Secret of Mana Impressions—Shadows of Glory

Game: Secret of Mana
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed: PlayStation 4

Either by accident or design, the original Secret of Mana (also known as Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) released two months after The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, while the first Mana game preceded A Link to the Past by five months. All these titles shared a top-down perspective yet diverged in gameplay; if you weren’t ensnared by hookshots, trading sequences, or defeating Ganon, there was a true RPG spellcasting alternative.

In 2013, A Link Between Worlds emerged as 3D spiritual successor to ALttP, and five years later, SoM is following suit. If there’s any time to bring out a revamped classic, it’s now. But remakes can be tricky. Essentially, you’re rebuilding memories. And these memories are anchored to high expectations, because even making a slight ripple in the pond that made people first fall in love with a game can change everything.

As someone unburdened by the weight of nostalgia, I dived into Secret of Mana with an open mind. Right away it was apparent Square Enix had poured effort into the art work, despite the level of detail feeling more suited to 3DS/PS Vita rather than console and PC (the aspect ratio almost feels unnaturally stretched). Still, Randi, Popoi and Primm look crisp and vibrant. Environments pop with colour. Secret of Mana looks leaps and bounds more realistic in HD, although retro diehards will likely prefer the original 2D graphics, warts and all.

The basic story is of course unchanged: Randi plucks the Sword of Mana out of its stone, simultaneouly triggering a cataclysmic event and jolting the gears of his destiny into motion. Monsters border Potos, he’s banished by village inhabitants, and thus, begins a quest to discover the true nature behind the sword and gain redemption. It’s a perfect high-fantasy setup for a heroic coming of age journey. Square Enix paces it well too, filling in the blanks by diverting your attention to multiple avenues: exploration, levelling up characters and weapons, battles, and interaction with different NPCs. Luka the sage feeds you directives through an invisible megaphone like Hilda in A Link Between Worlds, just vague enough to keep you intrigued. Each new temple I conquered did eventually answer my burning questions, but never the one about the sword — now one of Randi’s weapons.

Combat is an area Secret of Mana doesn’t shy away from. At the beginning, I was completely caught in the monster-squashing RPG loop, keen to level up characters as much as possible. With no explicit tutorial to follow, I stumbled experimentally with the charge mechanic, which forces you to patiently wait a few seconds before your weapon is at full damage capacity. This is not a casual, hand-holding RPG. Equally obscure is trying to navigate the ring menu, which keeps resetting its position, and feels unwieldy in widescreen. I won’t lie, both these things definitely take getting used to. However, charging is interesting from a design perspective because it governs your playstyle: will you spam at lower intensities, or dodge swivelling chakrams and use a combo of frozen blasts and well-timed hits to emerge victorious?

Admittedly, the system does feel somewhat tedious early on. Especially when you’re facing enemies who seem to dodge everything, and can slay you in three shots while you might require 10 to repeat the same feat. They’re quicker and fight dirty. I often found myself avoiding temple enemies after several attempts out of frustration. In Zelda, there’s a tangible sense of victory you get in every encounter so it feels fair even when you lose, but I can’t say the same for Secret of Mana. I’d expect these types of AI to appear after you’ve had a chance to forge weapons or upgrade magic levels. It’s almost like the difficulty curve has been reversed — who wants to jump in the ring with Bowser at Bob-omb Battlefield? Nobody sane, I hope. This is why after a few hours of slashing and hacking, I grew a bit weary. The magic faded. Fortifying weapons and grinding against random bugs and mushroom beasties to strengthen your character is essential if you want to make boss fights easier, which in my opinion are the more refreshing battles in the game.

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Challenging, satisfying and fairly well-designed, there was enough creative variation in the way these giant brutes attacked (and self-healed) to keep your pulse raised. The only thing I’ll fault is the general lack of aiming precision, something that applies to the entirety of Secret of Mana. Brandishing your weapon feels restricted to minimal angles that regularly result in accidental misses which simply should have landed. It’s horribly unpredictable at worst, and completely random at best. So it’s always a good idea to stock up on health and magic regen items, or perhaps, an extra cup of wishes to pull a Lazarus in case one of your warriors perishes. At least even in death there’s beautiful music.

Hiroki Kikuta’s OST already sounded wonderful in 16-bit. The idyllic suite, which ranges from bouncy, joyous mischief to ambient choruses and shrill, frenzied boss themes not only makes it through the time machine in one piece, it sharpens the audio quality considerably. Finally, the newly introduced voice acting (both English and Japanese recordings) is great and sets Secret of Mana‘s cute comrades apart from Zelda‘s silent strategy.

The Secret of Mana remake invokes many of the same spells cast in 1993, but overall, seems to fall short of brilliance. If you’re a hardcore fan, take this newcomer’s review with a pinch of salt (but not too much). The bright 3D veneer, addition of voice acting, and promise of enhanced gameplay should be enough to sell the concept. However, draining battle grinds, combat inaccuracies and brutal punishments spoil a lot of the fun and reduce the impact of what could have been a compelling rebirth of a classic. Wait until it’s on sale or stick to the original.

Secret of Mana is out now for PC and PlayStation 4 for $39.99 USD.

Full Disclosure: A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for purposes of this review.