Sword of Mana review
When it comes to RPGs the Gameboy Advance is certainly in no short supply. From your Golden Suns to your Breath of Fires, there is something for all tastes. From this vast sea comes another entry into the genre, a not-so-little game called Sword of Mana.
The overall plot is perhaps a little cliche at this point. The girl is somehow a kind of 'chosen', whose clan was killed by the dark lord guy and spends her life running and hiding until the bad guys effectively catch up to her. The guy is the fighter seeking revenge when his parents get caught in the mess and killed. The pair eventually meet up years later and find themselves in a fight against the empire.
Well, cliche it may be, but there are some genuinely interesting backstories in here and some of the characters really do present personalities and motivations that grab your attention. Some events in the game will really get to you as well, like the deaths of close friends or the conflict with the empire. The idea of the game presenting different sides of the story depending on which route you play through is also a cool idea.
The main problem I have is that the whole progression is so painfully slow. Even for an RPG the characters in the game seem to ramble on pointlessly for ages and it takes ages to get events moving. At some point I found myself not caring anymore about the events happening and I just wanted to move on to the next sequence of gameplay.
Graphically the game is quite impressive. The character sprites are very detailed, with a rather charming chibi-styled appearance and matched up with accurate and fluid animations to mimic the attack and movement actions of them. The game world has been built up wonderfully too, with layouts and features very fitting to the setting of the game. Rough ledges, flourishing trees and numerous buildings are just some of the things you'll see. Villages really do look alive and deserted areas give off a real sense of emptiness.
The way the game handles day and night is also a nice touch. The transition is more abrupt than expected, as blocks of time pass only when you move from one area to another, but seeing the different environments at day, night and even awash in orange as the sun sets is brilliant.
The music collection has that theme of medieval fantasy to it, with impressive tracks that work very well to emphasize the elements of the title. From the serene melodies of the wilderness to the haunting tunes of the manors, the selection is both varied and well suited. There are also some rather distinct sound effects in here and these do their job to a high degree as well.
At the beginning of the game you get to choose between the male and female protagonists of the game, and your choice here will determine who your main character will be, as well as deciding the route you take throughout the game. For most of the game you will have two characters under your command, but whereas one will always be the character you chose the other one will keep changing as you progress. There's a sense of disassociation as your partner keeps switching but this does help keep things varied. Your choice will also indirectly affect the difficulty as well. The male hero is designed to be the physical brute, with high stats in weapon attacks and defence allowing him to mow down enemies better. The female lead is more proficient in magic but this area is called upon much less, making her journey more difficult.
Regardless of who you choose you must then sit through a (very lengthy) opening sequence of events until you finally start playing the game for real. Not long after you're thrown into a battle for your life... well, a fight against the very odd wildlife anyway. SoM allows for real time battling where you can actively attack as you please. Essentially you have a few options open to you.
Melee fighting allows you to take a weapon and slam it into enemies repeatedly. There are nine weapons in the game in total (seven can be acquired by both characters, whereas the remaining two are starting weapons unique to each character). Each weapon plays out a little differently and most can perform combo attacks with the correct timing of the attacks. Timing combos is often important, as it is these combos that will rack up the damage. For every successful hit you manage to land you will also fill up the meter at the bottom of the screen a little. Once full you can unleash a special attack based on the weapon you have equipped (in most cases this is simply a more powerful variant of the standard attack). The options are varied enough to be enjoyable. These weapons can also be levelled up by using them a lot, increasing their damage output with prolonged use.
However, this aspect is also pretty clumsy in execution. Weapons are categorized into three types based on their type of attack method, which are slash, bash and jab. You'll find that enemies possess strengths and weaknesses to the different types of weapons, and some enemies will be totally resistant. In theory this should introduce an element of strategy in picking the right weapon for the job, but the problem is that actually changing weapons is a fairly tedious task. Pressing start brings up the main menu in the form of a circle of icons. You then have to rotate around to the weapon icon, select it, rotate the new layout of icons to a suitable weapons and select it. That alone wouldn't be so bad, but the setup of the encounters means you need to change weapons quite often.
Magic is also an option in battle. As you play you will gain magic spirits that will join you and allow you to access their magic element spells. There are eight spirits in all, with two spells for each one. Using a spell for the currently assigned spirit is easy. Pressing R performs the support spell, while holding and then releasing R uses the attack spell. Support spells are designed to boost you and your partner, such as healing, increasing attack or curing status. Attack spells are mainly designed to inflict damage, especially where normal weapons fail, but may also inflict bad statuses on the target. One of the cool concepts about the magic setup is that the way attack spells are fired off is based on the currently equipped weapon.
