Children of Mana is a game that exists. It is for the Nintendo DS. It has gameplay and graphics. Can I be done now?
Children of Mana
So, Children of Mana is a thing that exists. That’s all I’ve got. I really don’t know what to say here. This is going to be a short SSS as there is just nothing interesting to talk about in Children of Mana. So let’s just get to it then.
Ha! You think there is a story. That’s cute.
That’s it. I hope to see you next time on Stiles’ Series Synopsis.
……Okay. I guess that won’t cut it now, will it? I suppose I’m obligated to at least make an effort here, even though the developers clearly didn’t. Let’s try this again, shall we? With a bit more professionalism, and a lot more coffee in my veins.
The Real Section on Presentation
This is the first time in the Mana series where it feels like the presentation has actually taken a step backwards. And I mean in comparison to the SNES titles, not Legend of Mana.
The cinematics are pretty for what’s there, and the hub town is equally vibrant and well-detailed, but everything else is just poor. They made everything really tiny on the screen, likely to give you a larger view of the map, but you have a map on the bottom screen so that seemed a bit pointless. Because of the large size of the dungeons and the repeated use of tiles, everything feels stagnant and uninteresting. Character sprites, while representive of many familiar Mana enemies, aren’t that appealing to look at either. The game lets you choose a color palette for whichever character you choose at the beginning of the game, but while it changes your sprite, it doesn’t change the look of your character portrait during dialogue segments, which is just plain lazy and makes the art clash. If you aren’t going to go all out, why even give the option? The game isn’t ugly, and graphics aren’t something I hold as particularly important anyway, but it is just further evidence of the game being underwhelming.
Upon writing this article, I actually had to go back and purposefully listen to the soundtrack, because I couldn’t hum a single tune from it if my life depended on it (except for the Mana theme of course, but since that has been in almost every game up to this point, that is cheating). I’d thought that the soundtrack was just completely forgettable, but upon listening to it on its own, it isn’t as bad as I remember. I have the feeling that the game was so monotonous that I kind of zoned out and went on auto-pilot, which kept me from paying attention to the soundtrack at all. That being said, it is still the second weakest soundtrack in the series so far, with Sword of Mana bringing up the rear, though I feel it is important to note that being the second worst in a series that is usually known for great music isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I guess that means this is Children of Mana’s one redeeming quality.
The Real Section on Story
This… is the one part where I really wasn’t exaggerating in my little joke intro above. There really isn’t anything to talk about here. You are once again a Hero (or Heroine) who, through happenstance, is forced to go to eight different dungeons to keep the world safe and fight evil villain number 23,971. Seriously, this game has arguably less plot than the original Final Fantasy Adventure.
Let’s see, what else can I talk about here… There are spirits… and the Mana Tree is mentioned. Oh, and apparently this game takes place ten years after Dawn of Mana, though the Mana timeline isn’t really important and even the creator says that most of the games should be considered to be set in parallel universes to each other and aren’t actually connected, which means even that is pointless. What do you want from me, people? I’m not a miracle worker.
The Real Section on Gameplay
The game’s combat doesn’t take any skill whatsoever. You have four weapon types to choose from that have different utility uses: Hammers can smash things, the flail can be used as a grappling hook, the sword cuts grass and the bow… well, the bow shoots. There is no reason to switch these weapons in combat. However, if you want the greatest chance at survival, the only logical weapon choice is the bow; it gives you range on the enemies (as getting to close to a mob is a death wish, especially when you take the terrible physics into account which will have you bouncing off every enemy and wall like you are a pinball). The bow becomes even more obvious of a choice when you find the upgrade that lets you shoot three arrows at once during every attack. Not even the game’s magic system can spice things up with some variety because, once again, a Mana entry sports a magic system that is entirely useless except when it comes to healing.
