Dawn of Mana: It’s just like Kingdom Hearts, only worse in every conceivable way!
Dawn of Mana
Well, the time has come. Every series tries to move to 3D at some point, and I suppose Mana fans were lucky that Square at least waited until the PlayStation 2, when polygonal technology was finally out of the completely ugly stage. Even though Dawn of Mana is the first 3D game in the series, it will feel very familiar to fans of Square’s other titles. While Legend of Mana feels like a spiritual predecessor to Kingdom Hearts, Dawn of Mana IS Kingdom Hearts; a stripped down, poorly controlled, and artificially flavored version of Kingdom Hearts.
From Pixels to Polygons
As is series tradition, Dawn of Mana sports some beautiful graphics in terms of character models and color palettes. On the downside, however, the game’s levels are rather sparse and feel empty, which causes the graphical design in that respect to feel a bit lazy. In addition, there were some times when I felt the lighting choices left the game looking rather washed out, which was disappointing because it made what was a generally pretty game look absolutely ugly in places. Luckily, this was only a real issue during the levels that took place during dawn and dusk. The game also suffers from occasional framerate drops and slowdown because of the physics engine being too much for the PlayStation 2 to handle. More than anything, however, the game still feels like a Mana game from the vibrant scenery down to the cuteness of the Rabites, and in that regard, the transition to 3D was definitely a success. It may have been too successful, as there are times when it is impossible to tell the difference between items that are just part of the scenery and items you can actually interact with. Given that quickly identifying movable items in the heat of battle is the most essential part of this game’s combat, this is a pretty disastrous issue; more on the games combat later. All that leaves to mention on the visual side of things are the gorgeously detailed cutscenes which were always entertaining to watch, but very seldom used for anything important, which is a bit disheartening as well.
The game has a surprisingly long soundtrack, lasting about four and a half hours while the game itself will only run you about eight hours on an average playthrough. I guess that is nice, as it doesn’t leave you much time to get bored by the soundtrack, but it doesn’t give you much time to take it in either. It’s a bit of a shame really, as there are some really good musical tracks in here, but the soundtrack is overflowing with less than spectacular music. I wish they’d been willing to leave some songs out on the cutting room floor as opposed to insisting on showing off the music from their six different composers. That’s right, SIX: Kenji Ito, Tsuyoshi Sekito, Masayoshi Soken, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hiroki Kikuta, and Yoko Shimomura. It’s not a completely unheard of number as a lot of Square’s bigger productions are filled with many talents, but this game has a sort of cheap and unpolished feel to it, so putting that much effort into the sound design seems almost pointless. It is also unfortunate that a lot of the best tracks are reserved for the rare cutscene, meaning the songs you will hear most often throughout the game’s levels are some of the more mundane and repetitive tracks that the game offers. The soundtrack often shifts dramatically from rock stylings to melodic solo piano and instrumental, and all of that seems fitting in this world. But all of the best songs are remixes of existing Mana tunes, while the majority of the game’s new music falls flat in comparison. This is easily the weakest soundtrack the series has to offer. Not all of the tracks are bad; in fact, there are a few stand-outs. But there were clearly too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, and the overall sound design suffered because of it.
Voice acting is a bit spotty as well, but I feel it fares better than the music implementation. The characters all sound like they look they should, and of particular note are the voices that were used tor the eight Mana spirits which sound comical but also fitting. There are no stand-out performances, but nothing really fails here, either, which is a good thing.
Overall, the game’s presentation feels to me like it falls just shy of the usually great standards the series puts forth. Don’t get me wrong; it is nowhere near bad in this regard, but it seems that the designers forgot that showing restraint can be just as important as showing off your talents, and the game suffers a bit because of this.
Audience Pandering & the Lowest Common Denominator
There will be spoilers in this section because I feel they are essential in showing how weak the story is, though as usual with this series I really don’t see it as ruining the player experience since the story isn’t very good anyway.
The main draw of this game for series fans will likely be that it is the origin story for the entirety of the Mana universe (hence, Dawn of Mana). The series continuity in itself is suspect at best, such that the timeline is completely up for debate, especially since the lead director himself has been quoted as saying that some of the games are set in parallel universes. This sounds to me like more of an excuse to clear up plot discrepancies than anything. Half the games are considered direct prequels or sequels to one another and the others seem to hold rather direct ties, but hey, who am I to argue with the man? On a personal level, I don’t think it matters, since the storytelling in this series has always been one of its weakest points. For the people out there who do follow the Mana lore, however, this game is a must, as it tells how the Mana Tree came to exist in the first place.
