Heroes of Mana - Staff Review  

Being a Hero is Tough
by Majed "lost_keeper" Athab

Nintendo DS
Moderate to Very Difficult
14-40 Hours

Click here for scoring definitions 

    It seems like an invisible curse has been cast upon the World of Mana. The first title released in the new series, Children of Mana, was met with sharp criticism back in 2006. History was also not so kind to Dawn of Mana, which took quite a beating from the gaming press. However, now is the time for Heroes of Mana, a real-time strategy game unlike its action-RPG brethren. As the most recent installment into the World of Mana, it remains as the last bastion of hope for the series. Does the Mana Goddess bless this game, or do the forces of darkness continue their hex?

    First off, Heroes of Mana is the story of the Nightswan crew, a regiment in the Peddan army tasked to investigate invasion rumors concerning the neighboring nation of Ferolia. The crew sets off on a reconnaissance mission on their ship, the Nightswan, while betrayal and deceit among the Peddan ranks shortly follows. Finding out that they've been used as a decoy for Pedda's own invasion plans, Roget and the crew eventually end up on the other side of the war for world dominance. With a plot revolving around a world war, Heroes of Mana tries to emulate a story of grand proportions; however, the game fails to achieve this level of grandeur. It is too short and, consequently, moves the narrative along at an awkwardly strenuous pace. This means that the story tries to tell too much all at one time, often not flowing logically and ignoring character development in place of plot points that feel trite and uninspired. Characters are certainly lively though, and have unique personalities; however, they usually fit stereotypical roles and are not something that hasn't been seen before. Out of the eleven playable characters, probably only Roget, the lead character, and Yurchael, the captain of the Nightswan, have strong, well-developed characters. On a plus side though, there are some interesting character nods to Seiken Densetsu 3. The revelation of Hawkeye's mysterious origins is a perfect example of this.

    The story is told through episodic chapters, whereby each chapter has a specific mission to accomplish. Before moving on to the next chapter, players will have some resting time on the world map where several menu options will help them in preparation for the next mission. Players can enter the equipment menu and equip their heroes with stat-boosting armor as well as elemental spirits that give the ability to cast magic. Characters do not level up during the course of the game, hence, equipping characters properly is an essential part of the strategy. Players can also take a look at the data they've collected on units, places, and people, as well as their records and scores for all previously completed missions. They can also change the game options and save their progress. The last option available continues the story and throws players into the next mission.

Flashy and tough
Like the game, Baxilios is gorgeously stylish yet devastatingly brutal.

    Missions pit players in the middle of army versus army battles that play out in real-time. The DS stylus controls most aspects of battling as it's used to move units and assign commands. Click on a unit and then point at a destination to move, or point at an enemy for an attack. Players can command units individually, by type, or by drawing a circle around all targeted units. The shoulder buttons spin the camera angle of the battlefield. Holding down the 'B' button speeds up the battle tempo and also helps fast-forward story events. The battlefields come in various sizes and are rendered in full 3D with raised, sunken, and submerged terrain. The varied terrain is not just there for aesthetic value but more importantly for its strategic value. Airborne units can fly over pits, mountains, and water bodies to reach destinations that land units can't normally reach; aquatic units move faster in the water but are really slow on land. Unit types follow a rock-paper-scissors strategy with one unit type strong against another type, yet weak versus another. For example, missile units are strong against flying units, but are weak when facing ground units. These units are all created from structures within the Nightswan, a large mobile fortress that stays on the battlefield and act as home base.

    To create combat units, players will have to send gatherers to collect Gaia stones and Treant berries. The Gaia stones are used to build structures; each structure is dedicated to producing one type of unit. Once a structure is completed, the Treant berries will be used to summon beasts for the army. Players can only have up to 25 units on the battlefield at one time. Roget, the crew, and the characters that join them are all known as leader units and are not summoned but chosen at the beginning of each battle. Leader units give unique bonuses to all units that are near them.

    The objective of each mission varies from defeating the enemy leader, to gathering enough resources for the use of a special weapon. Conceptually, this whole set up is simple and a perfect fit for the DS, anything more complex would only overwhelm the already congested battlefields displayed on the tiny screens. It is, however, only conceptually perfect because the game is actually overrun with a lot of gameplay issues.

