All stars, no substance.
At long last, summer is finally upon us. Hot and lazy days that seem to go on forever, flesh-revealing clothing everywhere you look, and blockbuster movie sequels in every theatre. Of course, I don’t get to go outside. I’m too busy working in the Game Revolution coal mines, churning out review after review under the ever-watchful eye of my cruel overlord. But that’s OK, I don’t need sunlight or exposed navels or Ocean’s Thirteen. No, siree. Especially not Ocean’s Thirteen. In fact, from everything I’ve heard about that movie, it sounds like the same experience that I had playing Dawn of Mana.
I mean, think about it. It’s the eagerly anticipated sequel to a proven franchise that has delighted audiences time after time. The plot was developed by brilliant mastermind Square Enix, who I think could be played by George Clooney. It features the sometimes bumbling and unpredictable but altogether pretty cool antics of Havok Physics (played by Matt Damon). And of course, everyone’s going gaga over the jaw-droppingly Beautiful Graphics (played, naturally, by Brad Pitt). With all the star power it’s got going for it, it’s gotta be great, right? Right? Well, sadly, no. If George Clooney’s gang of lovable career criminals have taught us anything, it’s that all the talent in the world can’t save a mediocre production. It’s not bad, exactly. It’s just, well, your typical summer movie – pretty, but not all that memorable.
Departing from the standard RPG format of the World of Mana series, Dawn is your standard action/adventure bop-the-badguys-and-pick-up-all-the-items game, but with a twist. Instead of rushing headlong at your enemies like an anime Leeroy Jenkins, you can channel Isaac Newton and use the laws of physics to work for you. Strewn throughout the lands where you adventure are an assortment of balls, logs, boulders, giant acorns, and other movable items (played by um… Bernie Mac, and Don Cheadle, and um… oh, that other Affleck! And, um… Oh, to heck with it. I’m abandoning this metaphor.) By interacting with these items (pushing them, shooting them with your slingshot, or snagging them with your whip), you can fling chunks of your environment at your foes. Fortunately for you, the baddies in Dawn of Mana are a rather high-strung lot. Every time they so much as get nudged by a log, they freak out like a housewife who’s seen a mouse, hopping from foot to foot and paying no attention to you as you pummel them into submission (Note: Game Revolution does not condone the pummeling of housewives). The more you scare the crap out of them, the better items they drop, and the higher rewards you receive for completing the level.
Because of the fratboy charm of the Havok Physics engine, the way that objects respond when hit by you or another object is incredibly realistic. And by incredibly realistic, I mean really difficult to control. It’s simple enough to pick up an item with your whip, but getting it to land where you want it is a much tougher proposition. I don’t even want to tell you how much time I spent pointlessly hurling bits of scenery around the forest as the goblins I was trying to smash alternately laughed at me and crushed my head. Real physics is cool and all, but if I had the patience to truly master this kind of skill, I’d be in Las Vegas performing in a Cirque de Soleil show (Like that Chinese guy! I almost forgot about him!) instead of sitting at my computer typing this review. And while all of the crazy mousetrap-like scenarios you can unleash are cool if done right, they’re ultimately not all that necessary. After a while, I got tired of accidentally smacking myself in the head with concrete blocks, and just started button mashing the goblins to death. It wasn’t as pretty, but it worked.
Leading man Square Enix also makes some really questionable gameplay decisions in Dawn of Mana. First off, and I know this is small and petty, but what’s up with the radar? It’s just a plain black circle with colored dots in it. What, are we on the GameBoy Advance here? Give me a background map or some icons or something. Worse yet is the leveling system. At first I was all excited that I was gaining so many levels so quickly. I was learning new techniques so fast I could barely keep up with them. But then when I started the second stage I suddenly found myself at level 1 again. What?
Bucking all known rules of gaming, Dawn of Mana actually resets your level every time you complete an area, forcing you to level up again to re-acquire the techniques you previously enjoyed. It’s as if someone told you, “Oh, you just graduated high school? Congratulations! Now next year you get to start all over.. as a freshman.” It’s demoralizing.
Visually, however, Square Enix does not disappoint. By PS2 standards, the graphics are stunning, with gorgeous art direction. The backgrounds are rich, and the bosses suitably menacing. The character style can be a little odd at times – the main characters of Keldy and Ritzia have kind of a creepy doll look to them, and the lovable fairies you encounter vaguely resemble Strawberry Shortcake characters, except that they shoot fire. I found myself mesmerized by the spirit Faye with her long ribbon trailing after her in pretty blue arcs set against the backdrop of a lush green forest. Just beautiful. Um, did I say Brad Pitt was the graphics before? I think I meant, uh, Ellen Barkin. Or maybe I was thinking of Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Like Ocean’s Thirteen, there are a lot of amazing individual elements in Dawn of Mana that are worth the price of admission. But they just don’t come together to make a cohesive whole. Ultimately, you’re better off waiting for it to come out on DVD and renting it.