Review by Davo
Old School at Its Best
Although I started on the time-sucking path to "hardcore gamer"
in 1990 when I played the first Dragon Warrior game on the
NES, I really got interested in gaming with the release of the Super
Nintendo in 1991. Whiling away many an hour on my SNES, I played
every RPG and action-RPG I could find, most of them produced by
Nintendo, Enix or Squaresoft (and later Square Enix when Squaresoft
and Enix Software merged). I played many SNES games now considered
console classics: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Act
Raiser, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, and
Secret of Mana. Nowadays, SNES games like Secret of Mana
are revered by hardcore Square fans as relics of the halcyon
days of console gaming when the focus was on gameplay first and
everything else second.
Which leads me to Sword of Mana, a Square Enix game released
in early 2004. Sword of Mana harkens back to those old-school
console games by emphasizing fun gameplay, good controls, appealing
graphics and decent music. A caveat, of course, being that nothing
here exceeds the quality of an SNES game due to the processing limitations
of the Gameboy Advance.
Sword of Mana is an appealing single-player action-RPG,
which also happens to be a semisequel to Square's SNES classic,
Secret of Mana. It's a bit like a more action-oriented Golden
Sun. Even though Sword of Mana lacks Secret's beloved
cooperative multiplayer feature, it offers numerous bells and whistles
of its own that make for a rewarding game experience.
As you would expect, the game is not without flaws, a few of them
rather egregious. The game lacks a save-anywhere feature, which
is just unnecessary and entirely frustrating at this point in the
evolution of gaming. You'll also die a lot in this game, which forces
you to return to your last unable-to-save-anywhere save file. Finally,
you travel throughout the game with different NPCs, but their AI
is so poorly implemented that it's frequently more convenient to
let them die rather than revive them.
Despite its flaws, Sword of Mana rewards players willing
to look below the surface of the game to the many satisfying elements
lurking beneath. You can play this game strictly as a one-dimensional
hack'n'slash affair and plow through the story as rapidly as possible
to reach the end, but I suspect you'll find that approach boring.
Casual players will likely find the game too long and the puzzles
difficult and frustrating. The real appeal of Sword of Mana lies
in the huge variety of hidden items, tasks, activities, opportunities
and side quests hidden just below the single-player game that enhance
the playing experience tremendously.
The game promotes experimentation and excitement by letting you
choose your avatar's abilities and then providing hundreds of hidden
items and weapons that alter the experience and allow you to customize
your character to your liking. There's even some number-juggling
in the customization process that will appeal to your inner statistician.
What's a Seiken Densetsu?
First, some history for the uninitiated. Sword of Mana is
the latest in a long-running series of Squaresoft/Square Enix games
known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu. Seiken Densetsu is Square's
action-oriented RPG alternative to its turn-based Final Fantasy
games. The first game in the series to appear in the United
States was a Gameboy action-RPG released in 1991 under the title
Final Fantasy Adventure. Square tacked the Final Fantasy
name onto the title in an effort to tap into US fans' familiarity
with the franchise. As is the case in the console world, the word
adventure was shorthand for the use of puzzles and real-time
combat a la The Legend of Zelda instead of the turn-based
combat typical in Final Fantasy games.
The next game in the series to get a stateside release was Seiken
Densetsu 2 in 1993, otherwise known as Secret of Mana. Secret
of Mana became an instant hit in the U.S. because of its colorful
graphics, involving story, orchestral score and cooperative multiplayer
Legend of Mana on the PSOne followed next in 2000. A number
of Secret of Mana reviews tore into Legend rather
vigorously because it didn't have Secret's robust multiplayer
cooperative feature and lacked a cohesive storyline. Legend presented
players with dozens of standalone scenarios telling self-contained
stories only loosely connected to an overarching narrative. Rather
than well-reasoned critiques of the game's shortcomings, I thought
many of the criticisms were more knee-jerk reactions by fans disappointed
that the game diverged from Secret of Mana so dramatically.
