Sword of Mana
I played Sword of Mana hoping for a decent action RPG. What I got was a disappointment that could've been much more, and an even stronger appreciation for what Square was able to accomplish with Secret of Mana back in the day.
As this game starts, you can play as a male or female character that you have to name yourself. I can't imagine that this choice would have any effect on how entertaining the game is, but I used the male hero, for anyone who's interested. As expected, the basic gameplay is pretty simple stuff... follow the story, control one character while the computer controls another, fight enemies with weapons or magic, and get through various kinds of castles, caves, and other dungeons while solving some simple puzzles. It just doesn't work out well.
The first issue that comes to mind is that different kinds of enemies are immune to certain kinds of weapons and magic. When you encounter something for the first time, you have to do some trial and error to figure out what's going to work on it. This means going through the time consuming process of bringing up the ring menu and wasting several seconds to switch weapons or spells to deal with different monsters. If there was any faster way to make the switch, I never discovered it, and the game never informed me of it.
This ring menu becomes a constant annoyance, as you need to access it to level up, use items, check experience needed to level up, and to switch weapons in other situations, like using the flail to pull yourself across a gap in the land. And unlike the ring menu in Secret of Mana, this one seems overburdened with options and sub-rings, as well as being a good deal slower than it should be.
The number of weapons you receive in this game is definitely on the high side. But there's really no point in using any of them. I picked one weapon, the sword, and fought with it whenever I could. The sword's level rose very high while all the other weapons fell behind. If a certain monster was immune to the sword, I'd switch to something else to deal with it, then go right back to the sword again. I can't imagine how much time I would've wasted by leveling up all the other weapons, as there was clearly no need to. This game has plenty of things you can waste time with, good for those who like maxing out stats and levels... but there's really no practical reason to do any of it.
The puzzles in this game at first seem like they'll be complicated, but then they turn into extremely simple matters to get through. You'll often receive complex sounding clues, but what it usually amounts to is stepping on some obvious switches on the floor, beating all the enemies on the screen, hitting a couple of rocks until they glow, or hitting switches in a certain order (there's usually only three or four switches, and since the game tells you the moment you break the proper sequence, it'll only take a couple attempts with trial and error to figure it out). More often, there are no puzzles at all, and if you don't want more experience points, you can often run right through a dungeon without missing anything of great importance. There are treasures, but most proved so useless to me that I no longer wanted to waste the time of watching the Secret of Mana-like treasure chest opening animation.
At different points in the story, you'll be joined by a number of computer controlled characters, one at a time. These characters come and go frequently throughout the game, and have one thing in common... they are all completely useless. They will walk right into traps, get stuck behind things and generally get completely lost all the time. They're also almost totally incompetent when it comes to fighting or following your instructions. It's possible to switch and control this character yourself, but then the hero is controlled by the computer instead and suffers from the same problems, so either way, you lose. Once I had leveled up a little, I tended to ignore the party member completely, letting them run out of HP so I could focus on getting through an area without wasting healing items and time. The fact that this actually works is an indication of how broken this game is. Secret of Mana, a game many years older than this one and criticized for how it's computer controls characters behaved, had far better party AI. It's true that they got stuck and had some other issues, but at least they were useful sometimes rather than making the dungeons MORE challenging than they would be alone.
As odd as this will sound even for an RPG, you can go to certain areas to temper your weapons using vegetables, which increases or decreases the weapon's stats. In order to get these vegetables, you use different combinations of seeds that you find in dungeons and other places. This was more time consuming than it needed to be, since tempering rarely seemed useful at all. I think I only bothered with it once or twice throughout the game, and got results of limited usefulness. You can also forge a weapon, upgrading it with new material. This, for example, could be used to change from a Bronze Sword to a Steel Sword. I'd just return once every few hours to forge a few of my weapons with new materials I'd come across in dungeons, and would often get extreme stat boosts. All this made me think of the nice system Secret of Mana had where you would get weapon orbs and pay a fee to upgrade your weapon to the next level. That was a much more organized and balanced system.
My main complaint with Sword of Mana is it's near complete lack of difficulty as the game progresses. I didn't level up excessively, I just put my level up bonuses into strength and defense rather than magic. It seems like a perfectly normal choice, but it made me almost invincible. All the fierce looking late game bosses? About 10 swings of the sword and they were finished. My HP started getting a little low before the boss was finished? I'd just use one of the 99 healing items I had in stock. When you reach the point where the game is almost impossible to lose, you start asking yourself "why bother?" in all sorts of situations. Why bother upgrading my weapons, why bother trying different weapon types, why bother leveling up my magic, why bother fighting these random enemies, etc. The whole game becomes pointless, and all it has to fall back on is the story. And if it was a well written epic, maybe the game still would've been alright to pay.
But sadly, the story is really mediocre. At first things don't seem bad, just a little on the predictable side. But as I played, I increasingly noticed that it was either poorly written or poorly translated. The first thing that comes to mind is that one of the main villain is named Dark Lord. I'm hoping that this was the villain's name in FF Adventure and that they're just trying not to change things too much. If they came up with Dark Lord for this release, it's an extremely ridiculous choice. This game is not a comedy, and how can you take your opponent seriously when he calls himself Dark Lord? And how can NPC's not realize that he's maybe not such a nice guy and not deserving of worship? At other times during the story, I felt like I was missing some important piece of information or couldn't follow a couple conversations properly. It's as if you're expected to know certain things in advance. Sometimes, I felt like I was playing a sequel rather than a remake of the first game in a series.
Even if I consider the possibility that I just wasn't paying enough attention during some of these too-long story scenes, it's really not an interesting tale. The characters are not very likeable, the villains not very interesting, and the overall plot is nothing you haven't seen countless times before. You have to sit through a whole bunch of text at times when you'd rather just move onto the next area. The game also throws a bunch of very dull sidequests at you constantly, like talking to a bunch of people in town to collect money from them or finding somebody in a town later in the game to relay a message.
Overall, I was pretty satisfied with the game's graphics aside from a few minor issues. It's pretty colorful, and there's a nice variety of enemy sprites, including classic Mana enemies like the rabbite. Bosses are interesting to look at during the 20 seconds it takes you to defeat them. There's definitely a SNES feel to the game, but if you're expecting things to be at the level of Secret of Mana or better, you might be slightly disappointed. And the minor issues I mentioned? The game has issues with very large sprites (like the VERY FIRST boss you deal with as the game begins) and when there's a lot of people onscreen at once, like in a crowded town. The sprites flicker and look glitchy when this happens, though the game itself seems to maintain it's normal speed.
The music wasn't as bad as I expected, and there are actually a couple of fairly memorable songs. But unlike so many classic RPG's (including Secret of Mana) that had wonderful music that really helped get you into the game, Sword of Mana's never gets far beyond "okay". There's also too much repetition, and so even the good stuff gets a bit old after several hours of play.
Unfortunately, I really can't recommend this game to anyone and feel comfortable about it. I know that the game has it's fans, and that my review is scoring it below the general average. The way I look at it, one or two of the flaws I dealt with, like the bad AI, the dull story, or the lack of difficulty, probably would've been tolerable. But the way they all come together drives the game far below the level of average. It's not one of the worst I've ever played, but it's pretty bad. I expect Secret of Mana fans to be reminded of what they loved about that game, rather than coming away with many, if any, positive memories from this one. Perhaps the best thing this game did for me was introduce Dark Lord jokes into my message board posts.