Every enemy you face will be easily dispatched when fighting one on one, and the game developers knew this, so they made the game ‘challenging’ by sending mass armies of enemies at you all at once. Sometimes they would even infinitely spawn enemies unless you destroy the spawn zones, which, of course, have such good defense that you only do one damage per hit when attacking them, so you have to sit there and get pounded from every direction while you attempt to destroy the damn thing. You literally win this game by mashing the attack button as quickly as possible while walking around so you don’t get cornered. Even if you do get stuck in a corner, unable to move and then die, there is no real loss. You get teleported out of the dungeon, but get to keep all the loot and experience you gained. Admittedly, though, just thinking of having to replay even one of those terrible floors is enough of a punishment in my eyes.
Generally to move onto the next floor of a dungeon you have to either kill a certain group of enemies, kill every enemy, or open chests or smash rocks to find an item called a Gleamdrop, which is used to activate a portal to the next floor of the dungeon. This makes it so the majority of the time, even if the goal isn’t to kill every enemy, you end up doing so anyway, especially if you want to remain leveled up properly.
The fact that enemies are damage sponges, mixed with the overbearing amount that are spawned and sent your way, really makes the game feel completely monotonous and pointless. There is no satisfaction in killing an enemy because there is no challenge, and every time you kill one, another is bound to spawn in its place. I was so bored with this game that I actually did the math at one point. On average, enemies were taking seven hits to kill; let’s be generous and say that there are about forty enemies per floor. Multiply that by the eight levels per dungeon, and I was hitting the attack button 2240 times per dungeon. No wonder my thumb was so damn sore.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the bosses, which of course, happen at the end of every dungeon. Once again, there is nothing of note here, as they are all easily dispatched with the same method most enemies are. They have only slightly more HP than your average opponent does, making them feel completely pointless. There were two bosses in the entire game that I remember taking even an ounce of what I loosely call strategy. One of them required use of your newest weapon, and the other was a cheap gimmick that I honestly believe was just put in place to irritate the gamer.
There is no exploration in Children of Mana. You have one hub town where you get quests, do your shopping, and… that’s it. And then there are the eight different dungeon palettes that you will travel to hopefully as few times as possible, but there are moments where the game won’t move forward unless you do a sidequest in one of the old dungeons again. The sad thing (or fortunate in my case) is that the vast majority of this game’s content lies in the sidequests, meaning that the majority of the game really is based around this monotonous cycle of go to dungeon, go up the floors, finish sidequest. I can only imagine how long it would take to do everything in this game, and anyone who has actually done it must have the self-discipline of a monk.
The Real…Lack of Loot or Upgrades
At the beginning of the game you are offered the choice of four different playable characters, all with slightly different stat builds, but none of this will affect your gameplay experience because they all have access to the exact same weapons and abilities. From there, character progression is completely automated; you kill enough enemies to level up, with your stats following suit. Unlike most good dungeon crawlers, there are no skill trees or unique abilities to unlock, so all the joy is sucked out of this genre staple.
At least there’s still loot, right? All dungeon crawlers are known for their loot drops, after all. Well, once again, the game drops the ball by both not having enough variety in the loot, and offering you far too many pieces of it. In most dungeon crawlers, loot has random variables that determine minor stat differences, meaning you are unlikely to get the same piece of equipment more than once. Here, the equipment is rather blandly tied to level. If you pick up a piece of level 30 armor, it will be identical to the last piece of level 30 armor you picked up. Chances are you will also pick up about five of this single type of armor, meaning you will always have the proper equipment for your level and likely be stocked with the next best piece at all times as well, completely taking the fun out of rare drops and the like. If for some reason the game doesn’t drop what you need, the store will be selling it. The only essential upgrade that the game doesn’t serve you on a silver platter are some knapsack upgrades that allow you to hold larger stocks of restorative items, and I suggest you buy these as quickly as possible because on the off-chance you get cornered by enemies you will have to spam healing items like there is no tomorrow.
