Heroes of Mana will stretch your patience to its breaking point. I know it did with me.
Heroes of Mana
So… Mana, we need to have a serious talk, you and I. You just… insist on proving me wrong at every turn, don’t you? Now, don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our good times; experiencing your humble yet satisfying beginnings with Final Fantasy Adventure is something I’m sure to take with me for years to come, and let’s not even get started on how amazing you were with Seiken Densetsu 3. We’ve also struggled through hard times together too, and proven our dedication to one another with the likes of Children of Mana. But don’t feel bad, Mana; we’ve all fallen on hard times. This time, however, I don’t think I can forgive you. As much as I’ve tried to come to terms with what you’ve done, I just can’t bring myself to continue moving forward. You’ve made a liar out of me, … with Heroes of Mana.
I stated once before that I’d rather play through a train wreck than play something bland, and Heroes of Mana has proven me wrong, or at least proven that I should choose my words more carefully. Then again, Heroes of Mana is less of a train wreck and more of an entire continent sinking into the ocean. When I started Stiles’ Series Synopsis, I promised myself that I would avoid the whole ‘angry gamer’ shtick, as I feel it is played out too often and a rather pathetic crutch for the uncreative to fall back on. But this game actually infuriated me to the point of almost controller-throwing levels of anger, and I have never done that before in my life.
Now that I’ve gotten a little of the disgust off my chest, let’s move forward with some positives before I lose what little integrity and respect I could have possibly built with this series up to this point.
Another Trip to the World of…Ivalice?
I find it odd that the designers of Heroes of Mana decided to alter the game’s art style, given that the vibrant colors and familiar design of the Mana universe was the only thing that had remained consistently decent throughout the series. This time, they took things in another direction, instead pulling inspiration from the Ivalice Alliance series of titles. The results are still good, but odd. The sprites are well drawn, and the world suitably dark for a prequel to Seiken Densetsu 3. But while Seiken Densetsu 3 felt like a darker spin on the Mana universe, this title doesn’t feel like it fits in at all.
The 3D rendered battlefields are designed well, and the 2D sprites drawn on top don’t clash with the design, which is good to see. The static camera angles can make it difficult to properly see what is going on at any given time though, and this can be annoying. I quite enjoyed seeing all the familiar locations from Seiken Densetsu 3 reimagined as large-scale war fronts, and the anime style cutscenes really are a sight to behold. Aside from these moments, there really isn’t much left to critique besides the dialogue scenes.
When it comes to said dialogue sections, this game uses the ‘talking head’ standard, where two huge character portraits take up almost the entire screen, blocking your view of anything that could potentially be interesting with the giant text box in between them. This isn’t the first time the series has done this, as it also appeared in Children of Mana, but the vast amount of text in this title compared to the previous one really made it stand out to me. This is a bit of a personal nitpick, but I don’t really like it when dialogue is handled this way. It adds a level of cheapness to a game when they fall back on this standard, and most of the time when it shows up, it is in sub-par games. I’m not trying to say that this is something I outright hate, but I do feel it lessens the production values, especially when they don’t even put in the effort to give a handful of different expressions for each character and the game isn’t voice acted (which in this particular case still isn’t an issue because the NDS cart doesn’t have enough space for a lot of voice acting). I don’t even know that I dislike this design choice; it may just be that I’m so sick of seeing it, as it is often like the developers are holding up a sign that says, “Sorry, we can’t afford good production values!”. This isn’t something that hampered my experience a great deal, but it was another bit of disappointment I wanted to get off my chest. That being said, the character portraits themselves are well designed and fit the art style chosen, helping to bring the smallest amount of life to this rather dull-feeling world.
Hello Yoko Shimomura, who would’ve thought I’d run into you here… again. I’m really running out of things to say about the music. It’s the Shimomura standard for the most part, nothing really new to talk about. It’s still decent, but by this point all the music is definitely blurring together. The only notable thing to mention is that there are a few tracks that seem to lean, once again, towards the Ivalice style. They feel a bit more grand, which fits the mass scale battles represented here. Though there are only a few tracks that fall into this trap, it really does feel like Shimomura is trying to mimic someone else, as opposed to truly embracing the grand style. It creates a kind of hollow feeling, where it doesn’t quite fit her style, or the game’s. Maybe by listening to the following songs, you will see what I mean (Tense Movement and The Confronted Ones). I guess the best way to describe it is that it feels half-hearted? Perhaps this could just be me reading too far into it.
