Sword of Mana GBA Review

Any game bearing the pedigree of the Mana series automatically has a lot to live up to. Can this new instalment of the massively renowned series live up to its heritage? Read on…

Graphics

Gameplay is shown from a 2d perspective reminiscent of Legend of Zelda, which works well for the cute visuals of the game. A great deal of motion and detail, including swaying grass and moving water, inject a real sense of a breathing alternate world into the game, and do wonders for the various locations. Speech is conducted through text bubbles that display a portrait of the character you are talking to; this is a bit disappointing, as each town will invariably have about five identical citizens wandering around.

There are some great environments rendered here, particularly the outdoor locales that are quite outstanding to behold. However, a strange implementation of the day/night cycle has been used; as you move between one screen and the next, the cycle will progress slightly further. This means that just by wandering between screens you can rapidly scroll through a day; similarly, the transition between sunset and night is very marked, and comes as a bit of a surprise when it was noon not so long ago. The fact that some locations can only be accessed at certain times of day make this a bit fiddly but easy to maipulate; simply walking back and forth between two screens will spin the day forward to the required time. This does not appear to happen outside of dungeons, however. Interestingly, the different times of day will also affect who you will meet in different places which adds a breath of fresh air to the gameplay.

Gameplay

The evil tyrant Dark Lord is looking to destroy all of the followers of the Mana Goddess and those that practice her divine powers, and only you can rise to the challenge to stop him…

Anyone think that introduction sounds a bit tired? Get used to it now, as you’re really not going to see a lot new here. You can play as either the game’s “hero” or “heroine”, with the stories neatly intertwining to let you in on all of the events that take place. Battle takes place in real-time, and areas in which you can fight are marked by the drawing of your sword/bow/flail. Enemies constantly respawn once you have killed all of them in an area, so levelling up is pretty easy. Weapons can be upgraded through regular use as well as using fruit specially grown in a cactus “hot house” to boost them at a blacksmith. Spells can be collected in the form of small spirits much like Camelot’s Golden Sun; each offers both a support and an offensive form of magic to add greater depth to the gameplay. Levelling up is typical RPG fare; you gather EXP by killing enemies which is shared between you and any partners that accompany you, and once you have accumulated enough you can choose an attribute to boost. These range from Warrior, which bestows highest points to physical attack at the expense of agility and MP, and Mage which naturally does pretty much the opposite. There are plenty of intermediate classes to level up to make a more balanced character such as the excellent Thief attribute; however, if you cant decide, you can always pick the Random option. Getting a good balance is important, so some thought to this process is handy, which makes the Random choice a bit obsolete. Your support characters can also level up, but you have no say in how their points will be spent.

As well as this, your weapons are also levelled up depending on how often you use them. As some enemies can only be vanquished using certain types of attack – either slash, bash or jab – its important to work your weapons in rotation so that you can effieicntly dispose of anyone that gets in your path. However, this exposes some niggling issues with the battle system. You are rarely given any clues as to what will actually kill an enemy, which means a great deal of experimentation with your arsenal to try and find a weak spot. This means that if you meet a foe who you cannot injure with any of your weaponry, it’s a pretty good clue that you have to go and find something else before you can progress. This wouldn’t be so bad in itself; however, so little clue is usually given to what you need to kill any particular foe that you often find yourself wandering aimlessly around looking for something. This translates across to the rest of the game in general; there is a lot of wandering and fluke stumbling upon answers to be done. Very few of the dungeons bely any suggestions as to which way you must go; indeed, there is usually one small element that must be noticed in order to allow progression. Some other situations are similarly nonplussing; an excellent example of this is the very first room (an arena dungeon) for our Hero, in which you have to talk to the other occupants in order to get the next cutscene underway. There is no hint as to who to talk to, and most of the time the characters simply repeat the same things over and over. Eventually you will have to talked to everyone in the way the game wanted you to, and you will be able to progress – sadly without actually every having a clue as to how you were supposed to go about the puzzle. While this may offer no irritation to some players, for others the general vagueness of the game may annoy.

Also, there is the issue of your NPC “Support” characters. These vary throughout the game, but you generally have one other character backing you up as you explore dungeons. Please bear in mind that by saying “backing you up”, I actually mean running aimlessly into walls or bumping into indestructible foes until they are killed. This isn’t exaggeration; this really does happen in every battle scenario. While you can alter the actions of your buddy in the options screen to determine whether they focus on offensive moves or just back you up with support magic, it really doesn’t make much difference in the heat of battle; your so-called friends will repeatedly run into walls while doing very little to actually help at all. Luckily, you can switch characters mid-battle to give them a bit of a helping hand; however, this means that your lead character is resigned to the same appalling AI that your support character was, and so switching back usually results in all of your health being depleted. Thankfully, battles are relatively easily won by yourself without any real backup. Sadly, the multiplayer that made the original instalment of this series so popular does not make a comeback in the GBA offering, meaning that you are stuck with your ineffectual pals for the whole of the journey.

Theres some nice dialogue here, and Square Enix’s excellence in translating their games shines through again; unfortunately, virtually all of the dialogue is horrendously clichéd and as a result some of the humour and charm of the characters is lost. It’s always nice to see an effort to personalise characters with witty banter and slang, but hearing things like “That chick you like…” and “Drat! He got away!” begins to wear thin rapidly. People just don’t talk like that. The fact that almost every character in the game talks like this is perhaps what robs the game of any personality; this is a far cry from the defininitve (if a bit clichéd) character personality types of the Final Fantasy Series.

There are plenty of side-quests to take part in as well to take your mind off the main adventure, and the use of the Hothouse to produce fruits is an interesting idea to experiment with; you can combine any two seeds that you collect in the game to produce a fruit or veggie which you can use to either temper an existing weapon, armour or accessory or to make a new one.

The only other issue, which is relatively minor, is the layout of the menu screens; all to often the location of certain items or screens is difficult to determine, and checking some objects will require you to back out of about 5 or 6 menu “rings” before you get back to the game again. This is troublesome and messy, and not really essential. But never mind.

Sound

Some great music pieces accompany the various locations of the game in the vein of Square Enix’s other RPG titles, and these will not fail to impress fans of the back-catalogue. An irritating beeping accompanies the speech of the characters which does really grate on the ears after a while, and the lack of variation in the sounds of weaponry is a little disappointing, but other than that the sound is quite pleasing.

Lifespan

Obviously, the inclusion of two separate story strands will offer value for the replay. There is also the option to connect to another copy of the game to unlock extra features such as summons and side-quests. The main quest is also relatively long, and will certainly kill a number or hours, making this a fairly long-lived investment.

Overall

This is a competent RPG and a nice addition to the GBA’s flourishing stable, even if it doesn’t really offer any great new features to the genre. Fans of the series may be disappointed by the removal of co-operative modes and the horrendous AI, but those of you after a new RPG adventure for your handheld should give this a look. It may not be as pretty and expansive as Golden Sun, or have the interesting character development of Lunar Legend, but it is a good solid RPG that will give hours of entertainment.

8 out of 10
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