The Gameboy Advance has so many great RPGs in its library and this is one of them. Back when I first got my GBA and saw these remakes/re-releases coming out, I made sure to pick up everyone of them.
For a remake of a 12-year-old Game Boy game, Sword of Mana does a respectable job of being new and fun.
With the considerable power of the Game Boy Advance hardware, it's no surprise that remakes of classic games from the days of two dimensions have been very common on Nintendo's latest handheld. Now Square Enix has gotten into the act with Sword of Mana, a newly redone version of its original Game Boy title Final Fantasy Adventure. If you're unfamiliar with that little-known action adventure game, you might be interested to know that in Japan it was released as Seiken Densetsu, the prequel to a game for the Super NES called Secret of Mana. The new old-game is a pretty solid hack-and-slash adventure that's fun but not without its flaws. Those gamers hoping that Sword of Mana would rekindle the magic of Secret of Mana probably won't be wholly satisfied, but that doesn't mean they won't have fun with the game anyway.
Sword of Mana's storyline will seem both familiar and quaintly simplistic to veterans of 8- and 16-bit RPGs and action adventures. Malevolent forces led by the evil Prince Stroud, who's rechristened himself Dark Lord, are attempting to eliminate those citizens of the kingdom who are in tune with Mana power, the magical life force that pervades the world and all living things. It'll be up to you, playing as one of two characters, to stop Dark Lord and his allies and restore peace to the world. You'll choose your character at the outset of the game. The hero character is strong with weapons and physical attacks and is the son of a prominent politician who was murdered by Dark Lord. The heroine is a member of the Mana clan whose village was razed by Dark Lord. She is naturally stronger with magical attacks. The two characters' storylines are intertwined, and their quests follow the same general path, while varying noticeably during some specific events. Sword of Mana's story has an appealing naiveté about it that recalls the early years of video game role-playing and presents an honesty that you won't find in the multilayered complexity of more modern epics.
As you've probably guessed, the gameplay in Sword of Mana is typical of the action adventure genre, replete with weapon-hacking and spellcasting. You'll gain a wide assortment of weapons throughout the game, each of which has different attack styles and one of three attributes (slash, jab, or bash). Furthermore, you can pull off rudimentary combos with your weapons by properly timing your button presses, and your proficiency with a given weapon will level up as you use it. Your available spells are determined by the spirits you've met along the way, and each one has an offensive and defensive spell attached to it. These will also level up with use, and the spells even vary depending on which weapon you currently have equipped. Overall, there's a lot more to the combat mechanics here than you'll find in less RPG-like action adventures.
Compared to a more action-focused adventure game like The Legend of Zelda, Sword of Mana has some pretty complicated RPG elements going on behind the scenes. You level your character up by fighting enemies, and when you gain a new level you can select from several classes--like magician, thief, and sage--to improve your stats with. The right combination of class levels awards you a new title, like fighter, that subsequently affords you some slight statistical bonuses. You can also temper your weapons or forge new ones by keeping track of a really large number of extra items that are scattered throughout the game (some of which you actually have to grow yourself by combining seeds in a garden). Throw in a number of trivial side quests and you've got plenty of small diversions that take you from the main task of saving the world.
All the trappings of a good action adventure are here, but unfortunately, Sword of Mana has some problems that are glaring enough to really detract from the overall experience. For one, the combat can be really awkward and clunky. Performing three-hit combos with your weapon requires strict timing that's hard to get right every single time, even after playing the game for hours. When you actually do execute a combo properly, the blows won't always strike your enemy. Casting attack magic is also difficult since the game makes you do it in real time. Since there's a lag between your button press and the actual casting, hitting a fast-moving enemy with this attack can be maddeningly frustrating. Though you'll sometimes feel like you're wrestling with the combat model, the game itself is pretty easy, thanks to the effortlessness with which you'll level up by simply exploring new areas and looking for the next place to go. It's quite simple to level up more than is required for a given area, and it can actually be done to the point where you'll skillfully slice and dice your way through the next boss without a huge challenge.
You'll be joined in your quest, at various times, by an ally that you can switch to and play manually. If you chose not to manually play this ally, however, the game's AI will do it for you. Though you can set rudimentary parameters to govern your various teammates' behaviors, no amount of customizing will change the fact that they're just plain dumb. They get themselves killed quickly, waste magic frivolously, blindly use attacks that have no effect, and often prevent you from quickly dispatching enemies by getting in your way. Finally, the world of Sword of Mana just doesn't feel very inhabited or fleshed-out. Perhaps a bit more freedom and less linearity would have helped to resolve this problem, though it's really a matter of opinion as to whether or not this seemingly constant prodding would even bother you in the first place.
Sword of Mana is a little mixed on the presentation front. At first glance, the game looks pretty good, with sizable sprites that animate well and lush, colorful backgrounds that look like something you'd find in a latter-day Super NES game. After playing a little while, though, you'll notice a few nagging annoyances, like the occasional slowdown or tearing problem. These instances are brief but happen a little more often than they should in a game of this caliber. It would've also been nice to see a little more variety and detail, like parallax scrolling, in the backgrounds. Still, the game makes a good, solid visual effort. The sound and music are, unfortunately, pretty spartan. There are sound effects, though they usually don't sound particularly characteristic of the actions they depict, and the music is sometimes memorable but is mostly bland. The quality of the instruments in the game's music is also a little lower than you'd expect to hear on the GBA, which has produced some truly memorable tunes in other games. Nothing about Sword of Mana's visual or aural presentation is out-and-out bad, but not much of it will really reach out and grab you, either.
If you're looking for a good action adventure game to take on the road, Sword of Mana is a pretty good option. There's a ton to do, and it lasts for a respectable number of hours. Additionally, the game can be played through with both characters so you can get two reasonably different experiences. The few but annoying flaws that are present truly prevent it from induction into the growing pantheon of stellar, classic Game Boy Advance games, but for a remake of a 12-year-old Game Boy offering, Sword of Mana does a respectable job of being new and fun.