Welcome to the first official entry of Stiles’ Series Synopsis, where I will be reviewing and analyzing the games that kicked off the Mana series. What a mixed bag these games turned out to be.
Sword of Mana
Well this has been a long time coming; by that I mean both finally creating my dream project of Stiles’ Series Synopsis, and finally doing a full playthrough of the Mana series. Before I begin, it is important I give a bit of background so you know where I’m coming from when I start my analysis.
The Mana series is one I have dabbled in previously, and I had finished about half the games in it before I started this playthrough. Sadly for me, the games I had beaten had been the weaker ones (Sword of Mana, Children of Mana, and Dawn of Mana specifically). That being said, I am excited to be entering this series with the supposed best games still ahead of me, especially the often applauded Secret of Mana. Being such a die-hard fan of old Square Enix, I felt it was necessary for me to finally tackle this series (along with the poll I held earlier that put this series in the lead, so thank you once more to everyone who voted).
As for SSS itself, for every game I play, I will be putting up another review/analysis. I will follow up the series with a Final Thoughts section where I will rank the games according to my preference as well as tie up any other loose ends. Now that the intro is out of the way, let’s delve into the first game in the series: Sword of Mana.
Look at the Pretty Colors!
The graphical design of the game is bright and colorful, some sections looking like they could have been painted with watercolor. The sprites are all large and detailed, and the animation is well done. Each area is created beautifully and the vibrant colors really helped to make the world more inviting. Out of everything the game does, this is where it succeeds most. The graphics do stutter now and then though, having rather frequent screen tearing and even slow down at parts, which became rather distracting by the end.
The sound design, on the other hand, is a mixed bag, providing only a couple of notable tracks (such as the recurring Mana theme) while the rest of the music ranges from bland to flat out awful. My initial reaction was to blame this on the poor audio of the Game Boy Advance itself, but I have played other games on the GBA that have much better sound quality so it’s not really an excuse here.
The Story Heard ’round the World (Over and Over Again)
This section of the analysis will contain spoilers, but honestly the game’s plot is so predictable and boring that it doesn’t really matter. In fact, that leads me to one of the game’s biggest issues: the dialogue and story delivery. I’d be hard pressed to find a game that uses so much dialogue to say so little, and it becomes even more agonizing when you take the hokey writing into consideration. I know this is a game rated ‘E for Everyone’, but when someone dies and your main character shouts ‘Blaaaassst it!’ at the top of his lungs in dismay, the scene tends to lose all credibility. To be honest I was never interested in the story to begin with, but when the foreshadowing is so thick and pathetically blatant that you know the entire plot before it ever happens, it makes all of the dialogue even more frustrating to sit through.
The game also fails at having emotional weight, despite its attempts to tug at the player’s heartstrings at multiple points. There are several completely pointless character deaths that are supposed to be meaningful but aren’t, because the game never takes the time to develop any of its characters. It’s a recurring theme that is punctuated in the finale, where the main female lead is forced to sacrifice herself to take her destined place as the Tree of Mana. Not only is this played as a ‘twist’ on the male character’s path, but apparently there was supposed to be some sort of hinted romance between the two despite their rather limited interactivity. The story worked just fine with them being friends. The repeated and forced attempts at making the story more emotionally gripping ultimately backfires, and makes the experience feel even more empty.
The main character’s story is your classic revenge tale, where he is out to kill the person who murdered his parents. In a cruel twist of fate, he ends up killing the parents of his enemy, and the revelation of that information is painful for the hero. I found it pretty cool that the game turned the tables in this way, showing that you are no better than the person you have been chasing this entire time, and this was the only thing that I felt the game did well in terms of story. Of course, this had to be ruined mere moments later when the hero shouts something akin to, ‘I never wanted to kill anyone!’ even though he has spent the entire game up to this point literally talking about how much he, in fact, does want to murder the antagonist. Smooth move, writers.
I guess it is important to note that the game offers you two characters to play the game through with, those being the Hero or the Heroine. But the story remains nearly identical either way. Each character has one unique area, and they both have a different starting weapon (a sword or a staff respectively). Aside from that, nothing is different, which makes for a rather misleading display of ‘replay value’.