That is just about all that the story does. I found the story to be a poor attempt at being emotionally manipulative and the pacing/content is pretty awful. As just one example, one of the first important lines in the game is, “Whenever we hurt living things… we end up hurting ourselves!” and this comes after spending fifteen minutes in the tutorial stage which is literally meant to teach you how to HURT LIVING THINGS. Not hypocritical at all, are we, game?
The story pacing in itself is pretty awful, offering the majority of plot development before and after every mission with very little happening in between. This wouldn’t be so bad if the things happening between each chapter were at all interesting. Evil man is using specified plot device to make everything evil and take over the world. The majority of the game is spent chasing this mad man (who turns out to be your brother… ooo shocker!) while continually rescuing, or attempting to rescue, your childhood friend Ritizia, who is taken over and turned ‘evil’ as well (another shocker!). The ending sees you forced to kill the evil version of her yourself, before a long winded cutscene kills her permanently and turns her into the first Mana Goddess and create the first Mana Tree.
This plot in itself didn’t have to be terrible. It is cliché, no doubt about it, but it could have actually held some emotional weight if it wasn’t played out in the most boring way possible. The game isn’t long enough to actually allow a relationship to form between the player and Ritzia with its current format, so instead it plays to the lowest common denominator, making her sickeningly cute, innocent, sweet and defenseless so that you feel obligated to protect her out of instinct instead of any actual character development (see Bioshock Infinite). This means they had the opening chapter to make you care about this girl (which they failed at), another chapter where you rescue her in an escort mission later on (not as annoying as it sounds, but not interesting either), and finally you discover you have to kill her. Just to show how low they are stooping and how hard they are trying to make this impactful, they show a montage of all the ‘time’ you spent with her throughout the game after she is killed. This actually had the opposite effect on me that it was supposed to, and made me think, “Huh… she really was just a plot device, wasn’t she?”
As hard as I’m being on this plot, at least this game tried to make some memorable characters, unlike the rest of the series. The heroine being sacrificed at the end of the game has become a trope in itself in this series, and has happened in at least half of the games already, so unless you’re new to the series I don’t even consider that a spoiler at this point. As soon as you are introduced to the female lead and see her personality, anyone who has seen this before will instantly know the ending. I will admit that the one thing I really liked about the game’s story, despite being an extremely small detail, was the framing device. All of the Mana spirits throughout the series are sitting in a circle telling this story to one another to make sure they have the details right and the story will be passed down forever. This is simple but effective, and seeing all of the spirits’ personalities and wide range of comically stereotypical European accents brought a smile to my face. I just couldn’t help myself.
Dawn of Mana’s level design is primarily a linear affair, with one entrance and one exit to each zone and some decently designed areas in between that vary a great deal in size and scope. Throughout the game, you will find yourself in vast landscapes with a lot of freedom of movement, while other areas will have you pinned in tight corridors, and there doesn’t tend to be any middle ground. Despite the linearity, navigation can become annoying due to the poor map implementation which gives you a rather vague radar at the top of the screen, with a more detailed map in the pause menu. The problems come into play when you are using the detailed map but it doesn’t give any indication of elevation, so even if you know where your destination is, the route is frequently not straightforward and will require a roundabout path that will be impossible to find without trial, error and luck. This only occurs in a couple of zones, thankfully leaving that annoyance as a rare one. Taking that into consideration, I still believe that the level design would have been acceptable and perhaps even good if it weren’t for the physics and camera issues the game presents you with.
Dawn of Mana proudly boasts on its front cover its use of the Havok physics engine, which gained most of its popularity in Half-Life 2. In Dawn of Mana, the use of Havok is both the game’s biggest gimmick and its biggest downfall. Dawn of Mana relies rather heavily on platforming at times, and it always feels off. Your jumps feel like they carry no weight or momentum, so gauging distance becomes almost impossible, leading to many, many long falls. This becomes an even bigger annoyance as you progress through certain stages, because there will be moments where fits of knockback will send you spiraling down an entire tower, just to have to climb it again. There are no bottomless pits in Dawn of Mana, so not even death will grant you a reprieve from the game’s frustrating laws of gravity.