The self-contained chapters permitted players to play for 30 to
60 minutes at a time and enjoy the successful completion of a single
episode before returning to real life. Legend also offered
gorgeous watercolor-style graphics and loads of little side quests
and tasks like gardening and weapons forging. I enjoyed Legend
of Mana and recommend you hunt down a copy if you have a PSOne
Sword of Manareleased in December 2003is actually
a complete makeover of Final Fantasy Adventure, and I do
mean complete. Although the games share many similarities, they
are quite different, if for no other reason than Sword is
three times as large as Final Fantasy Adventure. Many of
the more insidious puzzles remain in place, and the stories are
similar. If you're a completist, you might have some fun hunting
down Final Fantasy Adventure on eBay. It's in black and white
(it was released for the original Gameboy) but it's a fun little
game, especially for Legend of Zelda fans.
Buy One Partially Clichéd Story-Based GameGet One
Sword of Mana tells the tale of two young people whose lives
are devastated by an army seeking the members of a religious cult.
Being a Square Enix game, the story is heavy on melodrama and cliché.
The storyline focuses on that usual console mainstay: a great evil
that threatens to destroy the world and can be stopped only by a
group of intrepid teenagers with great power. Even with the clichéd
story and some truly juvenile dialogue (for example, "You're
not going to get all mushy now, are you," a statement by the
hero in reference to a moment when the heroine is close to tears),
the game manages to deliver a tale that is, at times, quite charming.
The console clichés are tempered somewhat by the twisting
and turning plot and a few touching moments. It isn't Shakespeare,
but it's got a few surprises that will keep even jaded players interested
until the end. The best moments come just before the final boss
battle when the game's six heroes reveal their most shameful moments
to one another.
You choose to play as either the hero or the heroine. The hero
is a young man whose family is slaughtered by a marauding army as
it chases after the heroine, a member of the religious cult. The
cult is actually a peaceful order charged with the preservation
of mana, that trademark magical force that sustains all life in
console RPGs. Sword of Mana has two game files, so you can
alternate between the dual stories as you desire. At first, the
game plays identically for both characters. You explore the exact
same landscapes, perform the same tasks and experience the same
About five hours into the game, however, the characters' paths
begin to diverge. Later in the game, each character's individual
story begins to play out uniquely within the larger framework of
their joint effort to save the world. This divergence becomes most
apparent in a chapter involving an airship. If you're playing as
the heroine, you'll be trapped on the airborne vessel trying to
locate a means of escape. If you're playing as the hero, you'll
be on the ground seeking a way to get to the airship and rescue
Impatient players likely won't want to play through both stories,
which requires you to play the game twice. You won't notice much
difference in the story until at least five or six hours of play
time, but it's worth the effort if you like this type of game. The
heroine's story focuses on her efforts to avenge the persecution
of the mana clan and come to grips with her destiny. The hero's
story focuses on his efforts to define his place in the world as
he fulfills his mission of helping the heroine face her uncertain
future. Experiencing the story from each character's perspective
is one of the more enjoyable parts of the game. They'll react differently
to the same events, travel with different companions and explore
areas inaccessible to the other. It's a lot of fun, but you have
to hang in there patiently for awhile to actually experience the
You'll Play Through the Game with the Greatest of Ease
Gameplay consists of exploring every nook and cranny of the world
as either of the game's two characters. Combat is real-time and
very basic. You fight by hammering on the A button as fast as you
can to attack. As you fight, a meter at the bottom of the screen
fills in slowly. When the meter is full, your character's body will
flash, signaling that you can unleash a special attack if you hold
down the A button momentarily and release it after a couple of seconds
when your body starts to glow. A rock, paper, scissors overlay adds
an element of strategy to the combat. Weapons fall into three categories:
blunt, slashing and jabbing. Some enemies are completely immune
to one or two of the weapons categories, so you have to experiment
with different weapons against each opponent. Fortunately, bringing
up your weapons menu pauses the game so you can select the correct
tool for the job.
