Sword of Mana Review
Sword of Mana is perhaps one of the most enthralling games and definitely one of the best RPGs for Nintendo's Gameboy Advance. Though perhaps not as good as its predecessors, it is highly addictive and has everything for a nearly perfect RPG.
You begin by choosing a male or female character, but unlike most games, which gender chosen is very important. It determines the course of the game, which areas you go to, which bosses you fight, and not only that, you get partnered up with whomever you did not choose relatively often.
Additionally, weapons and spirits work out differently from most RPGs. Typically, there is some sort of elemental aspect that determines damage. This exists in SoM's spirits, but it also exists in the weaponry, though not by element.
Weapons are divided into slash, bash, and jab weapons. Some enemies are weak against different types of weapons, so rather than getting the most powerful weapon for the most amount of money, you find different weapons (i.e. axe, bow, mace, flail, sickle) and you constantly switch during battle to different weapons, depending on the enemy you're fighting.
Weapons don't really need to be tempered or forged, because it's hard to specialize in one; you really use all of them, all the time, very evenly. Also, weapons can level up, and this operates by number of hits. So weapons get stronger the more you use them, rather than a complex system of adding things onto it.
Magic is very similar to this. You constantly need to change spirits, because some enemies are weak against Salamander, but not against Gnome, though it doesn't feel like an elemental based thing because there is only one spirit of each element, and monsters don't really have elements. One interesting thing about magic is that what spell is cast depends on how long you hold onto the R button. Instead of spell choosing, each spirit has two spells: one defensive/healing, and one offensive.
When you press the button quickly, it heals you or boosts a stat. When you hold down the R for a little longer, you see the spirit appear, and it will hurt surrounding enemies on release. Magic also levels up by number of times used. Different levels cast offensive magic in different ways; sometimes, a ring surrounds you and attacks a bunch of enemies on screen, and other times, it only attacks one enemy in front of you. These are not based on high or low level, it's sporadically level based.
At higher levels, however, magic will find any enemy, regardless of where it is in relation to you (as long as it's in the same area), and attack it automatically. Also, spirits can be upgraded, where more of a particular spirit appears when casting offensive magic. This doubles the attack power and MP usage. Spirits can be upgraded through quests, up to a total of seven.
The only downside to the weapons and magic is that it is wholly unpredictable what will be vulnerable to what, as it's not based on logic (fire beating grass-types, and the like). But, creates an element of fun, where you can keep switching weapons, until you go from ones that do 0 dmg to ones that do 100 dmg. And often, this can be done without taking a hit, because of the following.
One genius thing that I love is being able to access the same menu in battle as out of battle. In fact, it's not only the same menu, but there are more options inside of battle than outside. This is useful, because it pauses the game in battle mode (which you go into unobtrusively as soon as monsters appear).
The menu is a ring that you shuffle through, and for each option, you can go into another ring of submenus. A lot of time is spent in menus, and it can be confusing. But once you know where everything is, shuffling can be fast and automatic.
Since you'll be constantly changing magic and weapons, the ring-like shuffle mode is extremely useful. It's organized, but extensive enough so that it feels like you've never completely gone through all the menus or are completely updated on the status of the game.
As for battling itself, it is real time battling, but with one perk. For nearly every area, you can virtually walkthrough without having to battle any monster. There is no set battle mode that pulls you away from the game, and monsters don't tend to attack you unless you're near it for a long while. Aside from narrow hallways, you can rush ahead whenever you're in a hurry without having to stop and battle every single creature.
However, after killing one monster, you only get EXP. There is never any money dropped, and only after an entire area has been cleared does an item drop. This item is based on the last monster killed, which is useful to keep in mind if on a quest for a dropped item. Items never tend to be very good, because weapons and armor are never really dropped.
Further into the game, a luck wheel appears when opening treasure chests, and it spins with a few options of "Ow I got hurtz" and some of "OK". Ninja class players get more "OK" buttons than any other class.
There is a class system in Sword of Mana, and while it might not be as well thought out as other games in the series, it works fine. There are 6 classes in this game (warrior, monk, magician, sage, thief, random), and you can level up in multiple classes to make class hybrids.