The game’s camera system doesn’t help, either. While it is functional for the most part in the wide open areas, as soon as you enter tighter corridors, the camera movement becomes far less responsive and getting it to look where you need it to is extremely difficult. Even when the camera is working properly, it somehow seems to feel both sluggish and twitchy at the same time; I think this comes from the default angle being a bit too low to the ground and a bit too close to the back of your character, which makes looking at anything that isn’t directly in front of you (like flying enemies or platforms to jump on) a complete chore. Even getting hit by an enemy changes your camera’s placement, meaning that in the heat of battle you have to try to readjust on the fly. The game does offer you a lock on function, but it is so poorly implemented that you are better off fighting without it because combat is almost always about successfully fighting groups, not one enemy at a time; more on that later. Suffice it to say, the camera is a detrimental part of the experience.
I am actually a bit torn when it comes to this game’s use of puzzles. On the one hand, it contains something that has become increasingly rare in gaming; puzzles that don’t hold your hand every step of the way. There were moments when I actually had to look for environmental clues and use logic to figure out how things would actually function, and I found myself enjoying these brief moments a great deal because I am so unaccustomed to seeing them. Let’s be clear here: Pulling a lever in one area to open a singular door in another isn’t even remotely close to being a ‘puzzle’, and the fact that video game players and developers have come to accept this lame excuse for padding is depressing to me. In this title, while most of the puzzles aren’t complex, they are still more than most games offer, and that admittedly may leave me praising the implementation more than it rightfully deserves. All is not well here, however, as the game has a couple of frustratingly obtuse puzzles that aren’t so much hard because of the solution, but because there weren’t any indications that a puzzle was supposed to be completed at all. This issue was not a common one, however, and I feel the puzzles succeeded more than they didn’t.
In truth, I can boil down all of my frustrations with this game’s exploration to Chapter 3, which has all of these issues in abundance: Lots of poorly handled platforming, obtuse puzzles, misleading maps and of course the awkward camera making everything far harder than it needed to be. Chapter 3 is poorly designed from beginning to end, and it had me truly dreading the journey ahead. Luckily, things never got even remotely close to that frustrating again, and I was able to at least mostly enjoy the rest of the game despite these issues. My advice is if you enjoy the game but get stuck on Chapter 3, find a way to push through as it is a large blemish on a homely but not ugly face.
Whip it Good
I’m sure most people will be unsurprised to learn that when it comes to combat in Dawn of Mana, swinging a sword around is generally going to be your most common action. What is more surprising is that use of the sword alone is not your most effective means of dispatching your foes; at least, not until you put them into Panic Mode. Panic Mode occurs pretty much any time your opponents are hit with an environmental object, which due to this game’s use of the Havok engine, is quite often. Your main goal in combat is to use your vine whip to slam your enemies into boulders, barrels and other environmental obstacles (excluding walls for some god forsaken reason) to induce panic before wailing on them with your sword. You can even throw enemies into other enemies if you like. This gives the dual benefit of causing your enemies to take more damage, while also leaving them unable to fight back for a set period of time. While I enjoy this concept in theory, it falls apart a bit in its execution, mostly do to the previously mentioned wonky physics. Sometimes thrown enemies or objects won’t trigger panic for unapparent reasons. Other times you will throw an object in one direction, only for it to move in the opposite one. It’s a shame, as once you do get a handle on your minor but deliberate control of the whip and the physics do decide to play nice, you can rack up some fairly impressive combos. Even if these issues were fixed, there would still be a group of players who wouldn’t like the system because attacking non-panicked enemies is not optimal, and forcing the panicked state does tend to slow down player progression.
The game provides you with a few other tools for combat, the first being a slingshot which in its default state is only really good for picking off really weak flying enemies. It becomes more interesting, however, when you are granted ammunition from the eight Mana spirits, adding different elements and effects to each of your shots. The ability to freeze multiple enemies at once, or create a gravitational force that pulls all nearby objects to a central location, can really add some much needed variety to the combat. While you are given some amount of freedom to use these special ammunition types as you wish, it is strongly suggested that you save them for the bosses at the end of each chapter. They are all but required in some of these encounters, and ammo is scarce.
Given how much the game focuses on its physical combat, magic is a surprisingly useful tool in Dawn of Mana. It does this by making all available spells support spells. You only have a few to choose from, with your standard healing spell being the most useful, but the ability to raise your attack, defense, add elements to your attacks or even make yourself temporarily invincible are all useful in the right situations. The fact that you can only raise your MP through random enemy drops does help to keep things balanced, stopping you’re not spamming the more useful spells. This creates a surprisingly well implemented mechanic.