Unless you play point-and-click games exclusively, you'll have
little trouble mastering the controls and the combat system. The
control system is very similar to the ones used in the overhead
Legend of Zelda games.
Players acquire spells primarily by defeating bosses and acquiring
spirits. Each spirit provides the player with two spells: one that
enhances the character's statistics temporarily and one that creates
a magical attack. The statistical enhancement spells allow you to
raise your defense, speed, magical immunity and other abilities.
The magical attack spells fall into the usual water, fire, lightning
and ice categories. One interesting wrinkle is the effect your weapon
has on your spells. The type of weapon you wield determines the
trajectory of your attack. If you have a bow equipped, the spell
will arc toward the enemy like an arrow. If you have a spear equipped,
the spell will travel in a long, straight line.
Casting spells is as easy as attacking. A tap of the R trigger
casts a statistical enhancement spell. Holding down the R button
casts an attack spell. The enhancement spells can turn your character
into a real powerhouse. During the final boss battle, I cast a "raise
defense" spell repeatedly until I was taking almost no damage.
As you move through the game, you can collect multiple spirits
within the same category. You can collect six fire spirits, for
example, or six water spirits. The advantage to having multiple
spirits is an exponential increase in the effectiveness of your
spells. If you have two fire spirits, you'll cast two fire spells
simultaneously. Three water spirits equates to three simultaneous
water spells. The benefit of this is massive damage to enemies when
casting attack spells. The downside is that you'll tear through
your spell points casting six spells at the same time.
Finding multiple spirits is one of the most difficult parts of
the game. These suckers are well-hidden. If you love solving difficult
puzzles, then you'll likely enjoy hunting down spirits. You have
to find all kinds of hidden items and decipher obscure clues to
find every spirit in the game. You'll automatically get one of every
spirit just for beating the game's bosses. The rest are available
only to the most thorough players. The gauntlet is thrown if you
think you're up to the task.
Look at All This Stuff
Beyond finding spirits and following the story, the game offers
up a slew of things to do. Early in the game, you'll receive an
item called a hothouse, which is a giant cactus-house that you grow
in pots scattered throughout the desert areas. The hothouse appears
instantly and grants you immediate access. Inside, there's a very
basic gardening subgame that requires you to find hidden seeds in
the outside world, plant them in an interior garden and return a
day later to gather magical fruits used to improve your armor and
weaponry. There's also a blacksmith who will upgrade your weapons
and armor for a small fee if you have appropriate fruits and vegetables.
Another minigame in the hothouse focuses on a small living cactus
who writes poems about your adventures. There are 50 poems in all,
and you'll have to explore every inch of the game world and complete
every task to get every poem. On my first run through the game,
I got only about 20 poems.
Acquiring items is a key component of the game. The game can't
be played for very long without using the dozens of healing, restoration
and special items scattered throughout the land. Some you buy in
stores, some are available only from traveling merchants and some
are hidden in diabolically concealed spots. This game has plenty
to do for gamers who love side quests and hidden adventures.
When your character collects enough experience points, you'll gain
a level. Gaining a level adds a "Level Up" selection to
your menu screen and lets you assign points to one of six class
categories. Combining certain classes opens up otherwise unavailable
specialty classes. These special classes allow you to take advantage
of ability bonuses like increased weapons proficiency or faster
accumulation of spell points. It's similar to D&D multiclassing
but on a much more basic scale. The leveling system is robust enough
to allow you to customize your character to your liking, yet not
so robust that you'll be able to brag about your +8 damage against
zombies. The changes are more subtle. You'll notice your character
recovering magic points more rapidly, but it's not like you'll suddenly
gain the ability to hide in the dark and backstab.
Graphically, the game maintains the very appealing watercolor style
used in Legend of Mana. Buildings have a fairy-tale quality
that suits the game perfectly. The artwork for the characters and
monsters has a cartoon-like feel.
