Sword of Mana

Review by Davo
June 2005

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 options.

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 or PS2.

Sword of Mana—released in December 2003—is 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 Game—Get One Free

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 story.

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 the heroine.

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 differences.

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?

Survey Says

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. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: December 1, 2003

Available for: Game Boy Advance

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