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HEROES OF MANA / Square-Enix / Nintendo DS
I don't like most RTS games, and I really don't like what has been done with the Mana series since Legend of Mana, so obviously, I'm coming into this one with a little of what you might call "bias". Still, however, I attempted to put my distaste for both these things aside and look at Heroes of Mana with an open mind. I've enjoyed Mana games in the past, certainly, and I've liked a few RTSes over the course of my gaming career, and this particular Mana game even revisits the universe of my favorite of the series (Seiken Densetsu 3), so I saw no reason why I might not really get into this one despite the odds.
And then I started the game up and found out that it had absolutely the worst play control scheme in the history of gaming.
But let's progress logically, and work up to that. First, the backstory - the game is set a little before the events of Seiken Densetsu 3, as you control a mercenary named Roget who is sent by Peddan (I think supposed to be Navarre from Seiken 3) by airship to spy on the Beastmen of Ferolia. Of course this leads into some tangled story of ultimate evil and world domination and et cetera. It's Squaresoft, you know the drill.
The airship stands in for your main base, as well as your factories. Resources used to do this consist of the eight Mana elements, harvested from magical trees and stones and such. This game differs from the typical RTS, however, in that all the structures stay inside the airship, and everyone deploys directly from it (owing, no doubt, to the DS's limited memory capacity, small maps and the fact that each side can have up to 25 troops running around therein at once). Your army will consist of the usual Mana monsters - Rabites serve the Peon role of harvesting resources, while for combat you (eventually) can build everything from Mushbooms to Beastmen.
Not a bad idea overall - the concept of fielding a small army of Mana regulars was played with a bit in Legend of Mana, though in a different way, and if handled properly it could be a fun concept. The problem with this one is in the handling. The gameplay is just shot through with crippling flaws to where it makes the game too irritating to play.
The first major problem is that you scroll the screen around by dragging the stylus. That's tolerable when no units are selected, but when you have one highlighted, it becomes godawfully cumbersome. The unit ends up being ordered wherever you click to hold the position to drag from, so after you are done looking around you have to go back to them and re-issue their orders (and hopefully in the meantime nothing important happened that they wandered away from).
The second problem is simply that the units are very small, and you can't tap just anywhere on the sprite to highlight them, but on some precise spot usually centered on the tummy (or equivalent). If you miss, the current highlighted unit starts moving to that spot - meaning you have to re-issue their orders, and then try again.
The third problem is the "convenience icons" scattered about the edges of the screen. They don't move away politely like they do in some other games when you bring the cursor close, and they are too easy to hit when trying to select a unit. Particularly annoying is the one in the upper-right corner that suddenly flips the screens.
The fourth problem - selecting a unit gives you no information about them whatsoever except their health level (which you can see at all times anyway). Did you forget what a particular monster type specializes in? Do you not know what that cadre of enemy monsters you have never seen before is capable of? Too fucking bad, go dig up the manual, because the game ain't telling you shit.
The fifth problem, and possibly the biggest, is the horrible pathing that makes Warcraft 2 look incredibly advanced. Seriously, your monsters are about the dumbest and most flighty ever seen in an RTS, and each one has to be babied constantly just to get them successfully from point A to point B (and oftentimes they still inexplicably won't do what you want).
The sixth problem - group selection. In PC RTS games, usually you can drag a line around a bunch of units in Photoshop style to issue commands to all of them simultaneously. Here you can draw a line around a group to achieve the same effect - so far, so good. The rub is that, in most PC RTS games made after 1994 or so, you can have "hot key" unit groups that stay together and are toggled by pressing a button, so that even if they intermingle in battle, you can still give specific orders without having to fish out and re-select all the units. That's not present in this one. If you want to switch to a second group, you have to draw a line around them - and that disbands the first group. In other words, the game is only capable of holding one group in memory at a time. That is a huge no-no for an RTS released in the year 2007.
All these problems converge into a chaotic nightmare when you have twenty or so units running about on the screen, and are frantically trying to marshall your forces to fight cohesively, while also trying to keep the enemy from merrily skipping past your lines and heading straight for your airship (which they generally do and which, if trashed, ends the mission).
There's even more little tics about the game - for example, hero characters (who you must keep alive or Fission Mail) are so horrendously weak that you usually have to hide them back behind the Airship just to keep the mission from ending prematurely - but seriously, the six main problems I outlined above are enough alone to make the game an unplayable mess and qualify it for an automatic veto from consideration. I mean, this crud makes Revenant Wings look well designed and entertaining. Mana fans will be disappointed by yet another title that comes nowhere near what the original SNES games were, RTS fans will be in pain from the horrendous design and controls, and there's nothing else to compel anyone else to play this except for colorful eye-candy art (and a solid soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura).
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