It seemed as if Square had totally ditched the Mana series, which served as one of the major three pillars of Square (the other two being Final Fantasy and SaGa). Seiken Densetsu 3 was considered by many Mana enthusiasts and fanboys to be the last great Mana that ever existed, leaving future titles like Legend of Mana and Sword of Mana out to die in lack of appreciation. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that Square surprised everyone by bringing back the Mana series in a move they call "The World of Mana". At that moment, many Mana fans rejoiced! Their cries for Square to return the glory of Mana had been heard with games like Children of Mana, Dawn of Mana, and Heroes of Mana. Perhaps now, Square can finally return the glory of the Mana series.
Such a rekindled reception soon disappeared when many learned that the first entry in the "World of Mana" project was nothing like their beloved Mana games from yore. Children of Mana was more of a dungeon crawler than a traditional Mana game. It placed more emphasis on working with your environment to defeat enemies than simply hacking and slashing away. The fact that Children of Mana received a lukewarm reception here in the West (sans the vivid love many Mana fans had for the game) in comparison to mixed reception in the East was a clear indication that the Mana series was coming back… just slowly returning to its original glory. Of course saying something like that is completely dependent on the person playing the game, but from a general consensus via reading message boards and asking for personal opinions, Children of Mana was just a "meh" title. Personally, I liked it.
In all seriousness, Dawn of Mana truly isn’t that bad of a title though skeptics and those who’ve played and hated the game would say otherwise. The game features great graphics, a great score composed by Kenji Ito with the opening and closing themes done by Ryuichi Sakimoto, great in-game and CG cutscenes, and a great foundation of gameplay based on the havok engine. Seiken Densetsu 4 is a prequel to the entire Seiken Densetsu series that serves to explain the origins of the Tree of Mana, the Holy Sword of Mana, and how everyday people came to use magic. The story revolves around Keldy and Ritzia who learn of Stroud’s plot to awaken the Mana Godddess to drain the entire world of Mana and rule it. In order for Stroud to do so, he requires the help of the Maiden (Ritzia) to awaken the Mana Goddess and release the power of Mana from within. Keldy realizes that he must go on a journey to not only save Ritzia from harm’s way, but to also save the world from Stroud’s maniacal plan and protect all of humanity.
There’s a bit more to the story, but for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t mention anything else. Dawn of Mana’s most notable feature is the MONO system where the game makes use of the havok engine to help bring to life the environment, each of the levels in the game and have you, the player, use it. Basically, the use of MONO is to latch on to anything you can in your surroundings. A rock, a pole, a board, or even an enemy (dependent on your level) and throw it towards a group of enemies or a large enemy to put them in Panic mode, and defeat them. When enemies enter Panic mode, a small counter in a yellow cloud appears above the enemy with the alloted time given before the enemy returns to a sane state. During the given time, you have to go up to the enemy and attack him to not only defeat him, but also get power ups for both your regular level and magic level in hopes of gaining a level. The more things you throw at the enemy, the more time is given to you to defeat the enemy and net yourself a lot of power ups.
The MONO system, in essence, prevents Dawn of Mana from being a typical button masher (i.e. Kingdom Hearts II) where you can just run up to any enemy and defeat it with no worries. Since Seiken Densetsu 4 is a Koichi Ishii game, you’re forced to think of a way to defeat bigger enemies, and even bosses, by making use of the MONO system above all else. One of the major problems with this is simply how unbalanced the game feels between MONO and regular attacks. The game places more emphasis on MONO opposed to simply going up to an enemy and defeating it. For this reason, boss battles nearly take between 30-45 minutes to complete while stages take 30-60 minutes to get through which makes every level seem more like an arduous task than a simple task. One thing is for sure, the game isn’t repetitious in any way which is a nice thing for gamers who dislike repetition. Throughout the course of the game, each of the Mana spirits will bestow unto you their powers in the form of seeds which Keldy can shoot with his hand bow. The use of Mana seeds sort of replaces the necessity of the MONO system when dealing with bigger enemies and sometimes bosses. Each seed has its own element and can be used against a variety of enemies assuming, of course, the element being used is the enemy’s weakness. The use of these seeds is very helpful when you’ve come to an area where there is absolutely nothing you can throw at your enemies. Furthermore, it helps increase enemy Panic and helps net you some neat power ups items.
Another difficult/annoying thing about Seiken Densetsu 4 is the process of leveling up. When you’ve put enemies in Panic and attacked them to steal HP/POW/MP coins, your regular level will rise and your magic level will rise. With an increase in regular level, your combo hits will increase. An increase in magic level, increases the availability of spells Faye (Keldy’s fairy companion…doesn’t mean the game is two players) can use also rises. The more you increase your levels, the more your power rises. However, upon entering a new level in a new chapter, all your stats will go back to level 1, where you initially start. The fact that all your stats resets makes you have to work even harder in every stage because you have to increase your stats in hopes of defeating a boss and enemies with some ease…not too much ease, but some ease nonetheless. Also, the only way you can rely on healing is hoping you either find some healing items by destroying your environment or netting one from a panicked enemy. The only way to avoid the arduous task of leveling up is by equipping Emblems. Emblems are power ups Keldy can equip prior to starting a level that allows level and magic level stats to rise as well as other things such as HP, MP, attack power, and the like. Emblems are not that easy to obtain, each Emblem has a certain requirement that must be met in order to succeed in receiving an Emblem based on the level you’re completing. Some Emblems require you get an S ranking in a particular stage, an A ranking in a particular stage, have a certain high score at the end of the stage, defeating a certain amount of enemies, etc…etc…etc…a total of 5 (if I remember correctly) can be equipped with about 2 being the start. The camera issues in the game can be related to those found in Kingdom Hearts, some are annoying while others are just horrible and really do prevent you from determining just where you are in terms of position.
Despite this entire onslaught of problems, Dawn of Mana can either be a great experience or or a horrible experience depending, of course, on just how much of a perfectionist or Mana enthusiast you are. When I began the game, I was foreign to how everything worked. I was annoyed by the unbalanced feel between the MONO system and just going up to some enemies and simply attacking them. The fact that stages took a while to complete and boss battles, at least most of them, weren’t a walk in a park sort of contributed to my somewhat limited frustration with the game. After getting a little exposure time with the MONO system and becoming familiar with how the game works as well as meeting requirements to acquire Emblems (all based on luck, btw) and messing around in each of the game’s stages, Dawn of Mana was a fun experience for me. Every single boss battle won’t be able to escape my mind. A lot of them were very time involving and really did require the use of your mind to concoct a strategy suitable for victory. Furthermore, Kenji Ito really knows how to bring out the rhythmic feel to a stage and boss battles. Voice acting is superb as you normally don’t find good English voice acting in JRPGs today. Dawn of Mana is an experience that some should warrant a chance, even if you aren’t too fond of how the game really makes you think. With its potential, one can see just how much of a better game it could have been if Square-Enix had really taken the time to fix some of these issues which, again depend on what your definition of issues really is.