Now, I'm all for a bit of retro charm but sometimes a game can be so old fashioned it brings back painful memories of the past that should be long forgotten - like shell suits and the music of The Proclaimers. Save for the fact it's played on Nintendo's still relatively new DS (my white one still glints in the right light), everything about Children of Mana is stuck in the past, for better or for worse.
It's based on an ancient but much revered SNES game, Secret of Mana, and it would have us believe that the world of video gaming has advanced about as much over the last two decades as a tortoise with motivational issues. This is as old school an RPG as you are likely to come across in this day and age and, while it's briefly enjoyable to return to simpler times where pretty much all you have to worry about is jabbing the attack button over and over, extended play sees moderate entertainment swiftly descend into mindless chore.
The story picks up 10 years after the island of Illusia was originally saved from chaos by a band of brave young warriors armed with a holy sword. Things have been peaceful ever since, but now a new evil is rising and someone will have to stand in its way. This being a Japanese game, from Final Fantasy legends Square-Enix, fully grown soldiers are cast aside in favour of handing the fate of the world to a spunky young hero, complete with the now obligatory spiky hairdo (which can be coloured to your choosing, of course). There is a cast of playable characters to choose from, ranging from specialists in combat and spells to "a dancer with magical talents" - no prizes for guessing which one I was the least likely to pick. You also get to select a spirit to accompany you on quests, including a gnome, a jinn and a wisp, all of which have unique powers that can be used to attack large groups of enemies or boost your powers. These can be switched between levels, adding nicely to the variety of attacks at your disposal throughout the game.
While the charming village hub you return to after each level, complete with shops to buy useful items from and plenty of friendly residents, is reminiscent of many RPGs, the core gameplay of Children of Mana is more hack 'n slash than thoughtful role-player. Once you are given a mission, you travel to a location and then begin a series of dungeon crawls, in which the object is always either to find the hidden Gleamdrop needed to open a portal or defeat a certain monster, before finally encountering a typically tough boss battle. Relying heavily on your ability to jab the attack button very fast, playing through Mana will often turn your thoughts to Diablo or even arcade classic Gauntlet (albeit a much slower version). There is a wide array of foes to dispatch but you will quickly learn that the safest way to progress is often to pick your battles wisely and run around any really dangerous enemies, especially those bearing arms. With a plentiful supply of gumdrops (the game's main health boost) to be found if you destroy enough scenery and bad guys, progression isn't too tough, but failure does see you sent all the way back to the village with no choice but to re-equip and start over from scratch. This seems particularly cruel when you fail a boss encounter, something that's pretty likely the first time at least, and is sure to deter more casual players.
Fortunately, Children of Mana offers plenty of armour, handy items and weapons to find or buy to help you along the way - the flail to pull enemies towards you and the hammer to smash them into walls were personal favourites. To raise extra cash you can take part in side missions too, set either by other villagers or found at one of the stores. Magical gems found throughout the game also play a major part in customising your characters' talents and up to four can be used simultaneously from a potentially huge selection to boost your strength, magic and other key attributes.
Although it makes no use at all of stylus control, Children of Mana shrewdly reserves the DS's top screen for showing the game's action and keeps the bottom for the map - a system that works really smoothly in practice. Providing you are a fan of classic top-down RPGs like the original Mana and Zelda, the presentation of the game is top notch - although the ability to turn down the music and the dialogue sound effects would have been welcome. There are a rich variety of environments to explore as well, from icy landscapes to sand storm filled deserts, but with the core gameplay being so limited it's easy to lose interest as you grind from level to level. Wisely, wireless multiplayer for up to four friends is available to add an extra level of excitement to the frequently tedious missions.
Ultimately, die-hard fans of the series or devotees of traditional RPGs will find a lot to love in Children of Mana, while the rest of us will yearn for something that doesn't rely quite so heavily on hackneyed game mechanics and endless button-bashing. Square-Enix has produced another polished package that's perfectly suited to the DS, but I just wish there was a bit more inside to get excited about.