TBT REVIEW: Dawn of Mana

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Dawn of Mana | Boxart
Title Dawn of Mana
Developer Square Enix
Publisher Square Enix
Original Release Date JP: December 21, 2006
NA: May 24, 2007
Genre Action Adventure
Platform Playstation 2
Age Rating Teen

In any media, not everything can live up to their names or the expectations those names and labels may carry with them. In gaming, arguments are constantly made as to whether games from certain series are as good as their prequels or sequels, or if some are even worthy to stand alongside the best of their series. These entries are the ones that only the most committed of fans will want to play. This is exactly what Dawn of Mana is to the Mana series. With incredibly ambitious ideas that fail extraordinarily short in their execution, Dawn of Mana is a show of masterful concepts sullied by wretched realization.

Dawn of Mana is a direct prequel to Children of Mana, as it covers the crisis called the “Great Disaster” which was first introduced as a cataclysmic event occurring ten years prior to Children. This event, and the main plot of the game, begins with the evil King Stroud of Lorimar attacking the island of Illusia. Illusia, home of the Mana Tree and the Mana clan, is unable to resist the onslaught. During this attack, Ritzia, a Mana maiden, is abducted by Stroud. Stroud’s ultimate goal is to use Ritzia and a particular sword to open the door to Mavolia, a dark realm sealed away a thousand years prior, and release its contained darkness over the world. It’s up to Ritzia’s childhood friend, Keldric, to stop Stroud and cut off this flow of darkness before the entire world succumbs to its influence.

Dawn of Mana’s story follows that of a typical good versus evil arc, in which a power-hungry bad guy wants ultimate power in order to rule the world. The good guy, Keldric, wants to rescue his damsel while stopping bad things from happening. And unfortunately, that’s all we really get. While there are other plot details that are introduced, none of them receive significant attention. Koichi Ishii has also called this the first game in the series, chronologically. If this game supposedly takes place before all of the other Mana games, I think we all would have expected a fairly significant plot that sets the foundation for the common points of the series. Yet, any lore concerning these points, such as the Mana Tree, Flammie, the sword, or the Mana clan, is completely glanced over. There is zero attempt here to cultivate a true introduction for the series. What should have been the paramount origin story is no more than a generic, “stop the bad guy because bad stuff” plotline.

Dawn of Mana | Spirits

Having said all of that, there are a few bright spots to be found within the game’s plot. This story is a darker tale that wants to convey the perils of the journey, the consequences of one’s actions, and the tragedies that unfold when darkness remains unchecked. Ritzia’s part in the story demonstrates exactly this, as she realizes that she is just a tool to be used and yet must suffer such a tremendous loss that it drives her to complete despair and a hopelessness that results in submission. Keldric, too, faces his own tragedies, as he is forced to fight against his former friends that have transformed due to this unleashed darkness.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Keldric’s efforts is the futility, which he partially learns of after his fight with the Masked Guru. Keldric is essentially informed that his and Ritzia’s fate will mirror that of the Guru’s and Anise’s. However, despite these realizations and hardships that should add depth, their execution falls flat because of the briefness and vagueness of these moments. I can appreciate these efforts when they do hit an emotional string, but there is clearly more that should have shone through. The depth that should be there fails to come across and there is so much more that remains untold that the end result is unsatisfying and obscure. What should produce poignant startlement and gut-wrenching sadness only misses the mark of making that strong, desired impact. The potential is there, yet we are left wanting so much more.

As with the story, the gameplay is a collection of ambitious concepts marred by development and delivery. Rather than the traditional RPG styles and mechanics the Mana series usually employees in its games, Dawn of Mana features an action-adventure style. Combat and platforming make up the majority of gameplay as players traverse eight vast chapters. Combat is focused around the Mana Seed, an item collected at the start of the game that functions as a sword, slingshot, and grapple whip. Typical melee combat is performed with the sword and long-range attacks are possible with the slingshot. The whip can grapple and throw almost anything movable within the environment, including enemies. While Keldric handles the physical aspect of combat, Faye, your companion spirit, can cast a number of spells that range from increasing attack or defense, restoring HP, curing ailments, or adding elemental damage to Keldric’s sword.

Dawn of Mana | Faye

The only RPG aspect found within the game is the ability to increase attack strength, HP, MP, and overall level. To do this, players will need to collect three types of medals, which are dropped by panicking enemies when attacked. Inducing panic is vital for successfully navigating gameplay, as only panicking enemies will drop these medals when attacked. Panic is represented by a number that counts down over the enemies’ heads. The higher the number, the more panicked they get and the more medals are dropped. If a panic value of one hundred is reached, a crown appears over the enemy’s head, allowing maximum rewards to drop. When a certain number of medals are collected, Keldric and Faye can level up. When Keldric levels up, an additional sword swing is added to his combo. At level 1, Keldric can perform a three-hit combo and as his level increases, so do the number of swings in a combo. As for Faye, she can only cast attack or defense boosts at level 1, but more spells become available as she gains levels.

Taken in its entirety, combat has both high and low points. Fighting with the sword is easy and flows nicely. I like the aspect of tying combo length with leveling up and I appreciate the potential to increase attack power. I also like how casting spells, using the slingshot, or using the whip are all tied to single button presses, making the use of each quick and immediate. I thought that adding elemental damage to the slingshot with Hexaorbs was an effective way of extending the weapon’s usefulness in causing panic.

