Secret of Mana is the recently released remake of the 1993 classic SNES JRPG of the same name. Back in the 1990's, I was very much a Sega fangirl. I missed out on a lot of the games which are now considered classics on the SNES. All of this meant that I have been excited since its announcement and a chance to play a game I have missed out on for 25 years. The remake updates the graphics, the soundtrack and even adds additional cutscenes. Has this new iteration improved upon the classic formula?
Secret of Mana is the story of a land in decay. All of the world's mana, the magical energy which protects the world, is disappearing. This allows our protagonist to pull the legendary mana sword from the river. In order to protect the world, the mana sword must be returned to full power, and as the one who discovered it, the boy must be who does so. Along the way, he discovers a girl, who wants to rescue her boyfriend and a sprite who is looking for their way home. The three work together picking up various weapons and kinds of magic in order to take down the wizard behind it all.
The story is touching and evocative. One that has truly stood the test of time. The remake adds cutscenes in every time your party stops at one of the inns, and you will do so frequently. I don't know how many there are, but at least for me, they never repeated so Square Enix have obviously put a lot of time and care into developing these. In these cutscenes, we find out more backstory on each of the three main characters and we get a better idea of how they interact with each other. These additional cutscenes do a lot to flesh out the characters and additionally the story. It made me want to help them on their journey all the more.
The adventure feels epic. Long maze-like dungeons all inevitably end in a challenging boss fight. If you like difficult battles, Secret of Mana is for you. It has dozens of them packed into its short 20 hours of gameplay. Secret of Mana offers a variety of enemies, each with their own unique attacks. Unfortunately, many of the later enemies are simply palette swaps of enemies you have seen previously, albeit with new moves. This is, of course, acceptable in a SNES game with limited memory, but I hoped a modern release with so many updated graphics would have changed these designs.
The combat is where Secret of Mana really shines. Eight is the magic number in the land of mana. There are eight weapons with eight possible level upgrades, and eight different kinds of magic each with their own 8 levels of upgrades. It would be impossible to max out all 128 parts of each characters itinerary so you have to be more selective. However, Secret of Mana pushes you out of your comfort zone. You collect orbs from boss fights that level up specific weapons. This forces you to try out each weapon which has its own range and effects. Alternatively, different bosses have different elemental weaknesses so this really pushes you to level up a few different kinds.
Secret of Mana does have a few balancing issues. For the first 75% of the game, physical attacks are king. However, late in the game a lot of enemies can only be damaged by magic. A little more nudging in that direction would save players a lot of strife. I was fighting a boss in the latter half of the game, who can only be damaged by magic. However, my magic was only doing ten damage. I thought him impossible. However, leveling up my magic by just one level, I suddenly did 80 damage and could easily take him down. This boss was the only boss to kill me.
Players of the original had advised me that I would have to do a lot of grinding in Secret of Mana. Fortunately, I didn't find that to be the case with the remake. I usually went through a lot of areas killing most beasts along the way and I always had enough money to buy the best armor and leveled up enough that nothing caused me a problem. When I moved to the Upper Land I had a little trouble at first but quickly leveled up enough to take down the local beasts. Then, 2 dungeons before the end of the game, I came to the Pure Land.
I didn't have enough money to buy the best armor, which was hidden away behind a castle in the first place. When I entered the Pure Land my whole party died within roughly 1 second. A double hit from two enemies took me down. Having easily finished off 3 bosses in a row in the previous dungeon, it came as quite a shock to the system. Standard enemies could now kill me in an instant. I spent two hours in the first room of the Pure Land killing the same one enemy over and over again until I had enough money to buy the best armor in the game. This doubled the defense of my party who was wearing the second best armor. From this point on I finished the game with ease. This is unbalanced, and it's not the only thing the remake fails to fix.
The menu has carried over from the original. This is a confusing system of menus within menus. There is also several circles of menu which you have to alternate with using the D-pad once you open the menu screen. This system is so confusing that my review code for Secret of Mana came with a PDF simply about the menuing in the game. Items and armor don't have descriptions, so you have to buy them, try them out and hope the best. There is a delay between hitting something and it reacting which is a little jarring and needed tightening up.
In fact, the whole remake simply needed tightening up. The characters don't move their mouths in the cutscenes which feels very unpolished. You can push various NPCs around the map. There is slow down in areas, and hitting other objects makes the screen shudder. Once the protagonist just turned black for about 30 minutes. A few times when I went to upgrade a weapon it wouldn't let me use my weapon orbs. This balanced out however as some chests contained two orbs instead of one. The friendly AI can't path find and often run into walls instead of following you. They will also often simply stand under enemies while they attack them. I've heard the PS4 version crashes a lot, but I'm happy to say there are no such issues on the Vita version.
That isn't to say the remake didn't add anything to Secret of Mana. While it's a matter of taste, I the bright and colorful 3D art is always a joy to look at. The remastered music was a bit hit or miss to me, but it is very different from the original. Fans of the original can change back to the SNES version anytime they want to. The voice acting is about as cheesy as it comes, but I enjoyed it in a Shenmue way.
There is local multiplayer like the original, but unfortunately, you need multiple Vitas, so I didn't have the chance to try it out. Two additions to the remake which aren't contentious at all, are the autosave which saves every few rooms, so hours of time never go to waste, and the quick use system, where you can bind two items or magic to L and R.
Despite all of the remake's flaws and failures, I couldn't help but find myself enjoying Secret of Mana. Even with a slightly dodgy remake, you can still see that SNES classic poking through at its core. The touching story is timeless, with some beautiful heartwarming moments towards the end. The battle system is diverse, with various valid ways to play. For those who enjoyed the original, this remake may seem like sacrilege. For first-time players like me, it was a great adventure that I can easily recommend.
Our Secret of Mana review was conducted on PlayStation Vita with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also avialable on PlayStation 4 and Steam via PC.
There is a lot wrong with this remake and a lot of missed opportunities in terms of updating a game for the modern age, but at its core, it is still Secret of Mana and that is a game that everyone should play at least once.
- Fun Engaging Story
- Epic Boss Fights
- Diverse Combat Systems
- Confusing Menus
- Some Bugs
- Unbalanced Difficulty