Many generations ago, the spirits of Mana battled against the dark witch Anise and sealed her away, before the whole thing faded into legend. Now, however, the forces of good and evil are about to do battle again, thanks to the actions of a bored king and his ambitious general. It all begins one night when a Peddan soldier named Roget and the crew of the airship Nightswan are sent to scout behind enemy lines, but when they learn that their own superiors are plotting to start a war with all the nations of the world, Roget and his allies follow their hearts and resolve to use the power of Mana to combat the encroaching evil.
With previous games in the series being skewed more towards the RPG end of the gaming spectrum, I was somewhat surprised on starting Heroes of Mana to discover that it was more of an RTS game, but that it was a rare RTS for the Nintendo DS. Once the familiarisation phase was over, however, I settled down to actually play the game- only to discover that this was the one RTS game that would actually be at about my level.
Playing the game
Heroes of Mana is spread across twenty-seven chapters, all of which, apart from the first, feature a single battle mission sandwiched in between cut scenes (chapter one is all cut scenes). Overall, the main game should only take about fifteen hours or so to finish, but there’s more to it than that- as you complete chapters 2-26, you will unlock bonus battles that play out on the same maps, but with different objectives. Since there’s no levelling up for the characters in the game, you can’t use these bonus battles to improve your innate stats, but you might be able to find rare items, as well as experience that warm sense of completion for each bonus stage you clear. And for really hardcore fans, saving clear game data after you defeat the final boss will let you replay the game in Hard Mode for added ‘enjoyment’.
Between battles and cut scenes, you occasionally get the illusion of being in control of the Nightswan on the world map; what this actually means is that you get the chance to go to menu to save, change equipment and look in the game’s reference section before tapping a button marked ‘Go!’ that automatically sends the ship to its next destination. Don’t worry, though, this isn’t the only time you can save- pressing Start during battle lets you save in one of the game’s three slots at any time.
Once you’ve waded your way through the appropriate amount of cut scenes, you’ll finally be ready for the meat of the chapter- the actual mission. Of course, before it starts, you’ll be able to pick the named characters you want to use (up to five for most missions) and set up their equipment. Characters can’t change their weapons, but they can equip one each of three different types of accessory to enhance their HP, attack power, movement speed and attack range, although it’ll be up to you to decide on the right balance for each character. Once you start acquiring Mana spirits, you can also assign them to characters, which lets a character use a particular spell in battle.
Once you’re ready, your selected named characters and the Nightswan will be sent out to the battlefield, and here the fun begins. Unlike other RTS games where you build your headquarters in one location and work outwards from there, in Heroes of Mana, the Nightswan is your base; you build facilities and summon units from within it, and then move it about the battlefield as you wish. There is, of course, a catch- only when the Nightswan is attached to an anchored hook can you summon units and gather resources, but this leaves the hook vulnerable to attack from enemy ground-based units. When the Nightswan is freely floating, however, it is equally vulnerable to missile and flying units- and if your ship goes down, it’s game over.
Although you begin the level in command of your named troops, you’re going to need more than that to cut through the enemy hordes, and so in true RTS fashion you’re going to need to gather resources, build facilities and summon up to 25 units (except, of course, for those inevitable levels where you can’t use the Nightswan and have to rely on whatever forces you’re given at the start). The first order of business is to create a gatherer unit base and summon the all-important gatherer units to collect up the two types of resource in the game- Gaia’s Stones and Treant’s Berries. Stones are needed for building facilities, whilst berries are instrumental for summoning units- and of course, each Gaia and Treant will only offer a limited amount of resources, so you must spend them wisely.
With your resources at hand, you can start building other facilities within the Nightswan- in the first level you’ll only have a ground unit base, but as the game progresses you’ll unlock progressively more facilities and stronger units to summon. The bulk of your forces will be divided into four types- ground units, heavy units, flying units and missile units, which exist in a rock-paper-scissors type hierarchy in which heavy beats ground, flying beats heavy, missile beats flying and ground beats missile (where the superior unit does double damage against and takes half damage from the inferior one). To be honest, though, up until the last few missiles where class becomes important, it is possible to just brute force your way through a level by summoning lots of heavy units- their high HP and attack makes them tanks.
As well as these staple units, you’ll also have your named characters, who count as ‘Leader Units’- not only are they outside of the hierarchy, but they’ll even strengthen any generic units they surround with their unique abilities (for example, bow user Yurchael strengthens all missile units around him). Naturally, however, they aren’t invincible- so putting them in the line of fire could lead to some casualties, with the death of Roget (and occasionally other, usually weak, characters on certain levels) resulting in game over.
The final unit type that you can take command of are special units; generic units that exist outside of the normal hierarchy and usually have unique skills- everything from moles that burrow underground to spy on the enemy to giant eyeballs that shoot out lasers falls into this category. Enemy special units can be a pain, but it is entirely possible to get through the entire game without ever using up resources on them yourself.
