Dawn of Mana Review
Sunset of Mana
Dawn of Mana is a game with a unique hook. By introducing semi-lifelike physics into a fantasy environment, it allows players to manipulate parts of the landscape, using everything from crates and barrels to boulders and, in some areas, even the walls themselves as weapons. The vine rope on the right arm of Keldy, the game’s hero, can be used to latch onto and swing around objects, which can then be flung at enemies to create openings in their defenses through panic and confusion. Unfortunately, either due to sloppy planning or a simple lack of familiarity with the Havok physics engine, Dawn of Mana is so lacking in interface as to ruin most any enjoyment of the game. Some of the game’s many problems include a frustrating and argumentative camera, unhelpful and occasionally misleading cues from the in-game radar, and a hero with such featherweight, haphazard controls as to make simply navigating the game’s stages without accidentally falling off a cliff a significant challenge. The game does have some interesting ideas and presents some of the most gorgeous visuals and solid music in recent memory, but the somewhat lackluster plot, counter-intuitive leveling system, and mind-numbingly dense interface make it hard to play, let alone recommend.
The story of Dawn of Mana centers mostly around the relationship between Ritzia, a Maiden charged with tending the Tree of Mana, and Keldy, her Knight, protector, and friend. Their idyllic life on Illusia, where the great Tree has slept for millennia, is cut short by an invasion by the Golem army of Lorimar, a desert nation with designs on the Tree itself. What follows is not quite the “winding tale of hope and despair” the game promises, with most of the plot points being fairly predictable and the overall effect being generally unimpressive. While the story does occasionally delve into the idea of cyclical death and rebirth that forms the basis of most of the Mana series, Keldy spends the vast majority of the game chasing after Ritzia as she is repeatedly kidnapped, with not much actual screen time given to the deeper mysteries of the series. Dawn of Mana does a slightly better job than some recent entries in the series of capitalizing on the symbolism of the Sword, the Tree, and the Goddess of Mana, but by and large, it bypasses deeper meaning for a somewhat trite tale of boy chases girl. There are a number of juicy plot threads left hanging at the end of the game, and there is a general lack of closure to the story. Overall, while the story is a very slight uptick from Children of Mana, it is far too shallow and lacks any real revelation, especially given that it was advertised as the beginning of the Mana mythos.
Dawn of Mana‘s combat system works on a fairly simple action RPG base, spiced up with the use of the Havok physics engine. The game tends to throw reasonably-sized hordes of monsters at the player, many of whom would be a decent match for Keldy in a one-on-one match. To even things up a bit, Keldy can lasso objects and heave them into the midst of enemy formations, inducing panic and leaving his foes vulnerable for a set period of time. While this is an interesting idea, Dawn of Mana relies on it to the point of exclusion. Even in major boss fights, a player need have no further tactical plan than “throw something heavy at it.” Late in the game, where decent throwing objects are a bit rare, this becomes “throw someONE heavy at it”, but the general idea remains the same. There are areas where the combat system provides amusement, as players can, with a little bit of luck, set off long chains of chaos and destruction, lobbing heavy boulders into sets of enemies like so many bowling balls. These kinds of moments are too few and far between, especially given that the combat system doesn’t have much else going for it.
The part of the combat system that will sting most heavily to many gamers is the way that it handles leveling and stat management. To increase his statistics and improve his abilities, Keldy needs to collect Medals, which are acquired by whacking panicked foes. These medals boost Strength, Magic, and Max HP and MP, eventually granting access to more spells, and allowing Keldy to lasso and move heavier objects and enemies. However, Keldy’s stats and abilities are reset to their base level at the beginning of each new chapter. A major part of each chapter is devoted to re-acquiring Keldy’s collection of abilities, a task which becomes a chore by the end of the game. Given that players will be gaining and regaining the exact same set of skills over and over throughout the course of the game, this method of forced level-building comes off as excessively Draconian. The game does reward players for collecting high numbers of Medals and reaching certain milestones with Emblems, which grant minor but permanent stat increases, which would be a far more viable means of reward if Emblems were less expensive or difficult to acquire. As it stands, players are unlikely to collect more than a handful of Emblems by the end of the game. Between the high requirements for acquiring Emblems and the fact that the game obviously expects players to replay the main plot multiple times in order to get better Emblems, most of their actual impact on gameplay is moot. In the end, while the concept of character reset does tie in rather well with the theme of death and rebirth that the Mana series has always had, it feels so arbitrary and has such a negative impact on gameplay that it is hard to justify its use.
