a review of Seiken Densetsu 4 (Dawn Of Mana)
a videogame developed by square-enix
and published by square-enix
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
There’s a track by Ryuichi Sakamoto in Seiken Densetsu 4 (aka Dawn of Mana) — the back of the box says so — life-long listener though I am, it took me Actual Internet Research to figure out which track that was. This says many things: first of all, that it’s not clear which of the many bouncy cut-scenes that opens the game is the “opening”, because I reckon if you’re going to get Ryuichi Sakamoto to do a track for your conceptually bland action-adventure videogame, you’d probably want to make it the opening. There’s a scene narrated by an old man with a semi-hateful, mouthful-of-gravel voice, there’s a scene where the elemental spirits from the earlier “Mana” games float and bob around and talk to each other in portentous tones and helium voices about the big events that are probably happening soon, and there’s a scene where a boy and a girl frolic in a field. There’s a scene with credits, too, and the credits are in English, and they say “Opening theme by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Music by Kenji Ito”. Does that mean that the music that’s playing at that scene is the “opening theme”? Well, some games list the performer / composer of the “ending theme” in the opening credits, don’t they? It’s puzzling, after a while.
The composer of the rest of the music in this game, a Mr. Kenji Ito, has been aspiring the Ryuichi Sakamoto’s virtuoso for years, along with other bright game composers, such as Yasunori Mitsuda. What my ears told me when I first played this game was somewhat profound: Kenji Ito is able to surround a single track by Ryuichi Sakamoto and render it invisible. For years, those in the know have understood that Kenji Ito knows what the hell he’s doing — he’s perhaps the top of the top class of Japanese game composers, able to give background music for a Generic Snow Village in, say, Romancing Saga: Minstrel Song the produced roundness and fullness of a hit pop number. He’s not just a “game music composer” — he’s a musician. Conversely, one could argue that Ryuichi Sakamoto has been making Japanese RPG soundtrack music since before videogames ever existed.
The most interesting thing about Sakamoto’s presence in this game at all is that it represents a rare, shining beam of artistic conscience from Square-Enix, who has recently been content to put Mickey Mouse in a black robe and have him murder monsters with a giant key. For Final Fantasy XII, Square had the kind of sneering arrogance to assume that they could make a star out of whoever they let sing the theme song, hence the selection of limp-voiced big-haired piano-banging she-geek Angela Aki. This was evidence that Square had pride in Final Fantasy XII as a game — either that, or they were over-budget, and wanted to hire someone who wasn’t expensive. For Kingdom Hearts, they’ve been hiring hot young pop-star Hikaru Utada, whose English lyrics make me wish I owned a pistol. Why put a world-class, historically important, undeniably “Japanese” super-man like Ryuichi Sakamoto to work on Seiken Densetsu 4? To draw attention to the game, of course. Seiken Densetsu — or, “The Mana Series” is as dead as it is alive; it’s the purgatory of Japanese RPGs. The second one — released in America as “Secret of Mana“, was awesome because you could play it with two friends. The third-one was paper-thin and beloved. The numerous recent spin-offs (including an obnoxiously thin DS outing) have taken the series apart and given players only a shard of what they might have been able to love in a previous installment.
None of the game itself is as illustrious as the career of Mr. Sakamoto, though the physics engine is quite nice. You play the game as a big-haired boy wearing too many garments. You can fight enemies with a sword, a whip, or a slingshot. There’s a weird net-like feeling of physics drifting down on top of the whole package — you can whap objects with your sword, and if you aim them right, they’ll smack into and kill enemies. There might be a stack of objects — hit it with your sword and watch it jiggle. It’ll never jiggle the same way twice. Grab a rock with the whip and throw it; watch stuff break. Hit something with a slingshot, and it moves. The physics are finely tuned, though in the most bizarre little way. It feels like everything’s totally random, even when it’s most obviously not. Most applause-worthy is the sheer number of physics objects. They’re seriously all over the place — Square had already licensed the Havok Physics Engine, so god damn it, they were going to use it as much as possible.
