Heroes of Mana is not the first Nintendo DS game to employ PC-style real-time strategy mechanics, but it's the first one to do it so thoroughly. There's a solid basis for a game in here, wrapped up with a terrific and sensible interface that RTS newcomers will pick up quickly. Veterans will also appreciate its simplicity and versatility. However, it can be a frequent disaster, drowning its lofty aspirations in a deluge of appalling unit pathfinding. The bizarre and unbalanced multiplayer setup will also turn off anyone looking to experience it with a friend. You may find some fun here and there, but the game tries its best to hide it from you.
Of course, this is a Mana game, so even though the gameplay is nothing like previous games in the series, fans will still enjoy the references and familiar creatures. Rabites and the elemental spirits alike have a role to play, so if you were worried about the new gameplay direction, you can at least hold onto them. The story isn't particularly engaging, but it's pleasant enough. It sends your rebel adventurers down a bleak path, only to gradually restore hope to them when all seems lost. While the narrative is fine, the frequency with which it intrudes upon gameplay is annoying. You'll have to tap your way through dialogue multiple times in each mission, which is a reminder of the series' role-playing roots, but it's a frequent frustration and a blow to the game's already inconsistent pace.
As in most RTS games, you need to collect resources (in this instance, gaia stones and treant fruit) and create structures to churn out battle units. Your base is a mobile airship, so it can move about the battlefield, but it must be fastened to an anchor point on the map to produce units and collect resources. Rather than buildings placed on the map proper, structures are contained within your base itself. Once you have enough stone, you simply enter your ship and choose the structure you want to build. Once the upgrade is complete, all you have to do is select the structure and choose which units you want to create, and then they pop right out.
These traditional mechanics are held together nicely by an intuitive interface that makes it easy to create units and move about the map. Gameplay takes place on the touch screen, so giving an order is as simple as touching a unit and choosing a destination. You can also issue group orders, either by tapping an icon at the bottom of the screen that chooses all similar units or by drawing a circle around the units you want to command. Getting around the map is likewise a breeze. You can use the D pad for free-form scrolling, but Heroes' best feature is its screen flipping. Tapping an icon swaps the top screen's minimap with the touch screen's gameplay map. You can then choose a destination on the minimap and swap the main map back onto the touch screen to give orders. This system makes it simple to order units around and to move quickly to skirmishes in progress.
But if issuing commands is quick and easy, getting your units to go where you ask is almost impossible. Heroes of Mana features the worst, most broken system of unit pathfinding ever devised. The map is actually a grid that comprises invisible squares, so units don't move freely toward their destination; they take an insane route based on what squares are available at the time the command is issued. The resulting stupidity may induce tears. If you build enough units at once, they will all crowd around your base until you give them an order, which keeps your gatherer units from returning resources. If a nearby square is already occupied when you issue a command, the unit will brainlessly take a route that sends it to the far reaches of the map, directly into enemy territory. To make it even worse, many of the maps have ramps, walkways, and other features that ground units must traverse to reach their objective. On those maps, you'll watch in agony as groups of units scatter, get stuck, or simply go nowhere because the game is incapable of finding a way to get them there.
Other development miscalculations also take their toll. In each battle, you choose a number of hero units to lead the way. Yet even with the various loot and spells you can equip them with, they're incredibly vulnerable. More often than not, you'll simply keep them out of the action, lest you lose the one that ends your mission. Pace is also a major factor, because units move…so…slowly. Yet other design elements are obviously designed to keep things moving. Resource nodes have very little for you to gather, forcing you to spread out quickly, and missions can be completed within 20 minutes or so. Therefore, the tempo feels really off; it's as if developer Brownie Brown decided to extend the game's length by slowing the units down.
Nevertheless, as shoddy as these elements are, Heroes of Mana has some nice things going for it. The balance between ranged, ground, air, and heavy units is simple but solid, so you should always be able to counter any given attack with the right unit. Elemental spirits, which let you unleash imposing assaults on your unsuspecting foes, are nice supplements, as are the accompanying cutscenes. The production values are terrific too. Maps and units are colorful, while the touch screen is often overflowing with the explosions of battle, as well as the clockwork movement of gatherers. The sound effects are fine, if a bit tinny, but the soundtrack is lovely and the perfect complement to the fantasy visuals.
In addition to the campaign, you can take on a friend locally, provided that he or she has a copy of the game. This is your chance to play as the Peddan army, Heroes' second faction. As you can guess, playing against a buddy is more fun than playing against the artificial intelligence, but it's too bad that the basic multiplayer design is completely moronic. Both players are required to unlock heroes, units, structures, and maps in the campaign before they can be accessed in multiplayer. This ties your multiplayer tech tree to your progress in the single-player game, which means that unless both you and your opponent have completed the campaign, the match will be totally lopsided. Not only does it limit your map and unit choices, but it annihilates the most important element inherent to RTS multiplayer: balance.
You may occasionally find yourself enjoying Heroes of Mana in spite of its shortcomings. At the very least, it confirms that RTS works on the DS. Sadly, vital aspects of its strategy gameplay are deeply flawed, which leaves you wondering what could have been if these major issues had been corrected. It's a step in the right direction, but it's a tiny, tiny step.