Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: May 22, 2007
When you ask someone about the best game on the Super Nintendo, you'll instantly get a few stock answers: one of the Final Fantasy titles or the classic Super Metroid. However, there is a small but dedicated group who will answer, without hesitation, Secret of Mana. Even those who don't agree that it is the best will have almost universal praise for the classic SNES game, which blended Zelda-like quests with Final Fantasy-like RPG elements, and even included excellent multiplayer gameplay, being one of the few SNES titles that supported the Super Nintendo Multitap.
After Secret, however, the Mana titles took a wildly diverging path. Legend of Mana was a very nonlinear game with countless side-quests and a thin primary plot. It had fans but never attained the popularity of its predecessor, and from there, the franchise descended into mediocrity with Sword of Mana and Children of Mana. So is Dawn of Mana the game that redeems the franchise? Unfortunately, instead of making progress, the series has taken a few steps back. Square Enix has surely done better work in the past.
The plot is so thin as to be nonexistent. You play as a young boy named Keldy, who is an orphan in a magical village dedicated to guarding the Mana tree. When an evil empire attacks to get the power hidden under the village, Keldy ends up contracted as the "bearer of the seed," so he gets a Mana seed implanted in his right arm, which turns it into a mass of green vines. Naturally, it is up to him to defend the world from the evil empire, the evil emperor, and other clichéd evil things. It's difficult to care about Keldy, who is as bland as RPG protagonists come, or any of the other characters, who feel more like cardboard cut-outs than actual NPCs.
Perhaps this weak plot could be forgiven if the gameplay were up to snuff, but nothing could be further from the truth. Using a modified version of the Kingdom Hearts engine, Dawn of Mana somehow manages to do everything wrong. After getting the seed, Keldy gains the ability to use the vines on his arm in three different ways, the first of which is morphing them into a sword. The sword functions quite simply: pound the Square button, and watch whatever you hit take damage. The same stock combos are repeated over and over, and there is a total of one special move which is neither impressive to watch nor useful in battle. You can't even perform air combo attacks. You can block attacks and use the sword to knock objects forward, but the awkward gameplay makes this too frustrating to be of any real use.
The second thing you can do with the vines is turn them into a makeshift slingshot, which is the only method that works fairly well — and naturally, the thing you'll need to use the least. The slingshot's basic ammo, pebbles, come in infinite amounts, but is incredibly weak. There is very little reason to use them, since the damage they do is negligible, and rarely are enemies out of the reach of your blade. The only thing to do with the slingshot is use Elemental Ammo. Unlike the previous Mana titles, you can't summon Elemental Spirits in Dawn; instead, you are granted a limited amount of Elemental Ammo, which comes in a variety of flavors, but basically stun a number of enemies and instantly send them into a state of panic. Sadly, this ammo is rare, so you can't use it often.
The third object you have is not directly related to your vine-arm but takes the form of a tiny fairy sidekick, Faye. For the most part, Faye just exists to give Keldy someone to talk to, but she also happens to be the source of the magic you use. Magic is done at the press of a button and consists almost entirely of support spells, such as healing and damage reduction. There is a single "attack" spell that allows Keldy to perform a special attack, but it is so heavy on MP usage as to make it almost worthless. Most of the spells are not worth the time, and the only one that really stands out is Healing Light. See, Dawn of Mana has no items menu so you can't buy items or store anything for boss fights, and the only thing you've got to heal damage is Healing Light. Thus, except for a few useful attack buffs against certain enemies, the only worthwhile way to spend your MP is conserving it, in case you need the desperate last-minute heal.
The item you're going to use most is the whip, which is so flawed that it's almost unplayable. Every area in the game is filled to the brim with movable objects, such as boulders, logs, and barrels; the whip is able to grab onto those objects (or enemies) and toss them around to scare enemies, so using the whip effectively is key. The only useful thing you can really do is bash these objects into enemies, but getting the objects to go where you want is nearly impossible. Aiming an object with the whip is difficult — you "throw" by pressing in a direction and hitting the whip button again. It feels almost entirely up to luck to see if the object will go where you want. Sometimes it will barely move off the ground, and other times it will go flying at mach 5 directly into your character's head, sending him flying and causing you to lose the item.
The flaws of the whip aside, there are two reasons for the difficulty of moving objects. One is the completely bizarre physics system that Dawn of Mana uses. Most objects are apparently as light as balloons; logs and boulders move around as if they are made of air, and they don't move in logical ways. Assuming you actually throw something, it may bounce, slide across the ground, stay still, or act in completely insane ways. This even goes for your protagonist, who appears to be made entirely of paper. Any strong blow will send him flying, as if a freight train had slammed into him. This is annoying enough when you're in battle, but when you get hit off-screen by a bouncing boulder and go flying down a mountain to the beginning of a level, you might just be tempted to break a controller. The only things in the game to have any sense of weight are the enemies, naturally, so sending them flying and making your life easier isn't an option.
