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Adventures of Mana PS Vita Preview: A charming piece of nostalgia

Square-Enix released Adventures of Mana for the PlayStation Vita to everyone’s surprise, so Senior Editors Kyle Prahl and Tim Nunes take this opportunity to chat about what exactly Adventures of Mana has to offer in lieu of its spontaneous release.

Kyle: Going into Adventures of Mana, I was skeptical about the aesthetic direction. I don’t mean that the game isn’t pretty–even as someone who doesn’t like the big-head style, I recognize that the game is colorful, vibrant, and boasts beautiful textures. But it was clear from the outset that this is the latest release in a recent Square Enix trend of moving touch-based versions of its classic titles to multiple platforms. It’s how we get versions of classic Final Fantasy games on iOS, Android, and portable Nintendo systems, with graphics that veer left of the classics considerably.

That said, Adventures of Mana really works on PlayStation Vita. It’s fairly obvious this control scheme was ported over from smartphones–after all, you navigate menus and your inventory with large, thumb-sized buttons, and you can move with a virtual analog stick. But it’s actually pretty snappy for all those menu-heavy RPG tasks.

Tim: That’s right, Adventures of Mana DOES work on PS Vita. The touch screen is something unique in the industry, because it’s a feature generally left to smart phones, as you mentioned; but the PS Vita benefits from actual face buttons. While the game can be played entirely through touch, having the combination of the two makes the experience both rewarding and customizable. I am especially fond of the added quick links for common spells and items.

On that note, any game is expected to have proper gameplay, combat titles especially. AoM is approachable in terms of combat, due to its simple and accessible execution. X is the only way to attack, leaving the rest of the buttons and screen prompts to items, other weapons, and spells.

Kyle: For the uninitiated (which I very much was), Adventures of Mana is what happens when you combine Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. The top-down perspective took me right back to those classic Zelda games I dabbled in, but never finished. Running around and smashing X to take down monsters in the opening areas felt comforting.

Actually, it’s probably the most accessible entrance to an RPG in my recent memory. They really waste no time throwing into the thick of exploration, and the story breezes along at rapid, "old school" pace–like from a simpler time. But you’re farther than I am. How is the story striking you so far?

Tim: The story is a classic one of good versus evil, seeing the hero Sumo rescuing Fuji from the forces of evil and slaying all evildoers along the way. So far, I’ve come across a wide variety of enemies, bosses included, that, while not being overtly complicated, diversify the journey. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it helps us move along.

One side of the game I’m somewhat indifferent on is the leveling process. Have you seen a leveling scheme like this before?

Kyle: I can’t recall a game that went out of its way to label the character progression with classic Jobs. It’s mostly window-dressing. You can select between four options (Warrior, Monk, Mage, and Sage) every time you level up, and with that choice comes appropriate boosts (extra STR for the Warrior, extra VIT for the Monk). But most games with a similar choice-based leveling system just put it right in front of you. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories comes to mind–you could independently decide to increase HP, increase CP, or learn a new Sleight (ability).

To me, this fits with the game’s overarching motif of Final Fantasy heritage. Some of its callouts to the main Final Fantasy series are purely cosmetic (like this one), but they’re appreciated all the same.

I have experienced some quirks in exploration, though. It’s not always well-explained where you need to go or what you need to do next–you really do need to read dialogue and do some common-sense speculation. Also, I feel like the level size–literally, the unique sections before you hit an invisible wall and transition to a new zone–are really small. The frame movement, which works just like classic Zelda games, happens constantly.

Tim: Yes, there’s a healthy novelty to the exploration, but the downside to it all is that the overall scale of the game is compromised. Each section of map feels minute in a complete map that also feels small. Granted, progress through the game moves Fuji and Sumo back and forth through areas a time or two so each zone is utilized well. The learning curve to the maps pulls straight from the olden days as well with hindrances like overgrowth or rocks indicating that an item is nearby that will help progress past the road blocks.

One significant downside when moving between zones is how spontaneous enemy appearance can be. It’s rather frustrating to take unnecessary damage when monsters just spawn right on top of you.

Kyle: I’m with you there. When moving between areas, your window of invincibility is practically non-existent. The movement and "aiming" (if you can call it that) for sword slashes isn’t always easy to wrangle with, either. So far, the game isn’t very difficult, but it’s still annoying to properly position yourself for a sword strike against enemies that are often more mobile than you.

There are concessions players will have to adjust to. Things like not having a real-time XP counter or more sophisticated combat options require you to reset your expectations a bit, but once I had, I found Adventures of Mana was a great fit for the platform. I could pick it up in short bursts over the weekend and enjoy these micro-momens of gameplay, like quick battles and rapid-fire story moments, but it holds up well in longer sessions.

Tim: That’s a great point to make. A great deal of PS Vita games try to be too big for their britches, if you will, by trying to simulate what its bigger sisters can do and create a full world that requires a lot of time and energy that will far outlast even a couple battery charges. Adventures of Mana is not a challenge to pick up and play in small bursts and yet can still be played for long sessions near a plug-in.

Combat becomes even more simple as more weapons are found, since most of them have either range or a wide swing radius that makes aiming a waste of time; I’m also not sure if I’m disappointed by the fact that offensive spells don’t have to be aimed either, since often enough I’ve had fireballs end up landing on an enemy I wasn’t targeting in the first place.

Kyle: Here’s an example where the standard gameplay of the time is just plain out-classed in the modern age. When Adventures of Mana first released (back when it was called Final Fantasy Adventure), spells were supposed to feel uncontrollably powerful, and designers weren’t super concerned with the finer points of balancing something like that. Today, spells that incidentally hit other enemies and can’t really be aimed risks coming across as somewhat lazy. Newfound powers could occasionally make combat laughably easy through sheer randomness.

I don’t think Adventures of Mana has to deal with that, though. From graphics to gameplay, this RPG oozes lighthearted charm, and none of its old-school design elements feel particular egregious. On that note, how do you feel about the game’s art style, big heads and all?

Tim: You picked the correct work: charm. It has a bit of a youthful air to it, and it almost automatically brings us back to simpler times when we were young and just getting our feet wet in the realm of gaming. That type of aesthetic is captured in titles like the remake of Final Fantasy IV and it holds true here. It’s fun to watch and fun to play, and it doesn’t have to be complicated to achieve success either. In fact, I’d say that’s a perfect way to look at the game as a whole: It holds the spirit of what made games originally appealing and achieves this on the perfect medium it needs.

Kyle: Agreed on all counts. The more I think about this game, the more I want to play it. It’s certainly one of the better JRPG prospects on PS Vita, which is saying something. With that in mind, it’s an easy recommendation for any RPG fan. I’d argue that extends to all Vita owners, in general. Looking ahead to the review, where do you stand on the game currently?

Tim: Without having a confident score yet, I feel that it has a lot more positive to it than when I first loaded up the game. The charms took some time to present themselves and show me what I was initially missing underneath the rough edges. It’s a solid recommendation for anyone looking for a retro experience, and Adventures of Mana is also a perfect opportunity for newcomers to delve into what a solid RPG has to offer without all the complexities of deep leveling systems and complicated combat. For now, consider Adventures of Mana a worthy purchase, especially since mobile games of this ilk on mobile devices are often more expensive.

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Stay tuned to PSU in the following days for a proper review of Adventures of Mana!