The Game Boy Advance is a unique system; for old school game players its a re-hash of our ill-spent youths. That being said, it’s no surprise that Sword of Mana fulfills the craving that I’ve had since first playing Secret of Mana on the Super Nintendo; notwithstanding the fact that Squaresoft, and now Square-Enix, have been the forefront in the RPG series for as long as I can remember.
Sword of Mana, like the other Mana series games, does not fit into a particular time frame in comparison to the rest of the games. It plays just like Secret of Mana, minus two buttons, and the storyline is almost exactly what you’d expect from the series. At the beginning, you choose a character, male or female, and start the game. It’s different from all the other games in the Mana series that I’ve played, however, in that the storyline is markedly different depending on which character you choose. Kudos to that. The story revolves around (what else) an evil power threatening the land, which you must fight, gain levels, and acquire new weaponry to stop. The fighting system is almost identical to Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3; instead of random battles there are solid creatures on all of the dangerous map screens, giving you the option of fighting or running away with your tail between your legs. Obviously, I didn’t run much. In fact, I was so struck with the similarity between Sword of Mana and Secret of Mana that I felt it was my duty to gain some serious levelage for money and armor.
Alas, in this respect, I found one of the the serious flaws in the game. It’s easy. Not only is it easy, but it’s really, really easy. There are statues placed throughout the game, even in the middle of dungeons, that fully restore your hit points and magic points. If that’s not easy enough, Sword of Mana included a feature that none of the other Mana games had, which is the ability to sit/squat and replenish your MP. Because you get the ability to heal yourself so early in the game, I was able to run straight through supposedly “difficult” dungeons without trouble because I could insta-heal magic points and take care of myself. I think that I died one time in the entire game. And while that’s not too uncommon for a single player RPG, this game felt especially easy. I don’t know what it was, I just never felt challenged. I was playing a story more or less. Nevertheless, I persevered and finished the game through to the end. It was a worthtwhile little story too. I don’t want to spoil anything, but aside from some really terrible names (i.e. Dark Lord…just Dark Lord…not THE Dark Lord, or Dark Lord of BlahBlah, but Dark Lord) the storyline ran smoothly and even incorporated some elements of surprise and humor.
The Class System. This game is very player friendly. If you want to be a swordsman or a spear-wielder, you can go right ahead. You have your choice of any weapon in the game; they all have their strengths and weaknesses, even against monsters. Leveling up in this game doesn’t take long either. But therein lies another problem. There are advanced classes, but the game gives very little information about how to achieve those classes, something that is ultimately very irritating if you accidently make the wrong choice. However, all of the classes have their own particular aspect that makes them enjoyable. On the bonus side, there are so MANY advanced classes that pretty much every player will be able to find one that suits their needs best. I chose Ninja Master as my final class because of the bonuses that it gives to Evasion, Critical Attacks, and various elemental powers, but I was also intrigued by the Warrior classes, as well as some of the Wizard classes. All in all, aside from some confusion about how to get those classes (thank you GameFAQS.com), the class system is robust and well developed for a Game Boy Advance game.
My biggest problem with this game was the secondary character AI. Whether you choose the Hero or the Heroine, you almost always have some backup help in the form of minor characters. However, they are almost completely useless. Their pathfinding is terrible, they rarely ever follow your lead, and usually die about 8 times faster than you do. They don’t attack with any discernible intelligence, and their magic skills are frighteningly terrible. They used the same grid system for Sword of Mana as they did for Secret of Mana, but the AI was much less responsive to your needs in the GBA game. For the most part, the player is forced to do 95% of the fighting, healing, and running in times of danger, leaving your secondary character to die or get stuck on a mountain that you jumped over, and he can’t figure out. This, in my opinion, is the dominating weakness of the game.
Lastly, as much as I enjoyed the weapon system in this game, the armor system was terrible. You are requied to find certain materials to make new armor, something that you probably won’t even consider until minutes/hours before the end of the game. You also have to plant seeds in your Orchard to grow fruit to temper your weapons and armor. Most of the fruits you get are totally worthless. You don’t need healing items as much because of the replenishable MP, and therefore a short trip around the corner and a few minutes spent sitting will completely restore all the MP you need to have full health for that boss fight. All in all, I felt that the armor in this game was more of an accessory to your character than necessary in the slightest.
To that end, I believe that any fan of the Mana series will have a good time playing this game. It’s a solid twelve hours from beginning to end, and there are enough side quests to push that to 15-20 hours if you want to accomplish everything. I had a good time playing this, and it was hard to put my GBA down…even when the batteries started to run out =)