It is a passable soundtrack that holds up decently enough with some of the series’ lesser entries, but it definitely isn’t top of the line. Like in my Children of Mana review, I feel it is important to say that considering the series’ pedigree when it comes to music, this soundtrack not being on the same level as the other entries isn’t necessarily a terrible thing; generally speaking, the music in this series is good to phenomenal, so this just falls on the ‘good’ side of the spectrum.
A Grand Epic this Isn’t
I wish I could say that the storytelling is good, but it’s not. In fact, it’s rather boring, all things considered, which is a shame. I generally love games that have well-crafted politics and conspiracies woven into their narrative, and in a title like this one, centred around a worldwide conflict, it would have been perfect.
Instead, the game falls into a rather uninteresting cycle of your characters traveling from one country to the next, and from there, the conversations progress something like this:
Hero’s Team: ‘This country is attacking!’
Country Leader: “I don’t believe you! You are a spy!”
Hero’s Team: “No really, we aren’t! See, look! Evil battleships! You should have listened to us!”
Country Leader: “You are right! We shall join you!”
From this point onwards, the game takes the rather obvious and well-trodden path of stopping the enemy army before they take over the world, and the antagonist becomes an unstoppable god. It’s boring. We’ve been here before, and there is nothing intimidating or special about the antagonists you are forced to face.
Heroes of Mana actually has a rather large cast of well-designed characters (11 in your main party alone), but the game isn’t quite long enough to give them all the development they need to be interesting. I truly and honestly feel the potential was there to have an interesting and likable cast, but it never takes the extra step needed to make this happen. When it comes down to it, the story does the bare minimum required to keep the gameplay moving. This is good enough in most cases, but it left me a bit disappointed.
This Game Put Me Back in Therapy
I won’t be pulling any punches here. This game has a lot of issues that compound into making this game unplayable. Let’s just get started shall we?
Being a real-time strategy game, the main gameplay elements are resource management and large scale combat, both of which are rather minimalistic in this title. As far as the resources go, you have two to worry about, stone and fruit. The former is used to build unit-creating structures, and the latter is used to create units. Generally speaking, there is a very limited number of resources to find on the map, meaning that you don’t have much room to experiment. This leads to some rather terrible trial and error gameplay, especially when you take into account the strengths versus weaknesses mechanic that is so important to the game’s combat (long range units are strong against flying units, flying units are strong against heavy units, etc.). The resources become more valuable as you progress through the game and unlock more powerful units to summon, but they cost more resources, meaning experimentation is near impossible. The game expects you to know which units are needed to be successful before you’ve even gathered said resources, as exploring the map means you will be spotted by the enemy and attacked. It was rather poorly thought out in this regard, often requiring you to play a map just to see what you are up against before trying it again with an attack plan in mind.
Mission objectives further complicate things by giving you tasks such as to protect the NPC, which will cause an automatic failure if you don’t find and save them in time. This automatic loss mechanic also applies to the main hero, so that if he dies you will also fail. Considering how RTS games are designed, with units expected to be expendable, this is a very stupid design decision. It makes your hero character all but useless in combat, and you are better off placing him in a safe corner somewhere and never touching him again. The same goes for your airship, which works as the spawn point for every unit you can create. It’s also the only means of consistently healing your units if you decide to build a healing temple. Even worse is that your objectives will often change more than once per mission, and sometimes the cutscenes that interrupt your game to change said objectives will also arbitrarily move your units to a new location for the sake of the cutscene, further ruining your chances of being tactical and strategic.
The game also sports an equipment system that allows you to give your hero characters slightly better stats, but considering your main attack force is always going to be your summoned creatures, it means very little in the long run and just acts as a means to slow your progression between missions. This is especially true since you have eleven characters, but are only allowed to use five of them (sometimes less) per mission.
Even the simplest mechanics weren’t taken into consideration. The cursor movement is terribly slow, and there is no way to speed it up without speeding up the movement of the units as well. It becomes impossible to switch between battle locations fast enough to be strategic even if you wanted to.
I remember reading about Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings a number of years ago. During the localization process, they made the game more difficult for Westerners, because (supposedly) Japanese gamers are less familiar with the RTS genre than we are. Whether that is true or not isn’t completely relevant, but playing Heroes of Mana definitely proves that Square believed that they were unfamiliar with the genre. The game has 27 main missions, and of those the first 10 contain tutorials. More than one third of the game’s story has tutorials, and not new tutorials either; you will see the same tutorial in four separate missions, and they are unskippable. Square, my problem with your game isn’t a lack of understanding on the way it is supposed to be played. My problem is that your game is so terribly programmed that it is broken.