Player control and basic camera work are two areas where Dawn of Mana fails utterly. Basic control of Keldy can be a trial by fire, as his physics seem so lightweight as to be ridiculous. Controlling Keldy during extended platforming sessions is often a matter of pure luck, as the character floats almost uncontrollably through the air, the camera shifting treacherously as Keldy reaches the edge of it’s current field of view. The camera is frequently Keldy’s worst enemy, with sudden and frequent shifts in perspective that make it incredibly difficult to navigate safely or accurately. While the game does offer two different camera locks — one to lock onto enemies and one to lock onto objects — the method by which it selects an item to target is incomprehensible. The player can target only items very close to themselves but can then switch that target using the right Analog Stick, which has no particular range associated with it. It is quite common to accidentally target the wrong item of any that happen to be close to Keldy, and attempt to re-target only to find that Keldy is now locked on to something all the way across the room, or in extreme cases, in a completely different room. The final clinching error with target locks is that they do not direct a player’s attacks toward the target. They are quite solid for directing the camera based on the target’s movement, but attempting to aim while the camera swings around after the target is an exercise in futility. Furthermore, certain parts of the game make the lack of proper stage planning brutally obvious, as enemies will occasionally panic themselves in the act of knocking over objects which they are meant to be ambushing players from behind. Dawn of Mana offers a radar of sorts and general direction arrows for the player to follow, which are helpful if not always believable, as they often lead players to locked doors whose corresponding keys are still leagues away. Given the huge size of areas and the often complex requirements for reaching certain areas, the guides offered are entirely inadequate. In the end, the control system Dawn of Mana uses is hideously inaccurate, erratic, and makes even basic navigation entirely too difficult.
This kind of poor camera work is a genuine tragedy, given the excellent state of Dawn of Mana‘s visuals. The game’s character design is a complex, organic affair, with character alignment shown in subtle details. For example, each member of the Mana Tribe has their own plant talisman, which is worked into their costume design — the arc of wood and tangle of vines in Keldy’s vegetable weaponry is mirrored in the knotwork in his costume and the flare of the feathers in his hair, while the twist and hue of Ritzia’s dress mirrors the white flower talisman she carries. Conversely, the mechanical foes of Lorimar’s Golem army are made up of sharp angles and brassy colors, with even human enemies showing a high degree of inorganic design elements. Despite its three-dimensional foundation, the game uses a visual style which should be very familiar to fans of the series — it resembles nothing so much as a polygonal expansion of the painted backdrops of Legend of Mana, even going so far as to use the same pastel greens and neon purples in many areas. The game does occasionally switch between slightly more realistic CGI for cinema sequences, but these are fairly few, outnumbered even by the brief watercolor cut-out sequences which are told from the perspective of the Spirits that are occasionally used to cover gaps in the story. The sudden shifts in visual style caused by the different modes of storytelling is occasionally bothersome, but it doesn’t result in any widespread degradation of the visual style. In the end, Dawn of Mana‘s visual style is highly impressive, a curiosity given how incomplete and poorly thought out the rest of the game feels.
Similarly, Dawn of Mana has a very strong style in its sound. Most of the game uses a strongly orchestral style, but there are also callbacks to songs from earlier Mana games, including a number of remixes of tracks that are used in the Battle Arena. The soundtrack fits nicely with the rest of the game, and although the music is somewhat less upbeat than it has been in earlier incarnations, the only real flaw is that the constant noise of battle often drowns it out. The voice acting is exceptional, and although the accents of some characters and the turn of phrase of certain lines do occasionally come off as corny, the voices fit amazingly well.
Dawn of Mana features two initially selectable difficulty levels — Easy and Normal — with the further two modes of Hard and Ultimate being unlocked by completing the game under lower settings, a reasonably easy task given the abundance of things and people to throw around. Given that the player is expected to replay the game several times in order to acquire Emblems and Pet Eggs for use in the game’s arena bouts, its length is fairly short, coming out to around 20 to 30 hours for a single playthrough.
Given what Dawn of Mana promises, the game itself is a significant disappointment. With a tactically basic combat system marred by some of the worst control in recent memory and a downright villainous camera, backed up by a story that presents a fairly basic take on the theme of Mana, some of the most important parts of the game are hopelessly muddled and nearly impossible to use. The game does have some wonderful presentation in visuals and sound, and while it is clear that somewhere buried under the manifold problems there is a game to be enjoyed, Dawn of Mana‘s negatives far outweigh its positives. In the end, while the game might appeal to die-hard series fans, there just isn’t much here to make slogging through the game worthwhile.