The World of Mana has certainly seen its ups and downs, actually it really had a high starting point and from there continuously rolled down the hole of mediocrity and Square Enix hasn’t really been able to do anything to bring it to a halt. And try as they might, Dawn of Mana can do nothing to stop the snowball effect that this series has suffered from. Each title seems to become more boring and tired than the last. For a game that is meant to bring us to the roots of the World of Mana it certainly fails to hold the interest that the first title did with its nameless hero, wacky princess, and sprite companion. Dawn of Mana really doesn’t seem like more than a late and pretty PS2 tech demo for the Havok physics engine.
Yeah, Dawn of Mana’s biggest draw is its use of the Havok physics engine. But this really ends up being a hindrance to the game play since it is used so heavily, it winds up making floaty jump physics that feel worse than the first Kingdom Hearts game and spotty collision detection when it comes to platforming. So when you’re not fighting the camera to get it to point to where you want to see, you’re struggling to land on platforms that you know are well within your range of skill. It rarely ever felt like it was my fault that I missed a jump. While it is fun to just toss stuff around with the vine whip you are given, it ultimately becomes the main focus of the game that you have to pay attention to. Even then it’s not terribly fun because the controls behind using the vine whip are shoddy at best. You’d think that you’d be able to toss things over your head, but no they will just fly in to you and hurt you.
Rather than just focusing on getting from Point A to Point B, you have to spend a good amount of time leveling up to make sure you are ready to take on the bosses for each stage. And this happens on every level. At the start your powers are all reduced to a base level, and you must fight enemies to regain the levels you held on the previous level. So rather than have a slow progression through the entire game, you are forced to start back at level one for each stage. This is slightly augmented by the fact that you can take medals in to each level. Medals are used to boost up your base stats per level, though you really don’t have much of an idea as to what those base stats are either. This game is really all about action with the RPG elements tossed in to make it feel more Mana-ish I guess.
Controls are a bit of a mixed bag; on the one hand combat is tight and easy to get the hang of but on the other hand it provides a ton of unnecessary complications. The problem is the shoddy target selection and camera controls. When using the slingshot or vine whip, the target selection is a pain to deal with, especially when there are a large number of enemies on the screen. Combat also suffers from a very obvious lack of variety. The game is a square button mash fest very much like Kingdom Hearts but minus all the flair that comes with that. So it gets boring and repetitive very early. The only thing that is there to attempt to shake things up is to use the objects around you to scare monsters by flinging things to and fro. Again because of the controls being as stiff and unforgiving as they are, you’ll wind up being aggravated by how many things you’ve got to throw around in order for enemies to enter their panicked state so that they will drop medals when hit. There are some gimmicks that show up when fighting bosses but they remain just that, gimmicks and are never further explored during game play.
The levels are quite expansive so it’s not like you need to sit there and grind, but on the other hand, the map provides you with poor directions on how to get to where you want to go. Your radar also clues you in on where to go, but if you want to see where you need to get to you need to bring up the pause menu and find out where to go, and even then it doesn’t account for elevation, so you may be right next to where you need to go, but that more than likely means your target is on a higher level than where are currently located. Couple this with the shoddy platforming as I have mentioned before and you have what amounts to a whole lot of frustration. Most levels run about an hour to an hour and a half, and that’s the likely scenario you’ll face going through the first time. Once you get the levels down it’ll be easier to get through.
So the story behind Dawn of Mana takes place on a little island called Illusia, this is where you’ll be spending most of the early chapters as it provides you with a little introduction and instruction to the story and game play. Players control Keldric, a young man not from the isle of Illusia but he is a regular resident. As the main hero he is set out to rescue his friend Ritzia who is a maiden that some believe will re-awaken the great tree. Then you’ve got your typical villain who could give less of a crap about the world as a whole so long as he becomes powerful. It feels real old and tired, and half the time you’re not caring so much about the story because you are so absorbed in battle. And sometime story developments will come via in-game chatter which could easily be missed if things are a little hectic. Some more breaks in the action to develop the characters would have helped out immensely here.
I can’t be totally negative on this game; it looks beautiful and sounds amazing. Graphically this game is top-notch; it runs well, has great art and character design. The title screen brought me back quite a bit and I thought I was about to play something great like Secret of Mana. Imagine my dismay when I found out what was lying beneath. Once you’re out in the open world though this game is quite amazing to look at, the worlds are colorful and expansive, and having the ability to interact with almost everything just results in some of the most beautiful scenes whilst playing. The theme of the game is performed by Grammy award winner Ryuuichi Sakamoto and as a whole the soundtrack works well, though the rock-ish tunes used for boss battles feel a little out of place. Voice acting is solid which caught me off guard.
I wanted to love Dawn of Mana and tell everyone out there that everyone else’s review about this game was wrong. But after the amount of time I’ve spent with this game. I seriously can’t recommend it beyond anything more than a rental. The one dimensional game play has occasional flashes of fun. But from the get do it’s a slow trudge towards a story that tells of the birth of Mana. After the first few chapters though you kind of don’t really care. Best in small doses, Dawn of Mana continues the downward trend in what really should be a flagship series after the strong start it received back in the SNES era.