The other reason for the difficulty of moving objects comes from the camera, which is one of the worst in recent memory. Most of the time, the camera is almost right over Keldy's shoulder, making it difficult to see anything except the things immediately in front of him. Moving the camera isn't much better, as the manual control is hair-tearingly slow, making it almost worthless for combat, while the auto-center must be used so often it can cause one to become motion sick just from watching the camera spin around wildly.
The game does offer two different auto-targeting options, but neither works particularly well. One button auto-locks onto enemies, but you're better off never ever using this because it doesn't lock onto the nearest enemy but just onto something "onscreen," even if an enemy is just to the left of you and slightly off-screen. That means, quite often, you'll lock on to a Rabbite behind two stone walls while a Goblin pounds you from just off-screen, forcing you to struggle with the camera once again. The second option allows you to lock onto environmental objects, and this one works slightly better. While you can easily lock onto objects for whip usage, picking the correct object takes more time than it should, rending this combat option almost worthless.
If the physics engine is so bad, you may be wondering why the developers bothered to use it. You don't get experience points in the usual way in Dawn of Mana. Instead, each enemy in the game drops items that boost your stats — some boost HP, some boost MP, and others boost attack power. However, enemies only drop these items if they are panicked when you hit them. Causing an enemy to panic requires using the environment on them, so tossing an object (or another enemy) into an enemy is of utmost importance. Their level of panic is indicated by a set of yellow numbers above their heads, ranging from zero to 99; the higher the number, the more they panic. A golden crown on an enemy's head is equivalent to a panic number of 100. Hitting enemies while they're panicking quickly lowers their panic number, so the best thing to do is get them to a high number before going to town on them.
The panic system wouldn't be frustrating except for a particular aspect of the game. At the end of each chapter, you lose all of your levels. You read that correctly. At the beginning of every single stage, you have to start fresh, while the enemies retain their power. So at every single stage, you have to farm your levels back up to snuff. This alone is annoying, but it's made significantly worse by the fact that your abilities are linked to your level. For example, you don't get Healing Light until your magic is back up to level two, and your whip is unable to pick up many enemies until your attack stat levels back up. It isn't challenging, just annoying, especially when enemies start to get really powerful.
There is one system that exists to alleviate this difficulty by giving you items called emblems. Between two and five emblems can be equipped at a time, ranging in effects from "slight boost to attack" to "halve MP consumption." The difficulty is in getting these emblems, which can be earned or purchased. Earning them is almost out of the question for 70% of the emblems because it requires completing a significant amount of the game while consistently attaining an S-rank. It's a difficult task for the best of gamers, and it's almost impossible for the rest of us, thanks to the terrible gameplay in Dawn of Mana. The cost of emblems is obscene, and in order to have enough money to purchase these items, you have to do an exorbitant amount of cash farming. Don't expect to see any but the simplest of emblems unless you put a lot of time into the game.
Even the graphics in Dawn of Mana manage to not quite succeed. The basic character models are excellent and do a great job of bringing the charming Mana art into three dimensions. However, that is about the best that can be said about the graphics. The levels themselves look fine but lack any sort of interesting design or memorable segments. There are a few segments that shine, but they are buried under tons of mediocrity. The horrible physics render many segments almost laughable, as the weightless building material that makes up a bridge falls apart or otherwise acts in completely asinine ways. The only bright spot is the cut scenes, which are well animated, full of life, and worth watching at least once — even if the story is dull.
The soundtrack to Dawn of Mana contains some memorable songs and is generally inoffensive. Those who are looking to hear the music might be better off buying the soundtrack instead of playing the game. Sadly, the voice acting is yet another low point. While many of the characters have bland, inoffensive and heartless voices, there are a few — like Faye — who have loud, squeaky voices that beg me to put the game on mute. The only voices that particularly stand out are those of the Elemental Spirits, each of which has his/her own distinct accent, ranging from the Scottish Gnome to the "top o' the mornin' to ye" Irish-speaking Dryad, to the Dark Spirit Shade, who rather unsurprisingly speaks like a reject from Dracula.
I wish I could find a nice way to end this review. I spent a long time trying to think of the positives of Dawn of Mana, but they are few and far between. It is almost impossible to recommend a game like this, as there are many titles out there that do what Dawn does, only significantly better. Nothing in the game works right, the physics are embarrassing, the gameplay is repetitive and boring, and the only bright spot is the cut scenes, which are simply nice window dressing for a shockingly boring plot. On the bright side, the Mana series has nowhere to go but up from here.
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