Heroes of Mana – NDS

Heroes_of_ManaMy latest foray into addictive time-killers is Angry Birds: Fight, which has glued me to my phone every time I get two minutes not immediately filled with something stimulating and exciting. Like many free-to-play games, it offers me rewards and bonuses if I consent to watching ads that try to pitch more free-to-play games which will inevitably offer me more chances to watch videos pitching more free-to-play games until they’ve saturated my time so badly that we repeat the 1983 video game crash while everyone on earth stares at their phones in wonderment of games that could be way more awesome than the games they’re currently playing. Alas, as much as I’d love to bemoan the commercialized state of affairs of modern gaming, the game industry has historically been as all-about-the-art as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. (Low-hanging comedy fruit, I know.) If you don’t believe me, pick out your favorite franchise, and ask yourself how reasonable it is that the in-game world undergoes drastic geological cosmetic surgery from one installment to the next. Sadly, the evidence that developers slap franchise names on games to help them sell stacks up like a life-sized Jenga tower, ready to crumble under its own weight and concuss you with its logs of disappointment.

 

If I could brand any game as such a “log,” Heroes of Mana would be a prime candidate. The game brands itself as an RTS, and while I have no qualms with the “RT,” I have one or two suspicions about the accuracy of the “S.” Set in the Seiken Densetsu…category on amazon…Heroes of Mana uses monster design from Secret of Mana and themes from other Squenix failures in development at the same time. Otherwise, the game plays less like a Mana game and more like a (very) rough draft of Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings using Mana artwork.

 

Heroes 2The story…well, they say if you put a bunch of monkeys in a room hacking on typewriters, they’ll eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Assuming that’s true, the monkeys will produce the Heroes of Mana story long before they ever crank out something mildly resembling a sonnet. Roget, first mate of the Night Swan, his captain Yurchael, and an assortment of poorly written anime stock characters (including such favorites as eternally optimistic cutsey girl and grim mercenary with a conflicted past) crash in the wilderness after realizing their own leaders set them up. Why they villains fitted the Night Swan with a mafia-esque car bomb, the game never really explains, but that fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as our intrepid heroes vow to halt the evil they suddenly assume must exist. Blah blah blah, plot lines in and out, a character who gets his ass creamed like chicken soup every time he shows up but somehow manages to inspire fear in the heroes, convolution at its finest, more characters than a story really needs to follow over the course of 27 battles…and one of the monkeys writing this thing must love cliches, because near the end they pull a Luke-I-am-your-father moment, which Roget (and the players) shrug off with a hearty disinterest. In the end, nothing is accomplished. Evil may have retreated, but no one knows or cares why, and the player moves on to story that makes more sense, like Moby Dick, or the United States Tax Code.

 

Heroes 5

This RTS game gives you multiple ways to strategically send all of the same type of monster at your enemies.

The gameplay follows a typical real-time strategy format, as long as that strategy is “select characters, attack enemy.” Units have a four-way rock-paper-scissors (rock-paper-scissors-lizard?) relationship going on, with a handful of units existing outside that structure. Ranged deals double damage to flying, flying deals double to heavy ground units which deal double to light ground units, and each time they introduce a new type of unit, the game puts you through the entire explanation again because when it comes to rock-paper-scissors, you have the brain of a goldfish, but when it comes to following the story, you are Albert Einstein performing a Vulcan mind-meld with Sherlock Holmes. Disregarding tutorials more repetitive than the ones from Dora the Explorer, I initially thought the four-way relationship sounded interesting. Unfortunately that all falls apart when trying to decide which units to purchase with your finite resources, as there’s no way of determining what type of unit your enemies are; just because they don’t stand on the ground doesn’t mean they’re flying units, and the fact that they can hit you from three squares away doesn’t qualify them as ranged. Heroes of Mana is just a dimmed DS screen away from being both literally and figuratively a stab in the dark.

 

Like Revenant Wings, you summon monsters to do your dirty work for you. The monsters don’t level up, but you get stronger ones as the game progresses. You also have a separate party of “leader” units, consisting of the fifteen characters seen in the story, all of which interact with Roget for a battle or two, then join your party and shut the hell up like a good subordinate tag-along. These characters don’t level up either, but you can win equipment in battle to boost their stats (naturally giving all of it to the same five characters who seem mildly more interesting than all the rest),  which makes as much difference in the long run as giving yourself a concussion to raise ALS awareness, because you’ll never take them anywhere near the fighting, since losing the main character results in an instant game over.