As for the whip, I find its use both innovative and arduous. The idea of any movable objects becoming a potential weapon is clever and allows for some destructive fun. However, launching these projectiles at a desired target is unwieldy and inaccurate, so much so that even with practice, the action of launching an object to induce panic can still be tiresome and irritating. The auto aim the game employs for the whip to grab is even more horrendous and terribly inaccurate. Sometimes the whip will grab nothing at all, while other times the auto aim will lock onto objects in entirely different rooms or floors. Meanwhile the object you actually want to grab is sitting next to you. This is especially evident, and bothersome, during more dangerous moments when you need to grab and launch an object quickly. Too often you’ll end up either locking onto the wrong object/enemy or missing everything entirely, leaving you completely open to damage. The whip plays such a major role in gameplay that its flaws are downright disheartening.

Dawn of Mana | Mana Seed

Another aspect of the game I wish to address is the low programming quality. Simply put, I wish that platforming was not a major gameplay component. It’s awful and it’s due to the developers’ programming. My biggest gripe with it is the dreadful collision. Everything bounces to an exaggerated degree. When it works for you, it’s great, as you can cause a bouncing torrent of pain as enemies and objects fly. But, when it’s Keldric that’s bouncing, it’s a problem. For example, if Keldric grazes an adjacent surface when jumping to a platform in front, he will bounce and accelerate horizontally from the intended direction of the jump. So if you have a series of platforms that curve around a bend, you must stop, align Keldric, and make the jump, then repeat. If you don’t stop and instead try to platform like in normal games, you will fall.

It’s not just during the platforming. Simply walking across the land will expose collision problems, as moving across bridges or slightly uneven terrain can hamper Keldric. Walking down barely sloped terrain is the worst because then Keldric may start automatically sliding on his sword. Why the developers added this I have no clue, as its intended use appears once in the entire game. Lord help you if you’re about to make a precise jump or deliver a killing blow only to start randomly sliding on your sword. Along with the collision issues, jumping is a problem as well. While walking, running, and fighting are satisfactory, jumping can be a real issue. Again, you have to stop, align, and commit to every single jump. A slight direction change, due to input or collision, will alter velocity and cause you to miss. Practice alleviates this problem for the most part, but having to break play flow in order to make a jump is unacceptable, especially since 3D platforming has been around since the late 90s.

Finally, my last complaint is with the camera. When grabbing and launching enemies, the camera will sometimes fight you by repositioning somewhere other than behind Keldric. The camera also has a tendency to zoom in too closely to Keldric, causing you to lose sight of surrounding enemies and objects. It, along with the other programming issues I’ve complained about, are not game-breaking by any means, but all together they ruin the platforming and break flow and immersion, tarnishing what should have been deeply engaging gameplay.

Dawn of Mana | Combat

Despite the numerous ways in which ambition and implementation fail to meet in this game, the one time this transition is successful is with the game’s aesthetics. Visually, Dawn of Mana adopts a very colorful and charming style, favoring a more fantasy look and feel. Character designs and environments portray this innocent, almost jovial style and the results are impressive. Even more so is the stark contrast between this charming visual feel and the dark, harder hitting tones of the story, as the idea that even the brightest of things can suffer from darkness is profoundly illustrated in this.

My favorite aspect, though, has to be the soundtrack. Dawn of Mana’s soundtrack is just amazing. From original scores to rearrangements of familiar songs, the soundtrack is fantastic. This is perhaps the only aspect of the game that truly feels like a Mana game, with its reminiscent feel and its ability to reach that same level of excellence as the sound scores that came before it. I would even go so far as to suggest that for those that appreciate a quality sound score, the soundtrack alone is reason enough to play through the game at least once, just to experience it. Again though, not all the sounds you hear are as beautiful as the music. The voice acting is bearable at best, deplorable at its worst. The fake accents, the forced notes of surprise or terror, and the stressed delivery of lines give the voice acting an overall amateurish, or unpracticed, sound to them. Remorse, concern, and hopelessness by the characters are instead laughable and sigh-inducing for players. I’m sure just leaving the original Japanese voicing with English subtitles would have been a better decision. However, despite this misstep, the game’s aesthetics are its strongest point.

Dawn of Mana | cutscene

He’s not kidding…

It’s quite a shame the way Dawn of Mana turned out in the end. The developers had some truly outstanding ideas, but only the artists and composers managed to articulate the concept into an adept, finished product. All other efforts fell horribly short of their aspirations. Despite this, the game is still very much playable and there’s even some level of enjoyment to be found if it’s worked for. There is just enough brilliance and magic to be found to avoid absolute mediocrity. However, one day I would like to see these ambitions come to life in a game worthy of showcasing them. So, here’s to hoping for a complete remake; keep the same base story and the events that unfold (and the soundtrack), but start fresh with everything else.

Review Score

About Drew D.

Drew has been an avid gamer most of his life, favoring single-player campaigns. For him, a worthwhile game is one that immerses you; it envelops you and draws out an array of emotions that produce those memorable moments we live for as gamers.