Children Of A Lesser God.
One last thing before I rev my engines, I never played Secret of Mana; I never played Sword of Mana; I never played any Mana game before this one, so I won’t be making any comparisons. Sorry.
Story: When you turn on your DS you’re treated to a lovely animated video sequence, showing the main characters and world of the game. After its conclusion, you are immediately asked to choose from 1 of 4 characters and name that character. There’s a boy character, Ferrick; a girl named Tamber; Poppin – not exactly sure what he is – but he’s cute; and lastly there’s Wanderer, a fat orange cat in musketeer garb.
Without trying to be too brief, let me sum up: There’s a great tremor. There’s an evil fellow determined to release all of the world’s mana, creating total destruction. And there is, of course, a hero who must save the world. The story may not be terribly original, but for a portable game it moves along nicely, accompanied by clever dialogue.
Gameplay: I read the reviews before buying it, and going against my instincts I bought it anyway. Most complaints about the game were that the gameplay was repetitive, and I can’t say that that is totally untrue. But I think it comes down to a matter of taste. Personally, I thought the approach was enjoyable, but the execution left plenty to be desired.
Let me try and break the gameplay down for you. It’s a dungeon crawler. But then, you probably already knew that. However, it’s not simply a button masher – though there is plenty of that too. There’s actually a system of variables in place that make the experience quite fun and interesting. For starters, weapons – that you purchase or find – can only be used after your character reaches a certain level (or sometimes cannot be used by that character at all), so there’s a healthy braking system that the game maintains to ensure that gameplay doesn’t become overly easy. There’s also the gem system: Your character has a gem frame, and throughout the game you can place various gems – that you find or purchase – in it to enhance certain combat abilities or character stats. Additionally, there’s a vendor in the main village that will periodically expand the size of your gem frame, allowing you to hold more gems; they can also fuse gems together, making new, more powerful ones.
Eventually, your character will have four weapons: a sword, bow, flail and a hammer. You can assign one weapon to the X-button, and one to the A-button. You can also make quick changes by using the R-button to cycle through your equipped weapons. It’s a great system that works flawlessly. Similarly, you can carry healing items, which can also be chosen or changed by cycling through each using the L-button.
Going back to the weapons, each offers two specific functions. Each weapon has a basic attack, which can be performed by tapping on its assigned button (X or A). But each weapon also offers a unique action. For the sword, you can create a defensive shield – which will deflect projectiles such as arrows – by holding down the attack button; for the bow – when you hold down the attack button – you create music that sooths the surrounding savage beasts; the hammer and flail too each have their own unique powers.
One last interesting detail I’d like to point out is the spirit factor. There are 9 spirits that preside in the Mana Village, and you can choose one, anytime you’re in the village, to accompany you into a dungeon. Each one offers two distinct functions (similar to the aforementioned weapons): you can summon the spirit and let them attack nearby monsters for you, or you can summon the spirit and engage it; in which case the spirit will offer some effect to your character (healing, add fire damage to your weapon, cure ailments, etc.).
There are perhaps a few other notable elements in the game that I may have overlooked, but suffice it to say Children of Mana (CoM) has enough little bits & pieces thrown in to keep gameplay fun & interesting.
CoM seems to have a pretty predictable formula working:
1. Talk to some people / spirits in the village.
2. Leave the village, entering the world map. From there you choose your destination.
3. Your destination? A dungeon.
4. Kill monsters in a particular “zone” (level) of the dungeon; get Gleam Drop; bring it to the Gleam Well; advance to the next zone.
5. After a certain number of zones are completed: boss battle.
6. As the now-old saying goes, “rinse and repeat.”
It’s not a bad system. I actually found it to be quite addictive. There’s a fun factor here – for players, like me, who enjoy this type of game – that’s undeniable. But I still want to present you with as objective an opinion as I can offer, and that is to say that the game still lacks in many key areas.
