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Joystiq presents

DS Fanboy Review: Heroes of Mana

Heroes of Mana is like the stereotypical middle child -- it's not an RPG, and it may not be as responsive or intelligent, AI-wise, as some RTS fans would like. It's not exactly traditional Mana fare, either, so some franchise fans are understandably wary. Toss in a somewhat annoying tutorial, and unfortunately, it seems like Heroes of Mana might be easily missed ... which is a shame, because there's a lot of fun to be had here once things get going.

The epic adventure kicks off as your airship, the Nightswan, is attacked in the middle of hostile territory. Unfortunately, that's what happens sometimes to scouts working under the cover of secrecy, and it makes for a great beginning to the game. However, things are not quite as straightforward as they seem. Our hero, Roget, and his crew have been sent to find out just how serious the Beastmen of Ferolia are about starting a war (and hey, they attacked, so serious business seems probable) ... but are they really just scouts? Have they been told everything they need to know about the situation, or are Roget and company pawns in a larger, more sinister scheme?

A peek at the post-cinematics opening

Heroes of Mana kicks off with a lot of story, and while that may turn some players off, it's a great balance to the chaos of battle that follows. But before you can jump into the action, you have to figure out just what's going on, and just what to do about it. However, that also leads to one of this reviewer's biggest complaints with the title.

A lot of other reviewers have complained about the AI and pathfinding, and we'll admit, this new take on the series has some issues -- but a lot of those can be surmounted, and they're not a game-breaker. After a few hours with the game, management was really no problem, though the occasional straggling unit or randomly attacking character crops up for players to yell at. In fact, the only real downside to the game in this reviewer's eyes is the horrible beginning tutorial. That may well be enough to scare a lot of players who try out Heroes of Mana away, and that's a shame, because once that's done with, it's a whole new world.

The tutorial features a lot of "let me tell you it" moments that are eye-rollingly cliché, but the biggest annoyance here is the repetition. Oh, not that the game necessarily tells you things twice (though it does, at times), rather, onscreen textual directions display for a moment ... and are then overlaid with the very same directions, reworded. Y'know, in case your eyeballs failed you the first time. The actual tutorial aspects are nice enough, and would probably be very helpful to players who aren't familiar with how things work in an RTS title; each step and unit is examined, with detailed directions on how to move, direct units, and handle missions. It's just very slowly paced and seems to drag on and on -- and hey, there's a war going on! There are things to be done! We just want to break out and fight.

Eventually, however, you get to do just that. And the draggingly-long tutorial ends up being a very good thing (if you could make yourself pay attention), because the game ramps up in difficulty when you least expect it. Luckily, by that time, you're probably much more used to the controls and can navigate with ease through the battlefields, picking up treasure, managing your units, and protecting your ship, the Nightswan. Thanks to the equipment you gain along the way, even though you're limited to 25 units at a time, no challenge is ever insurmountable. Some hardened fans may wish for a bit more difficulty, however, though that may be balanced with the extensive unlockable bonus content The tale unfolds as you advance, growing deeper and more intriguing throughout the lengthy story mode.

The lack of a robust Wi-Fi mode is certainly a disappointment -- leaderboards are just not really what we want with our RTS, but that's what we get with Mana. However, this feature is used to unlock some extras, so it's not without use.

Overall, Heroes of Mana is not as balanced as the battle units you'll see on the field, but it's a good indicator of the future of real-time strategy on the DS. Things are going in the right direction, and we hope to see some of the lessons this title offers improved upon in later games.

The basics (or, the review is in the details):

Controls: Heroes of Mana definitely has some issues here with the touchscreen controls, but they're not insurmountable. In the heat of battle, it's easy to forget to click the group control icon or to select the bottom of a particular unit rather than the top, and getting the right grid square targeted can be a pain in the beginning. But after a while, it gets easier -- as with any game like this.

The problems are balanced by some of the more awesome features of Heroes of Mana, such as the screen-swap button, which allows players to manipulate a great deal of data on two small screens, and the unit controls on the bottom of the battle screen. Once you get used to the quirks of targeting and selection, the game controls quite well, with a lot of handy features.

Visuals: Beautiful, but nothing less than we would expect from anything Square Enix puts their name on. The character designs are stunning and the animated sequences are as captivating for the look as they are for the story. The battlefield sprites are attractive, crisp ... and hey, rabites! Yay. The only complaint here is that it would have been nice to see a few more images of the character, maybe with some different expressions, but it's certainly not necessary.

Sound: Top-notch. I admit to being one of those who usually turns the sound off on DS games unless it's necessary, but here, I actually wanted to turn it up. For the DS, the score is pretty nice, and it's not wearing even after long gameplay sessions. Some of the sound effects can be a little grating, such as the sound that accompanies any speech by Qucas, but those annoyances are few and far between.

Story: After a few hitches in the beginning -- most of which have to do with the seemingly never-ending tutorial -- the story is quite engaging, and epic in scope. Nothing like tossing an enterprising band of heroes into the beginnings of a global war, with enemies on all sides, to get a game going. Franchise fans should appreciate all of the little touches, as well.

Difficulty: This is really tough to rate. As an RTS title? Heroes of Mana is certainly more manageable than many we've seen, and hardcore fans might shoot through with few problems beyond the occasional frustration with unit AI or the controls. For fans who aren't as familiar with the genre, the game's sprawling, hectic battle scenes may prove a bit much; there is often a lot going on over a large area, and it can be hard to keep up if you're not used to RTS titles. However, after a few battles, it does get easier, and the frequent saves should help newbies get into the action with few mishaps.

Final Score: 7/10
Gaming to Go!

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