Wow. Brownie Brown developed one amazing game, and Square Enix has produced a shining gem among what many are saying is an otherwise mediocre line-up of games…(that is, I’m told many gamers are jaded and do not appreciate games like FFX-2 or FFTA). I should like to see a more critical review of Sword of Mana, but I shall not be the one to write it. This game has sold me over, and I am proud to say I experienced more than one sleepless night playing this game on my GameCube’s GBA adapter with surround sound speakers to enjoy the fine fine music.
If you don’t own a Game Boy Advance, I truly believe this game alone warrants the purchase: and with plenty more remakes of classic RPGs already released or soon on their way, you will find yourself quickly soaking in the soothing hot tub of reminiscence, drenched in the sunlight of video game nostalgia. Get yourself a job and purchase this game. I can offer you no better advice.