The character sprites are yesteryear, and in my opinion don’t belong on the DS. They would be nothing special on the GBA, and on the DS they’re even less acceptable. “But isn’t that a question of graphics?” you might say. Yes, but it also has a very significant effect on the gameplay. How? Well, the character’s movements were very archaic-feeling. Like most GBA sprites, your character cannot move and attack at the same time, so he / she has to be stationary – if only for a moment – while attacking. Also, moving diagonally is very difficult and imprecise.
That’s it? Nope, there’s more. Saving: not only would this game be tedious on a home console, but on a system that’s meant for gaming on the go CoM does so little to accommodate players’ gaming schedules. You can only save after every 3 or 4 completed zones. That’s about 30-45 minutes a pop at least. Beside the fact that the very nature of the game can become boring after only a short time, most folks don’t want to be tethered to their DSes for that long a period per stint.
Lastly, if you die and want to restart, say right before a boss battle (you just saved your game before), you’ll have to shut off your DS and restart it. See, when you die the game sends you back to your village. That’s cool, but you can’t load your save file except from the start screen, which you can only get to by…you guessed it, turning off your DS and restarting.
Graphics: As with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, I am forced to go against popular opinion, and say that the graphics in CoM ain’t all that. Now there are some very beautiful aspects to the game, and I intend to give them their due. The short animated movie sequences – gorgeous. The character stills during conversations – beautiful and stylized. Some of the backgrounds, before entering dungeons, are potential works of art. But in the areas where it counts the most, CoM falls terribly flat. Going back once again to the character sprites, they have very little discernable facial characteristics, and the sprites animate very sparsely overall. If you put these sprites against the sprites of Tales of Phantasia – a GBA game, for those of you not familiar – Phantasia wins hands down. I know many of you love your 2D, and that’s fine. But pretty is pretty, and CoM isn’t pretty. The dungeons are very basic, and again, when compared to a GBA game – like for instance Spryo: Season of Flame (which also has more attractive character sprites, in my opinion) – there’s not a lot there to distinguish CoM as something that belongs on the DS.
Sound: I’m actually going to make two separate categories for sound and music…this game has forced my hand. But I can sum up the game’s sound effects by simply saying if you’ve played a GBA RPG, you’ve probably heard these (or similar) sounds before.
Music: The crown jewel of Children of Mana is without a doubt its music. No other DS title has, thus far, come close. Each and every theme is wonderfully composed and arranged. The developers even had the decency to fade in and out of the various themes – something, that when missing, is quite a pet peeve of mine. The choice of instrument sounds are really tasteful, and it is surprising just how warm and clear the output of the music is on the DS. Kudos!
Presentation: You can tell Nintendo was steering this ship by the beautiful instruction manual included with the game. No one else seems to put such care into little details like that. But the booklet is not just beautiful, it also contains everything you need to know to get you going on your way. In-game options are equally attractive and easy to navigate. However, again, going back to the save and load options, those things should have been better implemented.
Who is this game for? Well, I thought it was for me. I got it to tide me over `til the release of Final Fantasy III, but as fate would have it it turned out to be a bit of a letdown. To be honest, I can’t say I recommend getting it, but I wouldn’t recommend not getting it either. If you can, try it before you buy it. You might enjoy the old-school GBA feel of the game, and there are definitely plenty of generally-good gaming elements present in CoM. As for me, that ship has sailed.
Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!
Presentation / 6.5
Lovely instruction booklet and in-game menu options, but those save & load issues sink the presentation like a heavy stone.
Graphics / 6.5
Some very impressive character stills; the animations are exciting; and some backgrounds are real beauties. But where it counts the most – the character sprites and dungeons – Children of Mana does not distinguish itself as a DS game.
Sound / 6.5
Was CoM originally intended as a GBA game? (Rhetorical device)
Music / 10
Truly gorgeous! It’s really quite baffling how this music was matched with the rest of what makes up the game. Oh well… The themes are beautiful and varied, and the instrumentation matches the game’s feel & concept wonderfully.
Gameplay / 7.5
There’s a lot of good stuff there. But it’s also a dungeon crawler, and that’s not a dish everyone finds delight in. So, beware.
Overall / 7 (Not bad at all, but not my cup of tea.)