I am sorry the story analysis is so thin here, but really the story is so forgettable and so predictable that breaking it down any further would be both a waste of my time and a waste of your time. Think of the most generic hero’s tale story you have ever read or played through… you do it? There, you have successfully experienced everything Sword of Mana‘s plot has to offer, and perhaps even more than Sword of Mana‘s plot has to offer. It really boils down to a game that feels like it’s too long-winded for its own good, and that makes the boring moments more apparent.
Let’s Over Complicate Things
In terms of combat, the game remains functional but bland. You fight enemies in real time with a total of eight different weapon types. The weapon types provide for an immunity versus effectiveness mechanic, where a lot of enemies can only be hurt by certain weapons. This creates an issue where you have to make your character equally proficient with all eight weapon types, which is fine at first because you gain levels with weapons at a fairly quick pace. This does become boring towards the end of the game when nearly every enemy you face will resist a different weapon type, forcing you to pause the game to switch weapons multiple times per battle, severely breaking the game’s flow.
The game has a rudimentary combo system with strict timing that allows you to string three hits together with certain weapons if you time the hits just right, but by the end of my playthrough I still couldn’t make the attacks follow through every single time. Each time you attack an enemy (combo or not), you contribute to a meter at the bottom of the screen that stays filled until you hold down the attack button and release an even more powerful hit, allowing you to save it for when you deem most necessary.
When you add in the rest of the game’s combat elements it becomes an even more gruelling system. On top of the eight weapon types, you also have eight magic spirits that can be used to provide both a support spell and an attack spell, depending on how long you hold down your spell casting button. This provides for an interesting (though fickle) system that forces you to use magic in real time. The way the offensive spells act is also determined by which weapon you have equipped, making for even more variety, but more often than not leading to more needless weapon switching because only a few of the spell animations are effective.The slow speed of spell casting made it all but useless for everything but a weak healing spell in my playthrough, the only exception being the occasional enemy that was immune to physical attacks, forcing me to spam underpowered spells to defeat it.
Spells aren’t your only means of healing however, which further downplays their usefulness. Money is very easy to come by, and the inventory space that allows for ninety-nine of each item means that you will never be in any real danger of dying if you play intelligently. It really destroys any amount of urgency the game may have had.
All these things considered, I found the combat at least mildly entertaining, although it lacked depth and grew bothersome towards the end of the game. The basic combat strategy is simply to attack as often as possible, making the vast majority of enemies more of a nuisance than a threat. Even the bosses were absolutely pathetic in terms of difficulty. If you are looking for a nice, breezy action RPG to play through, this is a great contender in that regard.
I’ve yet to talk about your AI partners that you will get throughout the game… mostly because they are completely useless and will die almost instantly. It is almost in your best interest to let them die so they don’t get in the way. Luckily their inclusion won’t hinder your gameplay experience at all, and the game even offers you the ability of switching between them at will with the select button, but doing so will mean leaving your primary character in the hands of the brain dead AI, and if the primary character dies for any reason, it is an automatic game over. This was a rather pointless addition.
Your character and level progression are handled fairly uniquely. While the usual experience system is rather normal, when you level up you get to choose which stats you would like to raise, and doing so leads to a rather poorly explained class system which makes you more proficient with certain combat styles. I found this implementation rather pointless, adding just one more thing to slow down the game’s progression. As I mentioned previously, your skill with weapons is leveled separately; all this does is serve to make you switch weapons often so they all stay up to date.
More curious than the character progression is the weapon upgrade system, which has you using loot drops to synthesize more powerful equipment. Without going into too much detail, this system was extremely superficial and just served to flood your inventory with useless items and make you spend money on upgrades you didn’t need. It was very rare to see any upgrades that made a substantial change to your damage output and it just served to make the game feel even more bloated.
