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Sword of Mana (Game Boy Advance) Review

Before what we know as Square Enix was formed, lone developer Squaresoft produced a wonderful little role-playing game for the original Game Boy by the name of Seiken Densetsu, a Final Fantasy Gaiden (side-story) that changed the action from FF-style turn-based action to Zelda-like interactive battling and is still considered to be one of the best GB RPGs to date. Fast forward to 2004 and we now have a complete reworking of that first ‘Mana’ title on the GBA. Can the original team retain the magic of eight years ago in this update? Find out by reading on…

The basic premise of the Sword of Mana story is that you, as the hero (or heroine, depending on your initial character choice), have decided to bring an end to the long-term reign of terror brought upon by the ‘Dark Lord’. However, being a simple young person it is impossible to take the dastardly fiend on in a face-to-face battle straight away. Therefore the quest to find the Sword of Mana, the only weapon that can over-power his immense strength, begins. Along the way, though, you will encounter many plot twists and elements of confusion that will intrigue, baffle and downright frustrate you all in equal measures!

Secret of Mana on the SNES was classed as one of the most beautiful games of its time, whereas Mystic Quest on the GB (aka Seiken Densetsu, the original version of Sword of Mana) was not. Then Square released the Japan-only Seiken Densetsu 3, which astounded many with its absolutely gorgeous graphics – quality unsurpassed on the SNES according to many fans. Well, here we have Sword of Mana on the 32-bit powerhouse that is the GBA – it must look amazing now, right? Yes and no, to be honest.

Yes we are treated to detailed characters; yes we have rich and colourful backgrounds with generally lush settings. But you will find that many of the buildings from village to village are exactly the same in layout, showing no real imagination; the animation on characters is rudimentary to say the least in many cases; slowdown plagues the action on far too many occasions; and there is ‘graphical tearing’ horizontally across the screen when moving around. Now, whilst these issues can be ignored when enjoying the game, they do actually make you want to check your calendar to see exactly what year we are in…

Screenshot for Sword of Mana on Game Boy Advance - on Nintendo Wii U, 3DS games review

Brownie Brown did a sublime job on its first GBA game, Magical Vacation, but here it has taken many graphic tiles from Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3 and even the PSone’s extravagant Legend of Mana and mish-mashed them together without ironing-out the bumps. Do not let this deter you too much, but use the information to prepare yourself rather than being too shocked when first playing!

Music in videogames is an area of gaming that is oft overlooked by many gamers, and subsequently by several developers as well. However, in the past both Squaresoft and Enix have become renowned as major forces in the gaming soundtrack market, with many of their titles having music that can get your feet tapping right through to tunes that send a tingling feeling through your body. Sword of Mana is not really that different in this respect, as it takes the soundtrack from the mono-speakered Game Boy and remixes it in a very pleasing fashion.

But there are some oddities to be found within the game. For instance, with all that cartridge space (the lowest GBA cartridges are equivalent to the largest SNES ones...), why do most of the tracks repeat after such a short time? Also, even when you plug in your stereo earphones, the music sounds ‘muddy’, as if listening underwater. This latter point is especially unusual, considering Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the GBA has the best, and clearest, soundtrack out of the entire GBA catalogue! Your best bet is buying the (very cheap) official Sword of Mana CD soundtrack that includes full-length versions of the tunes, played on proper instruments, and then turning the actual GBA volume off!

Screenshot for Sword of Mana on Game Boy Advance - on Nintendo Wii U, 3DS games review

Not quite in this case. Back when Zelda: Link’s Awakening arrived on the Game Boy, Mystic Quest was deemed to be the perfect solution for gamers starved of RPGs once the Zelda game was finished. Now, however, times have changed and so has the quality of the genre on this platform of choice. The GBA has some exemplary role-players in the form of Golden Sun, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Fire Emblem, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and even the port of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Therefore what was acceptable over ten years ago is no longer going to ‘cut the mustard’ with today’s gaming community.

When thinking about this game, discard the thoughts of Final Fantasy turn-based action and fill your mind with the idea of Zelda, Secret of Mana and other action-based RPGs where you fight all your battles in real-time, hacking away at annoying enemies on a constant basis. Much of this seem like mindless button-pressing to many people, but then again these will not be able to make their through the game. There is a large amount of skill and strategy that is required throughout most of the adventure, with certain enemies only succumbing to a few specific weapons from your roster (that includes items like a simple sword, spear, chain and your own fists), some only appearing during set times of day (with day changing to night as you move from screen-to-screen this is not too much of a bother, though) and others being affected significantly by certain types of magic.