One of the classes is a Random class, which is an interesting idea, but does little to add or detract to the game. It's nice for indecisive people, or getting to certain specialized classes. If you level up 40 times in the same class without leveling in any other class, then you get a bonus accessory of +50 to a stat, but it's not as fun as aiming toward a subclass. Overall, they don't have a huge impact on the game, but you do get replenished HP/MP whenever you level a class, and you can see all the stats that will be improved in a very neat layout.
Something that's very distinct about this game is the invention of Hot Houses, which are cactus houses in which you can talk to Li'l Cactus and keep a diary, plant seeds with Trent the tree, and forge with fruit/vegetables with a dwarf. Weapons and armors can be tempered or forged with fruit and vegetables in this game, which is a bit weird, but rarely comes up, as it's hard to have a weapons preference when it's mandatory to use them all.
As for side quests, some are annoying and menial, or expire too quickly. For example, as a hero(ine), you have to do silly things like find people's notebooks, hand out advertisements, and listen to boring stories. In one, you have to go six different cities just to talk to different people to find some kid's dad and give him barbequed newt. And the reward wasn't very good, either.
There are lots where you have to find sets of items, for example, ten coins of different elements, spirit icons, and cards. However, some quests can do useful things, like upgrade your spirit. Others end depending on what area or tower/castle you go into, so it's unfortunate when you gain an event item too late, and it becomes entirely useless. Also, quest availability depends on other quests, so they have to be completed in a succession. But, Li'l Cactus writes about them in her diary for you, each entry in a poem.
Graphically, the game is pretty gorgeous for the Gameboy Advance. There is a calendar system inside the game that determines the time of day and day of the week (based on spirits). There is a discernible difference between different times of the day, for morning, day, evening, and night.
Some areas are only open at certain times, and some monsters come out at different times, or sleep at night. However, any time of day looks gorgeous, and you can tell when the sun rises or sets. Colors are vivid, and the details are pointed and necessary.
Sword of Mana is also one of the few games in which I have to keep the music on when I play. I love all the songs, especially different battle music in different areas. It's always suitable, and never gets annoying. Plus, the sound effects make the game easier to play; when you solve puzzles in mazes for example, certain beeping sounds are made when solving part of the puzzle and after solving the whole thing.
The plot of the game is linear, but it constantly twists as you meet new characters. Most of the human bosses are some sort of Mavole (think vampiric) or monster creature, so it takes on a fantasy aspect often. The party is limited to two characters, so that often a plot twist will add on a player, or switch one out.
Every single party is determined by plot twists, and never by choice, but rarely does it make much of a difference. Nearly all party NPCs are tanks, aside from Willy, a magic caster. But, it doesn't matter, as things are constantly changing up, and it's necessary to be with one guy to get from one place to another.
It's a bit confusing with the character shuffling, but as weapon/armor isn't a huge matter in this game, it isn't as bothersome as you'd think. Still, it all comes down to the idea that the Hero/Heroine's family, friends, &c. were killed by Granz Realm and the Dark Lord(s), and the Mana clan must protect Mana power from being squandered and used for evil.
However, there are so many bad guys, who all look very similar, that after killing a half-dozen of them off, you still don't know who is the real evil behind everything. And they all have evil-sounding names, even though most of them tend to fall under the "good, but misguided" category (i.e. Medusa, Devius, Dark Lord), so they're hard to differentiate.
Overall, this game takes together a bunch of good ideas and makes them work together relatively well. Real time battling is always great, but the addition of freedom in escaping makes it even better. Taking away the necessity of buying the latest weapons was a great idea, supplemented with the additions of being about to temper/forge, weapon shuffling, weapon leveling, and winning every weapon from battle.
The ring menu is great for the GBA, as shuffling is easy with the L and R buttons. Magic also takes an interesting turn, with spirits, upgrading, spirit leveling, one button casting, and spirit shuffling. Most of all, the plot is well developed enough to be captivating without being an overload of dates, names, and information. All this combine to be an easy to use, but still challenging RPG.