Sometimes you just really want to like a game. Maybe it's from your favorite series, or maybe it does something new you like, or maybe you've just been waiting a really long time for it. For me, all of these things were true about Heroes of Mana. And despite my best efforts to like it, I find myself disappointed and frustrated at what a great game this could have been.
Since 1993, when I first played Secret of Mana for the SNES, Mana games have traditionally been action/RPGs. They took place in a beautifully rendered world of fantasy shrouded in myth. While animals like chocobos and moogles are seen as staples of the Final Fantasy series, the world of Mana is marked by its rhabites and the eight elemental spirits.
Heroes of Mana retains many traits of the series (iconic creatures, environment and great storyline), but changed the gameplay to real time strategy. Using the touch screen, the player commands a small troop of main characters and summoned monsters in battle against enemy soldiers and monstrosities alike.
The story of HoM takes place before any of the others, with the Mana Tree is not yet born. Roget, the hero, leads the crew of The Nightswan, a new model airship, on a reconnaissance mission the rival nation of Ferolia. However, when Roget witnesses the l slaughter of innocents at his own people's hands, he becomes a traitor for defending them. The crew of The Nightswan must now evade capture and warn the world of the dangerous and evil weapons his country is about to bear upon it.
Like most RTSs, HoM has you build structures and create units. Though all of this is done within the Nightswan, which acts as your mobile base. So rather than selecting locations to build on, you simply choose from one of the spots inside the Nightswan for the structure to go. There are structures to make various types of units, heal nearby allies and even ones that summon the great spirits ton your aid for a single giant attack.
Unlike most RTSs, this game doesn't bog itself down in resource gathering. There are berries and materials to gather for building units and structures, but the amount is very limited. When you find a tree or mine ripe for harvesting, you send your gathering units and within a few minutes, the supply runs dry. In other words, you have to be careful about what structures and units you build, because there likely aren't enough materials to build every structure. At least the harvester units (the most basic of which are rhabites!) can also serve as moderate fighters in a pinch. And don't even think of "Zerging" by just building a horde to overwhelm your opponent. This is rare in RTS gaming, as it keeps you constantly moving forward. As you press on, seeking more resources, you may uncover anchor points where you can move the Nightswan to. While anchored, the Nightswan is susceptible to attack from the ground, but its the only way to deploy units and drop off resources.
Your most limited resource is leadership. You enter each battle only a handful of main characters who boost the abilities of your army. Depending on the leaders you brought, you can speed up production of units or buildings, inspire certain units in battle, or even give benefits to the Nightswan. As you pick up many characters along the way, it's relieving to see that there is no level system for leaders. You can equip them with armor and magic to augment their power, but even if you haven't used a character for most of the game, you can still pull him out for a big battle later on as long as you equip him properly.
While Lost Magic taught us how well suited the DS can be at controlling an RTS, Square-Enix seems to have been absent that day day of class, because the controls for HoM stink. Selecting units on the screen is inaccurate and time consuming. Plus, if you miss, the last unit you selected often walks to that location. Many of the problems stem from the lack of proper use of the DS's buttons. To deselect a unit, you have to touch the "C" icon on the screen. It would be much more efficient to just tap L or something. If you want to jump to another part of the map, you touch an icon on the top right to switch the map from the top to bottom screen, then you can tap where you want to go, then you have to tap the icon again. It consumes a lot of time in a game where units can die very quickly. Especially when holding down a button to switch to the map would be so much faster.
You can select a group of units by tapping an icon and then drawing a circle around them. This is nice, but it didn't have to be something you tap. It would be much simpler to just always let me draw a circle, since I can never accurately touch a unit anyway.
The AI for your units is also frustrating. Sometimes they don't engage the enemy when told to, or they maneuver around them for a while before attacking. Sometimes they engage enemies I don't want them too. Worst of all, if you have a healing shrine set up at The Nightswan, they automatically run back to it when critically hurt. If you order them back to battle, they walk to the spot selected, then just turn around and run for the shrine again. I mean, they are monsters for crying out loud! I should be able to order them to fight to the death!
The greatest qualm I have with the gameplay, however, is with the enemies. Combat is based on a rock/paper/scissors mechanic where flyers are doubly effective against heavy units, heavy units are effective against ground units, ground units are effective against missile units and missle units are effective against fliers. Leaders and specialty units, including catapults and the odd flying fish tanks work outside of this system. This mechanic is fine, requiring you to utilize various types of units to the best of their abilities. However, the great flaw is that it's not always obvious what type of unit your opponents are. Sometimes you send your heavy units to take out a platoon of groundlings and surprise! They have throwing stars. The difference between ground and heavy units is hard to see even during combat, that is until you see one side being slaughtered by the other.
The game excels in the areas that haven't changed from other mana games. The art style is beautiful with the series' hallmark watercolors. Everything looks like it's from a fantasy novel with elaborate details. Character design excels in making everyone completely memorable. At a glance, you can tell where characters are from without any two looking remotely alike. For summons, there are even CGI cut scenes, which pale in comparison to the drawn ones. They also don't seem to fit, with their bare bones backgrounds and simple polygons, in comparison to the wonderfully detailed backgrounds even during gameplay.
The equally detailed music also suits the charming, storybook feel of the game. Every instrument is clearly audible and contributes to the epic feel of battle. Though the game could benefit from more audible cues for you to know what was going on in battle, or if an important unit is in trouble.
Something a lot of games seem to be doing now is making downloadable content available over WiFi. What's nice about it in this game, is that you can win rewards that are usable in the regular game mode. Though multiplayer would be the only mode that would redeem this game to full glory in my book.
It was a novel try, but Heroes of Mana fails to pull me in with anything but its story and art. Which is enough to keep me going, but not enough to keep me from begrudging it. Only try it if you are a hardcore fan, or if you are willing to master an inefficient and frustrating control system.