Dawn of Mana
is tremendously successful in incorporating its story and character elements into the lore of the Mana
series and allowing its plot to fit snugly within the rest of the World of Mana franchise
. This estimation, however, does not speak to the quality of the story, or game, itself.
It is simply astounding how Dawn of Mana can attempt to be epic with such an absurdly narrow scope: A young boy named Keldric has been living peacefully on the island of Illusia throughout his life when an evil empire invades and kidnaps the Tree Maiden (and love interest) Ritzia. This superbly trite convention quickly turns into grounds for cataclysmic world demolition. A comparison to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
is not only convenient—it’s necessary. Perhaps it was about the time that I exited my first dungeon, the inside of a tree, with my new fairy companion, Faye, that I began to smell something fishy. With the exception of an original (though nonsensical) twist ending, Dawn of Mana
follows the Zelda
archetype quite comfortably till its bitter, hackneyed end.
Character development is superficial but decent nonetheless. Square Enix has finally voiced the elemental spirits and given each a different accent; my personal favorite: German Undine. Faerie friend Faye provides for some rather entertaining conversation throughout the course of the game and appears as more of a fun companion than the fly on the wall which Navi was. Villain Stroud, meanwhile, has all the eloquence and dramatic cunning of a fourth grader after a Power Rangers
marathon. In fact, much of the game is spent in tired eye-rolling at the sheer triteness of the dialogue. Enigmatic second-in-command? Check. Resurrection of an ancient evil? Check. Best friend turned foe and a terrible epiphany regarding the villain? Check and check. To the credit of Dawn of Mana
, however, Watts is back. And let’s be frank here: Watts has never ceased to be awesome.
The very visage of awesome.
The game is a graphic pleasure. Art has always been one of Seiken Densetu
’s fortés, and Dawn of Mana does not disappoint. System menus and in-game graphics are artistically composed to a degree that lends a very organic and ornate mood to the title without suffering from the inherent busyness and visual frustration apparent in titles attempting the same approach, listing Radiata Stories
as a chief offender in that particular category. The FMV sequences are shockingly impressive and give a feel to the title which is, strangely enough, missing from its actual gameplay.
There are nine chapters to the main story and Keldric begins each at Level 1. By hitting objects into enemies or enemies into one another, these enemies will become panicked and run around in circles cursing you to high heaven. Attacking them at this point will yield medals which increase Keldric’s statistics several points at a time. At the end of each chapter the player is graded with a letter rank based on enemies killed, medals acquired, etc., and may receive emblems to equip at the start of another chapter for an initial stat boost or other similar effect. This method of stat increase was clearly engaged to utilize the Havoc physics engine which Dawn of Mana boasts to full effect. Unfortunately, the effect is almost too full. Enemies (and Keldric) fly far away when hit and the already poor controls help little when trying to orient capricious objects for throwing or pushing.
Like Vegas, but you keep nothing.
Worse, Keldric does not thrust in the general direction of his enemies during attacks, like Sora in Kingdom Hearts
an become frustrating. The camera is also a disaster, which complicates matters significantly. Enemies have to be in sight to be locked on to, and even the simplest of jumping puzzles seem to assume a degree of frustration when the camera is intent on defecating all over your fun. Furthermore, the game’s radar is not drawn to any kind of scale and features dots representing enemies and objects dispersed with relative distances—the end result is tremendously unhelpful.
To spice up the button mashing, Keldric’s blade is capable of acting as a whip to grab enemies or objects for the tossing. It also comes equipped with the ability to shoot ammunition based on the elemental spirits (with expected results). Shade will poison, Undine will freeze, and there is no greater pleasure than sending Gnome shot into a closely-huddled group of enemies. Faerie Faye can also cast spells on Keldric in the middle of battle, lending him a quick heal or a power buff.
Thankfully, composers Kenji Ito
, Sword of Mana
) and Tsuyoshi Sekito
(Brave Fencer Musashi
, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song
) were able to put together a stellar soundtrack which never disappoints and is easily the bright spot of this otherwise dim title. On an exciting note, several battle tracks from previous installments in the series have been re-arranged for the game’s Battle Arena mode by Masayoshi Soken
and Junya Nakano
. The result? Maximum rock. Selections include “Meridian Worship” (Secret of Mana
), “Don’t Hunt the Fairy” (Seiken Densetsu 3
), and “Irwin On Reflection” (Legend of Mana
). When environments grow stagnant and battle just won’t suffice, the lovely soundtrack manages to keep the mood (and fun) afloat, proving once again how integral a high-quality score is to any title.
In terms of replay value, Dawn of Mana
has much in store. In fact, the manner in which the title is designed to be replayed multiple times and the variety of objects to purchase at the game store suggest that the title was created with completists in mind. Once they trudge through the initial run, these same people may find the game ease up in frustration and become a relatively fun experience to complete. There is a great deal to be said in participating in the Battle Arena challenges: they offer straight combat to the delightful sounds of the aforementioned Seiken Densetsu
tracks. Pets gained by acquiring pet eggs at the store or during the main game also fight by your side in this mode. This no-nonsense experience varies vastly from the main story and would be well worth it to one willing to put out some nine mildly-entertaining hours to put away the story mode first.
In the end, I had found myself wanting to progress not for more battle, but rather to continue experiencing the creatively designed and lush environments, enjoy the amazing soundtrack, and continue the quaint, albeit banal, story. The degree to which the artistic elements have overtaken the schizophrenic gameplay of Dawn of Mana nears hilarity. However, this wears off and the later level design becomes extremely repetitious and bland. Boss battles, though they appear innovative at first, quickly become long and frustrating.
Thusly has Koichi Ishii
finally succeeded in creating a fourth installment to the Seiken Densetsu
series, taking a nice idea and driving it straight into the ground. The presentation may be dazzling, but the gameplay, the core of any adventure, is flawed from a simple technical perspective. Ultimately, Dawn of Mana
reduces to an exercise in candy-coated tedium. But if you squint really, really hard, you might just feel like you’re playing Secret of Mana.