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Dawn of Mana (PlayStation 2) artwork

Dawn of Mana (PlayStation 2) review

"A boulder is as likely to bounce as not. A pumpkin could very well float like a balloon. Worse, anything you try to toss could inexplicably head to a nearby wall, bounce off it and into Keldy, then send him plummeting to a ledge below and into the midst of a bunch of enemies. Taking your chances with object interaction is a bit like sticking your hand into a bowl of piranhas and hoping they aren’t hungry."

The first thing you need to know about Dawn of Mana is that it shares precious few play mechanics in common with its predecessors. The second thing you should know is that those differences nearly didn’t matter because they are what some might call “good ideas.” In spite of its new direction, Dawn of Mana could have and should have been good with the proper execution. It’s a shame about that execution.

As the game opens, you’re told about the tiny little island of Illusia. There, at the world’s center, a giant tree existed since the beginning of time but gradually turned to stone. Dawn of Mana is the story of what happened when that tree was awakened. It’s the story of a young man named Keldy and his lady friend Ritzia, of the Sword of Mana and the Goddess of Mana. Fans who watch the opening are bound to be stirred by the fairytale mysticism and the way it sets the scene. Then, like I did, they’ll begin playing.

When you play, you’ll find almost instantly that Keldy doesn’t move well. In Dawn of Mana, movement is very important. If you’re not in full control you’ll miss jumps and probably fall back down to a lower area where enemies have re-spawned. Or, you’ll have to pause to swing the camera back around to make another attempt. The former can be fatal and the latter is annoying. One would hope that the hero’s movement would be precise in a game like this, since he possesses a double jump skill and platform leaping is clearly a key element. For whatever reason, though, Keldy controls sluggishly. You’ll have to make do.

The camera I mentioned is the second thing you’re likely to notice. It more or less drifts along behind Keldy as he runs, but you’re sunk if you need to know what’s in the air above or you need to round a bend. At such moments, you have no choice but to manually slide it into place with the right analog stick, or to press the ‘L1’ button to center the view behind the protagonist in a flash. Certainly, games have featured a similar dynamic in the past, but here it gets in the way more frequently than it should. Worse, it can sometimes result in disaster because you didn’t see an enemy in time.

Dawn of Mana contains a lot of enemies, too. They’re the main attraction. When you’re roaming through a field, you will encounter monsters. Then, when you defeat them, the scene will clear for a moment and more will appear. This isn’t like older games where you could clear a stage of all opposition and then explore it at your leisure. In fact, you don’t even have to leave the screen. Enemies constantly flow into the stage and any one of them can take a large chunk off your life meter if you’re caught unawares. You can do the same to them, though, and that makes things interesting.

Suppose you’re wandering along a grassy slope. Below, a dirt trail wends its way through more bush-strewn rises similar to the one on which you find yourself. You can see some goblins congregating below, presumably waiting for a traveler to rob. To your right, you notice a boulder perched precariously along the edge of the ridge. With a small kick, you send it tumbling below. Then you follow it, weapon at the ready. The startled goblins don’t know how to react at first. Exclamation marks and timers appear overhead. If you act quickly, you can vanquish them before they even manage to properly defend themselves. What’s cool is that the game rewards you for such behavior. You might consider such surprise attacks optional--and they are--but in another sense they’re absolutely necessary if you want to get through the game. A goblin you startled with a falling rock or oversized pumpkin is more likely to yield experience and magic points, after all, and those are essential if you want to reach the end of the stage in one piece.

Once you really beef up your attack power, you can even start tossing enemies all over the place, thanks to a whip-like attack Keldy possesses. That will stun them real good! You can grab rabbits and goblins and toss them at your opponents. That’s pretty cool, except for two things: Keldy’s aim is horrific and the physics system is a complete joke. A boulder is as likely to bounce as not. A pumpkin could very well float like a balloon. Worse, anything you try to toss could inexplicably head to a nearby wall, bounce off it and into Keldy, then send him plummeting to a ledge below and into the midst of a bunch of enemies. Taking your chances with object interaction is a bit like sticking your hand into a bowl of piranhas and hoping they aren’t hungry. For a game that relies on interaction with physics for a large part of its appeal, Dawn of Mana really louses things up in that arena. Fortunately, it can fall back on its elemental system.

As Keldy explores Illusia, he’ll find a spirit named Faye that will join him on his quest. As the unlikely duo adventures, they’ll find additional spirits that will also fight for the cause by channeling their energy through Faye. Undine freezes enemies. Salamander fries them. There are a total of eight such allies. You merely need to find their icons. Then you can press the ‘O’ button to launch a special attack at a crucial moment. Maybe you’ll freeze an enemy so that you can hack it to bits before it frees itself. Maybe you’ll drench one in flames so that it’s too busy trying to extinguish them to tend to the youth lashing at its back with a sword. Whatever the case, it can be fun. That’s not the problem. The problem is that your inventory and skills reset after each chapter.

A chapter in Dawn of Mana is the same as a level in other games. The plot is segmented and your adventuring is rated according to how quickly you clear a stage. That by itself isn’t a big deal, but someone thought it was a good idea to bring the player back to square one after each stage. That’s annoying and it makes things unfairly difficult. At level one, both Keldy and Faye are wimps. Only as they power up through to level four can they actually launch powerful attacks and cast useful spells. The result is a game where you’re constantly losing your favorite moves almost the instant they become available. It’s annoying when you have to keep earning the same things you already possessed a few minutes ago. Every stage forces you to battle enemies you would otherwise avoid, until it feels like you’re level grinding in an action game. At least in the typical RPG, those boosts are permanent. Here, they’re not.

It’s easy to imagine Dawn of Mana with fewer flaws, and it’s easy to see how the ideas at play could have made for an enjoyable experience. The vibrant world players have come to associate with the Mana series is here, after all, even if the moments of true inspiration are few and far between. The elemental spirits will battle for you just as they always do. There are cool boss encounters, too. Even the first big guy, a giant crab that parades around a rocky cavern, is impressive. On top of that, Keldy can use a lot of powerful moves and there’s true satisfaction to be gleaned from startling enemies before slaughtering them while they reel about drunkenly. It’s fun to toss pebbles and to cast powerful spells and to freeze them in place. There are a lot of things in Dawn of Mana that are fun, but they simply don’t come together as consistently as they should because of the play control, the wonky physics system, the camera and the constant need to re-learn skills you already mastered. The result is a well-intentioned effort from Square-Enix that falls too far shy of the mark to warrant a recommendation. Some people will doubtless love it anyway and maybe you’ll be one of them, but everyone else should steer clear.


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Staff review by Jason Venter (June 12, 2007)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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