E3 2003: Sword of Mana
One of Square's best action RPGs returns to 16-bit. In a way.
Zelda may have been my favourite action RPG on the Super Nintendo (and, er, many systems since), but it was only a few weapon levels higher than Square's magnificent Secret of Mana, which combined real-time combat, traditional RPG magic and levelling systems and a world of endearing characters to great effect. There were and are few games which have conveyed the feel of Mana since then, but after an hour alone with Square Enix's Sword of Mana, I'm starting to think we might finally see a suitable reprise.
Lord of the Dark
Firstly though, it's worth nothing that Squenix's E3 demo is very short and difficult to take much from. As you'll well know it can take hours to work out if an RPG is all that good, and so a 20-minute soundbite of the game is all but useless. However it does helpfully showcase reams of dialogue, a bit of combat (both regular and boss), use of your team-mates in combat and a story line of great magnitude. Not a bad start.
The story seems to be set in a bleak but not too mechanised future beyond the adventures of Sprite and co., in a land controlled by the Dark Lord, who has renounced Mana and is committed to eliminating its role in the world. You play the game's Hero (presumably as ever to be named at your discretion), the son of the dead Duke and Duchess and brother of dead, er, ducklings? - all slain at the hand of the Dark Lord. You exist now only to entertain the crowds at the auditorium, fighting beasts for show and to earn your next meal.
Your fellow fighter-slaves include Willy, with whom you are initially imprisoned, and another pair who seem to be brother and sister. The first section of the game has you locked up in a small cell arguing with these chaps about the validity of Willy's latest escape plan. As a firm believer in the Mana Goddess, Willy reckons that the guard who tipped him off and gave him extra bread is being manipulated by a higher force.
Unfortunately there isn't enough time to argue about it thoroughly before you're carted off to the arena to fight. The Dark Lord presides over the event, giving a speech about the evils of Mana (he's clearly not a fan of ring menus) and generally looking mean. Then the Jackal comes and you get your first taste of combat.
On the technical side of things, the game is virtually unchanged. The ring menu system remains, accessed through Start, and for the uninitiated this works by surrounding your character with several icons having you rotate the "ring" with the D-pad before making a selection. The various menus include the requisite status, weapon equip and item lists, and also a couple of new ones - including an NPC controller. This choice brings up a square grid in which your NPC cohorts are placed, and it allows you to pick their position in relation to you and specifically their battle alignment, whether it's to weapons, magic, close combat or keeping their distance.
Fighting the Jackal reveals that the battle system is on the same page as the first Secret. The Jackal is about six times your size and has a couple of attacks; one involves simply slashing at you every so often and the other involves dashing back and forth across the arena. You fight by nipping in between attacks and slashing with your sword - as players of the SNES title will remember, magic works in real-time as well, and we presume that remains the same here although we didn't have any spells this early in the game.
Quickly defeated, the Jackal evaporates in a screen-splitting explosion of white light, which signals the end of a boss fight in the same way it did all those years ago. After nodding and smiling for a little while, Hero and Willy quickly escape through the beast's entrance, making it as far as a bridge (shot from the side in 2D) before the Dark Lord corners you - and offers you both a job as soldiers.
Hero and Heroine
But Hero isn't having any of it, and reveals to Willy why he can't. Willy's shocked to hear about his friend's past, and the Dark Lord just chuckles. And despite rushing in with a sword on his unarmed enemy, Hero is stopped in his tracks by the Dark Lord's magical power and thrown from the bridge into the dark below. Is this the end of our hero?
Of course not, and it isn't long before a passing merchant called Niccolo fishes our Hero's body out of the river with his rod, announcing that however much he might like to fry you, it's good luck for a merchant to help those in need. And he doesn't stop at lifting you from a potentially watery grave - he teaches you the Sleep ability. Like weapons, you can equip abilities to be accessed by one of the buttons, in this case left shoulder. Sleep for its part allows you to lie down and regenerate HP one point at a time.
So after a quick snooze you set off, and don't make it more than a screen further before running into the game's Heroine, who is being attacked by a familiar-looking, big-mouthed yellow blob. Look out, Mana fans, it's the ubiquitous and infinitely slashable lower-level fodder! And so Heroine joins you on your trail to the little town of Topple. A few colourful screens of enemies later you arrive, and the demo comes to an abrupt end.
These days the GameBoy Advance has a decent share of good role players, but other than the Zelda remake there isn't much to go around in the action RPG department. We deeply hope that Sword of Mana will help rectify that, and judging by our time with it Squenix is well on the way to producing an excellent game. Although we have only a brief build-up to base our impressions on, the tenets of a good ARPG are in place; colourful characters and visuals (which are exactly what Mana fans will be expecting), easy to grasp mechanics and a plot that could quickly become intriguing. If it continues in this vein, we have little fear of its being anything other than magical.