April 7th, 2007, 01:56 Posted By: wraggster
The World of Mana is back again on Nintendo DS, and this time it's taking a very unconventional form. While the franchise has looked to evolve itself with every iteration, series creator Koichi Ishii is bringing the Mana world down a fairly-uncharted path for Nintendo's touch-screen handheld, as Heroes of Mana will land later this Summer as DS's first full-fledged real-time strategy game. We've just recently been given a chance to go hands-on with the game in its first English build (Heroes of Mana is already available in Japan), and are already beginning to go through DS-RTS withdrawal, as Heroes of Mana brings the familiar world-management genre to the DS in an impressive fashion.
If you've been paying attention to the World of Mana series over the last few years, chances are you're familiar with the franchise's evolutionary behavior. The World of Mana games began nearly two decades ago on the Super NES with Secret of Mana, and have since evolved over the years to deliver a different overall experience at every turn, on every system. For handheld gamers, Sword of Mana brought the series into a somewhat-familiar genre, as the action-RPG transformed into a dungeon-crawling adventure. On DS, Children of Mana has again taken the series one step further, progressing into an even more serialized hack n' slash game, implementing four player multiplayer and random dungeons to give the Mana series a more casual, social feel. So while the gameplay elements change over the years, the spirit of the franchise stays in tact: Thus is the feeling with Heroes of Mana.
Heroes of Mana is a full-fledged RTS title for DS based entirely on the pre-existing World of Mana franchise. The story follows a soldier of Pedda by the name of Roget while he's on a reconnaissance mission to Ferolia with his comrades. When their aircraft is shot down by an enemy (and abandoned by their carrier), the crew soon-realizes that the mission was merely a plot by their own commanding officers to eliminate them. Pedda is looking to dominate the world, and Ferolia is merely the first step. Seeing the chaos caused by the Peddan army, Roget and his crew go rouge, forced to fight against their own people in an attempt to restore peace to the land.
And with that, Heroes of Mana drops players in to the action. The game is set up like any other traditional real-time strategy game, putting players in control of Roget's crew as they battle from region to region in an attempt to destroy the Peddan army. Though the bulk of the game deals with RTS missions, there's also a very deep story focused around Roget's crew, as players will need to create allies to join forces with, equip and upgrade their heroes, and outfit their army with items, weapons, and abilities necessary for success. Heroes of Mana is one part RTS, and one part strategy/RPG.
Still, the bulk of the action takes place on the battlefield, and that's where our hands-on demo focused its time. Whether you're playing through the main campaign or against a friend via DS wireless connection, the premise is still the same. Players will start each match next to their ship (The Nightswan; a flying fortress and home base), and from there build training and technology buildings, gather resources, spawn fighters, and wipe out the competition. To keep the battlefield from getting cluttered all buildings are actually kept inside the Nightswan, so players will move from managing a mini-map, the main playfield, and the inside of the ship. Basic controls work like any traditional RTS, having the stylus act as a mouse to grab units, select attackable targets, or chose rally points for soldiers to move to.
To keep the feeling as close to PC real-time games as possible, developer Brownie Brown included full-touch control, so taping units, managing resources, selecting groups of units based on class or type, or actually highlighting huge masses of troops is all done with the stylus. If one unit is needed, simply touch it. If you want to grab all ground, air, heavy, or ranged units, on-screen icons can be brought up for quicker unit management. In addition, a tap of the selection tool turns the stylus into a unit-circling tool, allowing the player to draw any shape on-screen to surround friendly units all at once. All of the unit selecting and troop movement is very simple, and with the combination of the d-pad for screen movement and the stylus for all direct-control Heroes of Mana is quick and intuitive.
As for the in-game specifics, Heroes of Mana allows for each player to create and deploy up to 25 units at a time. Each of the units is based on the classic rock/paper/scissors style of gameplay, so ground units will destroy ranged, ranged will obliterate air, and air will have the advantage over ground. Strategy comes into play when players progress their town's tech tree, upgrading units and gaining strategic advantages based on the map's topography. There are over 20 maps to play through in the multiplayer mode, ranging from smaller skirmish levels, medium sized areas, and vast battlefields. Depending on the size of the map, each commander will select a certain number of heroes to bring to the fight, with the option of equipping them with any items found in the single-player game. This does mean that the gameplay is multi-cart only, however, as you'll only be able to play with the skills, items, and heroes that you've found in the campaign mode.
Along with troop deployment and management, Heroes of Mana brings a ton of familiar aspects of the RTS genre to DS owners. You'll have full use of a mini-map, which takes up the bulk of the top screen during play. At any point, however, one touch of an on-screen icon will switch the top and bottom screen, so quick utilization of the mini-map can be pulled off at any time. Commanders will also have to work around the familiar "fog of war", making it impossible to see enemy units until coming into direct contact with them. And when you're out of options and need to create a turn-around attack, players can summon up to eight different elemental attacks that push the game into a full CG sequence which results in a catastrophic magical attack across the world. Not bad at all.
From what we played, Heroes of Mana is a deep and engaging real-time strategy that walks the line of being casual enough for newcomers, but also deep enough for seriously hardcore battles. Direct vs. competition is found only with local wireless, though a worldwide ranking system is included for Nintendo's Wi-Fi connection, allowing gamers to compare win/loss records, achieving new items and bonuses for climbing the ranks. As far as the visuals go, Heroes of Mana is pushing a ton of on-screen action, so the framerate is a bit on the slow side, and many of the sprites looks more along the lines of the GBA game Sword of Mana. Still, Heroes of Mana has a great style, it's a ton of fun, and has an amazing amount of depth from what we can tell. We're anxious to get into the single player guts of the game, though that'll come as we near the game's late Summer launch. After just an hour with the game though, we can tell you we're having a blast with Square's latest DS endeavor, and are already hooked on Heroes of Mana.
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