Among the myriad games released in the last 30 years, only a comparatively select few have attained the sort of legendary prestige that keeps them a part of the conversation long after their time in the sun has passed. Secret of Mana is one such seminal classic; a fiercely druidic hack-and-slash RPG with a nigh-unparalleled audiovisual legacy, it has long remained in the collective consciousness as one of the greatest games to grace the SNES. I, like many others, held it in such high esteem that I met last year's announcement of a 3D remake with mixed feelings. Though I was happy to see its flame rekindled, I thought it delivered on its vision and didn't need to be revisited. But time flows like a river, and history repeats. Thus is Secret of Mana reborn for the 2018 demographic, superficially refreshed and fully faithful to its roots in all the wrong areas.
Of all the ways Secret of Mana differs from its SNES ancestor, its visual overhaul is the most hotly contested. In retooling the game for a modern audience, a move from 2D pixel art to 3D models was a given, and I do think that they faithfully reflect the original game's aesthetic. Randi, Primm, and Popoi sport clean, attractive designs, with primary colours that make them easy to distinguish in the heat of battle. Less successful are the remake's environments, which strip away much of the subtlety and mystique of Mana's memorable locales. Gone are the shady canopies of Matango that made it feel like a hidden paradise. Gone is the majestic presence of the Mana Tree at the apex of the Pure Lands, replaced with an oversized piece of stretched-texture broccoli. The Moon Palace, one of my favourite locations from the original game, was terrifying and beautiful, hovering in perpetuity above a star-speckled void; here, its atmosphere is cheap and childish, more like a nursery playmat than an endless expanse. These alterations sap Mana's one-of-a-kind visual essence, transforming it into by-the-numbers budget title that feels like it's been lifted straight from the App Store.
Weirder still is the developer's strict adherence to awkward animations that, as far as I could tell, were always a symptom of the SNES' limited processing power rather than intentional stylistic choices. Characters still emote distress and injury by throwing themselves on the ground, or falling backwards as the screen flashes white. Whipping across a chasm is still a tremendously odd animation wherein the characters gather on top of one another, barely wrap the whip around a distant object, and then fling themselves over the gap all at once. The developer also made the unusual choice to add voice acting throughout the game without implementing lip flaps on character models. It...doesn't look good. It is baffling to me that Square Enix would recreate Secret of Mana from the ground up without taking the time to create more sophisticated animations to suit its enhanced fidelity.
When the Secret of Mana remake was first announced, I expected it would get an arranged soundtrack. "Arranged" hardly conveys just how different its musical compositions are from the 1993 original. With contributions from a huge variety of esteemed Japanese musicians, including Tsuyoshi Sekito, Tsutomu Narita, sasakure.UK, Yuzo Koshiro, and original composer Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana's soundscape experiments with elements of jazz, electronica, classical, and folk influences. Frankly, not every track is a winner, but I did find all of them to be dynamic and adventurous. Any disparity in tone or quality between the original compositions and these remixes is, at the very least, suited to Secret of Mana's new look. I already own the game's soundtrack twice over (the Original Sound Version and the subtly arranged "Genesis" album released in 2012), so I didn't want to hear the exact same thing again anyway. Kudos to Square Enix for taking a creative risk. And hey, Secret of Mana includes an option to toggle on its classic soundtrack at any time, so purists can rest easy.
While I would have preferred to see a more transformative reimagining of Secret of Mana, this remake is tremendously reminiscent of the original in terms of gameplay. This is, strangely enough, more of a negative point than I imagined it would be. It turns out that Secret of Mana was always kind of clunky; its combat system is designed around hitting monsters during awkward invincibility frames and navigating menus to cast spells. I'm not entirely sure why the "Ring Command" system was always touted as a standout feature, either. It's sort of cumbersome, really, and even the new customizable L1 & R1 shortcuts can only alleviate so much drudgery. What bugs me the absolute most is how pitifully inaccurate most attacks are. Late-game enemies are outrageously evasive, and sometimes characters will swing four, five, six, seven times, never hitting their mark. This actively discourages participating in combat, which in turn reduces the amount of incoming experience, making the game progressively more difficult. It doesn't help that teammate AI is still dumb as a brick, either. It's all a little too accurately replicated. Some mindful rebalancing that could have made Secret of Mana better than ever.
Square Enix, like any large developer, is composed of several teams working on their own projects concurrently. But even with different cooks in each respective kitchen, how does a single company turn out show-stopping, genre-defining hits like Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age and Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood only to heel-turn and release clunkers like Dissidia Final Fantasy NT and, now, Secret of Mana? While it would be hyperbolic to say that this new take on the SNES classic profaned my memory of the original, it did make me question the love for it I'd held on to for the last 25 years. Was Secret of Mana always like this? By forcing me to confront the image of Secret of Mana I’d constructed internally over decades of fond recollection, the remake helped me realize that time twisted my experience into something unrealistic and infallible. It was no perfect game, and neither is this. But I'd still rather immerse myself in the original's indelible earthiness, pitfalls and all, than grapple with the remake's drab interpretation of Mana's magical world.
A retail version of the game reviewed was provided by the publisher. You can find additional information about CGMagazine's ethics and review policies and procedures here.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Derek Heemsbergen’s reviews, such as Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth and his second look at Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age!
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