Secret of Mana (Playstation 4 Review)
Secret of Mana came out on the Super Nintendo back in 1993, enjoying critical and commercial success riding off the success of the original Final Fantasy. Thanks to its solid gameplay, the introduction of the active battle system and its outstanding graphics, it’s still considered one of the greatest games of the 90s. Square Enix are apparently digging through the archives right now, so it’s a good time to get out those nostalgia goggles and see if this remaster is worth the effort.
Secret of Mana follows the high fantasy story of Randi, a young orphan boy that unwittingly discovers the famous Mana Blade—an ancient weapon once used in the great war between the gods and man. A hero once wielded it to destroy the Mana Fortress, a big nasty warship basically ending the great war. The war destroyed the world but humanity has continued to rebuild in relative peace. Once Randi picks up the Mana Sword, we find the fiends have returned and the Empire (there’s always one) is attempting to rebuild the Mana Fortress.
Banished from his adopted village, Randi sets out to find out more about this ancient weapon and in turn meets Primm and Popoi along the way, finding their fates are intertwined in the battle to stop the empire, its allies and its evil ambitions. It’s a simple and fun story, an archetype of a Squaresoft game of the 90s.
The main selling point of Secret of Mana was the active battle system, taking away the random encounter turn-based system of Final Fantasy where the power of a strike is decided by the battle gauge filling up to a 100% with magic and items accessed from the dynamic ring menu allowing you to choose your weapons, gear and magic on the fly. It bridges the gap between Final Fantasy and Zelda, theoretically combining the best of both worlds.
The main change from the original is of course the graphical overhaul, which gave me mixed feelings considering that the original was once of the prettiest looking games on the SNES—the fact that the opening screen is straight from the original cements this—but upon playing I came round. The cutesy 3D graphics are lovingly rendered and everything has an almost painterly aspect. Each element of the environment feels alive and plush, complimenting the dynamic movements of the characters in the landscape they inhabit. I feel like Square Enix met a nice middle ground between the 16-bit style and our modern visuals. A particularly nice touch is the original game maps servicing as the games minimap which sparks a little joy of nostalgia.
All the characters and NPCs are now fully voice acted, and very well done at that. Normally going for the mash X option when it comes to dialogue I found myself running around trying to talk to everyone to see what there voice acting sounded like. I know this is a strange sentiment to have concerning a videogame but I really get the feeling the voice actors had fun while making this. It does a good job of keeping the story segments engaging as well as the small bits of conversation between Randi, Primm and Popoi whenever you sleep at a hotel does a great job of characterizing our heros and detailing their motivations, endearing them to the player.
Added to this is the new soundtrack, more accurately described as inspired by the original rather than a straight uplift. The soundtrack is not terrible but Square Enix don’t seem to realise that the fast paced midi soundtrack doesn’t automatically translate well to a full orchestra – the word that comes to mind is intense. I found the new soundtrack completely overwhelming, thankful that the option to switch back to the original soundtrack was a click away in the settings menu.
While playing through Secret of Mana, I begun to question if anybody had been playtesting the game as it was made, and by anyone that hadn’t played the original. The lack of signposting is bad throughout the game, with no explanation as to what items do, no comparison to armour viewing in a shop to what you’re already wearing, the lack of a proper world map left me lost multiple times and the ring menu system was essentially a lot of trial and error until I got used to it. Square Enix either assumes you have played the original and can remember all the functions from the original game or you don’t mind stopping your game to Google what an item does—had they forgotten that the original came with a full 63 page manual that they would either need to update and supply or impliment as tutorials into the main game? (Personally I was hoping it would come with a manual because darn, I miss those things).
The battle gameplay also adds to the frustration with this game, although debatably part of the challenge, it can be incredibly annoying to find yourself stunlocked and surrounded by enemies, while your ally AI can be hilariously pedestrian—often times, I found my allies getting stuck behind walls and parts of the environment making them useful in a fight as I would be in real life. Any damage on a stunlocked enemy doesn’t register until after they recover, meaning you are left smacking a giant fish with absolutely no feedback on how effective your attacks are, which in a pitched battle waiting for your battle counter to charge breaks the immersion a fair bit. Early in the game areas, where enemies have ranged attacks, you are basically left to take damage until you get close enough to attack them. Even the detection for moving to another screen always feels slightly earlier than it should on the map, meaning I’ve been fighting a fiend then stepped back just slightly to the previous rooms trigger space, respawning all the enemies again.
Throughout Secret of Mana, I am left with the feeling that I am fighting against it to enjoy it, working my way around all its fiddliness and quirks. But once you do find your flow around the game, it starts to come into its own. Boss battles become a particular highlight, often its a challenge of finding their weakness and learning their patterns, changing your attacks accordingly. The game also scales incredibly well, where in some points I found I had to do a little grinding I didn’t feel it took me long before I felt I’d leveled up enough to get back into the fight.
Considering the obvious effort put into the graphical and audio aspects of Secret of Mana, it’s a shame that it’s mired by so many small but significant bumps in the gameplay, and I’m too cynical now to allow 7-year-old me clutching the empty box in a Blockbuster entranced by the cover to simply let it slide.
Square Enix’s treatment of Secret of Mana raises the image of an overeager child diving into a school arts project then losing interest once the fun stuff is done.I’m unsurprised to discover that Square Enix are apparently working on a major patch to address these issues but considering the £~30 price tag for a remaster, it’s shocking that this game lacks the polish of the original.My recommendation is to wait to until it is on sale and wait for the game to get patched. If you’re desperate for a drive down memory lane, you might be better looking for emulator