REVIEW: Secret of Mana HD Part 2

Friday, March 16th, 2018

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

The Secret of Mana remake involved a major transformation from 2D to 3D, which impacted every aspect of the game, from narrative and gameplay, to the very look and feel of our beloved adventure. Part 1 of this review focused on the story and gameplay elements. Here I will discuss the aesthetics and its influences.

With any kind of remake or remaster, the aesthetics of the game are frequently the most transformed and can be the source of the most considerable of opinions. Whether the redesigns, creations, and reproductions are reinvigorating or destructive to the original’s quality will undoubtedly play a crucial role in determining the acceptance of this remake by its players. Having played and replayed hours of this game, switching and altering the options available to determine the best and worst experiences this game can offer, I can honestly say that the aesthetics of this game will be a source of great awe, as well as the harshest of criticisms. This is where the highest highs and the lowest lows are on display and everything, from the visuals, to the decisions and directions taken, to the very feel of the game has been influenced.

Beginning with the art style and how the developers imagined Secret of Mana in 3D, this remake adapts a visual style brimming with charm. Rather than taking a more realistic approach to character designs, environments, and the like, the artists decided to go full fairy tale by creating a vibrant world loaded with pastel colors. Taken alone, the artistry is beautiful, especially when it comes to the vividness of the environments. Rendering all of our favorite locales in 3D is impressively done and the style nicely conveys the liveliness of the world. Traversing through the Crystal Forest is magical, with its sparkling snow and alluringly calm color pallet that perfectly create the tones of a soft, silent, wintery scene. The Seed Palaces are both dignified and regal, demonstrating their importance and grandeur. The details to recreate the stained glass windows, the grand fire chalices, and the Mana Seed altars all capture the spirit of the original’s intentions well. The character and enemy designs are equally charming and denote a jovial, fantasy aesthetic that is lovely and pleasing. Similar to Dawn of Mana’s art style, they have a bright, gentle feel, due to a minimalistic approach. Again, taken alone, the visual direction the artists took is cute, perky, and delightful.

Secret of Mana Remake | 2D to 3D Translation

The Seed Palaces are still majestic and grand

Be that as it may, within the context of this game, with its dangerous perils, emotional turmoil, and impassioned acts, perhaps the visuals are far too lighthearted, to the point of being sickening, detrimental, and disheartening. Secret of Mana is a story in which the fate of the world is at risk. Trials, tragedies, personal loss, heartfelt goodbyes, as well as the courage, determination, and preservation to endure are all indispensable aspects of bringing this story to life. It’s all the more discouraging, then, that the visuals not only fail to acknowledge the full force of the story it’s meant to expound, but degrade it to a point of insult and disgrace to the original. Harsh as that may be, the very essence and aura the original is able to emanate is lost here, due in part to the visual direction. The overly cute character designs undercut the harsher emotions the characters experience, as well as staunchly tone down the severity of the threats that potentially doom all life. Such cataclysmic threats and personal tragedies lose most of their guttural force. The events at the end of the Mana Sanctuary look awful, with the minimalistic style and lack of detail. The same is true for the final Thanatos cutscenes because, again, of this unadorned approach to character designs and the pastel color palette. And while I understand the original has plenty of charm too, there is also a balance achieved between cute and grit that works perfectly. Yet here, the balance so overwhelmingly favors the sugary sweet that it looks like the world is under threat, not by a menacing group of powerful individuals, but a group of cosplayers with zero ferocity. At lease Dawn of Mana used the cute to contrast light and dark, implying that the innocent can suffer from evil and that dark can be defeated. I wish they had at least introduced a similar play here, but the developers and artists were overly fixated on the cutesy vision alone.

Secret of Mana Remake | Flammie Nav

I’ll add that flying on Flammie is way cooler in 3D

Having said all of that, some moments still hold their full, impassioned force. Despite the missteps of this remake, some of the original scenes were so well executed that their essence and weight remain unperturbed. The realization that Flammie is orphaned and the last of its kind because of the Great Viper in Matango. Dyluck’s love for Primm and his strength and resolve through to the end. And, of course, Popoi at endgame. Despite the damage that could have occurred due to the art direction, these moments still hit me damn hard, got me wrenching, and hold their full emotional impact.

