REVIEW: Secret of Mana HD Part 1

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

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Secret of Mana | Boxart
Title Secret of Mana HD
Developer Square Enix
Publisher Square Enix
Release Date February 15th, 2018
Genre Action Adventure RPG
Platform PC, PS4, PS Vita
Age Rating 10+
Official Website

The original Secret of Mana is legendary. More than just a game, the SNES classic has transcended into our most profound emotions, treasured experiences, and cherished memories. Fierce loyalty is a natural result of something so deeply adored and revered. And so, when the announcement came that a remake for such an extraordinary game was to be produced, excitement, expectation, and perhaps some hysteria ensued. However, expectations, especially those regarding our beloved, can be misleading, as our highest of hopes are rarely fulfilled. What we received in this Secret of Mana remake is an accumulation of unexpected innovation, appreciated acknowledgements to the past, and reimagined works affecting everything, from narrative to gameplay, to the very feel and essence of the game. This is a Secret of Mana experience all of its own.

Although a remake, this version of Secret of Mana tells an identical story to that of the original. A group of malcontents are hell-bent on raising the ultimate weapon, the Mana Fortress, for the sake of recreating the world in their ideal. Led by Thanatos and backed by the Vandole Empire, this threat throws the flow of Mana, the life force of all creation, out of balance. As history foretells, the eventual return of the enraged Mana Beast will restore balance by destroying the Fortress, but also the world, resetting history and condemning it to repeat again. Only a hero wielding the Mana Sword can put a stop to the eventual end of the world.

The original Secret of Mana possesses an epic story, full of development, depth, and heart, and fortunately the plot for this remake remains unchanged. We are once again privileged to see the satisfying growth of our heroes as they embark on their journey, as well as the expansion of the plot from individual struggles to global conflict. Our beloved story remains intact with all of its scale, impact, and immersion.

Secret of Mana Remake | Plot

A scolding is the least of your problems Randi…

While the story remains untouched, the narration is where we see major changes. With any 2D to 3D overhaul, we see its implementation in every aspect of the game and the storytelling is no exception. As with the original, most of the narration is done via cutscenes and with this remake, cutscenes are given new life. From fully acted out scenes, like when Randi draws the rusty Mana Sword, to more conversational style scenes, these cutscenes not only move our story along, but add more detail to our characters and their quest. We see some changes to the dialogue, with added information, alterations to the translation, and some appreciated clarification. Perhaps the most apparent aspects of these cutscenes are the voicing and visual directions, which I’ll address in Part 2 of this review.

Secret of Mana Remake | Classic Moments

Classic moments all make a return

New additions to the narrative include extra scenes that take place when staying at inns. These inn cutscenes are a treat, as they provide a wealth of new insight into our characters, from their personalities to their personal struggles and their developing friendships with one another. They help fill in gaps, such as the relationship between Primm and Dyluck and just how truly dejected Primm is towards her arranged marriage to someone else, while also conveying her pain and demonstrating her resolve and strong-willed determination to rescue Dyluck. It completely reveals just how courageous and resolute Primm is, something the original could only imply and leave up to us to interpret. I also really enjoy seeing this new friendship-building content, with the jokes and friendly jabs they take at one another, but also the compliments and words of encouragement they’re always ready to share. It convincingly and immersively demonstrates how they grow closer together. It’s a fantastic dynamic that enhances the original’s overtones. The humor and lightheartedness is also appreciated, as it reminds us that our heroes are adolescents with genuine personalities. For instance, I got a good laugh from the scene in which they contemplate whether the cannon travel brothers are really a group of siblings or if it’s actually just the one person traveling about. These moments make the friendships more real and meaningful. In turn, they also make the heartbreaks far more heartbreaking. The dynamic is done so well, for example, with how cute, jovial, and mischievous Popoi is, or how loving, loyal, and determined Primm is, that it compounds just how heart wrenching their fates are. When such brightness collides with deep sorrow, you can’t help but feel for them. It works incredibly well and creates such powerful, satisfying emotional impacts.

Despite such narrative achievements, there are an unfortunate number of issues as well. Personally, I really wanted our heroes to talk more about themselves and have their character development reach a higher level, rather than just discussing various topics and observing their reactions to them or to each other. I feel this character depth was only achieved with Popoi, as we get to learn how mischievous, curious, enterprising, and food-obsessed he can be. But when it comes to Randi and Primm, they would only speak of themselves as it relates to the major plot points. I would love to have more personal details for Randi and Primm. Their histories before banding together go relatively unsaid (again, besides the major plot points) and I would have enjoyed hearing about Randi or Primm’s hobbies and ambitions since we are privy to some of Popoi’s.

Secret of Mana Remake | Cutscenes

Right from the start, Primm is tenacious and unstoppable. Randi has some growing to do…

Another issue I have is with the quantity of lighthearted conversations. It gives an overall impression that our heroes simply don’t appreciate the graveness of the situation. Although I very much like the lightheartedness and the many scenes that show the fact our heroes are still kids, the instances of seriousness and maturation are severely lacking. There is some personal growth and I appreciate this, but I wish it had been better spread throughout, instead of the mini-dumps we get after a sorrowful event or, more noticeably, near endgame. Other than that, most of the time I’m wondering whether the fact that if they fail, the world ends, even crosses their minds. Where is the anxiety, stress, and ultimately, the resolve, courage, and determination that should come with this? And there are too few times when the bright demeanors and the bleak realizations pair robustly enough to form those emotionally loaded, deep reaching moments. More realistic conversations and better pacing throughout would have greatly helped to create that cultivated tone we expect from such a profound story.

