While the company is best known for Final Fantasy, Square Enix has churned out no end of cult classics. From Star Ocean: The Second Story to Chrono Trigger, you can point to any number of secondary series which have helped to shape the JRPG genre as a whole. Secret of Mana is one of those, and its return has been long awaited by many fans for well over a decade now. Upon playing it, however, it’s clear it might not have been made with them in mind.
The story follows a nameless boy who, against the wishes of the village elders, explores the countryside and stumbles upon a ruined sword. Upon pulling it free from the stone, he unleashes monsters sealed away by the weapon and is tasked with setting right what once went wrong.
It’s a classic story, but that’s a big part of Secret of Mana’s charm. The game utilised direct and clear story arcs and ideas, but often did them with such brilliance that it was difficult not to be engaged by it. The remake not only retains this aspect, but enhances it, with a few new lines of dialogue to fill out more details within the story and offer a clearer depiction of the world as a whole.
The combat has also undergone a notable improvement, with vastly superior hit detection and more rapid attack animations. The game also accounts for more stats such as the percentage of your power in calculating overall damage, while spells no longer require the lengthy chain sequences they once did. This makes the engagement infinitely faster and more engaging, and benefits a much brisker pacing. This even works in the favour of the thankfully returning co-op mode, and larger scale boss battles.
However, the problems with Secret of Mana’s remake start to truly emerge when it stops simply improving on older elements, and instead tries to rebuild them from the ground up. The graphics in particular suffer from falling into that uncanny valley territory, where it is not crude enough to capture past-generation charm, but not detailed enough to justify the massive overhaul. The perspective and positioning often ends up making this classic look like a poorly textured iOS release, and compared to the intricately detailed environments of the original that’s simply a crime.
Matters are only made worse by some very uneven voice acting across the board. Some work extremely well in giving gravitas and a sense of life to the characters, while others prove to be so over-exaggerated and high pitched that they eclipse the infamous Titus/Yuna laugh. Unfortunately, yes, one of those is a party member.
More than anything else, the chief problem with Secret of Mana is that it builds upon elements to the point of over-engineering them while failing to improve upon quirks which have hardly aged well. This is most evident in how the soundtrack has undergone a complete overhaul with new screeches, layers and whistles which lessens the beauty of it simplicity; but no one took the time to add the ability to check if an item purchase is better or worse than your existing equipment.
At the end of the day this is still a Secret of Mana game, with the same excellent ideas and story which made the original a classic. The problem is that every attempt to step forward and remake the game has weakened those qualities. If you have never played Secret of Mana then it is well worth the purchase, and you will likely get a kick out of playing it. If you’re a fan of the original, you might want to skip this one.
SECRET OF MANA / PUBLISHER & DEVELOPER: SQUARE ENIX / PLATFORM: PC, NINTENDO SWITCH, PLAYSTATION 4, XBOX ONE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW