I don’t know about you guys, but I was somewhat surprised when Square-Enix announced a complete remake of Secret of Mana last August. Not because I felt the game is unworthy of a remake (it is!), but because the announcement seemingly came out of nowhere. I never actually played the original, so I was happy to know I could finally experience it — only with updated 3D graphics and voice overs. Unlike the Final Fantasy VII remake, Secret of Mana didn’t take over a decade to drop. The game is now available on PC, PS4, and PS Vita. Like Shadow of the Colossus, Secret of Mana is a fine example of how to remake a beloved classic.
For those who may not know, Secret of Mana brought much needed innovation to the world of RPGs when it released in 1993. While most RPGs of the era featured turn-based combat, Secret of Mana had real-time battles. Players were free to move around the field and attack whenever they wished. The game even had co-op for up to three players. Given its status in the genre, the game has been ported to the Wii, Wii U, mobile devices, and even the SNES Classic Edition. If any game deserved a remake, it was Secret of Mana.
Instead of updated sprites, this remake features full 3D graphics. Despite the change in dimensions, the visuals retain the same bright colors and overall whimsical aesthetic. The characters’ “chibi” appearance translates well into 3D. During gameplay, the camera retains the original overhead perspective. It’s during cutscenes where the 3D graphics truly come alive, since you’re able to see more detail. Though not graphically intensive, the visuals are pleasing to the eye.
You fight monsters by using swords, spears, and arrows. In order to deal the most damage, it’s best to attack when the stamina gauge is at 100%. Otherwise, one’s attacks become weak. This gauge keeps the game from devolving into a brainless hack and slasher. You have to know when to attack and when to back off to recharge. Like any good RPG, combat requires a certain degree of strategizing. Players must also explore towns, dungeons, and the overworld. Everything you remember from the SNES game is here, just with slicker presentation.
While the basic gameplay is virtually identical, the updated animations make for a smoother experience. The movements of characters and creatures help give them a nice sense of personality. Even the environment is nicely animated. Trees and grass sway in the wind, while rivers and waterfalls move along their intended paths. These elements were only hinted at in the original. Now, with the power of current technology, these animations are fully realized.
You can play Secret of Mana either with English or Japanese voice overs. The game’s soundtrack has also been rearranged. If you’re a fan of the classic music, don’t fret! You can still listen to it if you wish. As for the voices, I’m usually fine with English dubs in games (and anime). However, I wasn’t exactly feeling the voice work here. They sound a bit too silly for my tastes. The fact character’s faces rarely emote exacerbated this issue. I went with the Japanese voices instead. I’m used to reading subtitles even with English voices, so having Japanese dialogue was fine.
On top of new graphics and sound, Secret of Mana sports a number of features which make things more user-friendly. If you die inside of a dungeon, you won’t lose much progress thanks to auto saves. Hot keys enhance the existing ring menu. Players can now assign weapons, magic, and items to the L and R buttons. There are more options for your companion AI partners. You can set them to attack the same enemy as you or have them target surrounding foes. Like the original, you can play with up to two friends. Lastly, the mini-maps ensure you won’t have to rely on sign posts to find your way. All of these minor features go a long way to taking away needless frustration.
Despite all of the modern trappings, Secret of Mana still feels like an old-school JRPG. While in a town, you talk to various NPCs who repeat the same dialogue. You also walk into their homes and help yourself to their treasure. In the field, you encounter enemies you can kill in order to gain experience points and money.
The levels are also pretty old-school. You run along linear paths, entering different rooms in order to acquire items that help you progress. Dungeons can feel claustrophobic, and do not provide the type of freedom found in modern RPGs. The game’s underlying old-school mechanics aren’t a detriment, however. They still manage to work even in 2018. I suppose this is a testament to the games’s solid design.
Remaking a classic isn’t easy. Thankfully, Square-Enix managed to successfully bring Secret of Mana to the modern age. Aside from some questionable English voices and facial animations, I found it an excellent remake. It’s evident SQE didn’t just haphazardly put this title together. This is a labor of love. Hopefully, we’ll see other SquareSoft RPGs like Chrono Trigger and XenoGears get the same treatment in the future. In some ways, I wish the Final Fantasy VII remake would have been remade like this… but that’s a story for another day. For now, I’m just happy to experience Secret of Mana in this form. It really is a great deal of fun.
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