As well as bases for your various units, there are a few other useful facilities that will be added to your repertoire. First off is the Healing House, which slowly regenerates the HP of nearby units (provided they’re standing still), and later on you’ll get the Resurrection House, which lets you bring back any deceased named characters. Also on offer are elemental shrines, based on the Mana spirits you’ve collected. Although they’re massively expensive, these shrines let you perform powerful summons which deal significant damage to all enemies on the field- it may sound a bit of a cheap move, but given that you’ll rarely have enough resources to use it, it doesn’t actually make that much of a difference to the game as a whole.
Once your units are on the field, you can select either all units of the same type or draw around a group with the stylus to select them- you can then point to where you want them to go on the map. Of course, there will be a fog of war hiding resources and enemies in any place you haven’t explored, but you’ll still be able to see the geographical layout of the area, with the top screen displaying an overall map that can be temporarily switched to the touch screen for faster scrolling.
Unfortunately, it is here that the flaws of the game begin to assert themselves, thanks to the simple fact that unit AI is so shoddy. Asking a group of units to move from A to B may sound simple enough, but their path-finding ability is so awful that what you’ll find is that by the time they get to where they’re going, your regimented troops will have become spread out all over the map, letting the enemy pick them off at leisure. Worse yet, some of the slower units seem to delight in taking the longest route possible, usually resulting in them taking a stroll right through the middle of the enemy encampment. Meanwhile, despite his status as the one unit you absolutely must keep alive, Roget’s stupidity has to be seen to be believed- once you see his HP getting low, your natural response will be to command him to run away to safety, but the idiot blithely wanders back into the thick of battle every chance he gets- usually resulting in an impromptu game over.
Although this is probably the biggest irritation of the game, it has to be admitted that it isn’t the only one. Not only is the touch screen interface so packed with icons and units to select that it’s easy to make a mistake, but the method of either drawing round a group or selecting all units of one type still isn’t enough. Say for example that you want to summon six gatherers and have half go to Gaia and the other half to Treant- obviously you’ll have to draw round groups of three, but with them all clustering round your ship when first gathered, it’ll be hard to pick them out. And since ally units can’t move through each other, build-ups and logjams in the vicinity of your ship occur all too often.
Still, where with a little perseverance in selection you can at least see the status of your units, when it comes to the enemy, all you get is a simple bar indicating their HP- fair enough, you might think, except that how are you supposed to use the unit type hierarchy if you don’t even know what you’re up against? Yes, there is a bestiary in the game, but since you can only look at it outside of battle, it’s hardly the most helpful of reference materials.
Given that all these problems can hinder game play somewhat, it’s probably a relief to learn that Heroes of Mana is largely rather easy- in fact, if the AI hadn’t been so poorly programmed, it would be a cakewalk. As it stands, the increasing complexity of maps and difficulty of getting your units to listen to you does introduce a steady learning curve into the game, with early missions being so easy that at times you can let your characters defeat all the enemies off screen without even looking at them and later ones requiring much more in the way of thought. For the truly dedicated, however, you can unlock Hard Mode by clearing the game once; or use the DS Wi-Fi connection to go online, download missions and compare your ranking with other players.
As far as story goes, Heroes of Mana is one of those games that seems to have been written by committee, with each member contributing their own idea- resulting in an aggressive country that somehow takes over the entire world before withdrawing, an evil general with a tragic past, a bored king and various other plot twists thrown in here and there. The early chapters all follow a depressingly standard pattern in which you complete the mission, only for enemy reinforcements to show up, forcing some deus ex machina to save you. Just as this becomes hilariously predictable, however, the story starts throw in so many half-baked twists that you almost long for the old days.
As far as characters go, pretty much everyone who joins your party is a one-dimensional personality, and whilst some like Valda and Falcon at least join Roget in being important to the story, others like Gemière and D’Kelli are pretty much relegated to expressing themselves via one-liners in cut scenes. Series enthusiasts will, however, be interested to learn that this game is a prequel to Seiken Densetsu 3.
Visually, Heroes of Mana opts for the tried-and-true method of 2D sprites on an isometric background, resulting in an attractive and pleasing look by handheld standards. Character designs are handled by Ryoma Ito of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance fame, and whilst they aren’t the most complex or aesthetically pleasing pieces to come out of the Square Enix stable, they are still solid and technically sound. The same can be said of the background music, which overall does the job and is decent enough, but isn’t something that will stick in your head or encourage you to acquire the soundtrack.
A largely enjoyable and diverting RTS title for DS, Heroes of Mana is let down by its one major flaw- the element of challenge comes less from actual intended difficulty than from a simple case of shoddy AI programming. It won’t satisfy the appetite of hardcore RTS fans, but if you’re the sort of person who wanted to get into the genre and found the more popular titles a bit too challenging, then this is the game for you.