Review: Secret of Mana (2018)

New to the Past

In our recent review of Legrand Legacy, I wrote a bit about pandering to nostalgia. The purposeful use of style elements from games that some grew up with can be a great way to attract that player base to a new release. This can be anything from a bit of old-school influence to just straight-up remaking an old game that many hold dear to their hearts.

When you’re banking on the nostalgia factor, though, there is always the chance that you may alienate those that either don’t have fond memories of an older style, or have just never played a game being remade. It’s not always a problem, as there’s nothing that says a new player won’t be able to enjoy the approaches and mechanics of games past. However, those that are used to the refinements of modern games may find these archaic systems lacking.

Case in point, myself and the game we’re looking at today, Secret of Mana. The original SNES release is fondly remembered by many as one of the best JRPGs ever made, and is often held up right next to other classics of the era such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Some say the game was ahead of its time back in 1993.

Now, 25 years later, Square Enix has decided to take a look back at the title, overhauling the graphics but changing little else. Aside from a few minor additions, this new re-release is essentially the same game from the Super Nintendo.

Many on the staff here at Gamer Escape have fond memories of the original release, and were incredibly excited upon the remake’s announcement. The game, though, fell into my hands, and while I am a markedly huge fan of JRPGs, I have never played Secret of Mana. As such, this is a heads-up: this review is from the perspective of someone with no experience nor attachment to the SNES original.

Developed and published by Square Enix, the remake of Secret of Mana was released on February 15th, 2018, for PS4, Vita, and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review.

Adventures of Jimmy and The Dude

Secret of Mana follows a young boy named Randi (or, in my game, renamed “Marth” of course) living in a small forest village. While out exploring the woods with some friends for treasure, Randi accidentally falls down a waterfall…and comes across a sword embedded in stone. Taking the sword to clear a path back to his village, he discovers that removing this sword has caused monsters to attack. Managing to fend them off, the village elder banishes Randi for causing the attack.

It’s after this that Randi meets a knight named Gemma, and learns that the sword he holds is the “Mana Sword,” which can only be removed from its stone by a chosen hero during a time of world peril. Gemma pushes Randi to visit various palaces around the world to re-energize the Mana Sword to prepare for whatever it is that may be coming. Along the way he is eventually joined by a sprite creature named Popoi (in my game, “Jimmy”) and a young woman named Primm (“The Dude”).

The story itself feels fairly typical for an RPG of its era. The plot is fairly straightforward and linear, with a few twists and turns in the back half. Square Enix apparently re-translated the entire game for this release (as I hear the original translation was…mediocre) and the story reads fairly well. I didn’t find it particularly engaging, but it was enough to keep me playing.

While the plot was alright, I became much more invested in the dynamic between the three main characters. Also new to this remake is a set of various conversations between Randi, Primm, and Popoi that take place when staying at an inn. These dialogues develop the characters much better than anything I saw in the main plot, and were often charming and/or humorous. In many ways, they reminded me of the Skit systems of the Tales series…which, for me, is definitely a great trait to have.

Hit and Run

Secret of Mana is an action RPG, which, while common nowadays, were a bit more of a rarity in the early days of the SNES. You take direct control of Randi, while Primm and Popoi are handled via AI (although you can switch to them at any time), exploring various environments and beating down enemies in real time.

The most unique, and at the same time unusual, aspect of this system is in the combat itself. After every attack, an energy bar below your character’s stats at the bottom of the screen drops to 0% and starts to recharge. You can attack again at any time, but unless you wait for this bar to hit 100%, you’ll be doing significantly less damage. It feels like Square tried to adapt their Active Time Battle system from the SNES era Final Fantasy games into a real-time game…and inadvertently created one of the most boring action RPG systems I’ve ever played.

The novelty here wore off real quick once I realized the entire game relied on hit-and-run tactics. Slap an enemy, move out of the way while recharging, repeat until I fell asleep on the couch. I really wish that last line was hyperbole, but it unfortunately isn’t – I ended up taking a quick nap in the midst of exploring an area between dungeons.

Things became a bit more interesting once Primm and Popoi gained access to magic attacks and buffs. Finally, now I had more options on how to approach battles. I was slapped in the face yet again, though, by the game’s “ring system” of menus – an incredibly archaic system that really could’ve used some touching up. Each of the three characters has their own set of “ring” menus – one for basic functions like equipment, another for items, a third for weapons, and finally one for magic. To use magic, you have to dive into the ring system for the applicable character and select your spell.