    The biggest issues concerning gameplay revolve around pathfinding and the computer AI. Due to the rigid invisible grid that battlefields are set on, there is no diagonal movement. This causes units to move around other units and take longer routes that result in inefficient maneuvering and dangerous consequences. Combine this with small screens and little room for units to breathe, getting one unit from point A to point B can be frustrating at times. Sometimes, units will just stand in place doing nothing if their path is blocked. Even if the field is not congested, the flaws in the computer AI and pathfinding are evident. A simple command like making a unit attack can be extremely frustrating, as more often than not, units won't directly go towards the enemy, but will circle around them taking unnecessary hits along the way. Also, a moving unit is difficult to hit as setting an attack is not based on what unit to attack, but rather the space that the unit was occupying; once that unit moves out of that space, players will have to manually follow the target as their attacking units will not automatically follow. Most of the time, units will also disobey commands, attacking other units when not wanted and not attacking when commanded. There may even be instances where a unit will become stuck going back and forth in an 'L' shape around a large rock in the battlefield instead of attacking the nearby enemy.

    Other complaints are raised with the summoning of benevodons, powerful spirits that do massive elemental damage to all enemy units. To summon benevodons, players will have to build an altar in the Nightswan using Gaia stones. Unfortunately, these altars require a sizable amount of Gaia stones, usually more than what is available for harvest. This means to say that these benevodons will hardly ever be used, which is even more annoying considering that these summons come with beautiful CG animations. It's a rare treat that will hardly ever be appreciated. Another big gripe is that there is no way to go back and replay missions without having to start from the beginning again. Also, the game lacks the benefit of a pause option that will stop all real-time play, giving players free time to issue their commands. While many would argue that this would make the game too easy, it would only compensate for the horrible pathfinding AI and give time for players to assess the battlefield and plan accordingly. This would be especially good for those RPGamers who might not be too familiar with playing RTS games. Some good points about the gameplay stem from the item system. Searching the map may garner hidden equipment that can be put on once the mission is over. More equipment is attainted depending on a player's rank after a mission. The best feature of the battle system is the save option which allows players to save at any time during the mission, and will allow them to start exactly where they left off.

Try, try again Unfortunately, "starting over many times" is a strong theme in this game.

    Overall, Heroes of Mana can be quite a difficult game depending on a gamer's prowess in the RTS genre. RTS vets shouldn't have too much of a problem and could easily blaze through the game in less than ten hours. Less seasoned players might have more difficulty and may spend double that time replaying failed missions while developing their tactics. Some missions, especially the first eight, will be very easy as the game slowly introduces new tutorials on different gameplay aspects and commands. In fact, in the first eight missions, Yurchael will give clues pertaining to the enemy's weaknesses. Despite all this, the biggest concern about difficulty is not the game settings, but rather it's the difficulty in overcoming the flawed game mechanics. Once a player understands and adjusts to how the game thinks, the game can become easy and even somewhat enjoyable.

    With all the negativity Heroes of Mana has to offer, it does have some high points. The visual quality is very good, especially for the DS. Anime intro cut scenes are beautiful, though a little pixilated. More cut scenes will be uncovered, but not until chapters 20 and above. The two ending cut scenes are long, stunning, and worth all the trouble getting to them. The music is great and it's something that makes those difficult battles feel less like a hassle. Yoko Shimomura's score is fitting and enchanting. It is also somewhat reminiscent of Hitoshi Sakimoto's music for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Bonus maps are a good addition that extends the game's replay value. These bonus maps are unlocked as the player advances through the main story as well as by completing previously unlocked bonus maps, then uploading the results for "Heroes Rankings" on the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. A player that uploads their score will not only unlock new maps but can also win items depending on their score.

    Although the game has major flaws, they can be worked around if given time, patience, and hard work. The biggest problem with Heroes of Mana is that it is confused with what it wants to be: it's an epic story sold short and a simple RTS made painfully difficult. Unfortunately, Heroes of Mana fails to break the dreaded curse. The powers of Mana continue to wane, leaving the future of the series in a very bleak position.

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