Unit movement is arguably the most important aspect of any RTS game, and here the developers made some terrible design decisions. Despite being a game where you are supposed to control 25 units at a time in most cases, the battlefield doesn’t have free movement. Instead, it still works off a grid system, like in a tactics game. This becomes an issue almost immediately, as units can’t move diagonally and also can’t move past one another (with the exception of flying units. So if you have a line of units blocking a path, they will all bunch up and remain completely still. This also clashes with the level design, which instead of using large, flat areas, instead often uses castle structures and the like to create barricades and paths that further complicate movement. This makes things as simple as collecting resources a chore, because if you have too many units bringing in resources, they will all get congested around your airship and won’t actually be able to deliver said resources. This is a near automatic process in most RTS games, and here you can’t even get this to work without extreme levels of micromanagement.
The game has a number of smaller, nagging issues, but only one truly abhorrent flaw, which is such a large issue that it destroys the gameplay completely. The game’s pathfinding mechanics are awful. By that, I mean that while playing I had trouble making my units walk in a straight line. How you can fail to program something so basic is beyond my understanding. There were actual moments where I chose a single unit – not a group of units, one character – and tried to make it move ten steps to the east. Instead, the game decided it would be a better choice for them to move in the opposite direction, when there wasn’t a single obstacle in the way. Now, imagine having this issue multiplied by 25, when you have all available units taken up and you are in the heat of battle.
How are you supposed to manage enemy units and weaknesses, resource management and defense of both your hero and your airship when you literally can’t make your units do something as simple as walking in a straight #!$?*!% line?
The number of times I died because my units couldn’t follow a simple command was ridiculous. I tried everything. I tried just sending my entire army mass in one direction hoping that numbers would be enough to overpower the enemy. I tried micromanaging every unit on a singular basis, and nothing worked. I can honestly say that the only way I was able to beat this game was pure, dumb luck. I completed this game by repeatedly doing the same missions with the same strategy expecting different results, which is the literal definition of insanity by the way. But the sick thing is, I DID get different results.
This game having this fundamental flaw is the equivalent of having a first person shooter where the gun only has a ten percent chance of actually firing. At this point, why would you even try? Is it worth the struggle? Even when the game is functioning properly (which is never), it still has no semblance of strategy, which in a REAL TIME STRATEGY game, is kind of an issue. This game is so pathetically broken that I almost didn’t finish it at all. I almost COULDN’T finish it because I didn’t think I had the skill to overcome this abysmal level of control. This game made me ragequit, and I am not the type of person who falls prey to that way of thinking. It’s so bad that I have to question if it was made that way on purpose, and that is just unbelievably pathetic. Just typing about it Is pissing me off, so I’m going to wrap this analysis up before I raise my blood pressure to even unsafer levels.
The End is Nigh
Well, the Mana series is over now. It was a wild ride that had some high peaks and some very, very, very, very VERY low valleys. Heroes of Mana has put such a sour taste in my mouth that I can’t say I will miss the series at all now that I’m done with it. Square… just… stop. Just stop. I don’t want to see another Mana game from you. Hell, I’m not sure I want to see any new game from you. My only hope for the Nier sequel is that it is being developed by Platinum Games. Even then I’m skeptical, and that is sad, as Nier is one of my all-time favorites.
How any company could release a game in this state is completely beyond my understanding. What is even more perplexing is that they released Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings only one month later; a game with the same basic gameplay and the same art style that was not only playable, but extremely good considering the limitations they had to work around. It is just mind boggling, and even as I type this, I’m struggling to find any words to describe my disbelief. I’m just done. I give up. It is truly a shame that the Mana series had to end this way.
While I am now finished with the Mana series, I don’t really consider this synopsis complete. I feel like I would be remiss to not talk about the Mana series’ estranged cousin, Secret of Evermore. Why, you ask? Because I like to be as thorough as possible; that, and when else will I have the chance to talk about this game? Not to mention, I feel obligated to end my first synopsis on a happier note than this, even if it is just marginally happier. However, that is yet to be seen.
Anyway, I hope to see you next time on Stiles’ Series Synopsis!
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net