Children of Mana Review
Secret of Meh
As the first title in a new branch of the Mana series, Children of Mana is a fairly disappointing way to start a story. Though the game features an entertaining, if shallow, combat system and some interesting customization options, the plot is so basic and devoid of character as to be grating. The addition of an enjoyable multiplayer mode and some above-average visuals and music do go some way towards redeeming the game, but in the end, Children of Mana is a short, somewhat boring title without much to recommend it.
The combat system of Children of Mana feels closest to that of Sword of Mana, with its use of timing-based elemental magic effects and hack-and-slash swordplay. Players have four unique weapons to play with, each with its own abilities and unique Fury attack, and between this and the character customization available through the Gem system, combat has a reasonable level of variety. The real problem lies with the dungeon design. Each dungeon consists of a series of floors, in which the player must locate both a Gleamwell and a Gleamdrop in order to proceed. Dungeons central to the story are reasonably well designed, if entirely too straightforward, but dungeons accessed through the game’s multitude of sidequests are randomly generated. Although the game does a reasonably good job of avoiding the hallmark monotony of such dungeons, ten or more floors of this is more than enough to induce boredom.
Children of Mana does include a multiplayer option, which is by far the best way to play. Though the plot doesn’t change regardless of how many people are playing, instead merely following the storyline of whoever is designated as the leader, the balance of competition and cooperation inherent in the combat system makes multiplayer far more enjoyable than the single player mode. The focus on multiplayer in Children of Mana represents a complete 180 from the most recent entries in the series, as both Legend of Mana and Sword of Mana featured little or no multiplayer at all. This focus does damage the game a bit, as Children of Mana will be far less appealing to gamers who aren’t able to get a party together.
Unlike many DS games, Children of Mana largely foregoes the use of a touch-screen interface, using it exclusively for menus. Touch-screen use is optional in every instance, and there are only one or two points in which it’s actually more comfortable to use. Overall, the control is solid and responsive, with the only real problem being a lack of accuracy with certain weapons, particularly when used to deactivate traps.
The game’s soundtrack, largely by composer Kenji Ito, is one of the high points. Children of Mana sounds most like Sword of Mana, unsurprising given that Mr. Ito also composed that OST, but the game’s use of strings harkens back to Yoko Shimomura’s work on Legend of Mana. The sound effects are largely solid, though they do have some problems with sound quality. The voice acting, which is limited to grunts and shouts, is especially problematic and plagued by static.
The Mana series has always had a very solid base when it comes to story, though it rarely follows through on it. The Tree, incarnation of the Goddess and sustainer of life, and the Sword, protector of the tree and of the cycle of death and rebirth upon which the series is built, are very basic and powerful symbols that could be the building blocks of a solid mythology. Unfortunately, for most of the series, the stories have been largely unimpressive. Children of Mana does not deviate from this trend.
Children of Mana features four interchangeable protagonists, each with nearly identical storylines. The plot itself tells of a time in which the power of Mana flowed out of control and threatened to destroy the world. However, the story is so lightweight as to be nonexistent, serving mainly as a means to get the player’s chosen protagonist from one dungeon to the next. Characters are poorly developed, if at all, and lack depth and backstory. The game slaps an “of Mana” label on far too many of its plot elements, and by relying so heavily on titles without any real basis or explanation as to what they mean, the game stretches the symbolism of the Mana games to its breaking point. In the end, the story of Children of Mana marks a poor start for Square Enix’s new World of Mana series.
Though Children of Mana’s overall visual style is similar to the watercolor painting look of Legend of Mana, the character sprites look decidedly similar to those of Sword of Mana. The two elements mesh better than one might think, although the occasional stutter and flicker in animation does cause a bit of concern. Thankfully, the game’s infrequent but gorgeous cel animation cinemas are exempt from these problems, as they add a great deal to the game’s character.
At only 15 to 25 hours to complete, Children of Mana is a very short game, and although multiple protagonists do offer some incentive for replaying, there aren’t really enough differences between them to make it worthwhile. Also, with an abundance of healing items and the ease of leveling up, the game’s difficulty level is very low. Children of Mana does feature a huge number of sidequests, but with such unimpressive rewards for finishing them, it isn’t likely to matter very much how many actually get completed.
The history of the Mana series is one of less than fully realized potential. The underlying concepts of death and rebirth, the symbolism of the Tree and the Sword, and its history of strong multiplayer give the Mana series an amazingly strong base to work with, yet game designers don’t seem to know quite where to take it. Children of Mana does reasonably well with the combat side of things, but in doing so, it abandons the story to pointlessness. Ultimately, Children of Mana will appeal to gamers looking for some quick, painless, hack-and-slash multiplayer, but as a harbinger as what the World of Mana might bring, it may be a reason for some concern.