Dawn of Mana Hands-On
We travel back to a time before Secret of Mana, courtesy of Square Enix's upcoming action RPG.
Currently scheduled for release in North America in late May, Dawn of Mana is an action-oriented role-playing game that takes place long before the events of other games in Square Enix's Mana series. You'll assume the role of Keldric, a young warrior whose story revolves around the origins of the mana tree that has appeared as a source of magical power in previous games. Fans of the series will find plenty that's familiar in Dawn of Mana--such as comical appearances by the series' trademark spirits like Salamander, Dryad, and Gnome--but they'll also find that Keldric's abilities are quite different from those of the protagonists they've played as previously, just as we did when we had a recent opportunity to spend some quality time with a work-in-progress version of the game.
The first time you play Dawn of Mana you'll be required to battle through a tutorial level that does a good job of walking you through most of the game's basic controls. They're garden-variety for the most part, but you'll learn that using environmental objects to induce panic in enemies is all-important, and there are a number of different techniques that you can use to manipulate objects such as rocks, barrels, logs, oversized acorns, and the like. For the duration of the tutorial Keldric is armed only with a large stick, which he wields as a sword and is able to block most enemy attacks with. When in the blocking stance, you can push Havok Physics-enabled objects and enemies away from you, sending them flying or rolling across the environment toward enemies that you want to scare. You can kill enemies without bothering to scare them if you wish, but panicked enemies are not only a lot easier to hit, they're far more likely to drop medals and other items that replenish or boost your health, mana reserves, and attack power for the duration of the level. When you send an enemy into a panic, a number between 1 and 99 will appear above its head and start counting down to zero. The higher the number when you attack said enemy, the more likely you are to get good items from it. Some enemies will return to their business when their panic level hits zero, but others will be upset enough with you that they'll come after you even if you've left them alone.
Using the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons you can lock onto enemies and inanimate objects respectively, which, since you can then strafe around them, makes knocking them in the right direction a lot easier. Realistic physics make it possible to trigger some quite impressive chain reactions as objects and enemies get knocked around and bump into each other, so then the only thing you need to concern yourself with is running around and killing all of the panicked enemies before they regain their composure and launch an offensive. The enemies that we've encountered to date include mushbooms, needlebeaks, rabites, and goblins, whose attacks are every bit as as their names suggest. Of course, many of these enemies, like the rabites, will seem familiar to veterans of games like Secret of Mana, and indeed their in-game appearance here is satisfyingly consistent with that of those older titles.
Soon after beating the tutorial level you'll head inside the Great Tree and learn that, like so many video game characters before him, Keldric is "the chosen one." You won't gain godlike powers or anything, but you will get to ditch the stick that you've been using to beat enemies with, as your right arm is transformed into some kind of shrub that makes for a much more effective and versatile weapon. It's a more powerful sword, for starters, and it can also be used as a pebble-launching slingshot and tendril whip. The slingshot's projectile attacks are especially useful against flying enemies and those that you don't want to get too close to, but it's almost certainly the whip that you'll have the most fun with.
When you first learn to use the whip, its only use will be for grabbing objects or enemies at range and then throwing them forward, in much the same way that you can with the aforementioned push move. As you level up, though, things get much more interesting, and it won't be long before you're able to turn objects at the end of your whip into deadly spinning tops and yo-yos. You'll invariably find plenty of objects to manipulate in the environments that you explore, so although your route through each area appears to be linear for the most part, there are certainly plenty of opportunities for you to express yourself when dealing with the enemies that inhabit them.
Friendly spirits that you encounter on your travels will make still more moves available to you in the form of hexorbs that can be spent performing various feats of magic. Early examples include a whirlwind spell that hurls enemies into the air and a magnetic charge that draws objects and enemies toward it. When a friendly fairy named Faye joins you early in the game, you'll also be able to put her magic to good use, through spells that enhance your attributes, heal you, or make your weapons more effective for a time.
At the end of each level you'll be graded on various aspects of your performance, such as how long it took you, how many enemies you defeated, how much damage you took, and the length of your best hit combo. Achieving the very best "S" grades and completing certain objectives will unlock emblems that you can equip to boost Keldric's abilities. By finding hidden eggs and hatching them, you'll also be able to acquire pet monsters (which may or may not have practical uses) as you progress through the game. We look forward to bringing you more information on those and other aspects of the game as soon as it becomes available.
GameSpot may get a commission from retail offers.