Secret of Mana (2018) Review

It’s always at least a little bit strange when a cult classic gets remade. It’s either a sign that the piece being remade has finally broken into the mainstream or, more worryingly, that the people who make the decisions have run out of other stuff to make and are grasping at straws. Luckily, in some cases these games are really in need of the porting, and the underground fan base will be more than pleased to finally be seeing a modern version of their favourite game. Secret of Mana happens to be one such game. Secret of Mana was originally released in the 1990s and, while it gained a decent following in Japan, it only caught a much smaller audience share in the West in part due to its troubled development and poor translations. For those who did play it back in the day, it was a breath of fresh air. A JRPG with action-oriented combat, customisable AI friends and a menu system which hasn’t really been replicated even to this day. Even now if you can get over the poor translation and loss of a decent chunk of the game’s dialogue, the SNES version is a good time.

Obviously, as with any classic retro title, it has aged, and you have to be willing to ignore a lot of the clunk that comes with age. On top of this, of course, is the fact that while some things were innovative and fresh at the time, having put a couple of decades between the original and remake can mean that a straight port with graphical enhancements isn’t going to be enough. The original Secret of Mana was technically the second entry in the ‘Mana’ series of games which ran alongside the Final Fantasy series back in the day. While it isn’t important to have played the first game at all, it can help you get familiarize yourself with some of the in-game universe’s backstory. Long ago, the world used the power of Mana to create a giant weapon called the Mana Fortress, bringing the world to the brink of its destruction. In an effort to save the world, a special blade called the Mana Sword (noticing a pattern?) was created which was used by a hero to defeat the evil empire and destroy the Mana Fortress.

Now, much time has passed, and the Mana Fortress is once again being revived. To protect the world again, the Mana Sword presents itself to a new hero, and an adventure begins to seal all of the world’s Mana power to prevent the evil empire from once again threatening the world.

The story gets props for not being about a chosen hero who is told to quest for several items themed around the four elements. In fact, at the beginning of the story, no one is even happy that the main character has retrieved the Mana Sword, believing it will bring doom to their homes. Instead of being ‘the chosen one’, you are told that you’ll have to actually become a hero worthy of the great power that you have received, something most grand fantasy tales would never be caught doing. So, to this day, the story still managed to be fresh for a JRPG storyline, but what about everything else? Secret of Mana was also famous for its stunning music and visual style, not to mention its gripping and engaging mechanics. Well, the truth is that some parts of the game have remained intact, for better or for worse, and some parts have been dramatically changed to suit the newest generation of consoles. Graphically, Secret of Mana has often been cited as one of the best looking and best sounding games of the SNES era. The hand-drawn backgrounds and well crafted pixel aesthetic turned many heads amongst the RPG-playing SNES community back in the day, and some of the graphic and animation details would have certainly shocked many gamers.

Unfortunately, it is the graphics that have suffered the worst fate, with the sound coming in a close second. Obviously, considering that the game was being updated to match the current hardware, it is no surprise that the game is now fully 3D-rendered instead of using the original pixel graphics that the game was famous for. This does mean that the graphics have a much harder time standing out. Top-down 3D-rendered JRPGs are a dime a dozen these days and, consequentially, the graphics have lost their unique appeal. Instead of the beautifully produced backgrounds and carefully crafted character and enemy sprites, we are now presented with a pretty standard 3D version of the world from the original title.

While these graphics offer much less than those in the SNES version of the game, there is also nothing technically wrong with them. All of the characters and enemies retain their visual style, and even the world still looks like a decent enough rendition of the same world presented back in the 90s. The problem is the lack of anything that really pops out anymore, one of the biggest culprits being the animation that used to play whenever you used the cannon travel system. It used to be that you got a look at the entire world map stretching out before you as your character soared through the air, crashing down at the location you were travelling to. Now you’re just basically teleported from one place to the other, no animation at all.

The music manages to suffer less, being nicely rearranged to match the more modern style. On top of that, there is also the option to turn the music back to the version which was made for the SNES original for those terminally nostalgia-bound players. The other game sounds, however, didn’t fare so well, the voice acting in particular being pretty horrendous at times. It’s not that the voice acting is that bad all the time, but considering that every single piece of dialogue, even those throw-away lines spoken by NPCs, have been voiced; it was inevitable that some of the lines were going to come out a bit worse for the ware. Part of the issue is that very few of the characters’ facial animations match up with what is being said, not to mention the fact that their lips don’t even move when they talk. While this was fine back in the days of pixel graphics, it is more than a little jarring in an fully rendered HD remake. Aside from this, the delivery has suffered in many places, and it does start to grate on you after a while.

Fortunately, there is finally some good news for this port. The gameplay is intact and is still the most interesting part of the game. The system opts for a mostly real-time battle system that uses as an attack gauge to denote how powerful each attack is. At the bottom of the screen is a bar which fills up to 100%; if you attack while it is at 100%, you will perform the strongest possible strike, but if you attack while it is still filling up, you can deal severely reduced damage. This does mean that you have to think more than simply wail on your enemies until they disappear in a puff of smoke, ensuring that you carefully time your strikes and dodge around the enemy attacks while you wait for a decent opening.

You start out with just a sword, but as you journey around the world, you collect a variety of different weapons that you can switch to at any point during battle. Each of these weapons has different advantages and disadvantages: Some are strong and slow, some are weaker but fast and some have much more reach or other environmental abilities. Each weapon manages to find itself useful in certain situations, despite feeling a little overwhelming at first. You get stronger with each weapon as you use it, and it was nice to notice that at no point was any particular weapon getting much stronger than the others because all are necessary at different stages in your playthrough.

The magic side of combat is the only time when things act a little more like a traditional JRPG. You cast magic by selecting one of the two magic casting characters, one having support style magic and the other attack magic, and then select a spell from your radial menu. Once you’ve selected your attack, every character on the screen freezes while the attack takes place. This does somewhat stop the flow of combat, especially considering that it happens even when your enemies cast magic, but it is mostly acceptable, at least at first. While you start out the game with no spells and rely mainly on physical combat, you do eventually meet enemies that basically require you to delve into your magic reserves to take them out. While magic is easily the worst part of the combat system, it is still a decent part, nonetheless.

Secret of Mana is in no way a bad remake, despite the fact that it loses some of the heart and soul that managed to catapult the original to the level of cult classic. If you’ve never played the game, you’ll find an enjoyable experience all around, and those who have just finished their 2,354th playthrough of the SNES game, you might find that it’s even more fun with a modern console on your HDTV.

Developer: Square Enix

Publisher: Square Enix

Platforms: PS, Vita, PC

Release Date: 15th February 2018

It's nice to be able to say that Secret of Mana is, in essence, a good remake. Almost everything that made the original title a classic is still here, and the pieces that are missing don't take too much away from the experience. While the graphics have lost their unique appeal, the story, characters and gameplay still manage to hold their own, despite the fact that they're two decades old. If you've never played the game, this is the perfect time to do so, and if you're already a fan, this is a great addition to your collection.
  • Amazing gameplay
  • Still a surprisingly fresh story
  • Tonnes of weapons that all feel useful
  • Voice acting is hit-and-miss
  • Graphics aren't anything special these days