Not long ago, word got out that Square Enix would be releasing a new, free-to-play mobile installment in their long-running Seiken Densetsu/Mana series, which fittingly got its start on the most popular handheld gaming device of its day. Reactions were mixed, to say the least. There's a lot of fondness for Secret of Mana [$3.99], and it speaks to the depth of that fondness that even after 20 years of failing to repeat its success, people still hang onto hope that Square Enix can deliver a similar experience again. Well, since Rise of Mana has released in Japan, I've sunk a bit of time into the game, and I don't need to tell you that it isn't that game. In truth, Rise of Mana appears to represent Square Enix's latest attempt to grab onto the success of Gungho's popular Puzzle And Dragons [Free]. Still, I think if you can take the game on its own terms, you might have something to look forward to here.

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The first thing I noticed when I started to play is how good this game looks. Square Enix didn't cheap out here at all. The colors are vibrant and the characters are quite detailed. You even get a pretty good cut-scene to set up the story. The forces of Light and Darkness are locked in a battle that has gone on for ages. The Champion of Light confronts the Champion of Darkness in front of the Mana Tree, and in their struggle, they fall over the edge and end up in the mortal plane. As their powers are greatly reduced away from their home plane, they decide to join together and share a body. They soon come across a village that desperately needs their help.

When you start the game, you can mix and match male and female versions of both Light and Dark, but it doesn't seem to make any difference in gameplay. The action takes place in small, sectioned off stages that you can explore by tapping around or dragging your character. You can switch your active character at the tap of a button. As you explore, you'll occasionally stumble across enemies, who you attack simply by tapping. There's a special attack you can perform by switching characters at the right time, and some special moves can be performed both through your weapon and your familiar. Pretty shortly into the game, you'll get your first familiar, a little helper creature that follows you and assists you in battle. Combat is a lot of frantic tapping, with a bit of evasive action, particularly when fighting bosses. In case you were wondering, the swing fatigue system from other Mana games is not used in this one. You can attack like crazy without penalty.

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Once you've found the village, the actual game is revealed, and it's got a lot of things in common with other free-to-play RPGs from Japan. You can walk around the village and talk to people, which sometimes reveals new quests. In your character's room, you can check your messages and set your weapon and familiar. There's a message board in the town that acts as a hub for the game's social features, like your friend list. There are also a few shops in the town that perform the usual functions seen in a game like this. You can fuse and evolve your weapons or familiars using coins, use friend points or gems to pull a random new weapon or familiar, use gems to increase your inventory space or refill your stamina meter, or buy gems with real money. Stop me if you've heard this before.

If you leave the town, you're presented with a map showing the different places you can go. Each location has a list of missions that will expand as you complete other quests and talk to people. Taking on a quest uses up some of your stamina meter, which will slowly refill as real time passes. Once you've selected a quest, you can choose a friend's familiar to bring with you to bolster your strength. After that, you'll be transported to that stage, where the action takes place. Each quest lasts for a set number of battles across a set number of screens. You have some freedom to walk around outside of battles, but apart from a few items scattered around, there's nothing of interest except the main path. When you defeat an enemy, you have a random chance of finding new familiars or treasure chests containing new weapons. If you successfully finish the stage, you get to keep all the loot you find, otherwise, you lose it all. There's a pretty good variety of weapons and familiars to find, though the best stuff is quite rare, of course.

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The weapons play pretty differently from each other and require slightly different strategies. You'll want to match your weapon with your familiar. A bow makes a good match with a beefy, in-your-face Mimic familiar, while you might want to get up close and personal with a sword if your familiar is more of a ranged attacker. You'll need to make sure you're feeding spares to both your weapon and your familiar to keep their levels up to snuff. That end of things is pretty much Puzzle And Dragons on the nose. Being able to mix different weapon types with different familiars adds an extra layer of variety to the formula, at least.

It merits saying again that the game is absolutely beautiful. The areas are fairly small, but packed with little details and positively blooming with the organic style that permeates even the less-celebrated Mana games. The music is also exceptional. I play a lot of games that chase the (Puzzle And) Dragon, but none of them have had presentation on this level. I'm not sure how the story is going to play out, since I'm still early on, but there seems to be a bit more of a narrative than games of this type usually offer up. Simply having a full village with people in it commenting on things puts it a step above the standard menu-based approach most take.

