When Worlds and Genres Collide
The ever-changing World of Mana franchise has slowly shifted away from its roots with each new game released, often with mixed results. Lately, the series has strayed even further from the winning formula found in the classic 1991 Game Boy original – dubbed Final Fantasy Adventure in North America – and in Secret of Mana, released for the SNES in 1993.
Fortunately, change is not always a bad thing. With Heroes of Mana, the second entry in the series to hit the DS, developer Brownie Brown takes the franchise in an inventive new direction by dropping the hack-and-slash action-RPG elements found in Children of Mana in lieu of a real-time strategy format that offers a surprisingly good performance, despite several deficiencies.
It’s a mystery why we haven’t seen more RTS titles on the DS, since the two seem such a good fit for one another. The fact it took a game from the Mana series to finally step up to the plate is equally puzzling. Nevertheless, Heroes of Mana’s streamlined approach to the genre is easy to pick up, easy to get sucked into, and hard to put down once you’ve begun. It’s not a flawless package by any means, but there’s certainly enough depth here to give RTS fans their money’s worth.
The adventure starts out on the deck of the Nightswan, a Peddan airship piloted by Roget, the game’s main character, and his companions, during a reconnaissance mission. As soldiers of Pedda, the group is sent to Ferolia under false pretense to investigate rumors of a brewing invasion by the beast people who live there. After their ship is blown out of the sky by the enemy and abandoned by its carrier, the heroes learn Pedda is secretly initiating a full-scale war against all other kingdoms in the land. It also turns out the mission was actually a ruse to have the group eliminated. The number of atrocities committed by the Peddan army rise, and Roget has no choice but to turn against his countrymen. The heroes face an uphill struggle to launch a resistance against their ruler’s quest for domination. From there, the story progresses over the course of an intense 27 mission campaign which will send Roget and his friends to the farthest reaches of the realm.
In-between missions, and occasionally right in the middle of them, the epic story plays out through a combination of cutscenes, character portrait dialogue, and scenery stills overlaid with text. The art direction is top-quality, and the beautifully rendered backgrounds enhance the atmosphere significantly. The game’s soundtrack is also appropriately varied and well executed. The music ranges from orchestral pieces to what sounds pretty darn close to power metal, and it changes depending on the conditions on the battlefield. If a major hero becomes direly wounded the music will shift to a more urgent tune to signify the seriousness of the situation.
Preparation for each chapter begins on the world map where players can see their current location, equip their units with items found in battle, or save their progress. Those who truly wish to delve deeper into the game’s mythos will appreciate a helpful memo feature that provides additional information about places, people, items, societies, and creatures found in the World of Mana. The bulk of your time will not be spent on the world map, since the true heart of the game lies on the battlefield.
As one might expect, Heroes of Mana contains many of the gameplay accoutrements typically founding in RTS titles: resources must be gathered in order to create structures and summon units, certain unit types are more effecting against other types in combat, hero units have special abilities and can be pumped-up by the use of special items, and players must blindly send their troops plodding through the fog of war to seek out foes. In an interesting departure from tradition, buildings are not constructed on the battlefield. Crucial structures for creature summoning are housed inside the Nightswan, which can be chained to anchor points on the battlefield and moved around to various locations as necessary. This allows for a great level of mobility, since you can quickly move closer to vital resources or away from enemy attack. Sources of the game’s two primary resources – Gaia Stones used to build structures and Treant Fruit used for summoning units – are often scarce and careful attention has to be given in determining what units to summon. Unfortunately, there’s little time to hand-pick your small army because the game doesn’t pause when you switch to the interior of the Nightswan. In the end, surviving enemy raids often comes down to wildly hacking away at the building screen with the stylus to get units out in short order.
A lot of focus was put into to making the controls as simple and flexible as possible, and it shows. Selecting units, commanding them to attack, and moving the Nightswan around, among other actions, are handled completely with the stylus. Icons at the bottom of the touch screen allow you to select groups of units by their type, or you can hit a button which freezes the screen and lets you draw a lasso around all of the units you wish to select. Tapping either of the shoulder buttons handily rotates the entire battlefield 90 degrees, while a fast-forward button lets you speed up the action at a whim. The map on the top-screen shows the location of friends and foes. The bulk of the action is delegated to the touch-screen, although a cool feature lets to swap the top and bottom screens with the press of a single icon in order to jump the camera to a specific point on the map.