The only (and I truly mean only) even partially interesting mechanic in this game is the gem system that allows you to equip gems to yourself to alter your stats, but this still doesn’t do anything to save the game from mediocrity. There are the common gems that will raise your strength and defense, but then there are the more interesting ones like the bow’s triple shot, or one that makes it so healing items affect not only you but all your allies if you are playing coop. Speaking of coop…
Oh Yeah, There’s Still (Underwhelming) Coop
Unlike every Mana game prior, this one finally was built around its multiplayer component as a key element and not just a marketing gimmick. The game allows you to play through the entire main stor… erm, ‘campaign’ with friends if you so choose, as well as the vast amount of sidequests that will have you traveling through all the same dungeons with slightly different floor layouts again. The game actually has a few elements that are only usable in multiplayer. The Angel’s Grail item, for example, is used to revive fallen allies and can’t be used on oneself, meaning that the most important use of the item is only accessible during multiplayer. Multiplayer is also the only time where offensive magic could be useful as well, as having another player means that one can always have the heal spell while another can experiment with the seven other elements. There are also ways to make spells hit multiple teammates at once, which I suppose is nice because it at least shows that they were thinking about their multiplayer game design and not just throwing it in as an afterthought.
On the other hand, the multiplayer still doesn’t work well. There are bouts of slow down when playing with friends, and the looting system (or lack thereof) makes it so you will likely fight with your friends over items more than want to help them. You see, there is no way to determine what a piece of equipment is until you pick it up, and the game doesn’t give you the ability to share equipment or trade, meaning that it is a complete gamble as to whether you are going to get something useful to you, or useful to the people you are playing with.
I guess the best benefit to multiplayer is that theoretically you will only have to hit the attack button 1000 times per dungeon instead of 2000? So… that’s nice.
Once again, I feel I have to clear up a popular misconception about a game being ‘great for its time’. Many professional reviewers claimed this was the best dungeon crawler to ever appear on a handheld at the time of its release. I understand best is not a measurement in quality that is clearly defined, it is on a sliding scale, so technically speaking if you put a piece of stale bread next to a piece of moldy bread, the stale piece would be the best of the two because it would be less likely to make you physically ill. That being said, I guess I can’t argue directly that ‘this game is awful, so how could you call it the best of anything?’ I can, however, argue that there were several better handheld hack-and-slash dungeon-crawlers at the time, including a fully 3D Diablo clone entitled Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade that came out a year earlier for the PSP. I can even refer to the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance title on the Game Boy Advance as being a better example of the genre than this. Want a handheld action-RPG that is more colorful? Thtn pick up Shining Soul II on the GBA, which admittedly still isn’t good, but it’s better than this. My point is… ah forget my point, is it even worth wasting my energy any more? Blah blah, this game is bad blah.
What’s Left to Say?
How do you quantify boredom? Of course, this is a written piece and because I can’t get an immediate reply, this has to remain rhetoric for now, but I really would like an answer to this. When reviewing or analyzing, it is true that it is impossible to take your opinion out of the equation, but when discussing games we do have a little bit of help in that regard. For example, we can objectively say that a game’s camera is bad if it doesn’t function properly. We can tell a game is buggy when we fall through the game world, but there really is no formula for measuring boredom in this regard, and that is why I am struggling so much with writing about Children of Mana. It is a game that functions. That is about it. It works as intended which is good I guess, but nothing about it is remotely interesting. This made the game almost insufferable. I genuinely don’t know how the general populace feels about this sort of thing, but when it comes to entertainment I’ve always held the opinion that it is far more enjoyable (in a sick, perhaps even masochistic way) to watch or play through a metaphorical train wreck then to watch or play through something that is just dull. Though it is a word I generally reserve for things that I find truly wretched, I may actually hate this game. It neither entertained me nor taught me something useful by being poorly designed so I could learn from its mistakes. The game actually has the audacity to end by asking the player, “So that’s the end, did you find the tale entertaining?” No, game… no, I didn’t. In fact, I just wasted twelve hours of my life, thank you for reminding me. Twenty-four hours actually, if you account for the fact that I played the game twice, and all I have to show for it is this *#@!% analysis.
Well, this has been truly draining, but thank god the game wasn’t any longer. I’m aware that this article isn’t really up to par with my other ones so far, and for that I sincerely apologize. Although, I find it quite appropriate that this article lies in a similar realm of existence and ‘functionality’ that the game also resides in.
Only three games left to go. I will see you next time with the series’ only 3D entry, Dawn of Mana. Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you there.
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net