The Basics: Though it's probably not on par with the Final Fantasy series in terms of widespread popularity or hype, the Mana franchise remains as the second longest running series for Square Enix. At E3 2006, it was announced that not one, but two Mana games would release within the next year – one for the PS2 and one for Nintendo’s wonder portable, the DS.
The latter, Children of Mana centers around the island of Illusia, the chaos of the world, and the origins of the Mana Tree that saved everything from utter destruction. The demo featured little on the story itself, but does introduce the three main characters – Ferrik, Poppin, and Tamble.
Children of Mana is shaping up to be a throwback to what made the series such a cult hit back in its 16-bit days. Many of the gameplay quirks found in the PSOne release Legend of Mana have been dropped in favor of adopting the gameplay that made the series so fun to begin with. Which means… you guessed it – multiplayer! Join other gamers to work in teams against the forces of evil, but be warned that you may have to find some buddies close to home for this adventure. I didn't discover an option for an online mode in the preview build, so it's safe to assume that it appear in the retail version.
What we think: Square Enix is really trying to infuse old and new elements this time around, keeping the core gameplay very faithful to the Mana lineage while offering up new layers onto the already proven core mechanic. The combat is very action oriented, but now you can juggle foes, and even send them flying into other enemies or surrounding obstacles to up the damage! Sure, it sounds like a novelty, but ten minutes in and I was hooked – how many RPGs can you recall that seamlessly integrate action and fighter mechanics effectively?
Other staples to the series like the menu selection wheels are present again, complemented by touch screen functionality. It's seems like a feature that feels as if it was tacked on at the last minute, however the ability to swap weapons on the fly with a mere tap of the screen or a spin of the inventory wheel does prove to be a significant aid that it never comes off as a forced novelty. Another notable feature thrown in the mix includes hot buttons that allow players to make use of items and up to two weapons at any time. With all these added features, Children of Mana is bound to be seen as the most action-oriented game in the series to date.
If juggle combos, ricocheting foes, dual-weapon wielding, and switching gear on the fly wasn’t fast-paced enough, the game offers Limit moves, which can be activated one your character’s “Fever Gauge” is maxed out. Essentially Limits take the properties of the game’s three main weapons – sword, bow, and flail – and use them in over-the-top specials. Then there are the secondary “charge” functions that are usable at any time (and less flashy than Limits), but just as useful. Finally the demo introduces Salamander and how his Summon works: after you call a Summon, they can either unleash a strong of their own attacks, or you can walk your character up and gain elemental properties for your weapons.
There's one point I should note which most fans will dig – the demo plays a lot like a dungeon crawler, meaning in order to progress to the next floor of the tower, you have to find a Mana Egg and carry it to a portal, and then finally activate it. For such a frenetic battle system, it’s a bit forced to ask gamers to go hunting for eggs and portals before they can get to putting the hurt on more baddies. A minor gripe, but a warranted one nevertheless.
While it was a short session, the demo introduced all the basics in a package that shows a lot of potential to be the most action-packed Mana installment ever. And there's still no official word yet of an online component, we can only hope this feature will make its way into the final product. I for one can’t wait until it hits the US later this year.