The music and sound effects are pretty good. Most of the music
strives for a moody orchestral sound. Sorrowful music punctuates
sad moments, while more exciting pieces accompany combat and adventuring.
The quality of the music is hampered somewhat by the hardware. Some
of the songs sounded tinny as they emanated from the GBA's small
speakers. The sound effect that accompanies the scrolling text is
a hideously shrill noise that reminded me of the sound of slot machines
jangling at once in a busy casino. This awful noise may have you
wanting to turn off the sound.
This Tale's Dark Side
A few flaws prevent Sword of Mana from attaining an optimal
rating. At times, you'll hate the game for not letting you save
anywhere. I got overconfident on a few occasions and failed to return
to a save point for more than 30 minutes. You can guess what happened
next: Death, followed by the loss of 35 minutes of gameplay. The
developers tried to ameliorate this somewhat by providing you with
a magic rope that instantaneously returns you to your last save
point. Even though you don't have to walk back to your last save
point, you still have to make the trek back to the spot from which
you used the magic rope. It's not as good as a mark-and-recall spell
or a save-anywhere feature, but it's better than nothing. Also,
although you have two game slots, you only have one save space per
game. You can't have multiple saves for the same game slot. Gamers
used to making dozens of saves will clearly feel some frustration
at this limitation. It didn't bother me, but you should be aware
of it if it's important to you.
In addition, most players will die a lot, which further magnifies
the problems created by the lack of a save-anywhere feature. Some
of the creatures are strong enough to take away a quarter of your
life with one hit. At times, you'll be boxed into a corner by three
or four enemies and end up dead before you can break free or heal
yourself. It's also easy to lose track of your life on the tiny
GBA screen. Playing on a Gameboy Player alleviates this problem
somewhat, but the game's beautiful graphics look washed out and
bland on a television screen.
I like a challenging game, but more than a few of the required
puzzles and mysteries are frustratingly difficult. It can be exasperating
to wander around for a couple of hours without enough information
to figure out what to do next. The game's clues are sometimes so
obscure that you'll have no idea they even serve as clues. It's
only later that you see the relationship between the clue and the
solution. It doesn't happen enough to throw the game balance off,
but it comes close on two or three occasions.
Finally, there are the NPCs, who are as dumb as Shemp from the
Three Stooges after a lobotomy. You travel throughout the game with
one of several NPCs. Theoretically, this offers you a spellcaster
if you're a warrior or a warrior if you're a mage, and so on. In
reality, NPCs hang around getting stuck on the scenery and dying
because they're too stupid to defend themselves. You can adjust
the NPC AI, but it seems to have no effect. They tend to be on the
wrong side of the game screen when you need them most. What's most
infuriating is that when they die, they turn into a little ghost
that is tethered to your backside while you continue adventuring.
Why can't they stay that close to you when they're alive and you're
in the middle of a difficult fight? You don't need them to complete
the game, which begs the question: why are they there?
I can absolutely recommend Sword of Mana to anyone who enjoys
story-driven action-RPGs. There's a lot of game here, especially
for a GBA cartridge. Although there's much combat, Sword of Mana
is primarily a game of exploration. The controls are great,
and the story is appealing. I finished the heroine's storyline in
just under 29 hours, and I didn't even come close to completing
every side quest. Depending on your play style, Sword of Mana
offers 40 to 70 hours of playtime to work through both characters'
storylines. Finding every item and completing every side quest could
take even longer. If you aren't bothered by save points and a few
imperfections in sound, NPC AI and game balance, you'll find a lot
to keep you happily busy in Sword of Mana. If you're a GBA
owner looking for a story-driven action-RPG with surprising depth,
then I would definitely recommend Sword of Mana. And if you're
a Nintendo DS owner waiting for a compelling story-based game or
RPG to come out on the system (and I know you're out there), then
Sword of Mana will help lessen the blow of distant release
dates for your dual-screened handheld. The best news is that the
game, while out of print, is readily available at this writing on
eBay and other online sites for about $20.