Exploration is handled well enough I suppose; you would be traveling from one colorful destination to the next, killing everything you see in between. The game has a few puzzles to stall your progression with varying degrees of success, and there is even a clunky ‘jump’ mechanic to help you get around. This is also hit and miss because the way the levels are designed often leave it difficult for you to tell which ledges are reachable and which are not. This isn’t a platforming game and you will never die due to missing a jump; you either jump to a new location, or you remain in place with no repercussions. Really, the jump button becomes yet another pointless addition as there are no such things as ‘one way’ jumps, so every location you can jump at quite literally works as a two-way hurdle, just slowing your progression once more.
The game has a great number of sidequests that you can do if you choose to, but their rewards are never really worth it and they usually amount to rather boring fetch quests that will have you farming for rare enemy drops. You are better off ignoring them completely as they add nothing of value to the experience and are yet another aspect of the game that was so forgettable that I almost forgot to mention them in this write up at all.
The most annoying thing about the game’s progression is the fact that enemies respawn mere seconds after you have cleared a room. This mechanic becomes so infuriating that it makes you want to avoid enemies rather than kill them because it becomes so tedious. It also completely eliminates the use of the ‘resting’ mechanic which slowly recharges your MP. This isn’t a huge loss because of the vast amount of healing items at your disposal and the underpowered magic system making MP use limited anyway, but it is yet another instance of the game designers shoving a bunch of contradictory concepts and gameplay elements together into a system that doesn’t need them.
All right, all right. It’s not fair for me to keep talking about the Mana series without talking about its true roots. While Sword of Mana is the first canonical entry, it is actually a reimagining of Final Fantasy Adventure for the Gameboy.This means that the first ever edition of SSS is actually a double feature.
Final Fantasy Adventure
The true first entry of the Mana series actually began on the Game Boy and was considered a spin-off to the Final Fantasy series. Recently, this game received a full fledged remake for smartphones and PS Vita titled Adventures of Mana. This is a screen by screen replication, unlike Sword of Mana which is a reimagining. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to fully complete this version, and I didn’t want to bloat this analysis by covering a 3rd title in the first article. I will likely take a look at it sometime in the future, but it is not in the cards for this Stiles’ Series Synopsis. That being said, let’s dive into the truly humble beginnings of the series
Look at the Pretty… Monochrome?
I think it is fairly obvious to say that the original Game Boy can’t exactly compete in terms of graphics. The two tone screen and the limited size means that not all that much can be done with the game. That being said, there were a few sprites that I found to be well designed, and the way the game was drawn left it very visibly clear what things were. The game lacks the colorful and artistic appeal of the later Mana entries, but that is to be expected.
What I didn’t expect, however, was how well implemented the sound design would be. Surprisingly, the music on the original Game Boy is more catchy to me and has better sound quality than the Game Boy Advance version, but I suppose that would come down to personal taste (I will post both songs beneath this section so you can compare for yourself). The sound is also used as a gameplay mechanic here, being the main indicator of whether or not your weapons are effective against the enemies you are attacking and as a means of determining if there is a secret doorway behind a wall. I know this has been done in other games, but I feel that sound design is a rather underutilized tool (at least outside of the horror genre) and I was very happy to see it so well used here.
The Story Heard ’round the World (Again, but for the First Time)
While the story of Final Fantasy Adventure follows the same basic plot points, a lot of the details are vastly different (a particular one that comes to mind is that a character who plays a major role in Sword of Mana dies in the intro of this title). It is surprising to me that the game, coming out on the original Game Boy, had as much story as it did, but it definitely suffers from space and the hardware limitations of the time. Some sentences purposefully leave out words in an attempt to fit everything on screen and it is a bit of a mess, but seeing as the story of both versions is rather forgettable, I don’t see this as a particularly big misstep.
