Before the seeds were sown for the World of Mana project in 2005, Mana fans suffered for years from the gaming drought brought upon their beloved series. The last of the main titles, Seiken Densetsu 3, was never released in North America. Legend of Mana was only a brief interlude in 2000 since it was a non-canon game disparate from the main series. This all means that the 1993 classic, Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2), was the last time North American RPGamers got to play a true Mana game. However, the seeds planted in 2005 have brought a bountiful harvest of new Mana titles that popped up on the PS2, the DS, and even on mobile phones. It's safe to say that the drought is now over. More importantly, the fourteen year wait for the next numbered entry into the series will finally end when Dawn of Mana (a.k.a. Seiken Densetsu 4) hits store shelves just in time for summer.
"All that's missing from this game is the confirmation of dancing shopkeepers; you can't have a Mana game without dancing shopkeepers, that's blasphemy."
Although Dawn of Mana is the fourth game in the series, it isn't a sequel to its predecessors. Rather it's a prequel detailing the origins of Mana -- the mystical power of magic, and the Mana Tree -- source of all life. The game is set during a time prior to human knowledge of magic and takes place on the continent of Fa'Diel. The continent is populated by five nations, each with their own corresponding theme: Jadd, land of sand; Topple, land of water; Ishe, land of fire; Wendell, land of green; and Lorimar, land of ice. The tiny island of Illusia lies in the middle of the ocean and is said to be a holy place where the Mana Tree now lies dormant and turned to stone. The island is rumored to be protected by an ancient guardian beast and tales of this beast have scared all travelers out of their plans to ever visit the island. But unbeknownst to them, people are living there and, in fact, Illusia is where this adventure begins.
The story chronicles the lives of our youthful hero, Keldy, an outsider/orphan raised by the village elder on Illusia, and his childhood friend Ritzia, a maiden of the Great Tree. Their world is shaken when Stroud, the king of Lorimar, invades Illusia. His sole intention is to harness the dark powers sealed away in Mavolia, a hidden realm that lies beneath the Great Tree. In doing this, he succeeds only in unleashing a great evil unto the world -- the entity Thanatos. In order to save Fa'Diel from total destruction, it's up to Keldy to journey out into the world and stop this evil by wielding the sacred sword.
Dawn of Mana promises to stay true to Mana lore and just might be the ultimate adventure into the mythical realm of rabites, mushroom people, and flying white dragons. Many Mana fans will be delighted to know that several past characters will be making a comeback; Watts the blacksmith and Flammie the white dragon are just a few of those returning characters. The eight elemental spirits (Undine, Salamander, Jinn, Gnome, Dryad, Shade, Luna, and Wisp) will also return with a more prominent role this time around. Not only will they offer their powers to aid the hero, but they will narrate the story as it moves from chapter to chapter. All that's missing from this game is the confirmation of dancing shopkeepers; you can't have a Mana game without dancing shopkeepers, that's blasphemy. On the flipside, joining the ranks along with the veteran cast are newcomers Faye -- a friendly Fairy than joins Keldy in his quest, and Lekius -- A skilled archer and a buddy to Keldy and Ritzia.
As for the gameplay, the series has taken quite a new approach; Dawn of Mana is in fact the first full three-dimensional Mana game and plays similarly to Kingdom Hearts 2. Players can make Keldy run, jump, and slash away at enemies in real time. But the fun doesn't stop there, for the game utilizes the physics-based Havok engine to create a highly interactive environment. During battle, players can push/knock objects such as boulders or barrels into enemies. They can even launch enemies into one another using Keldy's vine-whip. Speaking of weapons, players will have three to choose from: a sword, a whip, and a slingshot. However, Mana fans may be disappointed to hear that forging and access to a wider selection of weapons will not be included in this installment of the Mana series. Dawn of Mana is primarily a solo journey but multiplayer adventures are not impossible. A second player can join up by controlling Faye.
The strategy in the game is all about getting enemies into a "panic state" in which they'll be temporarily vulnerable. You can tell if an enemy is in a panic state if they have a number counting down over their heads. The purpose of this is not only to have an easier time defeating enemies but also to reap better recovery items, status bonuses, and key items. This is especially important since there is literally no inventory and gamers will have to heal HP and replenish Mana via instant restorative items on the fly. The higher the number above an enemy's head, the better items the enemies will yield; moreover, if you see the number turn into a crown it means the best possible drop is guaranteed. If players defeat enemies without making them panic, players will not receive the proper items which may be necessary to progress in the game. You can make enemies panic by either shooting them with pebbles from the slingshot or launching an object/another smaller enemy into the target enemy.
The game progresses through chaptered scenarios and at the end of each chapter the game will evaluate your performance based on time, number of enemies defeated, and many other factors. The benefit of achieving a higher ranking is well worth it as you'll unlock special items that can only be attained this way. There is one downside to the chapter style of storytelling: at the beginning of each new chapter, players will have to start at level one. Whether this is bad or not will be subjective from player to player; for some it may add a new element of difficulty since Dawn of Mana is, generally speaking, a fairly easy game.
The musical score is sure to appeal to RPGamers and music enthusiasts alike, since Kenji Ito and Ryuichi Sakamoto team up to bring a truly engaging aural experience. RPGamers may remember Kenji Ito from the very first Seiken Densetu, as well as the Romancing SaGa and SaGa Frontier series. Ryuichi Sakamoto, a recipient of both a Grammy and an Academy Award, adds a bit of a mainstream flavor to the soundtrack with his eclectic sound. The soundtrack exudes a plethora of emotion; it's a non-stop ride from blood-pumping battle music to eerie dungeon crawling themes. The soundtrack is most definitely one of the game's strongest points.
Graphics-wise, Dawn of Mana isn't too shabby; it certainly isn't stellar but we all know graphics don't make or break games...right? The anime style and bright, cheery colors are what Mana games are all about, but there are also shadowy dungeons and despairing plot twists for all of you who want a little bit of the dark side.
If you're looking for something to play over the summer or just a long-time fan of the Mana series, why not snag a copy of Dawn of Mana for the PlayStation 2 when it ships to retailers on May 22, 2007.