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Of course, we'll have to see how generous Square Enix is with gems to really see how Rise of Mana works out. I was pretty enamored with Final Fantasy Pictlogica initially, but Square Enix's stinginess with premium currency and characters caused me to get bored fast. I hope the same fate doesn't befall Rise of Mana, because it's actually pretty fun, and if its economy ends up something like Puzzle And Dragons, I'll be quite happy with it. It's not Secret of Mana, but as a Mana series take on the latest craze sweeping Japanese gaming, it's worth keeping an eye on. Hopefully, Square Enix isn't just trademarking names for nothing again, and English gamers will have a chance to check this one out sometime in the future.

Japanese App Store Link: Rise of Mana, Free

  • chaos_envoys

    So, constant internet connection is needed? If it is then its a bummer..

    • jvm156

      why? who doesn't have constant internet connection in 2014?

      • vai_levar_no_cu

        a lot of people. when im out, i dont on my ipad3 wifi
        dont assume that what you have is the same for others

      • jvm156

        if i bother to take my iPad out i make sure I'm going somewhere with wifi. it's kind of a boring device without it lol

      • A devoted Zelda fan

        you poor lonely soul you...

      • Intendro

        Everyone on a non-phone iDevice who isn't near wifi. Everyone who isn't near wifi and is in a dead zone.

        Internet requirement gives no advantage to players and removes convenience and portability. It should never happen in anything single player, ever. It is illogical and irritating.

        Anyone who says it's not bothering them: it won't bother you if it doesn't exist, so please don't encourage the developers to do this.

      • RampageDeluxe

        You do realize a large amount of the country is still rural, right?

      • jvm156

        then don't game when you're out in the woods? i dunno. i assume everyone has wifi in there homes if they're even using such gadgets

      • Michal "Hochy" Hochmajer

        To jvm156: Yeah, exactly what I am looking for. Playing portable games at home. :) Just sayin.

      • defunct32

        Oh dear, not these kind of comments again, not everyone is born rich, not everyone is privilege, and yes, not everyone on planet Earth has an iPhone.

      • jvm156

        "i" devices in general are designed to be used with a connection. if your data plan caps out or something i assume everyone has wifi in their homes or most businesses. this isn't a thing of wealth. the dirt poor around here have iPhones

      • 21tigermike

        We're not talking about the third world: we're talking about the battery drain of having wifi on at all times, and, you know, playing in the car/subway/train without wasting an expensive data plan on something that shouldn't use it one bit.

      • A devoted Zelda fan

        ^this. battery.
        50min of gametime, then find a wall quick!

      • defunct32

        iDevices like the iPod touch only comes in Wi-Fi! What is so hard to understand? Good for you if you have such an affordable life, I repeat not everyone can afford and even some who can just don't see the point of having a smartphone with data plan, we all have our reasons just because it's available and affordable doesn't mean everyone should get one.

        But I know what you should really get, though.... Get your head out of your ass!

      • chinito77

        This kind of setup usually prevents people from hacking or modifying the game. While sometimes annoying, I don't understand what all the crying is all about. You iPad users play games on the road? You iPhone users don't have cell phone internet service on the road?

      • Defcubusal

        What's wrong with your brain today? Of course iPad users use their iPads on the road, it's portable isn't it? Not only that but cell phone data costs money and it would be nice to not have to use it if it's not needed. Seriously, eat some breakfast in the morning, it's good for your brain.

      • chinito77

        What are you, a child or unemployed?! What gamer would not have an unlimited data plan on their cell phone? If you are so concerned about playing games on the road, then you would buy an iDevice with an unlimited data plan. Why critique something because your lifestyle can't afford it?

      • jamesgecko

        Verizon doesn't sell unlimited data plans anymore. Nor does AT&T.

      • A devoted Zelda fan

        what gamer uses an idevice or phone to play games?

      • chinito77

        You are being sarcastic right??? Today's gamers of course! Portable gaming systems like DS or Vita are dying breeds of portable gaming.

      • A devoted Zelda fan

        that's pretty subjective... I took a survey on my campus and most people agree that they would rather play games on consoles, handhelds(3ds, psp, etc) or desktops, than mobile phones. Don't assume please.

      • Cookies

        It's not annoying, it's pointless, very often gamebreaking and vastly limits the playability of the game. It goes waaaaay beyond annoying.

