Secret of Mana review

6 months ago by Jamie Geist

A sorry misappropriation of a Squaresoft classic.

In 1993, Square Enix (then Squaresoft) released Secret of Mana on the SNES and charmed a generation. 25 years later, Square Enix has released an alleged remake : a shoddy, cobbled together, and ultimately altogether unpleasant experience.

The entire experience of Secret of Mana is jarring. Despite being ported to PC, the Steam version is laughably poor. Keymapping is unintuitive, there is no overview for the completely redesigned menus, and certainly no hints aside from “Press Y to Skip,” which shows up inconsistently in some cutscenes but not others. It's not a matter of the player figuring out how to do special tricks; it's an issue of where the player has to press every button on the keyboard trying to figure out how to open the main menu, if there even is one. Actions are still mapped to controller inputs, despite using keyboard and mouse, and use controller iconography regardless.

The game's battle system is interesting in theory, but not enough to keep it fun throughout the entire experience. The player character is controlled on the overworld, moving around and attacking enemies in a style not unlike Gauntlet or the Raidou Kuzunoha games. Unfortunately, combat itself is tedious, as the strength of each attack directly corresponds to a percentage bar that refills in between attacks. If the percentage is anything less than 100%, you can expect your attack to do pitiful damage. The player does have a chance to occasionally score a critical hit, but this is often mitigated by the high chance to miss an enemy, even when the on-screen animation shows you definitely striking them with your weapon.

There are eight unique weapons, each of which can be upgraded up to eight times by using orbs that are found within dungeons. Each character also has a level with each weapon, allowing the player to assign specific weapons that are best used by certain characters. Some weapons, such as the axe and whip, can be used to traverse the overworld, for example by crushing boulders and swinging across large gaps. However, in combat, there's not much reason to experiment with more than a few weapons, making some weapons like the javelin and bow obsolete.

After some time playing, the player will be joined by Primm and Popoi, their secondary party members. Primm is the party's healer, capable of buffing various attributes and restoring health, whereas Popoi excels at dealing magical damage and weakening the stats of enemies. As with every mechanic in Secret of Mana, this is all to be discovered and experimented with by the player; there is not so much as a prompt showing the player what button is used to cast magic.

Party members in Secret of Mana are also near useless at times. Popoi and Primm frequently find themselves stuck in walls, standing around doing nothing in the middle of combat, and directly running into incoming attacks. The player can switch between Randi, the protagonist, and the other two characters at will, but there are always two characters being controlled by the computer at all times. The bosses are also pathetically easy and follow a standard formula that can be applied to all combat in the game; attack, run away, wait for your meter to recharge, and attack again. Alternatively, the player can cast Popoi's magic over and over again without the player taking any damage; this strategy can be utilized for nearly every boss, including the penultimate fight. The final boss itself is laughably easy as well as tedious, which is a testament to the experience as a whole.

Secret of Mana is also the buggiest game I've played by a wide margin. The game randomly and frequently crashes. Party members can be revived with 0 health. Characters can randomly freeze mid-frame, causing the player to move around but be unable to attack or be attacked. Hit animations are massively delayed, and players often take phantom damage when entering or exiting rooms. These are only some of the game-breaking bugs that I have experienced; if I counted all the cosmetic bugs as well, I could fill the space of this entire article.

The experience of Secret of Mana itself is underwhelming, and the story alone is not enough to keep the player going. While a simple story is not inherently boring, Secret of Mana's delivery leaves much to be desired. Important story characters die offscreen without so much as a sound effect to denote their death. The players are warped from place to place with no suggestion as to how they got there, and events are cut together in such a bizarre way that it's sometimes hard to tell what just happened.

The game does feature full voice acting, but the English audio feels forced, like the actors were asked to sound more like generic anime rather than a genuine delivery. Thankfully, the game also features dual audio with the original Japanese voices, but unless you speak the language, that won’t really enhance your understanding of the game. Rendered cutscenes are far and few between. The story of Secret of Mana may have been unique and charming in its heyday, but accompanied by subpar gameplay and a severe lack of polish, the remake comes off as bland, uninspiring, and ultimately forgettable.

The world design of Secret of Mana is the best thing about the game. From temples floating in the expanse of space, giant mechanical fortresses, and vast, lush forests, the player is given quite a bit to explore. For the beginning half of the game, the player travels on foot, occasionally using cannons in certain areas to fly themselves to other parts of the world. Later in the game, the player obtains the ability to fly, allowing them to quickly visit areas. Dungeon design is also excellent, although this and the overworld are carbon copies of the original title when it comes to structure. The music is also quite good, if you utilize the game's ability to play with the original soundtrack. The new audio remixes are uninspired, overproduced, and sometimes outright bad when compared to their original counterparts.

One of the most confusing things about the Secret of Mana remake is why it was even made at all. It's clear that some of the developers working on this project loved the source material. Some NPCs dance around, the CG models for the main characters are cute and visually appetizing, and the original game's map even appears in-game as a minimap.

Why, then, is this project so abysmal? Square Enix has made fantastic ports before; the well-received DS release of Final Fantasy III was my first experience to the franchise, and its port of IV was equally lauded as an example of what a good port should be. Why attempt to remake a title as beloved as Secret of Mana, and release a final product's as heavily bugged as this one, despite not being enjoyable from the start? The answer can be found in the wretched PC ports of some other titles in Square Enix’s back catalog, including Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI; Square Enix knows that it can export a product with minimal work and still profit from it, as long as there's an established name attached to it. It's a shame that Secret of Mana follows in this vein.

My experience with Secret of Mana was an excruciating game of waiting. Waiting for my meter to recharge. Waiting for delayed animations to finish. Waiting for the game to be over. As one of the most unpleasant, irritating, and asinine titles I've ever played, I cannot recommend Secret of Mana to anyone.

Verdict: No