By Louise Yang . August 21, 2007 . 7:46pm
When I first learned of the Nintendo DS and its touch screen, I thought, "Hey, the touch screen would be a great control scheme for RTS games!" I'm surprised it took so long for an RTS to come to the DS, but now it's here in the form of Heroes of Mana.
The story of Heroes of Mana is convoluted with political alliances, betrayals, warring nations, and all that sort of mumbo jumbo that justifies having a game take the form of an RTS. Needless to say, you're not going to get quizzed about the politics behind whatever army you're fighting against at the moment. If you're the type who immerses themselves in a game's world, then all the optional text to go through in Heroes of Mana will not have gone to waste. I'm not kidding when I say there is a lot of text in the way of descriptions of all types of enemy units, details of the story, details of all the factions in the Mana world, character bios, and of course descriptions of all the different bases that can be created.
The Real Time Strategy genre is not an easy genre to get into, but Heroes of Mana makes sure even the most naive RTS players don't get lost. The introduction to game mechanics and the story is thorough to the point of being annoying redundant. There are parts in the game where what is displayed on the screen can be easily understood, yet there is still text overlaid on the screen that tells you what you already know; it's a bit patronizing. I've heard people complain about the slow pace of battle in the game, but once I turned that to the fast setting in the configuration menu, I didn't see that as a problem at all.
One may wonder how the small screens of the DS can display the complexities of an RTS, but HoM shows it can be done. The bottom screen shows a zoomed in portion of the battle map while the top screen shows a less detailed version of the entire map. Players can switch from one screen to the next by tapping a button on the touch screen. The zoomed-in portion of the map is where most of the interactivity takes place: selecting troops, issuing commands, building bases. Using the directional keys, players can move the zoomed-in portion to different sections of the map.
While all this works well most of the time, it gets a bit hectic and clumsy when there are battles going on all over the map. Using the directional keys to move to far parts of the map is time consuming. Players can switch to the less-detailed zoomed-out map, pick a spot to zoom in on, and then switch the touch-screen to that section, but even that feels a little clunky. One thing I didn't like about the zoomed-out map of the entire area was that it was difficult to tell where the leaders were, which makes it hard to keep them alive, which is crucial to most missions. I wish they had used a different type of symbol to show where the leaders were on the map.
Units can be selected by tapping individual units, dragging a circle around nearby units, or clicking a specify unit type from some icons at the bottom of the touch screen. The units can then be directed by tapping a location for the units to move to, or a resource to farm. Sometimes there's confusion with what you're clicking on when there are five units huddled around a single point, but mostly, the mechanics work well.
Graphics-wise, Heroes of Mana looks great. It may not be state of the art, but the 2D sprites on an isometric map look crisp. The super-deformed style of the characters during battle gave the game a certain charm and as always, the rabites were cute. The plot and dialog is delivered through static scenes with anime-styled characters and dialog boxes, nothing you haven't seen before. There are points in the game where small animated clips play as well.
The music in HoM was better than I expected. Instead of generic battle tunes, the music has a way of making you excited to start fighting. Similarly, the music changes to something more somber during dramatic scenes. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the sound effects. Those were generic and forgettable.
Despite my excitement about getting an RTS on a handheld system, Heroes of Mana felt too shallow. You get a huge number of leaders to choose to bring into battle, with more characters being added to that pool as the plot unfolds, but there aren't major noticeable differences between how the characters fight. I ended up spending most of the time bringing in the top 3 or 4 heavy hitters into battle. As for the weaker characters, I thought there would be a trade off since they didn't have a high attack stat, but whatever the trade off was, it wasn't worth it to bring them into battle, since they also usually had lower HP. I was also a bit offended that the female characters were so weak compared to the males.
Another problem I had was the AI. My ground squad sometimes seemed to have a difficult time going from point A to point B in the most efficient manner if the path was anything but a straight line. Instead of going down some stairs and under a bridge, for example, they would go the long way all the way around a castle to arrive at the point I set for them. One way to get around this is to point them at an intermediate point, have them arrive there, then point them to another point, and so on until they reached where you wanted them to go, but that's tedious. There are also times where my ship would be getting attacked while units were just standing close by, not defending the ship or even attacking any of the nearby enemies.
I'm the type who likes to issue a command to some troops, go to another part of the map to command some other troops, and then come back and see success in that area of the map. Unfortunately, HoM isn't the type of game that lets me do this. Despite its shortcomings with generic, shallow characters, Heroes of Mana can still be an excellent RTS experience if only the AI were fixed. If you have the patience to babysit your units and make sure they do exactly what you tell them to do, HoM is an enjoyable game. If you're not, you'll most likely end up frustrated at missions where you have to split up your units.