These magical skills are acquired by collecting various different elemental wisps during the adventure that can give you access to new sections of the game world and then provide you with special defensive and offensive arsenal with which to ensure you stay alive long enough to save the world from the Dark Lord’s oppressive rule. This would work much better if the second character that is nearly always playing alongside you was not controlled by a computer with as much intelligence as a plank of wood. Sometimes your partner will wander off in a strange direction, lured away from your direct route by a random off-screen enemy; other times they will simply throw all of their magical power at the wrong adversary; then there is the fact that when trying to finally follow you, they constantly get caught on the scenery as they are not intelligent enough to avoid blockages; and then, to round things off, when you actually want them to attack a large opponent, they either do nothing because they are not in the correct position for the computer AI to kick-in, or will mindlessly run into the thick of the battle without defending or retreating at all, leading to their prompt death.

Screenshot for Sword of Mana on Game Boy Advance - on Nintendo Wii U, 3DS games review

Suffice to say, unless you have the patience of a Saint (which, thankfully, I did when it came to this game) and can be bothered hitting ‘Select’ to actually take control of your partner and guide him/her away from danger, then Sword of Mana will frustrate the hell out of you. If only Brownie Brown and Team 8 of Square Enix had included some sort of multiplayer mode…

But wait, they did! But wait again, as it is a complete, utter waste of time. Brownie Brown has brought over the ‘Amigo’ system it introduced in its first creation, Magical Vacation on the GBA. It means that you can transfer over a friend’s character to access special attacks during your game. However it proves to be too much hassle to sort out and the simple option of two-player co-operative link-up would have been preferred. Even if it may seem awkward as there are a few solo sections in the game, people managed to cope with that in Secret of Mana on the SNES…why not now as well? At least we should have been given the option. Maybe next time? Let us hope so!

By the way, you must remember to charge your batteries as much as possible as this may be a GBA game, but it is by no means a miniature one! Sword of Mana provides you with the opportunity to play through the adventure twice, once as a hero and the other as a heroine. Whilst many of the actual gameplay scenarios remain the same, there are several differences to be found between the two that completists will want to uncover. Just consider the fact that on you first play-through, without even finishing off all of the side-quests thrown at you, the time roughly taken by an average gamer to reach the end is around the twenty-five hour mark.

Levelling-up, as is the norm with RPGs, is a must and a fate worse than death awaits you if you skip this aspect of the game at the beginning of the adventure – and that is the boredom of having to level up for very long periods of time later on without making any real progress! At a decent strength, in other words killing the majority of enemies you see on your travels, the many bosses in the game will not pose too much of a headache, but they are still no breeze. Other than that, in order to increase longevity there is that ‘Amigo’ option, but the less said about that the better…

Screenshot for Sword of Mana on Game Boy Advance- on Nintendo Wii U, 3DS games review

Gameplay

Think back to Secret of Mana on the SNES – the ring menu, weapon levelling-up and interesting enemy encounters. Now scale that all down slightly and you have a perfect image of Sword of Mana. Good, but not great.

Graphics

With the power of the GBA at their hands, the Brownie Brown team should have given us the graphical quality that is evident, but without all the old-skool glitches and slowdown!

Sound

Beautifully scored is what Sword of Mana is, with instantly recognisable remixes of the original music and some tunes that will just stick in your head for ages after playing. Now if only the repeat rate was not so short…

Value

Will twenty-plus hours satisfy you? It would do most GBA players just fine, especially considering some of the best titles on the system are around the two-five hour mark! A proper co-operative mode would have been a welcome addition, though.

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Good - Bronze Award

About this score
Rated 7 out of 10

*Knock 1.0 off if you are not a fan of SNES 'old skool' RPGs*

This is definitely a good effort from the folk over at Square Enix and Brownie Brown, but you cannot help but feel more than a little short-changed. If many believe that Crystal Chronicles on the GameCube was possibly a rushed game, then a closer look at Sword of Mana is needed as this really looks like it was cobbled together over a short time period. Do not misunderstand this statement, though, as a rush job from an amazingly talented development team is still miles better than most other products out there. A fan of old skool SNES RPGs and can pardon the niggles associated with such games? Then definitely get Sword of Mana! Anyone used to the next generation of role-players or even simply the likes of Golden Sun, rent before you buy to avoid disappointment…or take advantage of GAME’s 10-Day Return policy.

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19.03.2004

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Developer

Brownie Brown

Publisher

Nintendo

Genre

Adventure

Players

2

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10 (4 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

Reader comments - add yours today Comments on this Review

i've been having problems getting in since monday. tonight seems to be really bad for some reason, took me about 10mins and several hundred refreshs to get in.

Senior ModeratorStaff Member

We'll be back and running full steam soon enough! :Smilie

Adam Riley < Operations Director :: Senior Editor :: Cubed3 Limited >
Word of Adam | Voice123 Profile | AdamC3 on Twitter
Eric Barbour (guest) 23.11.2011 18:45#3

I'm pretty sure that Seiken Densetsu was named Final Fantasy Adventure on the game boy. Mystic Quest (as Final Fantasy Mystic Quest) was a super nintendo game unrelated to the Seiken Densetsu universe.

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