Sword of Mana: Disappointing on both counts (3)

Here comes my third and last post about Sword of Mana, in which I will give my final thoughts on the matter and then rest my case for good. Here we go!

I’ve expanded profusely about how Sword of Mana was the gaming equivalent of a half-hearted donkey stuck between a bucket of water and a stack of hay, and that ranting of sorts may have given the impression that I absolutely hated it; however, and funnily enough, that is not the case. Sword of Mana is an unpolished game that doesn’t know where it stands and what it wants to achieve, that much is undeniable, but it’s not a horrible game by any means. I actually liked it, and did so enough to clear two playthroughs in a row. I definitely had good moments playing it, and even if it was an underwhelming experience as a whole, I will probably come back to it in the distant future. 

In all fairness, Sword of Mana does have redeeming qualities. They are not prevalent enough to erase the flaws I’ve mentioned earlier and make that game a masterpiece, but they are present nonetheless and make Sword worth playing to some extent. I have to be fair and mention them, starting with the most obvious one: the gorgeous graphics. Sword is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful games on the GBA, treating the player’s retina with lush and colourful decors, landscapes and vistas. Colours are vibrant and shiny and rendered in a truly beautiful style that’s halfway between colour pencil art and watercolour painting. They skilfully alternate between delicate pastel nuances and clashing vivid hues depending on the context and manage to create a mesmerizing atmosphere. Next in line, and encompassing the former, is the splendid art direction. It’s immediately recognizable and distinctive, with excellent character models that stray from the usual cookie-cutter anime style that plagues too many JRPGs, gorgeous outdoors that beg to be roamed endlessly and lovely town designs that make you want to linger there forever. The graphics’ intricacy and precision are stunning, especially compared to your average GBA game: the whole game world bristles with elaborate details, and the textures are incredibly well-rendered. Whether it be the rugged surface of a rock, the soft fabric of a carpet, the polished gleam of metal or the smooth patina of centuries-old cobblestones, everything is vibrant and lively, all the while remaining beautifully stylized and highly evocative.

As a whole, it’s fair to say that Sword of Mana completely nails that very specific Seiken atmosphere that aficionados of the series have come to know and love. This is a Seiken game at heart, and it takes but a glimpse to confirm that; stare longer, and you’ll be swept away by that inimitable Mana charm and carried into a place of true beauty. Basking in that unique atmosphere is an absolute pleasure, and one that I certainly indulged into during my playthroughs. 

In light of that distinctive Mana atmosphere, I can see very well what Square Enix and Brownie Brown may have tried to achieve here, and even condone it. The Seiken series didn’t start the way we know it today: Final Fantasy Adventure/Mystic Quest was initially nothing more than a Final Fantasy spin-off with a strong action-adventure flavour. It’s been rightfully described as a mix of Final Fantasy and Zelda, featuring the epic grandeur of the first—along with Chocobos—and the dungeon puzzles of the second. It’s only with its second entry, the immensely popular Secret of Mana, that the Seiken series declared independence from its venerable parent and became its own franchise with highly distinctive qualities. The original, however, remained what it was, a slightly stinging reminder that Seiken was indeed not always its own series. Ten years passed and three games were released, each one expanding on the Mana mythology and deepening the specificities of the series, and it seemed that Seiken was on good rails and promised to last. What better idea, then, than to give a good lifting to that somewhat mismatched first episode of the series and make it more cohesive with the subsequent installments? It would also be a fantastic opportunity to introduce the Mana lore to a new generation of players on the then brand-new Game Boy Advance. This was a great idea, and it seemed that Square Enix was really serious and committed about it, to the point of bringing Brownie Brown and its wealth of former Squaresoft employees into the picture, and a dazzling gem of a game could have been expected from that match seemingly made in heaven. However, as we’ve seen before, things didn’t turn out so well. It’s really quite a pity and a shame, for Sword of Mana could have been one of the greatest RPGs on the GBA and another immaculate entry in the Seiken series instead of the marginally good game it turned out to be.

Worse, Sword of Mana also started for good what I would call the ‘Mana Decline Discourse’. It had been simmering prior to that with the release of Legend of Mana on the Playstation: many players were perplexed and disconcerted by the open structure of that game, which offered a swarm of sidequests and a huge variety of objectives in lieu of the usual main quest with a rock-solid narrative. This was a departure from the series’ template, and one that didn’t please all; many players and critics resented it, all the while hoping that this was only a misstep and that the next game would be a return to form. But then came Sword of Mana and its lack of greatness, and it cemented the perception that the Seiken series, after having culminated in Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3, was now sadly going downhill. The responsibility of Sword in the expansion of the Mana decline discourse is enormous: had it been a great game on par with the 16-bit era entries, the notion that the Seiken series was waning would have been buried before it was fully born, with Legend of Mana being considered a simple mistake—and very likely, as time went on, as an underrated experiment worth rediscovering. Instead of that, Sword single-handedly embedded the notion of the series’ decline in the minds of critics and players, and it persisted to that day, since Square Enix didn’t bother to dispel it by releasing a great Seiken entry that could have become a cult classic. 