Back to Basics
In terms of combat, Final Fantasy Adventure doesn’t give you quite the same level of options as Sword of Mana does, but the quick pace and more deadly encounters leave it feeling much more satisfying. You don’t have combo attacks anymore, but your hits are far less sluggish so they aren’t needed. Your power attacks are handled differently as well. Instead of filling a meter by attacking, you fill a meter by waiting between attacks. I hated this implementation at first because the slow speed of the meter made the power attacks all but useless, but as you level up the bar will fill much faster, making it a more valid combat option and also giving a great indication of how much more powerful you have become besides the usual increase in damage. Some enemies are still immune to certain weapon types which means you will be frequently switching them, but the amount of weapon types available to you is slimmer which makes it much more manageable. I also feel that the magic system works much better here, letting you pick one spell at a time from a menu, but casting it becomes an instant action once it is set to that button. This game is a perfect example of simplicity leading to a much more fulfilling experience. My only real complaint would be that the game’s visual feedback can be a bit lacking at times, such that you aren’t really sure if you are doing damage to an enemy or not, but the sound design will give you the real clue, so the sound is a must.
Items are handled the same way as magic is, allowing you to equip everything from keys to healing potions and assigning them to your ‘B’ button. Unlike Sword of Mana, your inventory is much more limited, only allowing a dozen or so items overall and you can only carry small stacks of each item at a time, creating an amount of resource management that was key to making the game more strategic and enjoyable. The downside to this I that poor item management can make the game unwinnable, especially if you don’t have enough keys and you cause yourself to get locked in a room somewhere. This is a terrible flaw in the game design that they didn’t give you a way out of, but on the other hand, it is easily avoidable if you just make use of both of your save files and make sure to stay well stocked on keys.
Weapon upgrades are handled much more traditionally in this title, usually either being purchased in stores or being hidden in treasure chests inside levels. This brought a level of enjoyment to the game that I didn’t even notice Sword of Mana was lacking until I got here. Money once again felt useful and finding weapons in a dungeon is much more fun than finding the game’s equivalent of a potion, or even better, a ‘stick’ that will be used as a minimal upgrade for a weapon later on.
The game’s exploration borrows rather heavily from The Legend of Zelda, the areas drawn on a screen by screen basis that leave every room an arena and most puzzles self-contained. Unlike Sword of Mana, once you defeat all the enemies in a room they will remain defeated until you move a few screens away and return, which eliminates one of the most annoying parts of Sword of Mana‘s game design. This backfires once in a while, especially in terms of needing to farm for certain items or some puzzles becoming unsolvable because the monsters aren’t there to activate switches. Usually a save and reset will solve this problem, and since you can save anywhere this was no more than a mild inconvenience to me.
Though the map design is far more basic in structure than Sword of Mana, I found the exploration a lot more fun. Having to hit walls to find hidden passages was extremely entertaining and made me feel more involved than just moving one screen to another, though it isn’t necessarily a new gameplay innovation. I felt far more accomplishment in playing this game than I ever did with Sword of Mana.
Final Thoughts: The Importance of Canon
This write-up has presented me with a bit of an interesting dilemma. Final Fantasy Adventure is by far the superior game, but Sword of Mana is the canonical entry in the series. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend Sword of Mana to anyone unless they are desperately interested in playing every Mana game. There is nothing offensive about the game, and I don’t think it is awful, but I also wouldn’t suggest it to anyone as a fun experience either. On the other hand, this is an analysis of the Mana series, and because of that and the fact that Sword of Mana is the canonical entry, it will be the basis of comparison for the following entries as we move along.
That being said, Sword of Mana felt like a bloated mess overall. The biggest flaw is that they were trying to force so much content into it that the game doesn’t really work anymore.
The simple level-up system with the convoluted and hidden class system that adds nothing of importance to the game. The unnecessary side quests that pad out an adventure that already feels padded. The text-heavy story that always feels like it is spinning its wheels instead of saying something interesting. A combat system which gives you 16 separate weapons and spells that it expects you to have spent time leveling up. Sometimes less is more, and that is something that I wish the designers had taken to heart here.
This is honestly a bit depressing; this title made for a rather bland first entry to SSS. I always say that bland games are the most difficult to talk about because they haven’t done anything good enough to praise or anything bad enough to be infuriated by, and this game really backs up those thoughts. Luckily, I have quite a bit more to say about the next one. I hope you will join me next time when I tackle the SNES classic, Secret of Mana!
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net