Secret of Mana's 3D remake has voice acting for... some reason

With a few months to launch, this 3D revival of the Squaresoft classic is still looking a little lost.

Suppose, unlike me, you grew up with Nintendo consoles in your household. Suppose, also unlike me, you were exposed to a game like Secret of Mana at a critical age and remember it fondly as a formative moment of your childhood, alongside the likes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI (or III, as was the style at the time).

In that case, you might get a certain amount of mileage out of Square Enix's upcoming 3D remake, which is so committed to faithfully recreating the original overhead, sprite-based game that it retains all the awkwardness from that era of game design as well. NPCs move as though fixed to a grid and instantly face you when you speak to them. Dialogue is -- as far as I can tell, not having played much of the original -- ported over without revision, so it has that brisk, no-frills, utterly utilitarian style of writing from a time when all you really needed to set up an adventure story was to just tell someone they have a magical sword and off they go.

It's all right to not mind these features. If you play many JRPGs on handheld or mobile, this combination of limited animation and older system design should not only seem familiar but kind of cozy. It's like being wrapped up in a nice warm blanket of memories. Exploration in the Secret of Mana remake is in fact so invested in recreating the original's feel that it literally includes the original game as a minimap in the corner. There were even a few occasions during my hands-on that I got confused about why a certain object was impassible and glanced to the minimap to see what the original sprite looked like. Ah. Now it made sense. It's like shifting the gears in your brain back down to a speed you haven't used in a while.

Were the 3D Secret of Mana interested in being this and only this -- a faithful recreation of the original, down to the grid lines -- then I could tell you without reservation that it is everything that it needs to be. It's a nostalgia product, pure and simple. It is a thing you remember for childhood and now exists with big, colorful 3D models. There's even an option to switch off the remastered soundtrack and use the original SNES music.

But for some godawful reason, the game decided it needed voice acting.

It isn't that the performances are bad. The actors are clearly all trying their best, but there just isn't anything to work with here. That direct, functional writing I mentioned earlier only sounds "as seen on Mystery Science Theater" levels of corny when passed through real human vocal cords. There aren't many ways to dress up lines like "This is the way to the castle" without going flat as a board or, alternatively, veering way off course with the tone and going too big. Is the guard saying this supposed to sound sarcastic? Irritated that hero characters are always coming by and asking him something so obvious? Furious at his own impotency, being stationed here by a gate like a living signpost even as the town becomes a zombie wasteland around him?

Even the most deftly translated SNES game's dialogue is going to sound cringeworthy if you try reading it aloud. (Although to be fair, most dialogue in today's games is also awful, just for different reasons.) Square Enix could have gone back and retranslated Secret of Mana for a new localization, adding in the additional richness and flavor the technological constraints of a 16 bit game could not afford, but that would be a much larger investment of time and resources for an otherwise barebones 3D remake.

So... why? Who thought this was a good idea? What purpose does this serve? Fans of the original most likely won't be interested in hearing lines they've subvocalized a certain way since childhood suddenly delivered by an uncertain voice actor taking a wild stab at tone and intent. If it's an appeal to newcomers who are more accustomed to modern games' bells and whistles, I can't imagine they'll enjoy the results here either, listening to professional talent struggling to squeeze blood from a stone.

The best thing that can be said about this game's voice acting is that you can turn it off, from the same menu where you can switch to the original 16 bit soundtrack. It feels a little ironic that the one way in which the Secret of Mana remake tries to meaningfully differentiate itself from the original is unequivocally terrible -- and also makes the whole endeavor feel very, very cynical.

All remakes are on some level a cash grab, don't get me wrong. Square Enix knows it's a business that traffics heavily in player nostalgia and this is far from the most questionable rerelease it will have put out. But the voice acting turns what is otherwise a fairly straight-forward, even excessively faithful remake into a confused mess. Unless the point is for the voice acting to lampoon the corny "oldschool" writing? In that case it's succeeding brilliantly.

The Secret of Mana remake will be out February 15th in 2018, bound for PlayStation 4, Vita, and Steam.