 

But even holding back characters like that is not a guarantee that they won’t charge headlong into the melee with their lone hit point ablazing. Of all the virtues of the NDS, screen size is not one of them, and trying to select characters, pathways or enemies to attack has all the finesse of a figure skater with the motor skills of an infant. Furthermore, since friendly characters refuse to step to one side of their square or to do that awkward thing people do in movie theatres and on airplanes where they try to make themselves as skinny and flat as possible to let people through, pathways get blocked easily, leaving the AI to take the scenic route around the battlefield, detouring right through the enemy camp. Even without clogged roadways, the AI has the IQ of George W. Bush with his head stuck in a plastic bag, often sending peaceful resource-gathering monsters on roundabout ways past hostile enemies, or telling dying characters to get three or four more parting shots in before retreating from the enemy currently making haggis out of your bowels.

 

Heroes 4

Precision tuned to let you follow all the action with only moderate permanent damage to your visual accuity.

There is one more feature to combat, summoning benevodons (the latest in asinine wordplay added to the World of Mana) to damage every enemy on the map. These are impressive attacks with exciting animated cutscenes that you will never use nor see (respectively) because they take up so much of your resources that in most battles you’ll never collect enough for the summoning. I pulled them off once or twice, mostly out of necessity rather than choice, and they all have pretty much the same effect, making them another nice attempt, but ultimately pointless addition to the game.

 

As usual, I like to include a “but the game’s not worthless!” section here. I did enjoy the game for all its flaws, and preferred in infinitely over Children of Mana, released at roughly the same time (and featuring the lame benevodon and malevodon wordplay…which mean “good tooth” and “bad tooth” respectively). As mentioned before, it reminded me of a draft version of Final Fantasy: Revenant Wings, so if you liked Revenant Wings…go replay that game instead of Heroes of Mana.

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Secret of Mana – SNES

The game's elemental magic system lets you build snowmen! Out of the dying corpses of your foes, nonetheless.

The game’s elemental magic system lets you build snowmen! Out of the dying corpses of your foes, nonetheless.

Anyone between the ages of, say, 23 and 35 might understand the sheer disappointment of nostalgia, how delving deep into the caverns of your past usually only uncovers the noxious fumes that kill the canary of our fondest childhood treasures. Did any of you ever watch “The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest,” Hannah-Barbara’s update of their classic science-adventure series into the computer age? I loved it! I stayed up every night one summer to tape it. I wanted to dive into Quest World, to meet the Evil Stephen Hawking guy who only felt truly alive in virtual reality. I wanted to know what ran through the mind of the psycho religious fanatic. I wanted to travel the world, see exotic animals and mess with cool science gear. And a few years ago when I dug up some of those old episodes, I found I wanted to surreptitiously leave the room when the writers decided to let Hadji bust out a few “Sim Sim Sala-bims.” Yep. Despite possessing the ability to change with the times, “The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest” only succeeded in blandness. And racism.

After rescuing him from a plot to create a tropical resort...in the arctic.

After rescuing him from a plot to create a tropical resort…in the arctic.

And so, with heavy heart I have to confess I had a similar reaction to Secret of Mana, Squaresoft’s epic Final Fantasy Spin-off. Don’t worry, though, I don’t intend to condemn the entire game. Just one guy. Which guy? Guess. Which early 90s Squaresoft employee did everyone know simply by virtue of having the only Western name in the credits? The one whose translations dropped text into the game with the care and precision of a spastic colon? Ted. Fuckin’. Woolsey. Now, it appears that the internet uses people’s opinions of Woolsey as kindling for flame wars, I should give him the necessary credit he deserves: direct translations don’t work. People simply use languages differently, and certain words and phrases don’t translate at all.

Rather, I’d like to say (if I can ever learn to shorten my introductions) that one shouldn’t confuse the Japanese “R” and “L” sound when a) you speak English natively and b) The same name appears both in Final Fantasy (Gestahl) and Secret of Mana (Geshtar). And seriously…he honestly didn’t know Biggs and Wedge, Luke Skywalker’s trusty wingmen during the first Death Star Assault?