The direction taken for the art style makes sense when considering the graphics implemented for this remake. Minimalistic style derived from a minimalist graphics effort. When this remake was first announced, I had actually hoped for a 3D style similar to Final Fantasy X or XII, especially since their remasters are still fairly fresh in our minds. But instead of lifelike, we get cartoons full of disproportionate polygonal assemblies and sharp jagged edges. Characters with overly large heads, no mouth movements during conversations (and for many characters, no mouths at all), hardly any detailed textures, and no attempt to hide a minimal polygon count. It all comes off as a very lazy effort, reminiscent of poorer PS2 games. Even the mini-map, a 16-bit add-on, shows graphical laziness, as there is zero attempt to improve the looks of our beloved SNES world. Its usefulness is unquestionable, but because it’s zoomed out from the original SNES maps and having some layers removed, the developers could have spruced up buildings, especially palaces, that are now in full view.

I didn’t think the water palace looked the way it does, with a steep, ugly, dome-like roof. It was probably like that from 1993 where nobody would see it, but now that we do, a bit of polish could have gone a very long way to make it look like the regal, spectacular palace it was implied to be. After all, you could only see the front façade originally because it was so grand and magnificent and that implication worked back then. Now though, that got ruined with the zoom out. I assume this, of all things, would have been an easy fix, but again, it’s like the developers couldn’t be bothered to even consider a stronger production, regardless of whether we’re talking about the 2D or 3D work. I think the only aspects of the visuals that received any proper attention are the 2D drawings and weapon designs. Those illustrations shown during the prologue are simply gorgeous, yet that’s all we ever get. The weapons’ style and graphics came together to produce very impressive sets that actually look both vicious and legendary. The illustrations showed just how terrifying and violent this conflict can be and the weapons are perhaps the only pieces that truly look and feel as if they belong in the turmoil they are wielded to oppose.

Secret of Mana Remake | Artwork

One of the few visual bright spots, these illustrations reminded me of Legend of Mana and left me wanting so much more…

The audio for this remake received just as much of a transformation as the style and graphics, and again, I question many of the decisions made. Immediately apparent from the game’s start is the new voice acting. Having played and replayed major portions of the game with every option, I believe the Japanese voicing is slightly stronger than the English, but just barely, as both are rather average compared to other games’ voicing efforts. I did appreciate that in the Japanese voice setting, they use the characters’ names in conversations instead of a quiet pause for the English. Hearing the names Randi, Primm, and Popoi used in conversation helped with immersion. It’s a small touch, but one that doesn’t go unnoticed. I also prefer the Japanese pronunciations, as they match the way I pronounce certain words. For example, I always pronounced Mana as “Mon-uh,” with its A’s pronounced like in “father,” or like the way the Japanese pronounce their あ sound. Hearing the English actors say “Maan-uh,” in which the first A is like “apple,” seems off to me. There will always be exceptions and preferences, as I found Watt’s English voice more fitting for the character than the Japanese version. I also like Luka’s English voices better, but I like Primm’s, Popoi’s, Truffles’s and most NPC Japanese voices over their English counterparts. Ultimately though, just pick whichever you prefer because their quality is THAT similar.

Unfortunately, both voicing options suffer from a number of problems. For one, there are a lot of the same voices being used throughout the game. I realize that you can only have so many actors doing so many voices, but they are just too similar and it becomes painfully obvious. This is true for both languages. Also true for both is a terrible habit by the actors to overact their lines. Obnoxiously overacted exclamations, worry, and excitement are a plague and are an often enough occurrence that it’s sounds fake, unbelieving, flow breaking, and frustrating to the point of being tiresome. Nevertheless, my favorite aspect of the voicing and options available is the ability to silence them completely. Backlash from the voicing efforts is something I wholly expect given the amateurish effort. Those of us that would rather imagine how everyone should sound will undoubtedly reduce voice volume to zero. Out of all the options available, I have no doubt silencing the voices is the best choice.

Secret of Mana Remake | Graphics

Jema (now Gemma) let’s his beard do the talking…

Whereas the voice acting is a new addition, the soundtrack of Secret of Mana is a renowned staple of the game. It exemplifies every element of the original game and is regarded as one of the best sound scores of all time as both an achievement and for what it’s able to achieve. Trying to improve perfection is a dauntless task, one I had assumed would again be treated similarly to the Final Fantasy X remaster. I thought a fully orchestrated remaster of this sound score would and should have been the only option. I was wrong and the result is a remixed score that manages to be a source of great rage, awe, and longing for me. This is because I expected the same level of brilliance as the original, which did not happen. This is not to say the remixed tracks were all failures, on the contrary, some are masterfully executed and compound on the tone and mood they were originally set to do. However, the contrast in quality level is so drastic that it’s mind boggling that the same group of composers were capable of such stark degrees of success and failure within the same sound score.