The time has come to rest my case for good, folks. And here’s my verdict: despite the fact that I’m a die-hard Seiken aficionado and that I enjoyed it to some extent, I really can’t ardently recommend Sword of Mana to anyone, for this game is too unpolished and unfulfilling to deserve such a thing as a enthusiastic recommendation. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s totally unworthy and shouldn’t be played at all costs, for there is still some good in it. My final words on the matter will thus be these: if you want to play that game, be prepared. Know what to expect and what you’re stepping into, and you may avoid the disappointment that plagued me. And also: heck, I’m really curious about Final Fantasy Adventure now. Gee, let’s add it to my Must-Play list of retro games! And as always, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


  1. So... it's because of people like you Sword of Mana is so underappreciated?

    To me, Sword of Mana remade the original and made it better! By updating the story to the modern standarts and so on.
    That being said, i've never played Sword of Mana, but i'm playing Final Fantasy Adventure right now and it's mobile remake Adventures of Mana. And i find the new remake to be lazier than the Sword of Mana... of which i can say just by looking at the Sword of Mana maps on VGmaps.

    Why are you doing this? Don't you realize that because of your actions, people are underappreciating Sword of Mana, and it's unpopular now... *sigh* why do people always ruin the good games...

    1. Welcome, and thank you for your input. :) It was never my intention to offend any of my fellow RPG fans out there; and if I did, I'm really sorry. But unlike you, I did play Sword of Mana, and quite extensively at that; so I'm perfectly qualified to give my honest opinion about it. Which, by the way, is just an opinion; and you know what they say about opinions... :P

      I'm honored that you give such weight to my writing, I really am; but I seriously doubt that whatever I fancy spouting on my super-confidential little blog has any influence at all on a given game's legacy. ^^

  2. After reading your review/rant about Sword of Mana - as someone who recently decided to give the game another try I agree with a lot of what you said. However, there's an almost equal amount that I disagree with, and felt it was a bit strange for you to denigrate the game for all its supposed sins and shortcomings as a remake- when you admit in the last paragraph that you haven't played the original.

    First, I think the name Sword of Mana was a perfect way of tying the game into the series. As the original title roughly translates to "The Legend of the Holy Sword".

    There are also a lot of mechanics in the game that you seemed to have missed. It is actually a pretty in depth system all around. I'd say the magic system in Sword is actually better than the one in Secret - and has been balanced to not trivialize combat. The range and movement of your magic is completely dependent on your currently equipped weapon, and is even controllable if the Knucks are equipped.

    The AI, while not perfect, is serviceable if you upgrade your party members gear and set them to the appropriate actions. You can choose if they are going to stand and fight or if they should run away from enemies. You can also change between characters on the fly by pressing select - allowing for an incredible amount of control over the party's combat.

    I think the melee combat is more fluid than Secret and feels more fulfilling/less clunky.

    I agree that the sidequests feel like they weren't implemented very well and offer really underwhelming rewards. There's little incentive to check them out. I also think the pacing/progression of the game is pretty flawed. I do think the history of the world could have been more fleshed out and better explained. When I was younger it was the feeling of being overwhelmed by the lore that made me lose interest. I always thought I had missed important information. There are tutorials for combat spoken (explaining the different attack styles weapons have) by NPC's in Jadd, which is well into the game. This should have been explained much earlier on. The story is also overly verbose and could have been condensed to make it a more streamlined experience for such a simple plot.

    Though I think a few simple streamlined experiences with the plot and sidequests and this would have been one of the best games on the GBA. I think if they had treated it as a stand alone game, it would have been better received. Goremand and Isabella didn't need to be in the game, they made it harder to expand on the characters they continued over from FFA. Julius could have done everything Goremand did, and would have served to flesh out the story better.

    Overall though I agree that the game does a lot of things well, but misses the bar in other aspects that could have truly elevated the game into a must-play GBA classic, despite it being released so late in the GBA cycle.

    1. Welcome, and thanks a lot for your meaty and insightful comment! :)

      With hindsight, I may have been a bit too rough on Sword of Mana... Or maybe not. I'll gladly admit I was sorely disappointed by it, though; and that certainly played a part in making my posts about it sounds more like a rant than like a review.

      When you peel off all the ranty bits and the few occurrences of sheer mauvaise foi on my part (yeah, I admit that bit about the title was hilariously unfair), we seem to agree that Sword of Mana was good indeed, but could have been a true cult classic if it had been handled better.