Speaking of pacing, a major problem I had with the new inn cutscenes is that they only play at certain inns (I believe inns with tables, although the inn at Southtown would be the only exception I’ve seen). Because of the way this mechanic is set up, you’ll be playing catch-up often if you want to view all of them. For example, from the time you reach the upper lands, you won’t have an opportunity to stay at a proper inn until Kakara Desert, meaning you’ll have to catch up on the conversations pertaining to the seasonal forest, the Sprite Village, and Matango. The conversations sound as if our heroes are currently at the places they’re discussing, but they’re obviously not. It’s a total waste, such as when Popoi is worried about his village, yet we’ve already come and gone. Another time the cutscenes play catch up is after a good chunk of playtime, from the first visit to the Lofty Mountains, through the Dark, Light and Moon palaces, until Tasnica. Only after all of this will you then start seeing new cutscenes. It serves as a satisfactory recap and, again the quality of the scenes is strong, but I wish the developers had distributed them better and allowed us to view some scenes immediately after each Palace. Instead, at that point, I had to stop and watch eight (maybe nine or ten because I lost count) cutscenes.

In general, we needed a better distribution method because it breaks play flow. Perhaps inserting them when you reach a new area, or when you enter the second or third screen of a new area. Regardless, a more intuitive method of incorporating these scenes into the actual gameplay or vastly improving distribution would have saved both play and plot flow from breaking. Too often they’re out of place, and having to repeatedly stay at inns to see them all can get real annoying. At least the developers could have given me a counter to see how many of these cutscenes I’ve built up and need to view. Having a heads up would have helped me gauge how long I’d be away from the action.

Secret of Mana Remake | Inn Cutscenes

While I’m grateful to have them, I wish they were better integrated into the game

Getting into the gameplay now, the remake’s play mechanics remain relatively unchanged from the original, meaning that they’re as fantastic as ever. Everything from combat, to navigating the menu rings, to the challenge level and the implemented RPG elements all possess the same high degree of execution. There are a few changes spread about, but new and veteran players alike will easily become accustomed to the new additions. The addition I found most useful was the mini map. Since my mind and memories were all working in 16-bit when playing, having the zoomed out SNES map is a pretty cool throwback and it’s incredibly useful too. The menu rings have also seen some changes, as they are visually more detailed and easier to navigate. Use of the shoulder buttons to switch between menu screens is fast and natural. Within the menu rings, I like the inclusion of a game settings option right there, so players can switch soundtrack and voicing options on the go. A new addition to these game options is the ability to change your carrying capacity from the original four per item. The default here is also four and most of us won’t change it, but that can now be increased up to 12, which is a nice touch for inexperienced players and younger audiences. As for controls, I like the addition of assigning actions to the shoulder buttons (for controllers). It’s pretty handy to bind your favorite spells or actions, or to assign a specific spell/action for particular boss fights, all without the need to continuously enter the menu rings to cast/use. My only complaint with the controls is that I wish each ally got their own open menu button. While Randi gets his own, Primm and Popoi share one button. There are unused buttons, such as the triggers/second shoulder buttons that could have been used for this.

Secret of Mana Remake | Menus

All of your choices are clearly labeled and easy to cycle through

As for combat, changes include a bit more diversity in the way weapons behave. For instance, there is the slightest wind up when striking with the axe. Some of the ranged weapons, like the bow, seem to handle reaching higher and lower terrain slightly better than, say, the javelin. These changes are so minimal, though, that some players may not even notice. Another change is that both heroes and enemies recover quicker from knockback. It helps speed things up a bit without interfering with a player’s combat tempo. I also found that some minor enemies with simple melee attacks would use them far more frequently than they used to in the original. It’s a nice touch because it adds the need for a bit more strategy when attacking without affecting the game’s difficulty level. Overall, the changes are well executed and the decision not to drastically alter gameplay, but rather acknowledge the greatness of the original, is most welcome.

Whenever we see a remake, there will undoubtedly be changes to gameplay because of a game’s build quality. While the original Secret of Mana wasn’t entirely perfect, its build quality was still exemplary, but unfortunately this remake includes a new set of issues. Several bugs reared their ugly heads during my playthrough, the most common one being my playfield going black. This tended to happen mostly when shopping, forging, or any other scene or action that required the heroes to line up and adjust their position. Fortunately, coming out to the title screen and going back alleviated the problem. Also, the autosave function helps tremendously, as the game autosaves after every foray into a new area, so I never had to worry when this bug occurred, as I most likely had a recent autosave to reload. Another issue I had was the game hard crashing. While I’d prefer zero crashes, I’m happy to report this didn’t occur often. In fact, I only experienced two hard crashes, and this was after playing and replaying full sections of the game. A more minor bug I ran into was that our heroes’ walking and running animations would just stop and they would instead glide. Moving to a new screen would resolve this instantly. Other issues, like graphical bugs from layers or textures overlapping and the occasional sprite getting stuck because of collision also occur, but are not the biggest problems. What bothers me the most is that all of these medium and smaller problems compound to lessen the overall experience. They’re both worrisome and occur just often enough to affect play flow and enjoyment. Fortunately, as of this review, patches for the PS4 have been announced and hopefully the PC version sees them too.

Secret of Mana Remake | Mini Map

That mini map is an awesome throwback and a big help

In Part 2 of this review, I’ll be primarily discussing the aesthetics of this remake, as I believe they will indeed be the main source of most players’ praise and anxieties. It’s to be expected, as they permeate every other element of the game and transform a classic that has continued to shine for over 25 years of gaming history.

About Drew D.

Drew has been an avid gamer most of his life, favoring single-player campaigns. For him, a worthwhile game is one that immerses you; it envelops you and draws out an array of emotions that produce those memorable moments we live for as gamers.