Sword of Mana - Staff Retroview  

Something Old, Something New
by Mike Moehnke

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Very Easy
Less than 20 Hours
+ Feels like an amalgam of Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3
- Uninteresting and silly story
+ Lots of variety in combat choices
- Secondary characters are useless and braindead
+ Plenty of replay incentive
- Lack of Quick-Save is annoying
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   Back when Square and Nintendo had finally made up for their lengthy spat over the lack of RPG's on Nintendo systems for many years, wholly new games were not a high priority. Existing franchises saw new installments quickly created to take advantage of Nintendo platforms' ability to host them again, and Brownie Brown was enlisted to create Sword of Mana in this phase. Some of its staff members had experience in Final Fantasy Adventure, the game that Sword was based off. These staff members also had experience with the follow-ups in the Mana series, and attempted to inject many of the enjoyable characteristics created after the original Seiken Densetsu into its remake. In some ways the undertaking was successful, but it does not quite reach the heights that this series was once known for.

   The reuse of many sprites from Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3 shows what an intentional throwback this game was intended to be. Most of the sprites have a slightly different color palette, but they are very obviously the same enemy sprites from the earlier games. The heroine's sprite is also very obviously the same as Angela's from Seiken Densetsu 3, and such wholesale 'borrowing' from the past cannot be construed as a favorable graphical flourish. Most of the graphics look fine, and the character art is new, but copying and pasting large quantities of the graphics from older games is a trifle too lazy to be looked on favorably.

   Combat is superficially similar to that in earlier Mana entries, with the male or female protagonist moving from screen to screen and engaging enemies that pop up to gain experience and money. There is no charge time for weapons to hit full strength, and this allows for much button-mashing. There are a total of nine different weapons in Sword of Mana, though the heroine cannot use the sword and the hero cannot use the rod. These nine weapon types belong to three different attack methods, and most enemies are more vulnerable to one attack method or weapon type.

   Unlike the SNES entries in the Mana series, there is only one other character fighting alongside the chosen protagonist. This character changes according to plot machinations, and is unable to change weapons or switch magic spells. Such inferiority to the protagonist is made even more apparent because of the lousy AI the secondary character is governed by. Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3 had startlingly good AI for the characters not currently under player control, but that quality has been lost, and Sword of Mana's characters love to get stuck on obstacles and/or be beaten to death by enemies.

This boss sprite doesn This boss sprite doesn't look familiar in the slightest.

   Magic has been also been changed from the SNES series games. Depending upon the current weapon equipped, the magic spell changes. Using the spear will produce two lines of magic energy that travel in front and back of the protagonist, while using the bow creates a magical attack that looks just like the bow's physical attack. Aside from their elemental affiliations, magic attacks are identical in function and appearance. Each element has two uses: an aid spell and an attack spell. The single biggest problem with this magic setup is that magical attacks can no longer be targeted with precision and that the caster can be hit while using magic. Aiming is the same with magic as it is with weapons, and thus many magical attacks will miss. The fact that casters can be knocked out of casting their spell means that often the magic points will be often be used without anything happening, which is somewhat annoying.

   Upon gaining enough experience to go up a level, the words 'LVL UP' appear over the main character's head. Nothing will actually happen until the player goes into the menu and selects the new option 'Level Up,' however. By choosing this option some direction as to which statistics go up is available, as well as access to the class system. This class system is completely unexplained within the game, and looking at outside information is mandatory if one wants to not be completely blindsided by the classes unlocked, because there is no going back once a class change occurs. Aside from having a few too many sub-menus inside the series' venerable Ring, everything else works well.

   Weapons and armor are not bought, but they can be upgraded via a forging system that is accessible from a Hot House that can be entered into at several locations around the game world. The forging system is somewhat annoying thanks to every material, not only the ingredients which are applicable to the current item, being displayed every time. The weapons increase in effectiveness with constant use regardless of whether they are forged, but forging increases their potency much faster.

How does a Rabite move, anyway?  Is it like a slug? How does a Rabite move, anyway? Is it like a slug?

   The only truly challenging aspect of Sword of Mana is its refusal to cater to the handheld format. Lacking any form of quick save is quite vexing when exploring some of its fairly large environments. To remove any problems that might stem from lack of magic, there is an ability to recharge magic points, provided no enemies are able to attack while doing so. Enemies are not very strong (with one exception, an adversary that reflects the high attack strength of the protagonist back) and tend to die quickly. Bosses are similarly easy to defeat, and their low hit point totals make the process very quick. The game will probably require somewhere between 12 and 20 hours to complete depending upon how many fetch quests one wishes to complete for townsfolk, and how much grinding is done.

   Music has been a strong point of the Mana games, and it continues to be so in this one. The original Seiken Densetsu's soundtrack comprises the base for this enhanced effort by Kenji Ito, and the results are quite pleasing to the ear. The audio quality is unfortunately let down a bit by the Game Boy Advance's terrible speakers.

   As to the story of Sword of Mana, it is a mess. The beginning is standard enough, with evil people wrecking the cozy home life of the chosen protagonist and forcing him/her to flee. What starts as mediocre becomes laughable when seemingly every antagonist has oh-so-sad reasons to be choosing the path of opposition, when characters appear out of nowhere, and when the dialogue repeats itself with the same weary clichés. Choosing the male or the female protagonist does change the story significantly, which at least enhances replay value.

   Despite the many issues Sword of Mana has, it manages to feel like the heyday of the series in combat. Its recycling of elements from previous games means that the game will be instantly familiar to fans of other Mana titles, and enjoyable on that basis. Enjoyment will be tempered by the many irritations the game possesses, but not enough to stop it from being fun.

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