Dawn of Mana has been out in North America for a week now much to the disdain of video game critics. I’ve been playing it too and as much as I want to say something glowing about it I can’t. Ok… well it’s easy on the eyes and Square-Enix did a good job transitioning the colorful artwork the mana series is known for into the scary third dimension. However, you’re not “watching” Dawn of Mana, you’re playing it. The main character, Keldric wields a sword that also shoots out vines so he can grab and fling rabites. Yeah, it’s hilarious to toss a mushboom with the Havok physics engine, but the novelty wears off fast.
It seems like Square-Enix tried to implement the Havok physics engine as much as they could in Dawn of Mana. Before you approach a group of peaceful monsters you have to put them into a “panic” by knocking rocks into them or hitting another monster into them. While panicked, monsters freeze with a number over their head, making them easy targets to attack by hitting the square button. Since monsters don’t give experience points the only way to “level up” is by hitting panicked monsters so they drop medals. Medals boost Keldric’s maximum HP and attack, but not forever. At the end of each chapter all of the precious medals you earned are erased and if you get a high enough ranking you earn emblems that grant Keldric a permanent stat boost. Unless you earn an exceptionally high grade when you complete a chapter expect Keldric to level down when you enter the next, harder chapter. It’s frustrating to think all of the time you put into build Keldric is wiped out as a reward for completing a level. What is really annoying about the whole panic system is if you ignore scaring monsters and rush into fighting you’re not going to get medals. You can’t just jump into battle with your trigger finger on the square button you have to find a rock or throw an enemy if you want any kind of reward.
The story in Dawn of Mana isn’t that interesting either. On the plus side it does tie in with the other mana games. If you’re a fan of the franchise you’ll notice familiar locations and clear connections like the elemental spirits telling the story. However, following Keldric’s quest to rescue Ritizia, the traditional damsel in distress with magical powers, is a cliché start for the mana linage. Instead Dawn of Mana is more like a virtual playground where you fling barrels and knock over stacks of logs set in the Mana universe. Or maybe it’s a really attractive looking Havok Physics demo. Either way it’s missing one of the key things that made the Mana franchise great playing with friends. A second player can control Faye, a floating fairy who casts spells to boost Keldric, but you’re limited to being a Keldric’s assistant.
Square-Enix has been criticized about their stream of remakes, but instead of spending all the time developing Dawn of Mana I wonder if they would have better success translating Seiken Densetsu 3. Just add in online play and sell it as a budget Xbox Live Arcade title or give it a full remake and bring the Mana series out of drudgery.