The thing is, there’s no indication to let you know whose ring system you’re currently using. Pressing Square pulls up the rings of the character you’re currently playing as…easy enough. Pressing Triangle pulls up another character’s rings, and it seems to be a crapshoot whose rings it will be. The only way I could check was to dig through the magic menu to see what spells were currently available.

It sounds like a minor gripe, but once the game’s difficulty picks up and you start relying heavier on magic, you’re forced to use the ring system more and more, making the lack of character indication incredibly frustrating. That depends, though, on if you notice the difficulty pick up at all. During my time with the game, I only managed to perish once, and that was during a boss fight against a living wall, which required me to kill it before it pushed the party into instant-death spikes. The rest of the time, though, Randi was a roaming wall of death destroying everything in his way.

Yes, I did only say Randi was destroying things, and very much purposely. Simply put, this is because the AI of your teammates is utterly useless. You can program vague commands like “attack characters Randi is attacking” and “attack characters Randi isn’t attacking,” but other than that, you’re left at the mercy of characters who get stuck on walls and occasionally refuse to swing their weapons. During more trying dungeons, I just gave up on them, soloing everything and only bothering to revive them for boss fights.

Of final note here, Secret of Mana is shockingly glitchy. I’ve had the game crash to the PS4 menu numerous times, making me incredibly thankful that this remake includes an auto-save system. I also ran across one bug where, while sleeping at an inn, Primm’s character model just disappeared completely. Trying to switch my control to her caused the screen to go black. This was resolved by reloading the game. Square Enix apparently has an update planned to alleviate these issues, but having these major bugs happen so often just feels sloppy.

No Passion

Most of my complaints about the mechanics I can chalk up to Secret of Mana being essentially unchanged from its roots. This is, after all, a very early action RPG, so its bound to have some old-school quirks and stumbles. However, the actual presentation of this remake also feels like a massive stumble, and this modern release completely owns these issues.

The game’s graphics have been completely overhauled in 3D, but it feels kind of lazy overall. Environments are incredibly repetitive and often lacking in detail, the characters themselves are weirdly animated and, despite newly included voice acting, have no mouth animation whatsoever. For a full console release in 2018, and an incredibly hyped one at that, the work on the presentation feels apathetic.

I’ve seen many who’ve played this remake complain about the soundtrack…but I’ll be one to go against the grain and say that I didn’t see much issue with it. Again, it may be because I have no history with this game, but the soundtrack here is perfectly serviceable. The song that plays in the village of mushroom people in particular stands out in my mind.

The aforementioned voice acting is very hit-or-miss at best. The performances behind the core three are decent enough (and I enjoyed Popoi’s performance specifically), but the various NPCs range from passable to just outright bad.

Thorns on Memory Lane

As I hold up my shield against fans of the original, I have to say: overall, this remake of Secret of Mana is a boring game. Between the repetitive combat and frustrating menu system, along with a decidedly average storyline, there wasn’t really anything here that caught my interest. The little conversations during inn stays were entertaining and nice for providing characterization, but a few minutes of dialogue isn’t enough to save all the other issues I had with it.

However, despite everything I’ve said about it to this point, this isn’t really a bad game. Really, it’s an average experience that is way too overhyped by those nostalgic for the early days of the SNES. The lazy treatment Square Enix gave to bringing it into the 21st century, however, is just a slap in the face to everyone.

Those attempting to play for the first time are going to be dealing with the archaic systems on top of a presentation that feels more like a mobile port than a full-fledged console release. On the other hand, returning players will probably find themselves disappointed with the remixed soundtrack and lack of any work done to polish the rough edges. Nostalgic gamers should just stick to the SNES original, newcomers really don’t even need to bother.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by Square Enix. Screenshots taken by reviewer.

  • Alhanalem

    As someone who played the crap out of this game back in the day, I’m a bit at odds with this game being hit this hard in a review, although only somewhat. The game itself is a classic to me, and perhaps it hasn’t aged as well as we’d like, I still found it very enjoyable. However, I’d only rate it a little higher because it’s overpriced for what it is, and there are definitely still some bugs- considering only minor changes were made from the original game, one would expect the remake to be even more polished. But some things got better and a few things got worse.