IGN Review of Children of Mana
If you were to compile all the top 100 lists of best all-time games and shove them together, Secret of Mana for the Super NES would undoubtedly make the list. In fact, for diehard Nintendo fans, Secret of Mana is simply legendary, fitting into the ranks of games like Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger as one of the top role-playing games of all time. It's no surprise, however, that when a game comes along that continues the Mana lineage it's going to receive amazingly harsh criticism from fans and critics alike. Sword of Mana released on Game Boy Advance a few years back, and it was met with some amazingly harsh feelings, as the game changed the traditional RPG design to more of a hack 'n slash adventure that wasn't up to par in the minds of hardcore fans. Now Children of Mana has arrive on the DS, and the question on everyone's mind is whether or not this Mana title brings the glory back to franchise, or falls short of its predecessors.
Well for starters, that question really isn't fair. Does Children of Mana stack up against one of the top RPGs of all time? No, no it doesn't. Part of that reason is that Secret of Mana was a timeless classic, and has earned its right over decades of time to sit with the greats. And in all honesty, Children of Mana isn't out to trump its design inspiration. It has the look, but Children of Mana is an entirely different style of game, and for what it is, it rocks. Rather than focusing on a traditional action-RPG design, this DS evolution looks to master the world of dungeon crawling RPGs, something that some gamers will love and defend, while others curse for changing its style.
As a dungeon crawler, however, Children of Mana is a very solid adventure, and definitely the best portable rendition of the genre we've seen on a Nintendo handheld. The story puts you as the player in the role of an ambitious young hero who comes in contact with a magical sword sent down from the heavens. As the world sits in near-ruin from a mana imbalance, it's your job to traverse the lands, trouncing any evil you come across. Aside from the basic overarching story, however, the game is entirely free-form. You decide what area to explore, which side quests to take, what weapons to specialize in, and when to advance the story. In fact, Children of Mana is set up more like a dungeon crawling arcade game than a straight-laced RPG, allowing a score and letter grade for every portion of the story completed. You start out by selecting your race of character (each with their own balance of hit points, magic points, dexterity, and mind), and shortly are offered your choice of spirit. Each spirit works as your magic attacks, and is attached to a single element. At any point in the adventure, however, you can switch between spirits, so experimenting to find your favorite style will become one of many ways create your own individual character.
Once your hero is created, you'll begin conquering dungeons, finding new items and weapons, and finishing story (or non-story) objectives. If you're into only the main adventure, the quest will lay out in a traditional linear fashion. For completion freaks, however, there's Dud Services, a freelance agency located in the main village that sells quests, rewarding players with rare items or a ton of cash when successfully completed. Depending on your level and game progression, more and more freelance opportunities will open up, though whenever one is completed, another instantly takes its place. These missions can range from finding a specific item, killing a certain enemy, or clearing out areas around the world. In the end, however, it'll result in finding the right area and completing the necessary amount of levels within the dungeon. We would have liked to see a bit more diversity in the subquests, but Dud Services still allows for a ton of extra adventuring and powering up at any time in the game.
On top of the story progression, Children of Mana also has a ton of personal customization that you can devote to your character which helps to add a ton of depth to the game. Aside from the basic weapons and armor upgrades - limited to certain players by class and level requirements - players can also use gems to power up certain aspects of their character. At the beginning of the game you'll receive a gem frame which is essentially a 2X2 shell that can house any number of gem types. Gems can be used to upgrade stats or add onto weapon combos, and can be found in sizes ranging from one block of usage to the full four spaces in the gem frame.
Of course the game's one-dimensional theme of traveling, killing, leveling up, and repeating will eventually wear thin, which is where the multiplayer modes come into play. Rather than having specific dungeons or areas that can be played with friends, Children of Mana opens the entire game up for multiplayer, allowing a total of four players to link up and go through the full span of the single player storyline together. This is where a ton of Children of Mana's replay value stems, as the dungeon crawler seems to be made for four player battling.
While the game's entertainment value goes up in leaps and bounds during multiplayer, there are still a few annoying aspects though. For starters, the game has a tiny amount of lag when running multiple characters in the same areas, and the drop in frame-rate can be a pain. As another minor gripe, there's no ability to share items once they are picked up, though experience is divided to any hero that attacked a defeated enemy which is a nice touch. Magic abilities will also work on any nearby units, so if a player activates healing magic, they can simultaneously heal all three of their team members if the group is close enough together. As a final addition to a wishlist for any potential sequel, the game's combat hinges on knocking enemies down, though with multiple players swinging away at baddies it can be very easy to send an ally crashing to the floor by carelessly bashing enemies into them. It doesn't take off health, but it can be annoying at times and is definitely something that has to be worked around. All in all, however, multiplayer is amazing fun and a definite high point to the package.
In a game that relies so heavily on a specific and somewhat niche design, the product can run the risk of having the novelty of battle wear thin. In Children of Mana, however, whenever we felt the constant battle was starting to dry up, the scenery changed, and that's something that is definite a testament to amazing presentation. For starters, the game is simply beautiful, and aside from a few more low-frame animations here and there, it feels like you're traversing a painting. The beautiful art style from previous Mana games is spot on, and the evolution from area to area is definitely a sight for sore eyes after hours of dungeon crawling in the same area. Likewise, the effects animations are solid, giving off a great polished feel to the overall production. On the audio front, Children of Mana is pretty stunning as well, splitting up the gameplay with deep and intriguing score, also helping to keep the game fresh throughout. Acting as the cherry on top of an already impressive package, full 2D animated cut-scenes break into the main gameplay, highlighting the intro story and pivotal parts of the continuing adventure. Children of Mana is simply beautiful on both an audio and visual scale, and our complaints are minor.
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