The Mana series continues with a fantastic re-telling of the game that started it all.A stunning remake of one of the first action-RPGs
Review by Daniel Bloodworth
Though many are familiar with Secret of Mana and its sequels, most are less familiar with the beginning of the series. Considered a side-story to Final Fantasy, the original game was released on the first Game Boy, titled Final Fantasy Adventure in the US and Seiken Densetsu in Japan. As the series grew, it broke off from its Final Fantasy roots, and later, much of the team responsible for the series broke off from Square and formed their own company, Brownie Brown. Now, Brownie Brown has teamed back up with Square-Enix and Nintendo to overhaul the original Mana game with better graphics and sound and to revise the story and structure to fit in better with the rest of the series.
The game opens with a progression of gorgeous paintings, telling the story of the Tree of Mana, a dark empire that used the power of Mana to dominate the world, and a group of knights who vanquished the evil leader, Vandole. Now a new threat is rising. The leader of Granz Realm is ordering that all members of the Mana Clan be either killed or captured, and two youths caught up in the fray must discover their own paths to destiny.
Sword of Mana is an action-RPG in the truest sense. Battle takes place in real-time, but there is also a strong backbone of experience points, HP, MP, and various stats. As you progress through the game, you gain a variety of weapons, including swords, bows, axes, maces, flails, lances, etc. Different enemies have different weak points, so youâ€™ll need to switch weapons frequently to discover which is most effective. In like manner, there are also various spirits that allow you to cast spells. Spirits feature both support and attack spells, which are integrated quite intuitively. Press the R button and let go quickly to cast a support spell such as cure, power-up, etc. Hold the R button until the spirit begins to circle you and release to cast an attack spell. The weapon youâ€™re currently holding also affects the trajectory of the spell being cast.
You often meet up with other characters who fight alongside you. There is a menu that lets you balance how closely the other character follows you and how he or she attacks, but the AI is still quite dim-witted at times. The NPCs will often walk right into hazards like lava, and sometimes their attacks prevent your hits from connecting. The problems donâ€™t seem to pop up until later in the game though, and by that time, youâ€™ve acquired an ample supply of revival items for when they get in over their heads. You can also press select to take direct control over the other character, but that puts your main character at the mercy of the AI.
Although it wasnâ€™t originally part of Final Fantasy Adventure, the Ring Menu System from later games has been included, for better or worse. By the end of the game, you learn to move through it very quickly. Until then, it can feel awkward, and you might not be sure where the item you just picked up might be hiding. One of our staff members has been quite frustrated at times because he keeps accidentally using the Magic Rope, which automatically brings him back to the last save point he visited, without asking him to confirm the choice first. One very helpful item in the menu is Popoiâ€™s Notebook, which collects notes on various parts of the game and catalogs each enemy youâ€™ve defeated, showing you their strengths, weaknesses, and several other attributes.
Leveling-up in Sword of Mana is a strategy in itself that can significantly alter how you play through the game. When your character levels-up, you can choose one of six categories: Warrior, Monk, Magician, Sage, Thief, or Random. Each choice raises different stats, and depending on how you level-up, you will eventually reach a specific class. From there, you progress to second and third level classes. In all, there are 24 third level classes, each with very specific benefits, including favoring certain weapons, taking items from chests with less risk of booby traps, etc. Unlike some other games with class systems, you canâ€™t switch mid-way. Once youâ€™ve gained your first class, your options after that are limited. For instance, you canâ€™t become a sorcerer after youâ€™ve started down the warrior path. Although I wouldnâ€™t suggest it for most games, it would probably be beneficial to pick up a guide or visit GameFAQs to get a good look at the class structure to decide which class you want to aim for and how to get there.
There is also a reasonably deep system for equipment and magic. You can level-up your skills with particular weapon or spirit types by using them repeatedly. Rather than having to level-up each and every specific weapon you acquire, your skill improves according to the various weapon types: swords, lances, knucks, etc. So when you get a new sword, your skill level stays the same instead of resetting all the way back to level 1. In order to get new weapons and armor, youâ€™ll need to find materials and have them forged, and you can also temper current weapons with extra materials and (for whatever nonsensical reason) different fruits or vegetables with odd names like Peach Puppy and Applesocks.
Final Fantasy Adventure fans will probably have mixed feelings about some of the changes to the game at first. Some things have not been carried over, like the Chocobot, the ability to chop down trees with the axe, and the death of the heroâ€™s cell-mate, Willy. Now Willy survives the opening scene to eventually become a side-kick for the heroine on her quest. Being able to play through the heroineâ€™s side of the story is probably the most interesting addition in Sword of Mana. I havenâ€™t played through all of her side yet, but she sees things from a different perspective, and the feature serves to flesh out the plot even more. Gameplay-wise, she goes through different paths in some of the dungeons and she starts out with a predisposition to magic, which makes it easier to explore the Magician and Sage classes.
The basic story and level progression of Final Fantasy Adventure remain mostly intact, with Sword of Mana using the original scenarios almost as an outline. Practically any character with a name is given more history and personality than before, with the hero and heroine having lengthy back-stories and more internal struggles. The story gets rather disorienting near the middle, with the hero questioning his actions more, making you feel guilty for defeating certain bosses. Eventually, things start making sense again as the gameâ€™s subtler themes are further explored.
Sword of Mana isnâ€™t a terribly lengthy or challenging game. It runs about 20 â€“ 25 hours, and players can easily ignore the subtle strategies and hack right through. Unfortunately, it could be said that many of the deeper elements are a bit too subtle, and you may miss a lot your first time. However, the game holds a lot of rewards for those who want to explore its depth. Being one of the few RPGs that actually has a strong replay value, with a second character, lots of side-quests, and various class changes to explore, itâ€™s clearly worth a purchase for fans of the series and others looking for a solid RPG.
Play again as a different character for a different take on the game.
Engaging level-up and class system
I miss riding my Chocobot and chopping down trees.
Only two save slots
Self-destructive ally AI
Graphically, the game is simply gorgeous. Bearing a style somewhat similar to Secret of Mana or Chrono Trigger, Sword of Mana features detailed backgrounds painted with a variety of colors that change as the sun sets and rises again. The animation is also quite smooth, but hampered in places by some slight technical problems and uneven screen shifting that particularly shows up when using a Game Boy Player.
Many of the memorable tunes from Final Fantasy Adventure make a return, but itâ€™s not a good thing that they sound fairly close to the original compositions on Game Boy.
Being able to cast separate spells with the same button is a treat, particularly because it keeps you out of the cluttered ring menus. The things you canâ€™t control are more of a frustration than what you can, as allies waste magic and walk head-first into danger.
Sword of Mana is a clear example of an action-RPG, mixing the two genres quite well, featuring a variety of weapons and spells, undergird with all the equipment and stats you could ask for.
One time through isnâ€™t much longer than average, but Sword of Mana is one of those few RPGs that some will want to play again as soon as they finish. There are two characters to choose from and a host of class changes that make quite a difference in how you actually play the game, not to mention a number of side quests.
Final Score (Not an average): 8.5
Sword of Mana is certainly one of the top RPGs on Game Boy Advance. It shines most in its subtleties, but unfortunately those are all too easy for many players to miss. If youâ€™re a fan of the series, Sword of Mana is certainly worth checking it out.