Speaking of those random drops, this game contains no healing items besides the Angel’s Grail, which serves as an emergency resurrection and MP restoring item that kicks in automatically should you die with one in your possession. The only way to heal besides the previously mentioned spells is to hope your enemies drop a one time use item that restores certain percentages of your HP and MP automatically, which leads to more skillful and cautious play than a stack of healing potions would.
Healing items aren’t the only thing the enemies have a chance to drop, and this leads us to Dawn of Mana‘s unconventional level up system which isn’t based around experience points. Instead, you are awarded tokens that give a bonus to your attack, HP and MP stats whenever you successfully attack an opponent that is in the previously mentioned Panic state. As you collect these tokens, your magic and physical levels will go up from one to four, and each level will give you access to more powerful spells and more hits in each combo. The complaints come into play when you realize that these levels reset with every chapter, making you start over from square one each time. This is a system that I didn’t have as much of an issue with as a lot of other players seemed to, mostly because I saw it as a way for the player to further choose their own difficulty level for each chapter besides the initial difficulty selection at the beginning of the game. Every chapter is completable from the base level, but if you are struggling (or just want to be more powerful), you can put in the time and effort to ‘grind’ like you would in any other RPG. At this point, it is just arguing semantics, as the game is built around this level up system and to me it doesn’t hurt progression. All that is different is the number. Instead of linear leveling, it is cyclical leveling so to speak. Because this is an action RPG where skill is the main determining factor as to how well you will survive, I felt that this system was a creative attempt at blending those philosophies into a single system.
The only other means of upgrading your character comes in the form of ‘badges’ that you unlock from a rudimentary achievement system. These badges are equippable between chapters, and are unlocked by completing certain tasks, such as getting S ranks on chapters, attacking enough times throughout the game, and so one (oh yeah, there is a ranking system… that I mostly ignored. Oops?). These bonuses don’t mean much in the long run, and the requirements to obtain them are so rigorous you likely won’t get much use out of them on a single playthrough anyway.
All in all, the game puts a unique spin on a rather simple battle system, that is let down more so by bad physics than by poor concepts. Throughout the game, you will find the smallest glimmers of good ideas and, more importantly, fun, which almost make it all the more devastating that this game wasn’t given the polish it needed and deserved.
Seiken Densetsu Poor?
My opinion on Dawn of Mana swings back and forth like a pendulum. Considering the series’ spotty pedigree, I honestly feel this title fits right in with the rest of them, and if the controls and physics were polished up just a bit more this could have been a decent game. On a personal level, I may actually like this game more than Secret of Mana because this is a unique idea with a lack of polish, while Secret of Mana was a bland idea with a lack of polish. No, this game definitely doesn’t hold up that well on its own merits, especially if you make the obvious comparison to Kingdom Hearts, which was released four years earlier. Still, it could have been worse.
Would I recommend this game? Ehhhhhh, probably not. I guess my confusion just stems more from people hating this game because it is technically Seiken Densetsu 4 as opposed to being a spin-off. It is different, and I can see why people don’t like it, but it is treated as if it is a disgrace to the Mana name and in that regard I think people are just fooling themselves into thinking the series’ previous entries are better than they actually are. There had only been three games in the main series up to this point, and the only thing they have had in common besides their aesthetic and lore is a slightly unconventional take on an action battle system, and Dawn of Mana fits that extremely vague criteria perfectly. I do agree that Dawn of Mana is the weakest of the four main entries, but not by a wide margin. Dawn of Mana is not a good game, but to say it is vastly inferior in quality to… let’s say Secret of Mana, when they both contain the same fundamental gameplay issues in different forms, seems a bit nonsensical to me. For example, Secret of Mana‘s ‘hit and run’ combat with terrible stun animations was as equally annoying to me as Dawn of Mana‘s wonky battle physics, and they forced the same basic outcome of drawing out battles and crushing the game’s pacing. But hey, that’s just one person’s opinion, and at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if it all stems from a rather strong case of Stockholm Syndrome.
Anyway, enough of my ramblings. We are on the home stretch now! Next time we will be looking at the last game in the Mana franchise, Heroes of Mana. I hope to see you there!
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net