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Stew of Mana
By: Michael Beckett
Nostalgia as a force for game sales has been proven time and time again. Sword of Mana is clearly aimed at gamers who played and enjoyed the earlier Mana titles, possibly even those who were disappointed by the changes Legend of Mana made from the usual formula. Sword of Mana feels very much like an amalgam of pieces of the earlier - or rather, Sword of Mana being a remake of Seiken Densetsu 1, later - Mana games. This will go some way towards masking some of the basic flaws in the design for those gamers with fond memories of games such as Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3.
However, nostalgia to one side, there are a number of problems with Sword of Mana that need to be addressed. For a start, the menu system. While the ring menu is a skillful attempt to bring back memories of Secret of Mana - they even use some of the same sound effects - the lack of shortcuts and the overuse of categorized items means that entering the menu to use an item or change ally AI repeatedly can be something of a trial. On the other hand, the use of shortcut buttons for spells, and having the length of the button press determine the form of the magic used was a good idea. The use of visual and aural cues to show when the spell goes from support to attack was a very necessary way of making the system accessible to those of us with less of a sense of timing.
Choice and certain aspects of non-linearality have always been hallmarks of the Seiken Densetsu series. In Sword of Mana, the player is afforded not only the choice of two main characters - a warrior and mage, respectively - but a choice of six different stat increases, the correct combination of which will allow for class changes. These changes lead to a grand total of seven basic, fourteen secondary and twenty-eight final classes. The amount of replay value shown in this game is amazing, and the effect all these possible variations have on combat is equally impressive. With all these possibilities, it's a pity that one solitary aspect of combat can ruin it to such a degree. Namely the AI. Your allies' actions in combat are ruled by what section of the AI grid you place them on; this grid tells them whether to attack with weapons or magic, to advance or retreat. However, past a certain point the differences in placement become less and less obvious. It seems that in the end the player is left with few choices; the NPC can advance and attack continuously, or retreat behind the player and cast magic - something many NPCs cannot do. For a game that places so much value on player decisions, and given the amazing combat possibilities that Sword of Mana's poor AI thwarts, this really is not good enough. A two-player mode would have gone a long, long way towards remedying this problem, but much to the dismay of Secret of Mana fans everywhere, such a mode was not included. This decision is quite inexplicable. Why, if the director was trying to induce nostalgia by referencing and emulating other Mana games, would he choose to omit the very aspects of these games that brought about those fond memories?
Given the history of the Seiken Densetsu series, Sword of Mana was set up to be an aural feast. Both Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura have lent their considerable talents to this series, with great results. With Sword of Mana, Kenji Ito has produced a solid soundtrack with a feel reminiscent of the other Seiken Densetsu titles. There are a few standout tracks, but overall the tracks all feel very similar. This does help maintain a sense of continuity within the game, but depending on musical taste, this may or may not present a source of irritation to the player.
The story of Sword of Mana is that of a stereotypical 16 bit RPG. A young orphan rises up through oppressive beginnings to gain a cadre of close allies who, through the Power of Friendship, eventually Save the World. Sword of Mana does very little to evade the most commonly used RPG clichés, but given that the main purpose of the game, it appears, was to induce nostalgia, this is hardly surprising.
Localization can be largely a matter of taste. Some gamers prefer a more modern, lighthearted approach, peppering conversations with jokes and oblique pop-culture references, while others would prefer a simple, straightforward translation. Sword of Mana's translation does a decent job of being serious when necessary and humorous when possible, but the attempt at humor tends to sneak into even the most serious of situations. Phrases such as "Darn it!" sneak into conversations where "Darn" really doesn't carry the weight that a well placed curse would. The point is that making a game accessible shouldn't come at the cost of a powerful story, as it does in Sword of Mana.
Given a huge amount of classes, customizable weapons, and two very different main characters to choose from, Sword of Mana has a bounty of reasons to replay it. On top of this, blessedly simplified versions of the Tempering and Farming systems found in Legend of Mana have been included. Even for a game based on the idea of player choice as all Mana games are, the gameplay of Sword of Mana is impressively open, and even though the game itself lasts only fifteen to twenty hours, it represents a very good value for thirty-odd dollars.
The visual style of Sword of Mana feels like an amalgam of the other Mana games, a sort of beautiful Frankenstein's monster. Sword of Mana uses the watercolor pastels and backdrops of Legend of Mana, the top-down view of Secret of Mana, and some of the character design of both Seiken Densetsu 3 and, of course, Seiken Densetsu. The end result is a surprisingly cohesive style, and one that works well not only for the GBA, but for the series in general. It represents a forward-looking attitude without losing respect for what made the series popular in the first place. What prevents Sword of Mana from receiving a higher score in visuals is the frighteningly common appearance of graphic errors such as lagging and breakup.
Sword of Mana works very well as both a remake and as a new title in the Seiken Densetsu series. However, its flaws are not something that should be ignored, and can detract seriously from enjoyment of this game. So, if you're looking for something to bring back fond memories of a gaming era gone by, or if you want an action RPG with a lot of visual flare and aural style, Sword of Mana would be a good choice. On the other hand, if you want complexity in combat and depth in storytelling, or have never played Secret of Mana, perhaps it's best to steer clear.
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