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Review - Children of Mana (Nintendo DS)


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Release Date: 10.30.2006
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Square-Enix Co., Ltd.
Publisher: Nintendo of America, Inc.

Reviewed by Justin Fassino on 11.25.2006
Review Rating: 6/10 User Rating: 7.25/10
The legacy of the Mana franchise has been controversial ever since it debuted in North America under the guise of Secret of Mana for the SNES. Fans hold that game dear to their hearts, and measure every new entry into the series to the utmost scrutiny, looking for the next Secret of Mana in every iteration. Does Children of Mana, the first Mana outing on the DS, live up to its predecessors?

Not quite. But that's not to say that this isn't a solid game; it is, it just has some design flaws that hold it back from being absolute fun.

Let's start with what Children of Mana does right: namely, a gorgeous art style that is a joy to regard during gameplay. Sharing more in common with the look of Legend of Mana than Secret of Mana, the environments and characters are undeniably pretty. Dungeons look very nice, with trees that blow in the wind or torches that flicker. There is a wide variety of objects to look at, and even though the game is 2D, it is beautiful. Character and NPC sprites all animate fluidly, and in conjunction with the animated dungeons, everything feels lively. A great element to the graphics are the full FMV cutscenes interspersed throughout. The intro FMV is quite long, and other, shorter cinemas appear usually before or after boss fights.

The music, too, is very Legend of Mana-esque, in that the score is one of the best aspects of the game (in fact, in Children of Mana, it is the best aspect to the game). The town composition is rightfully upbeat and cheery, while dungeons, depending on if they're outdoor or indoor, vary between adventurous and menacing, respectively. The music is right up there in quality with the best audio offerings on the DS. Like everything in this game, however, there is a downside. In this case, while pleasant, the music also can get repetitive.

Where Children starts to suffer, unfortunately, is in the gameplay department. It seems as though the developers came up with some great concepts designing the game, but they failed to implement them in the right ways. For example, the magic system looks good on paper. Before setting out on a quest, you can choose one of eight elemental spirits to accompany you (with the recognizable faces of Undine, Gnome, and Dryad among them). During combat, you can hold down the B button to summon these spirits. Make contact with it, and it will grant your character a supporting attack boost or heal some HP. Leave the spirit alone, and it will unleash an attack in a radius around itself, dealing damage to enemies. The execution of this idea, however, is an almost complete failure. Because the game is so easy, and often requires nothing more than button-mashing your way through the various dungeons, the character boosts only serve to make the game easier, and are really quite superfluous. If instead you try and use the spirits as an offensive tool, well, good luck. Enemies focus all their attention on attacking your character, and since the elemental attacks are so slow, oftentimes taking upwards of five seconds to activate, most enemies are well out of range chasing you by the time the spirit unleashes its fury. This unwieldy system for using magic means that magic itself is a completely lost cause throughout the game, which in turn invalidates one of the four playable character types by virtue of the fact that his stats are skewed towards pure magic use.

Despite this flaw, the game is still fun. You'll start the game by picking one of four characters: the human male Ferrik, the human female Tamber, the human child Poppen, or the Niccolo Wanderer. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, though with the exception of Poppen, they can all be played in any way you choose. You'll select a costume color for your character, then a name (if you desire to change it), and off you go to Illusia Isle, the home of the Mana Tree.

The story isn't anything you haven't seen before, especially in the Mana series. Suffice it to say, it's a relatively simple tale about the Mana Sword and an uncontrollable flood of Mana power around the world. In typical fashion, your hero will take up the Mana Sword and set out to restore equilibrium to the world.

You'll begin the game in the Mana Village. This town serves as a hub to buy and sell equipment, take on quests, and change spirits between dungeons. From here, you'll head to different locales around the game world.

Aside from story quests, there are optional quests that the villagers may give you, or quests that you can pay money to complete, which will earn you either more money or specific items. Again, in theory, the quest system could have added a nice diversion from the simple narrative and town-dungeon-town-dungeon game progression. In practice, the bonus quests suffer from unbearable repetitiveness. The only variation in the quests is whether or not you find an item at the end of hacking your way through a dungeon you've already completed. All of this means that bonus questing gets very old, very fast, unless a rare piece of loot is at stake.

There are only two pieces of the Children of Mana puzzle that save it from being an absolute non-purchase, and that is the gem system and multiplayer.

Gems are in-game items that boost various stats or provide beneficial effects, like adding an additional 50% of experience from slain enemies. Basic gems can be found in the dungeons and equipped to a gem frame, which is a 4x4 square that gets filled in by gems. Gems take up a certain amount of space in the frame, and with better gems being larger; it's up to you to devise your own strategy for equipping them. Added to this feature is the ability to synthesize gems in town. Gems come in seven different colors, and when you mix any two gems together, you can produce rare, more powerful gems. Since the game tells you what gem will be created beforehand, you can explore, literally, hundreds of combinations.

The other portion of the fun comes in the form of local area multiplayer. Both players must have a copy of the game, and can play from beginning to end together. Adding up to three other players adds a completely new level to the game, as you'll be working together to clear dungeon floors and rack up the loot. In the same way that Phantasy Star Online is a one-dimensional game that gets boring alone and insanely fun when played in a group of other humans, Children of Mana also falls into the same category.

The only downside to multiplayer is a slight drop in the frame rate, so if that kind of thing bothers you, you may want to steer clear. Otherwise, it will begin to go unnoticed soon enough.

Comparing Children to Secret of Mana is not exactly fair, as they are two different types of games. CoM is, at its heart, purely a button-mashing dungeon hack. There isn't a lot of depth or variety here, but if you go into the game without high expectations, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised. Add one point to the score if you're a huge Mana fan and/or have people to play with, or if you like Diablo-like dungeon crawlers. Otherwise, stay away.

Box art

box art


5.9.2006 - E3 Trailer
5.9.2006 - Screenshots (7)

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