      • King

        What the hell? I don't?=

      • jvm156

        where? the jungle? Every house i go to and most businesses, restaurants, bars have wifi and i have an unlimited data plan. idevices are designed for connectivity

      • King

        How about you pay the monthly fee for me then

      • jvm156

        I've never been anywhere trying to play a game where there wasn't some kinda connection, wifi, 4g, LTE etc. i only use my iPad(which is wifi only) if I'm going somewhere with a wifi connection(most businesses or homes) cus it's a pretty boring device without it. These are "i" devices designed for connectivity

      • TripMX

        The constant connectivity required to play a single player game is, as many others said, irritating and unnecessary. Mandatory constant online connections should only apply to MULTIPLAYER modes/games; I don't give a rat's ass about Game Center because I_DON'T_ALWAYS_NEED multiplayer/global competitive comparative stats in my gaming. I just wanna play the game anytime anywhere without having to rely on elusive servers just to boot up the damn game, not to mention, save some battery. Offline gaming on iPhone/iPad is also very fun when you find the right games; I speak from experience. If free-for-everyone WiFi were miraculously provided worldwide from a godly source, then we wouldn't be having this discussion. Some people have better access than others; I deal with it by not downloading the game; devs should give us OFFLINE (with ONLINE option if connected) single player at all times with the multiplayer access requiring the constant connection....to be fair. On a final note, according to the Japanese reviews for this game that I read, this game SUCKS. LOL I even saw what appeared to be 'fake' comments posted in 'cliche/scripted' English in the reviews.

      • Suji

        all he knows is everywhere has internet, that's how narrow he thinks, don't argue with someone who doesn't even reply on anyway saying other facts like battery life and just keeps on saying everywhere he goes have wifi or internet connection

    • 21tigermike

      TLDR, that's so lame. Is that some kind of business model? Free, but pay for the offline mode? :/

  • nicodemus82

    Yeah, constant Internet connection in games sucks! The thing is though, in Japan this isn't really a problem so much, as pretty much everyone has an Internet connection at all times there.

    • 21tigermike

      Oh. it's an anti-hacking measure? For a free game? WTF....? Just make it free with IAP..:/ Like, is Jailbreaking a huge problem?

  • curtisrshideler

    I dislike the always online nature of so many games... But since I'm usually on wifi and I do love many SE games, I'll give it a download to at least try it if it ever makes it's way over here. If not, I'd be just as happy with an iOS 7, iphone 5 updates for Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger.

  • Siveon

    Sounds just as crappy as predicted/expected. Not proud, just wondering why people thought it was gonna be as good as Secret of Mana.

    What I find odd is that they have made an entirely new game, when there is an unlocalized Secret of Mana 2 ripe for the picking. I would prefer if it was a multiplatform release, but pulling an Atlus isn't that bad of an idea either. Still, they think this would sell more?

    • svan11

      Ah yes, Secret of Mana 2, aka Seiken Denstsu 3. That is such a beautiful game that I'm actually playing now on my jail broken iPhone with Retroarch emulator and an iPega controller. I would still buy it in a heartbeat as I do all SquareEnix games if they would actually release it officially.

  • http://www.threeboy.net Threeboy

    15 years ago I would've been stoked - still kind stoked I guess.

  • Biowhere

    This is precisely the problem with present day Square Enix, they are now a company that chases trends, they no longer create them.

    You'll know that the process has reached its inevitable conclusion when there is a Final Fantasy FPS.

    • Siveon

      They're already making a Final Fantasy ARPG (XV). I think you've already hit the limit there.

  • King

    If it's going to need an internet connection at all times I'm going to use jailbreak to get the IAPs for free. Good business choice there Squeenix!

  • tylerandjennifer1

    My favorite game of all time. Secret of mana. Why oh why can't they do anything good with this series? Free to play single player games just doesn't sound appealing to me at all.

  • dibdib

    The problem is everyone fondly remembers Secret of Mana and overlooks the fact that everything else borrowing the name has been terrible.

    • Siveon

      Secret of Mana 2, That GBA remake was decent and I vaguely remember the PSX game being fun but way too easy/nonlinear. Those were good.

      The PS2/DS titles? Terrible, I agree.

  • jbs2017

    uhm a little late? this was way overdue...

  • William Cole

    i wish they'd do a serious mana game for PS4 or Wii U(seeing that both have followings). I hate it when companies try to be new but end up ruining its key franchises(COUGH FINAL FANTASY)

  • A devoted Zelda fan

    So we get this on Android before SoM? sad day...