Lucifer, aptly named chieftain of a realm called Inferno, has decided it’s high time that her demonic hordes emigrate to the badly mismanaged human world. The invasion goes swimmingly until she and her chief lieutenant are both absorbed into a magical sword wielded by one Leon, humanity’s last defender.
If the setup sounds hackneyed and yet full of potential, you’ve already got a good feel for what Mana Chronicles needs to do to break free of mediocrity. As a sidescrolling Action RPG it has more in common with early arcade style beat-em-ups (think Golden Axe) than it does with most offerings in the iPhone RPG library. That means, first and foremost, no “Fetch ten of these, please!” quests, with all action driving a central plot — a breath of fresh air for which Spearhead Entertainment deserves serious praise. If only the technically well translated plot were more imaginative, and the gameplay opportunities better capitalized upon, this might have been a leap forward for the platform.
Mana Chronicles‘ user interface will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s played Seed II or Caligo Chaser: a virtual D-pad on the left-hand side of the touchscreen controls movement and a big virtual button on the right-hand side invokes the player character’s regular attack sequence. Smaller virtual buttons – all static in their onscreen placement – offer miscellaneous functions. The virtual D-pad dilemma I typically note in fast-paced Action RPGs, and the fact that the tightly packed virtual buttons crowd out an entire corner of the screen, don’t become too disconcerting here thanks to the plodding movement of Leon and his onscreen adversaries; enemy threats take the form of large crowds, not sneak attacks from the touchscreen’s obscured corners.
Mana Chronicles begins to fall short once the player realizes just how limited Leon’s repertoire is. All those special virtual buttons? With the exception of one devoted to a weapon-specific magic attack, those are merely hotlinks for the mundane functions of weapon switching and temporarily swapping Leon out for either of his captured adversaries. Leon’s various swords – each with an elemental affiliation to take advantage of enemy weaknesses – arm him with the exact same four-hit regular attack sequence in addition to one magic attack. Lucifer and her lieutenant feel more like novelties than full characters in their own right; they differ from Leon only in the fact that their movesets are even more limited and that they each possess one magic attack that Leon can’t access on his own.
To Mana Chronicles‘ genre-blending credit, micromanagement of restorative items is nonexistent in favor of magic and health pickups discovered on-the-fly. While enemies randomly drop new armors and accessories that Leon can equip via menu, the availability of his swords is a plot-driven affair. Apparently well aware of the fact that its core gameplay is fundamentally shallow and that it isn’t doing anything particularly interesting in the story department, Mana Chronicles is mercifully short — Leon’s quest to rid the world of evil is spread over nine stages completed in roughly two hours. While these may be revisited, there doesn’t seem to be much purpose in doing so other than hoping enemies will drop pamphlets that unlock tasks on a challenge island accessible from the world map; here, various performance achievements reward the player with superior equipment or the ability to summon Leon’s demon captives for longer periods of time.
Aesthetically, Mana Chronicles is serviceable. Don’t expect a ton of flashy character animations given the limited actions available to Leon and his captives. They traipse through little-varied environments while confronting precious few types of enemies and bosses, but again, short length plays to the game’s advantage in this respect. While the player can always replace in-game music with external tracks, I found the game’s limited score quite catchy and the sound effects very polished — the audio work is probably the game’s most impressive asset.
iFanzine Verdict: True to its name, Spearhead Entertainment has broken some interesting ground in meshing the arcade style beat-em-up so closely with the Action RPG; it’s unfortunate that the opportunities present in such a mix remain poorly exploited in Mana Chronicles. The magic of classic beat-em-ups lies in how unique each player character handles and in the numerous different ways they can each dispatch the evils of their world. That magic is in noticeably short supply here and the RPG elements on hand simply don’t make up for it.
To its credit, Mana Chronicles plays very smoothly thanks to a well executed port and tactfully avoids being too long for its own good, so diehard fans of sidescrolling beat-em-ups and Action RPGs might still be interested if they’re looking for a quick fix and have exhausted similar games in the price range.