Review: Children of Mana is colorfully redundant

mana1.jpgFROM JASON’S RECHARGING DS — So I just got around to playing Children of Mana — only about a year and a half after its release. That’s how I roll with the discounted used titles.

Actually, I got it for free with a trade-in at GameStop and have $5 left over, so I don’t feel like I lost anything with what turned out to be a slightly under-par game. It’s magically delicious, but seems to be pretty much just for kids.

All cereal puns aside, Childen of Mana is an incredibly vibrant game with rich art. Unfortunately, it offers pretty shallow gameplay, repetitive quests into just a handful of different environments, and doesn’t advance your inventory often enough to make me care about hunting new stuff.

I’m not saying it’s a horrible game; it’s actually pretty fun in an arcadish sort of way. But as a functional RPG it has a few drawbacks, and is more about hacking at the X and A buttons than forming strategy.

There’s only one location with NPCs and it’s very small. The Isle of Illusia, which sounds cool but is only the size of my back yard, is home to the Tree of Mana, some elemental spirits, and a handful of humans. The later will give you fetch quest after fetch quest after fetch quest after… well, you get the point.

From there you’ll dungeon dive into the same four or five locations the entire game. Even the rooms you visit there are endlessly recycled, though in random order each time. There’s the Mana Tower, which is a pretty typical dungeon; Topple, which has an old-school CGA blue and pink palette; Jadd, a desert that’s the best looking of the levels but which forces you to run around smashing cacti more often than is fun; and Lorimar, which puts you on the ramparts of a wintered fortress and mixes regular terrain with patches of ice.

You don’t even have to do anything particularly clever to beat the levels — just kill all the monsters, a certain group of monsters, or smash chests or conspicuous parts of the environment until you get the key to move to the next floor. There’s a boss battle the first time you get to the end of each dungeon. The first one’s a bit tricky to figure out, but the others consist mainly of circling behind the boss and mashing the melee buttons for a few seconds.

In some ways, Children of Mana has the same Playskool My-First-RPG feel as Fate, but at least there are more than just the one dungeon here, redundant as your constant return to them may be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look quite as good as Fate, there aren’t as many or as impressive enemies, and only a fraction of the weapons, armor, and spells.

There are four weapons in COM, and you can wield two at a time. Each even has two uses: The sword slashes and blocks arrows, the flail swings and can be used as a grappling hook (it’s nowhere near as cool as the one in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass), the bow shoots and can double as a harp to put enemies to sleep (useless), and the hammer can send enemies bouncing around the screen or ground-pound.

There are also a bunch of elemental sidekicks that can be summoned in battle to deal explosive damage, heal, or a couple of other effects. You can only take one elemental into a dungeon at a time, though, and it’s always — ALWAYS — faster just to hack through the enemies or use an over-abundant healing item.

Attack, defense and other attributes can be upgraded with traditional inventory items but also with gems. You weigh and choose which gems to activate (by putting them in a small grid according to size and shape) to grant special powers and stat bonuses. It’s a bit like the old FFVII materia deal, except extremely limited. The whole system is stunted because there’s little doubt which gems are optimum.

There’s also a fusion system to make new gems from old ones, which is fun except that it requires obscene amounts of money. That, in turn, requires hours of painful dungeon crawling side-quests for small rewards.

I would recommend this game if you are pretty young (up to maybe 10 or 12), or if you like uncomplicated, no-brainer action RPGs. There’s nothing really wrong with that, I guess, if it’s just a matter of taste. Not everybody wants a 40-hour deep magic epic.

PROS:

  • Bright, exquisitely cartoonish art
  • Several main characters to choose and customize at the start of the game
  • Easy learning curve
  • Side-quest until your heart’s content
  • CONS:

  • Repetitive to the point of supreme annoyance
  • Few monster types
  • Side-quest until your heart weeps
  • A fairly shallow story that doesn’t really impact gameplay at all
  • PURCHASE IF:

  • You’ve never played an action RPG
  • You want an adventure without headache-y puzzles
  • You’re short on cash
  • You are Japanese (they apparently loved it over there)
  • AVOID IF:

  • You are older than 14
  • You put a premium on exploration
  • You’ve already played Fate
  • You like games with a ton of options and forks
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