Developer: Nex Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: March 2, 2006 (Japan), October 30, 2006 (North America), November 30, 2006 (Australia), January 12, 2007 (Europe)
Platforms: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Language, Mild Fantasy Violence)
With Secret of Mana for the Super Nintendo, Squaresoft established the action RPG in its modern form. It merged the freewheeling top-down gameplay of the Legend of Zelda games with a character advancement system borrowed from more methodical games such as Final Fantasy, and was elevated to classic status by its seamless co-op multiplayer. However, since the publication of the Japan-only sequel Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995, the series has been mired in mediocrity, and, unfortunately, Children of Mana is more of the same. In a concession to the perceived limits of the handheld platform, the gameplay has been stripped down to a pure dungeon crawl with the only friendly territory being a single, relatively static area. This robs the game of much of the colour present in earlier entries in the series and exposes the repetitiveness of many of its core mechanics.
The action gameplay is straighforward and heavier on button-pressing skills than intelligence or timing. Earlier Mana games featured an attack strength bar that filled up slowly following an attack to discourage button-mashing, but Children of Mana instead relies on rapid multiple presses to build to the highest attack strength. The game features four weapons: sword, bow, flail, and warhammer, which can be switched at any time after you learn how to use them. Each weapon has a distinct support ability, many of which are necessary to navigate the later levels. While a rock-paper-scissors relationship between the weapon types may have been intended, in reality virtually all enemies can be defeated equally well with whatever weapon your character happens to be most proficient with. Combat is augmented with a rather awkward magic system, where you select (only) one of the several available sprites in town to be called in combat with a button press. Each sprite has two possible abilities, chosen between with a fiddly mechanism based on player placement; staying with the sprite activates the more defensive ability while moving away activates the more offensive ability.
While the combat is somewhat oversimplified, the dungeon design is the aspect of Children of Mana that makes the game truly repetitive. There are several 'main' dungeons associated with the story quests, each with their own design and character, but these do not provide sufficient advancement to progress through the game. Thus, the player takes on missions which occur in randomly-generated dungeons assembled from the pieces of the main dungeons. Grinding through these random dungeons in search of vendor trash and experience points makes up the majority of the gameplay; character development is tightly constrained as all equipment has a minimum level for use and few characteristics other than linear advances in power.
However, the game is reasonably well-presented. Characters are done in the series's trademark lush, hand-painted style and the graphical style and animations do not look out of place for a 2006 game. The music is well-placed and well-synthesized, though unmemorable. The main problem in presentation comes with the menu system. The menus in Children of Mana were designed to be used with either the buttons and D-pad or the DS touchscreen and stylus, but the result is not especially usable with either. Lists of items expand to great size with each item represented by its own, large touch target, while activating choices with the face buttons often requires one press to select and a second press to activate. The stylus has a slight edge in usability, but the rest of the game is played with the face buttons, necessitating slow switches between buttons and stylus.
Overall, Children of Mana fails to regain the quality of the Super Nintendo entries in the series. The gameplay has been stripped down to the level of button-mashing, and the game does not provide a particularly compelling storyline. While it is a reasonable pick-up-and-play portable game, there are many others that are more worthwhile.