Secret of Mana is a remake of one of the SNES’ best loved JRPGs. It was widely praised at the time for its fun hack-'n'-slash combat, beautiful music, and vibrant graphics. However this 2018 remake feels like its stripped away some of the magic of the original and instead made its shortcomings much more obvious.
The first big change you’re likely to notice is the art style and character models. The beautiful sprite-based graphics have been replaced with 3D polygonal models and have unfortunately lost some of their charm along the way. There’s also the inclusion of some rather amateur sounding voice acting which means that the cast not only look a bit odd but sound it as well. When characters are talking their lips don’t move; this is particularly off-putting in the opening scenes of the game where one of your childhood friends seems to have his face frozen into an angry grimace regardless of what he’s actually saying.
The game begins with all the typical tropes from this era of gaming. A young boy wanders outside of his village, finds a magical sword, and is soon swept off on a grand adventure, making friends with a gutsy lady and amnesiac sprite along the way. It’s a simple enough tale but it’s sweet and tugs on the heart strings in all the right places.
Combat feels mostly the same as the original but the 3D style now means you can attack in all directions. The action feels a little slow as after attacking you’ll need to wait for a gauge to recharge before attacking again. You can attack before it reaches max but your chances of successfully hitting an enemy and the amount of damage you can dish out will be reduced. Add to that your lack of any ability to dodge or parry and this means that Secret of Mana’s battle system is less of a fluid hack-'n'-slash and more of a hack-'n'-run-around-in-circles-until-fully-recharged.
After playing through the opening parts of the game you’ll be given access to three different party members. You control one while the other two are controlled by AI. The AI controlling your companions isn’t very aggressive and won’t attack an enemy until you do; they also won’t use magic unless you direct them to. Not only will you end up micromanaging them in battle but also while wandering through dungeons. They’ll frequently get stuck round corners or up against rocks. One way around this is by recruiting a couple of real life friends and using the game's local co-op mode, although it’s a pity that Square Enix didn’t include an online co-op mode as well.
There are a handful of improvements and new additions to this remaster but also some puzzling steps backwards. Being able to hold more than four of each item in your inventory and a new mini-map which uses the original SNES pixel art are very welcome changes. There are also new scenes which take place between your party members whenever you stay at an inn; these offer delightful little interactions between your party and helps you fall in love with them all over again (or in love for the first time if you’ve never played the original). Probably one of the most helpful modern updates to the game is the new auto-save feature and trust us when we say that you’re going be grateful for it. During our playthrough the game seemed to crash once every couple of hours, and the auto-save managed to take a bit of the frustration out of this.
One bizarre step backwards involves the menus. Whenever you back out of any screen in the menu, unlike in the original, the game no longer remembers where you last were. This means that you need to slowly navigate through all of the ring menus whenever you need anything. It just feels needlessly slow and clunky.
The remake also doesn’t include some pretty basic quality-of-life improvements. The most obvious example of this is while shopping. There’s no way to see if you already own an armour or accessory piece or even to see if it’s weaker or stronger than anything you’ve already got equipped.
The remixed soundtrack can also be a bit hit and miss. Some of the tracks really improve on the already awesome SNES version but others just sound a bit lousy, in particular the town theme just sounds too over the top and brash when compared to the original. Thankfully you can switch between the classic and new soundtrack whenever you like.
This Secret of Mana remake feels like a missed opportunity. It could have been a chance to tweak a few systems, strip away any outdated elements, and add in a few basic improvements. Overall the game is good but only because the original Secret of Mana was good; this remaster doesn’t add as much as it could and, if anything, removes some of the magic of the original.