Children of Mana is a dungeon crawler sequel to the Mana games, and more specifically the first game of the World of Mana series. Big difference in genre from the original pure Action RPG of the originals, the game has had mixed reviews. Through this article I will be reviewing the game, and giving opinions from a game development point of view.
When you first start the game, the simplicity of the interface is the first thing that hits you. The entire game uses this same interface. Being a DS game, all buttons can be navigated using the arrows, or tapped. One somewhat annoying feature is that the first tap only selects a button, not clicks it. This system is convenient and easy to add to, but limited some menus and made them tedious. One example of this is seen in the shops, when buying or selling; pressing the arrows navigates through the buttons, instead of changing how many you want to buy, making it very slow if you don’t use the touch screen. Another annoyance is with the in game menu; exiting out of a submenu completely closes the menu, instead of just going back a page. The combat controls were very much like the old games, allowing you to switch items and equipment easily, and in this game you can equip two weapons at once, allowing you to come up with your own play style. There was one small bug in the system however, in that sometimes selecting something in the circle menu doesn’t close the menu, and you have to press the button again.
Gameplay is very simple, so this paragraph will be short. There is a single town, with 3 shops and a bunch of NPCs. The shops are the Item Shop, which sells basically everything, the Quest Shop, where you get quests, and the Gem shop, which offer services for gems, more on them later. The NPCs include spirits, which can be taken with you to give you two magic spells, and other towns folk, who can give you hints for the story line, or side quests to get unique gear and special items. From the town, you go out on quests to one of many areas. Each area has a portal, which may be hidden, and a key, which is always hidden. Each floor you look for the key, the “Gleamdrop”, and progress through from zone to zone until you finish. The story mode missions have a scoring system, and can be retried throughout the game, otherwise you need quests to head out, there are no open adventures.
Being a mostly single player game, it is interesting that there is actually a decent player creation system in it. When you start, you pick one of four characters, a Warrior, Mage, Tank or Dancer, can pick from multiple colour pallets and name the character. The differences between the characters is in their stat progression, and what type of armour they wear. The Warrior and Tank can wear armour, while the Mage and Dancer wear robes. They can all use any weapon, but their stats make them biased towards certain play styles. The Warrior is balanced, having average stats across the board. The Mage has very low health and defence, but the highest magic points and other magic related stats. The Tank has the highest health and defence, but the lowest magic points and critical chance. The dancer is just below average with melee stats, and above average with magic, with the highest critical chance.
The town is quite simple, there is one building with the three shops in it, 2 other buildings with NPCs (one is locked when the game starts) and the rest of the town is just a small walking area between them. All around town are spirits, which may give tips, side quests, or just chat. The towns folk usually just talk about what is going on at that point in time, but sometimes have quests as well. Aside from that, the town isn’t all that interesting.
The fields and dungeons of the game are where most the fun is had, but definitely leave something to desire after playing enough. Each one is broken into “zones”, basically floors, that you need to achieve some goal to get the key to the next one. Generally, you either have to kill everything, a specific monster(usually minibosses) or find it hidden in the breakables of the level. The levels themselves are semi randomized, consisting of multiple large premade chunks being pieced together. This gives some diversity early on, but eventually you will memorize where everything is in each chunk, and the levels become boring. Most of the zones in early dungeons also only use 1 to 3 chunks, making them quite small and predictable. There are a few interesting features in the dungeons later on, but the levels still tend to be quite predictable.
Items in Children of Mana also leave a bit to be desired, although it does have an interesting gem system. The equipment systems is mostly linear, with a few uniques along the way from side quests. Each equipment has a stat, and that is all it improves. Weapons improve attack, armour increases defence, accessories increase magic attack. All other stats are increased only by levelling or using gems. At the beginning of the game, you are given a gem frame, which you can slot gems into to change your combos, stats, and give other passive skills. It is similar to playing tetris with skills, like materia in FF7. This lets you customize your build and create unique characters, although the frame is so small that you can’t use too many gems at once. I think it would of been more interesting with the gems being generally weaker, but smaller so you could fit more in the frame. It would also be nice if there was more interaction between the gems, aside from fusing them to make new gems at the Gem Shop.
The combat system is quite simple but fun. You can equip 2 weapons, but change them at any time during combat. Items are changed the same way. One button for swinging each weapon, or holding down for a charged ability, one button for magic, and one for using your item. The combat is fun at the beginning, but becomes a bit too easy quickly. Some of the bosses are quite fun though, following a more puzzle-boss style. There are only 2 major flaws in the combat system that can be very frustrating. The first is the knockback, which is completely insane. There’s also what seems to be an attempt at realism, by making knockback cause knockback. The problem is that there’s no “force” measurement, meaning multiple enemies in a small area can bounce off each other and walls almost infinitely, sometimes catching you in the chain. The second is aiming with the bow, which never seems to point where you want. The collision also is a bit wonky with the arrows.
Aside from the gem frame, which as stated before isn’t as unique as it first seems, there isn’t any really unique systems in the game. This is probably the biggest criticism I could think of for a game, and a sign that the game needs something else added. The game works, and has solid design ideas behind it, but nothing new and unique. The only somewhat interesting feature not mentioned so far is multiplayer, but that is far from unique, and without anyone else with the game near you, it’s a wasted feature.
Overall, my opinion is the game needs polish, and something special to help it stand out. There is also a lot of bugs that need ironing out, and features that could be more convenient for the player. The save system, for instance, always starts at the first slot, not the current slot, meaning a high risk for accidentally saving over another file. There is also some very wierd design choices, such as some monster abilities only working horizontally, making them much less threatening. Similar to that, diagonals are very awkward. You can move and attack diagonally, but your character can’t stand that way, and will default to the cardinal directions when you let go of the controls. Also, the knockback system needs a very big reworking, such as not allowing bouncing off walls, or for something already on the ground to be knocked back again. You should be able to pick your target with the bow, possibly by holding down the R button and hitting the arrows. The gem system, although it has promise, also needs some reworking.
Although a fun game to play, and an interesting addition to the Mana story, the game could have used a lot more work. A bit of polish and cleaning up, and the game could of been much more popular. The game was very popular in Japan, where it would be easier to find others to play with, so maybe the charm in the game is more in the end game multiplayer, although I have nobody to test this with myself.