My biggest issue, one I am disheartened to say, is that many of the tracks fail to recapture the tone, mood, and essence of their originals. Mystic Invasion is an example of this. The original song had a strong beat, solid tempo, and both tones of power and danger, but also an almost majestic (mystic) sound, fit for the opulent, yet perilous palaces they were used for. It also complemented the original Whisper and Mantra well, as they shared that aura of dignity and breadth. With the remade track, all of those feelings are severely muted. Its identity is changed and not for the better. Other tracks suffer even more, as they are so butchered with synthesizer, digital accordion, fretful tempo changes, alterations to their classic melodies, key changes, and unnecessarily added measures that the very heart and soul of the originals are shamefully lost. The synthesized, digital overkill ruin some songs so completely that not only do they seem out of place from when or where they’re played, they sound as if they don’t belong in the game at all. What I mean by this is the original soundtrack was a composition of rich melodic structure with a modern beat, mostly using snare drum, and a wonderful array of tones blended in. Each song was remarkable on its own, but also complemented the tones, tempos, and structures of the other songs in the score. Here, however, these remixes clash with themselves and sound as if there is no common style anymore. I feel this is most evident in the remix of the Ice Palace song A Bell is Tolling. The quality of that song has so digressed that it’s almost unrecognizable. Such a wonderful work is tarnished simply for the sake of change. It’s amateurish, embarrassing, and utterly unpleasant to listen to. The developers must have been aware of this putrid effort with several of the remixed tracks, as, I can only assume, they were smart enough to know that they would receive more backlash, not just from veterans and traditionalists, but anyone with ears, so they wised up and implemented the option of switching to the original soundtrack. It really makes me think they were aware of their failures, so then I wonder why these failures weren’t more adequately addressed.

Secret of Mana Remake | Music

…said none of the musicians.

As strongly as I feel towards the composers’ failures, I will also give them the credit they deserve. Thank goodness few of the remixes sound as good as the originals; some even surpass them. These outlier tracks perfectly convey the same energy and emotion their original counterparts are capable of evoking. The remix of Prophesy is pure badass with its faster tempo and threatening, apocalyptic melody. It really accentuates the urgency and malevolence of the ominous Mana Fortress hanging above all creation, ready at any time to end it all. The remixed Mana Palace music Did You See the Ocean is another success, as it seamlessly transitions into the Fear of the Heavens melody. That impeccable merger of the two melodies is positively awesome.

Others, too, hold the same magic, by honoring their original’s sound style or having been improved, as melody gains a harmony that compliments the original tune so well. Visually, the Crystal Forest is exceedingly beautiful and the orchestral remixed A Wish pairs fantastically to set that familiar mood of soft snow, a chill in the air, a peaceful loneliness, and an incredible glistening beauty in the quiet serenity. Masterfully recreated, perfectly executed. This is one of the few moments in which I like the remake better. My favorite example of this is, when a remix has the same or even more emotional power, is when Spirit of the Night plays. Every time it plays I’m gratefully heartbroken. The added female vocal puts it over the top and ties everything from the events on screen and the feelings our heroes are struggling with, to the sheer, overtaking sadness. It pushes my emotions to the edge when I hear it and every time, it is truly magnificent.

Secret of Mana Remake | Exploration

This level of quality shows exactly what I had hoped for and what could have been…

And yet, such passion, skill, and perfect execution is too seldom and utterly eclipsed by how unforgivably hideous other remixes were composed. It’s all the more reason why I’m so crestfallen that we were denied a complete effort. It’s not worth suffering through an abominably deficient remixed sound score to experience so little, especially when perfection in the original is so easily available to enjoy. I can only imagine how great this remixed score could have been if it were orchestrated and the maximum level of prowess were given to every song.

This Secret of Mana remake left me wanting so much more. Does it look and feel like a Mana game? Yes. Is it still action packed and a pleasure to play? Absolutely. What remained unchanged, the story and gameplay, continue to be high points because of their original strength back in 1993. But, does this remake recreate the undeniable magic that the original Secret of Mana possesses? Only partially. There is no other game quite like the original and it also leaves me disheartened to know that we may never receive another remake; one more deserving of carrying this titular name. The remake is still an excellent game, loaded with bright spots and flashes of brilliance, but perhaps perfection can never truly be improved upon.

Review Score
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com

Review copy purchased by author

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.