LOS ANGELES--Square Enix announced a whole slew of games at their pre-E3 press conference, including two new games in their World of Mana universe, one of which is Children of Mana for the Nintendo DS. This new handheld game continues the story of the Tree of Mana, the sacred sword, the goddess newly born, and all the rest of that deliciously vague-storyline jazz.
The demo on display here revolves around three different characters, only one of which is playable at any given time. Ferrik is a young man, while Popper and Tumble both appear to be young women. We didn't get any idea of the differences between these characters because they were all at level one, but we presume that they'll eventually evolve into different specializations as they progress through the game. The demo revolves around the quest to free a character named Tess from the Tower of Mana, where she's been trapped.
Although the game is being developed by Square Enix, it's, surprisingly, being published by Nintendo of America. It's fitting, then, that the Zelda influence is alive and well when you play Children of Mana for the first time. Although you do level up and gain experience and all that good stuff, the action here revolves around swinging your sword and your flail and knocking dudes around in real-time battles, just like in Zelda. Square seems to have done a good job of varying the gameplay, though, as you're capable of performing a number of unique actions.
For instance, if you get attacked by archers, you can hold down the attack button for your sword. Doing so will cause a force field to grow up around your character, which will reflect the bows that are coming your way back to the archers that attempt to shoot you. Each of the weapons have some kind of alternate function like this, and although you can only use two of the four weapons at a time, you can choose which ones are available by mapping them to the X and Y buttons. In addition to the sword, there's a bow, a hammer, and a really handy flail that hits everything around it when you swing it over your head.
The combat at this point feels pretty natural, and some of the mechanics result in a fun experience. Primary among these is the bounce-back effect. When you hit an enemy, it'll bounce backward most of the time (or at least when you hit it with the flail). It'll take extra damage if it hits a wall, in which case it'll bounce off the wall again, for more damage. They can also bounce around against each other, resulting in some really fun chaotic bouncing-enemy cascades, especially when you hit multiple enmies with the flail.
Magical summons are also available in Children of Mana. When you have enough magic, you can summon one of your magical helpers, at which point you can either run into it to absorb its power for a short period of time (which results in a variety of effects, like healing, curing-status effects, or extra weapon damage) or simply run away and let it explode. Doing so will let it deal an extreme amount of damage to any nearby enemies.
If you're intent on dealing more damage with your weapons, you can also activate a fury mode after taking part in combat for a while. While in this mode, you'll deal extra damage and attack a bit quicker, but your fury meter will be constantly dropping. When it bottoms out, you'll have to kill more dudes to build it up again before you can reactivate your overdrive.
At the end of the four-level demo, we got our first taste of a boss fight, in the form of a huge, phoenix-like flying bird. We got our first glimpse of the game's anime cutscenes here; after we discovered that the bird was unkillable, a cartoon showing a sword descending from the skies played on both the top and bottom screen, resulting in a kind of tall-screen effect, since the movie was stretched up and down. These cutscenes were custom-made for the game, though, so they look quite attractive.
All in all, Children of Mana is looking like a high-quality action RPG for the Nintendo DS. The game is scheduled to be released in the fourth quarter of this year, so we'll have more details on the title as they become available.