Part of me wants to sigh and/or groan at this game for being linear and kind of boring. There’s a cut-scene involving cartoon-headed characters that are supposed to evoke nostalgic yiffing, and though I loved Secret of Mana like any other man who was once a boy, I do not yiff; then there’s a title card, and then you’re in a dungeon. Progress through the dungeon, whomping physics objects, knocking over enemies, picking up millions of little colored baubles and being congratulated via quick onscreen messages whenever your maximum hit points or some other statistic raise by some small integer. Eventually you’ll reach a locked door; kill the right enemy to get the key, open the door, continue romping through the dungeon. The dungeon ends with another snore-tastic cut-scene in which characters yip and/or weep, and then there’s another dungeon, which you start with your levels reset to zero. It’s all very linear and kind of boring in the context of real-world joy (candlelit sex, et cetera), though at least it’s honest about itself: it’s a dungeon-blaster. It’s an action videogame. It’s colorful, quick, kinetic, bursty, and poppy. It’s not great, and it doesn’t solve the mystery of nuclear fusion or find my missing guitar pick or anything, though it’s still a nice, cute little game that sometimes has some neat little spikes of challenge.
Many fans were outraged or, at the least, disappointed to hear that this game would be just one-player, and that it would apparently just be a stage-based action-adventure thinking-man’s beat-em-down. Says a “customer preview” on Gamestop.com’s list page for Dawn of Mana: “I for one would rather they stick to the traditional 2D graphics for this one.” Another reader calls the series — up until this bastardizing installment, of course — “near-perfection”. This is kind of a shame. This is evidence that, more dangerous than narcotics or alcohol is our children’s tendency to not understand what they really want. I say, if you want 2D graphics, play the original Secret of Mana again. Or play Children of Mana for DS. With a couple of friends on Wi-Fi, it’s not so terrible, and it has some sparkling Kenji Ito music.
Dawn of Mana is something new, as weird as that is for Square (unless you liked and/or remember Threads of Fate), and it mostly works. It’s the physics engine that nails it in. Though it acts weird sometimes, it rarely stops being fascinating. It’s hard to believe that Square would put such a rock-solid, crunchy core into a game that they were convinced could have been nothing at all and still sold thousands of copies to “devoted series fans”. It’s nice to see the effort, though it’s weird that they give the physics objects a name: they call them “MONO” — in all English letters, like that. (“MONO” is Japanese for “object”.) This is really weird and jarring when the first couple help windows describe how to use the physics objects to your advantage. Why give them a name?
Maybe it was because, since the Final Fantasy titles all became multi-hojillion-sellers, the producers at Square have required all RPGs to have an in-game “system” with an arbitrary name — the “Active Time Battle System” or “Active Dimension Battle System”, for example. If that’s why they called the physics objects “MONO”, then that’s kind of a hilarious little dodge, admirable and cute as some weird Engrish spoken by a shop-keeper in a barely-known 8-bit game translated by a team of two Japanese girls and four dictionaries.
Going back to the Gamestop page — sorry, I have to do this — the first three of four bullet points describing this game are as follows:
“*Experience the beloved world of Mana in a fully 3D environment for the first time.
*Explore sweeping plains and mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see, brought vividly to life by the detailed visuals that fans have come to expect from the Mana series.
*Experience an interactive world that encourages players to “touch” the world of Mana.“
Aren’t these three all describing the same hecking thing? Why not, I don’t know, encourage the kids who learned to read from online videogame retailers to hunt down (read: bittorrent) some culture by listing that the game “Features a theme song by virtuoso composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the father of new age and electronic music!” or even try to make the game sound fun, by saying that it “Features a new, detailed physics engine for countless battle possibilities”? Or is that what they’re talking about with a weird line about “‘Touch’ the World of Mana”?
So what we have here, ultimately, is a poppy, cute game with terrific music that can be listened to on its own without shame (if you, like me, are the type of person to ever have those Ryuichi Sakamoto Mood days), a drippingly schlocky story about people with too much hair who manage to wear entire wardrobes, set in a series that Square expects people to love because earlier entries in the series were pretty fun for gamers who managed to actually have friends when Nirvana was still the coolest band in the world. Square expected this game to sell by name alone, which was slightly weird behavior, seeing as the previous “World of Mana” game, Children of Mana for DS, didn’t sell at all. A funny story is that Square apparently under-shipped Final Fantasy III for DS because Children of Mana had sold less than half a million copies, proving to them that the DS was just a fad for the “non-gamers”. And then Final Fantasy III sold through half a million. This should have proved to Square that a game will sell if it is good enough to get people talking, though instead, it seems to have proved that games will sell if they have numbers in their titles. As a result, Seiken Densetsu 4 is now available at most Japanese game specialty shops for around $20 new. Which is to say, if the number in the title is what interests you in Seiken Densetsu 4: Dawn of Mana, you’ll probably enjoy it less than people who are just looking to have a good time with pseudo-real object physics.