However, like with normal weapons, the system is clumsy. You can only use spells for the spirit currently assigned to you, so using a different spell type requires going through the pause menu and trying to switch spirits. The effect isn't as bad as with normal weapons since you're not required to use magic as much, but it's still a bother to cycle through 8 spirits to get the spells you want.
Items can also be actively used in the game by accessing them through the item menu. Once you have the healing magic of the light spirit then chances are you'll rarely use this feature, but it's a nice setup to fall back on in times of need. Most of the items usable here seem to consist of the healing type, although there's a few others like attack items (basically they replicate the effect of an attack spell).
Like most RPGs you will gain experience points for every enemy defeated and can level up. Unlike most RPGs you have a lot of control over what gets boosted. You can pick from a variety of level up sets every time, which affects which stats receive extra points. Do you want to boost the strengths of your character or cover their weaknesses? Levelling up in a certain manner can also bring on class changes, which provide extra boosts to your character, like increased damage from spells. You don't have this control over your partner's growth, but the ability to customize how your character progresses is excellent.
You're rarely alone in your travels though, as often you have a partner who will assist you. Unlike you, your partner's choice of combat options is limited (like Bogard only has a sword to fight with) but the idea is that having an extra support character is useful. Well, they would be if your partners had any sense at all, but alas they all possess the intelligence of a rock... or is that insulting rocks?
It seems that the computer has problems with the most basic of concepts in the game. Your partner will often just walk into attack, and when their own attacks aren't having any effect they will continue the assault regardless of how pointless it is. It is possible to tweak the battle behaviour in one of the menus, but it doesn't seem to make much of a difference.
One of the most ridiculous things is how the computer even has trouble walking around an area. Many times you may find your partner missing and will backtrack a little to find them having trouble getting past a rock. Never mind enemies, the biggest obstacle for your partner is the terrain itself. At these points they will continue to walk into the obstacle instead of using the sense to walk around it.
It is possible to switch control of the two characters, but that then leaves the actions of your character in the hands of the mentally challenged computer, which is never an appealing aspect. If anything, your partner exists to be a human shield, because they certainly are not adept at helping you fight the enemy.
The game world you are dropped into is huge. There are so many places to visit and areas to explore that it would undoubtedly take a player quite some time to find every possible location in the game and explore each one. Even in the earlier stages where progression is more linear and your freedom to explore is more restricted, the areas you go to are still significant in size. Later on special cannons open up that make moving between areas a faster task.
One problematic aspect about this is the confusing nature of this world. It's surprisingly easy to walk around in circle completely lost. There's little assistance in pointing you in the right direction and the appearance of different areas can sometimes be misleading. You might think there's a path there but it's just how it all looks.
Villages form a vital part of the world, and it is here that you can interact with the majority of the NPCs of the game. Typically it's the usual RPG concept. Many villagers are there for decoration more than anything else and will repeat the same phrase over to you. There are some quite interesting characters to chat to though due to the circumstances of their life. A fair number of people will also ask you to fulfill a certain sidequest, like delivering flyers or acquiring a specific item. These help to boost the lifespan even more, although the rewards for completing these are often not what you would expect and may not be worth the effort.
At some point you get an item that lets you plant a cactus house, where you can do a few things. The little cactus inside will write down the events you've experienced in a funny way if you chat to him. In the room on the left a dwarf will eventually move in and offer to boost the performance of your weapons or armour if you have the right materials. Going upstairs allows you to offer the tree there two seeds to gain a vegetable later, which can be used to give boosts to your equipment. The process is rather hard to figure out but worth it. The cactus house is a really odd but cool aspect.
Even without the sidequests, Sword of Mana lasts quite a long time. With some many game events and a large world to travel about in and two separate paths to go through, it will take a while to do everything. The game is also quite challenging, in part due to an incompetent ally but the general difficulty of the later enemies is high up anyway.
Sword of Mana is a good RPG but it irks me how it could have been a great game. Unfortunately, the game has some rather notable flaws dragging it back. It's lengthy, challenging, provides a large world to explore and most of the combat is good. If only switching weapons and your allied partner weren't such issues then this would have been a sure hit. As it is, I recommend approaching this with some caution. It's fun, sure, but you have to be prepared to manage the combat issues as well.
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