Adventures of Mana acts as a rather interesting history lesson, unfortunately some archaic design choices hold it back from being the adventure of a lifetime.
AoM is a remake of a Gameboy title released waaaaaay back in 1991 and marked Square’s first venture into the now renowned Mana series. However slightly confusingly, if not unsurprisingly, Square deigned to originally release the game under the title Final Fantasy Adventure – a move which confused the hell out of a young Timmy as upon having the game purchased for him he realised that this ‘Final Fantasy’ game did not play like a Final Fantasy game at all! This was more like…Zelda?!
Yes indeed! For those of you who grew up with the Gameboy and SNES – you will already be familiar with the Mana franchise, but for those of you new to these games let me give you a brief rundown of what separates this spinoff series when compared to its older brother.
Although some staples of the FF series do indeed carry over to Mana (such as chocobos, moogles and some monster designs) the overall feel is that of a top down action rpg. There are no turn-based battles here, rather your character has a vast array of weapons and magic at his disposal and he is free to hack, slash, burn and freeze to his hearts content.
The story is quite threadbare and is typical of older role-playing game tropes. An evil lord is ruling over the land and supressing the will of the people. Therefore it is up to YOU! Yes you, young spikey haired protagonist, to save the world! You must pick up your sword and thwart this malevolent being! And of course on the way you shall be meeting princesses, old knights, minstrels and the like, as you plunder dungeons, pick up better gear and cut a swathe through any monster that crosses your path!
It is in this regard that I did really enjoy AoM. The combat felt fast and responsive and it was really fun experimenting with a new weapon or spell whenever I bought or managed to find one. There is also a red gauge at the bottom of the screen, which will slowly fill up over time, that allows you to pull off a unique special attack with whatever weapon you have equipped when it reaches completion. My personal fave was using the sword’s spin attack, which turned my young hero into a spinning whirlwind of sharp, metal destruction!
However after a couple of hours into the game, and when my character had a few levels under his belt, the adventure I had set out on lost all sense of challenge. My hero was now dispatching enemies with one, sometimes two hits at most and the almost complete lack of enemy AI was becoming very apparent indeed.
This brings me onto my biggest complaint with the game – its old school sensibilities. Now before I hear cries of ‘noob’ and ‘heathen’ let me make my case. You see I did own Final Fantasy Adventure on my little monochrome Gameboy back in the day and I loved it. I had so much fun as a kid ploughing hours and hours into that title, as I wandered aimlessly around the world map, not sure where to go or who to talk to due to the games vague hints. I was just happy to be playing a videogame! And that was fine back in the early 90’s, however times have changed and games and how we play and consume them have moved on. You see there isn’t one big glaring flaw in Adventures of Mana – just lots of tiny little ones that are all the product of Square deciding that even though they will remaster the soundtrack and upgrade the graphics, they wont streamline any of the old systems or update any of the enemy behaviour.
So lets start with the AI first. Apart from the bosses (which were all genuinely fun to fight) and maybe a couple of standard enemies, every time you enter a new area a number of creatures will appear at random before bouncing around the screen in a trance like state. As I mentioned this completely negates most of the threat presented to you by your foes as you can either dispatch of them with no worries about them hitting back or easily avoid them altogether. This started to make each encounter with foes either on the world map or in the dungeons begin to feel like a hindrance more than a challenge to relish.
Speaking of the dungeons – these also presented a mixed bag. Now as I have mentioned AoM is, let’s face it, heavily inspired by Zelda. And while Zelda can boast that – even back on the NES – all of its dungeons felt unique and interesting AoM unfortunately cannot make the same claim. Apart from a couple of standout dungeons such as the Cave of Snowfields the rest of the caverns you explore throughout your adventure just bleed into one and other eventually resulting in the whole experience feeling rather dull.
There were also a number of technical issues that made navigating some of the dungeons a chore! For instance in one dungeon there were two pressure plates, which required me to freeze two enemies, which I would then place on the plates thus opening a set of stairs. Now I didn’t know this was the solution at first as only one enemy was spawning in the room, leaving me very confused and flustered as to what I was meant to do. It was only after checking a message board that I found other people had run into the same brick wall and that sometimes the game didn’t spawn in the right amount of foes for you to freeze. It’s hangovers like this that really shouldn’t have made the cut when designing this remake. And yes I checked – this was an issue on the Gameboy too. So why wasn’t it fixed?
Finally I will give you the biggest piece of helpful advice if you do plan on taking the plunge into Adventures of Mana’s desolate dungeons – take all the keys and pickaxes you can carry! You see in the dungeons you will regularly come across cracked walls or locked doors that either require an axe or a key to bypass. Now the biggest problem with this is the fact that these items are consumable and due to your limited inventory you can only carry a certain amount. Now for those of you who remember what it was like playing games back in the 80’s/early 90’s will remember that games only had a certain amount of memory at their disposal. What this meant was that in a game such as MegaMan you could kill all the enemies on screen, but if you moved off-screen and then on again the enemies would have respawned. Now imagine you have been meticulously working you way through a dungeon in AoM, you have just used your last key on a locked door and then back tracked to explore that fork in the road from earlier, only to find upon returning to the door that it is now locked again and you have to walk all the way back through the dungeon to the world map and THEN to the nearest town to buy more keys before heading all the way back to where you left off!! It is this sort of infuriating ‘old school’ design that I am talking about which I feel could have easily been remedied had Square just taken the time to do so (although I should point out that the pickaxe problem is alleviated when you obtain the Morningstar).
Thankfully Adventures of Mana does have its share of positive points too. As I have mentioned I did really enjoy the combat and the magic. I would further like to add that although not particularly exceptional – the graphics are quite beautiful with bright vibrant colours positively popping off the screen and demonstrating some wonderful character and monster design that felt quite reminiscent of Akira Toryama’s Dragon Quest art. The optional touchscreen controls, although not very practical for combat, made navigating menus a breeze (although trying to sell multiple items at a store was still a pain).
However where Adventures of Mana shines the most is in its stellar soundtrack. The remastered score is an absolute pleasure to listen to and even during sections where I was level grinding or just exploring the world, I never once felt tempted to put on a podcast or anything else in order to listen to something different.
The price point is also very attractive and it is undeniable that you do get a lot of game for your money. In total the average player is probably looking at about 15-20 hours to complete the game and even more on top of that if you want to go for the games coveted platinum trophy.
If the time had been taken to really remake Adventures of Mana from the ground up rather than just slapping a fresh coat of paint onto it then I believe we could have been looking at one of the finest action rpgs on the Vita. As it stands however – AoM will have to be content with merely being ‘good’ rather than ‘great’, which is a shame as the sections where the work really went in (such as the soundtrack), really highlight the potential this title had.