I believe I had ordered an RPG?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Mana series ever since they appeared on recent consoles. These past games have been different compared to Heroes of Mana. In Sword of Mana, for example, there were no parties - you were a sole person on a quest home, fighting for yourself. That has been altered with this new DS game, as the main character is now part of an army, which you control with the stylus. Rather intriguing? I’d hope so.
Mini anime movies seem to be popular now in these recent DS games. A decent quality FMV opens up the game and leaves you with a smile. It gives the characters a sense of identity and movement they may not have had otherwise, seeing as this game is quite… well, I’ll get to that later. The main character's name is Roget. He is a member of the Pedan Army on a reconnaissance mission to Ferolia, because the state of Peda is concerned that Ferolia may be planning an attack. You travel on an airship called the Nightswan with various familiar stereotypes from fantasy stories or role playing games – Yurchael, the stern captain who is somewhat mysterious, Germière, the fiery female, Qucas, loveable rebel and others… including D’Kelli - this game's Slippy/Genis (if that’s lost on you, lets just say the word "annoying" for lack of a better term). It quickly becomes apparent that there is a lot more than meets the eye with the mission, as the Nightswan is shot down without warning, leaving them to discover that Roget and his fellow crew have been betrayed by Peda. So, the mission begins to stop Peda from world domination.
The first thing Yurchael gets Roget to do is find resources to help them out. There are two – Gaia, which is stone for building and Treant, which is food for troop building, so think a simple Age of Empires. And, yes – it is at this point, where you build a mini base and army in the Nightswan, that you discover - this is no RPG, this my friends, is an RTS.
I knew at the time of writing the preview that this game was an RTS, that you would build an army and lead it to victory in a series of missions. However, I knew that it would be a Mana game at its heart, and it would have some RPG elements. Well, the RPG elements are central to the items you win after every battle that upgrade stats. Stats include HP, attack power, attack rate, and attack range, all of which can be upgraded. That is the only RPG element in the game. I actually debated with my housemate as to whether or not this is an RPG more than an RTS, which sounds absolutely one-sided from what I’ve just discussed, but this game feels an awful lot to me like an RPG wrapped in RTS. The creatures that appear, mostly the little gatherer units, and also the aesthetic look of the world and leader characters in dialogue scenes, make it feel just like a Mana game. Actually, there is one more element from a Mana game I will touch on shortly, but if you’re looking for an RPG, this isn’t the game to grab. If you want a spin-off of a spin-off in Heroes of Mana as an RTS, this game delivers in that regard.
Although I haven’t played an RTS since AOE2, I like them for short periods of time but prefer RPGs and other genres. With that in mind, let me carry on gameplay from when we last left off – gathering. You discover Gaia/stone and Treant/foods, but leader units, such as Roget, are not suited to gather. So instead, you build buildings in the Nightswan. The fact that you build stuff in an air carrier is actually pretty interesting, for if your base comes under attack, you can lift off to keep safe and move to another area. After you build the first building, which is a gatherer base, you can build (wait for it) gatherers! They start off as Rabites from the Mana series - they gather your food and stone and haul them back to the Nightswan to build attacking units.
Ground, heavy, flying and missile – these are the four types of units in this game. Now, some may remember the weak/strong system from the Mana series. One weapon is stronger than another, yet is weaker to another. The system is pretty simple, and it exists in this game as well, not as weapons, but unit types. Ground units do double damage to missile units yet half damage to heavy units, which do double damage to ground units, and so on. This system is negated in quite a few circumstances. Your leader units are very strong and, with the help of any unit, can basically dismantle the majority of the groups you encounter, especially if the number is lower than yours. I find myself building a mix of a couple units and yelling "Charge!" before really assessing what kind of unit I am attacking, with good success. However, there is a ranking system in which my average is C or B with a couple of A's and S's, so perhaps a more sound strategy may be deployed by another player for a better rank. The best function of this game, at least as a beginner until you learn better ways to utilize units, is the "select units in this area" function, in which the game pauses briefly while you draw a circle/blob around the multiple units you want. After learning more about the game and how it plays, you are able to select what unit you want instantly, despite the decently sized maps. Navigating the map and discovering what icons to select does take a bit of getting used to, but it does becomes second nature and works surprisingly well. There have only been a few occasions where I have been frustrated with the controls, but what I’m more concerned about is the AI. Sometimes, a unit will automatically attack when an enemy walks by – which is what you would want. Unfortunately, there are other times when your ally unit seems oblivious to the enemy unit walking past… or even directly prior to the enemy attacking your unit. That gets annoying, and it happens just enough to mention it here.
At first look, this game looks something along the lines of an old RPG... It’s very vibrant, and displayed in 3D for the first time in the Mana series. It reminds me a lot of early PlayStation Breath of Fire games in its style; the camera movement in cut-scenes especially, but also the domain. You may prefer a crisp 2D style such as Children of Mana, which worked very well, because the 3D graphics make the characters look very similar to one another from the distance. Kingdom Hearts composer Yoko Shimomura did the music for this game, which is very, very good. Personally, music is something I don’t really pay attention to when I’m playing a game, except maybe perhaps on some subliminal level, but it is very good and reflects the fantasy world very well.
Somewhat amusingly, this game is Wi-Fi compatible and, once again, I have made a false assumption as to what this game planned to deliver. I assumed that I would be able to battle people over Wi-Fi, but alas, that is only reserved for a one-on–one, multi-card mode. Multiplayer is a nice addition, but Wi-Fi battles would be nicer and would help the lastability after the story mode has run dry. Instead, online is simply used to compare rank on bonus maps you gather throughout the game. It is a bit of a disappointment.
This game is the next part of the Mana series, unusually combined with real time strategy mechanics. For the most part, it executed well as both a Mana series game and also an RTS. To have this style of game on a handheld like the DS is unexplored territory and is quite remarkable. However, those looking for an RPG are left out in the dark. The Mana series is a spin-off of the Final Fantasy series, but this game seems like a spin-off of the Mana series also. A phrase I use a lot in real life is "it delivers what it promises," and this game certainly does that and then some. It may not be quite what I wanted (a Mana RPG), but for what it is (a spin-off RTS), it is very good.