So while the old games, even with Woolsey’s translations, don’t fall to the level of Johnny Quest, re-playing Secret of Mana recently made me painfully aware of the jagged, incoherency of the story. The main character, who rarely has any direct interaction with the plot, comes off as a silent protagonist after the first few scenes, but occasionally mumbles just enough so that he comes off as a second-rate mime. Jema, the game’s Obi-Wan Kenobi figure, offers no more advice than “Go to the Water Palace” or “Go to Gaia’s navel,” and the Yoda figure literally tells you nothing more than your next random destination for a good chunk of the end-game. Furthermore, the game introduces a fascinating villain, Thanatos, who shares a name with the God of Death, and we sort of infer is manipulating the war between the Emperor and the Kingdoms (the standard stock war included free with every purchase of a fantasy plot), but we get very little dialogue from or about him and the other villains. These inconsistencies seem to reach a peak when you sneak into the Imperial Capital, leaving the world of medieval-style fantasy villages and plopping yourself down into the horrible, dreary, nightmarish…contemporary urban town with paved streets and cheerful music, where the sun shines down warmly and everyone walks around with a smile on their face.

Let me just flag down a cab here...

Let me just flag down a cab here…

…uhh, why again do we want to disembowel the emperor with such a passion? Oh right…something somewhere about a cliched metaphor for limited resources and global warming. I think.  See, I can’t ever tell, because according to wikipedia, they cut a massive amount of text from the game to get it to fit on an SNES cartridge. And rather than economize the language available, artfully revealing key plot points and character development in as few words as possible, Woolsey just let it go. So when the hero’s village becomes overrun with monsters, they banish the only villager with a sword. Now, I support enforced background checks for lances and a ten-bolt limit for crossbows, but I also fail to see the reasoning behind believing that every monster and demon on earth wants to attack you simply because you have a weapon.

But leave you must, and just as the hero becomes unimportant to the story once other characters join him, you pick up weapon after weapon on your journey until you forget all vital details behind the sword, and all towns in your wake remain utterly defenseless.

The characters fighting a monster...Playboy? Well, the nuns at my sunday school did warn about the dangers of pornography.

The characters fighting a monster…Playboy? Well, the nuns at my sunday school did warn about the dangers of pornography.

However much the story lacks, the gameplay makes up for. Rather than the standard consumer economy provided by most RPGs, Secret of Mana tackles weaponry in more of a Marxist fashion, providing you with a set of weapons, free of charge, at or near the beginning of the game, that level up as the proletariat works harder and harder. (Unfortunately, the inventory does not include “hammer” or “sickle”) Combat takes place in pseudo-real-time, with enemies directly on the map, completely free of jarring explosions sucking you into isometric perspectives where the enemy kindly lines up and waits as you pound them. Rather, you move freely about the map, attacking freely as in a Legend of Zelda game; however, with the added encumbrance of an ATB gauge that needs to charge before your characters can summon up enough strength to penetrate the enemies outer layer of…epidermis. The player opens up menus at any time, in battle or otherwise, to use items and cast magic. Magic comes in the form of elemental spirits gathered along the journey, and they can level up with use, same as the weapons. While I usually write my reviews to ridicule the more absurd aspects of the game, I find myself at a loss for good jokes. The combat system wraps things up pretty tightly. It works.

Well, mostly. Despite giving us a rich selection of weapons and magic and a smooth, sleek ring-menu system to navigate between them, Secret of Mana gives you three characters and about half a brain of AI to split between the two inactive ones.  While they’ll refrain from wasting your MP and will generally wait to attack until their ATB gauge fills completely, they do wonderfully smart things such as dart head first into enemies, attack during the invulnerable period after a monster has received a hit, or try to get closer to the lead character by running straight into a wall nonstop like a squirrel confused by a sheet of glass. While you can program basic attack/defense strategies, you can’t send commands to switch these during combat, so it amounts to either one worthwhile character at a time, or the player needs to constantly switch between party leaders.

Fortunately, Square included a crafty solution, allowing up to two other players to join in. If you want to play the game, I suggest hunting down friends, relatives, co-workers, homeless guys, or  prostitutes, since it does make a world of difference, having someone with a brain behind a character who would otherwise serve as much purpose as one of these.

A good way to see the world without getting probed by Airport security.

A good way to see the world without getting probed by Airport security.

On the unfortunate side, I don’t really have anything interesting or witty to say about Secret of Mana. Really, what can you add to a game that considers “shoot you out of a cannon” as a viable method of travel, and has a travelling anthropomorphic cat-merchant rip you off by jacking up prices on normal items? The game doesn’t have a lot of visible flaws and its own unique sense of humor, so I have to resort to picking on the poor translator, and since so many people have played it already, I don’t really feel the need to describe it in detail. So ask Santa for a copy this Christmas if you don’t already own one. And if he fails to deliver, buy the game and kick his ass.

Because seriously…you fight Santa Clause about halfway through. Santa tries to kill you. Santa. An enemy. How can you improve on a fantasy death match with St. Nick?

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