With its roots in traditional RPG fare, Children of Mana is a bit of a departure from its forerunners. It's a bit surprising that the series went in a more hack-and-slash direction than the games that preceded it (Sword of Mana, Secret of Mana, etc.). The good news is that the richness of the "Mana" world and the RPG stylings it's known for are intact. The bad news is that the hacking and slashing will lead to a lot of yawning.
The story kicks off on in a land called Illusia. It's a saccharine place where people (many of whom are orphans due to a cataclysm a decade ago) live in harmony with magical spirits. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if things stayed peaceful. Thankfully things go awry at the Mana tower and you're sent in to investigate. Things go from bad to worse and you're sent on a grand adventure to find out what's up with the world's Mana.
Before you get to that point you're asked to pick the character you want to play as and what color outfit you desire (for multiplayer purposes). You basically have the well-balanced guy, the magic-using guy, the ass-kicking guy and the really fast girl. As with most action RPGs, you're told to pick a character that best suits your style, but in actuality things are just much easier with the brawler.
Gameplay is a mix of dungeon crawling and boss fights. Neither activity is particularly interesting. The dungeons consist of bashing the hell out of everything until you find the key to the next level. Boss fights are repetitious affairs that are interesting when you first learn the boss's pattern, but dull after you've gone through it eight times.
On the plus side, there are great RPG elements that fuel the fun. You have your standard weapons, armor and items, but you also have cute spirits that can accompany you, as well as a nifty gem system. The former adds special attacks and support abilities to your arsenal, while the latter lets you customize you characters stats and abilities.
The weapon use is the most disappointing facet of this game, as it's a wasted opportunity. You start the game off with a sword and eventually earn a flail, a bow and a hammer. Each weapon has unique properties that you need to use in dungeons and boss fights. Sadly, their use is rather cursory; the levels and bosses don't take advantage of them in interesting ways. For example, when you get the flail and learn about its grappling abilities, you know right away it'll be used to grab faraway objects and pull apart a boss. The whole thing gives the game a feeling of Zelda for Dummies.
The touch screen use in this game feels like an afterthought. Instead of using the D-pad and buttons to navigate through menus, you can tap away with your stylus to select items, armor and the like. The weak touch screen functionality borderlines on patronizing.
At least the developers took advantage of the DS' wireless capabilities. Up to four players can participate in multiplayer gaming. It's the same deal as the single-player mode, but you'll be able to access some of the best items in the game. On one hand, it's an incentive to get your game on with your pals. On the other hand, players without DS buddies will not be able to get everything out of this game.
It's a shame that combat in Children of Mana is so mindless. The ingredients are there to make this a really excellent action RPG. Unfortunately, it wasn't cooked for long enough and you're left with an action RPG with great RPG elements and trite action. There are lots of things this game does right, but ultimately it fails to live up to its potential.