by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
Ask virtually anyone who is a fan of retro/classic RPGs, and 9 out of 10 times you’ll see Secret of Mana somewhere in the top ten. It’s a true classic and was the first action RPG to utilize multiplayer (two players, three with a multi-tap). The Boy (Randi), the Girl (Primm), and the Sprite (Popoi) go on an adventure after fate left the Sword of Mana in Randi’s unwilling hands. It’s a fairly linear RPG, but has a story and a look that was incredibly unique at the time. Brightly colored visually, and scored by Hiroki Kikuta, this was an RPG that just did not quit. Over the last year, there was actually two Secret of Mana remakes, one that did not come to America in the form of the Seiken Densetsu collection for the Switch, and this particular remaster for PS4/Vita/Steam/PC.
I hesitate to call this a remake. Typically, a remake fixes things that are wrong, changes the outdated and outmoded for something that makes more sense for a modern audience. While I love this game and even love this particular version of the game, there are some glaring, even horrific issues with the game that ought to be addressed. I’m not even talking about the lack of online multiplayer (but seriously, how was that not the very first thing that was discussed when this game was pitched?), but there are some pretty outstanding bugs, glitches, and obscenely frustrating gameplay choices.
But before I get into that, let’s talk about the actual game. Secret of Mana is a three-player action-RPG, where you have a unique wheel of options, where you swap out your weapons, set your friends actions, cast spells, use items, et cetera. You level up your weapons via “Orbs” gained from bosses (and secret rare drops at the end of the game), and you power up your Magic by attuning to the various Mana Seeds, one for each elemental force in the world – Undine, Gnome, Luna, Shade, and so forth. Using them (attacking and casting) increases their power and level, up to the cap of that weapons orbs/that magic’s levels.
There’s a mysterious, powerful Empire that is trying to resurrect the Mana Fortress, a weapon of untold power and danger, to put themselves in charge of the world. So this boy, Randi, winds up the protagonist and will do his best to set things right again. Cast out from his tiny village, he sets out with no plan, no goal, just a rusty sword and a heart full of sadness. It has all the makings of an excellent story! But why are there such weird issues with the game? Secret of Mana has always been a hard game, that’s not a question I have. Spikey Tiger is the first real boss of the game and was casting horrific flame magic and kicking people’s asses even back then. However, he felt very easy, as did most of the “hard” fights.
The Werewolves were a pushover, Axe Beak was stomped out, even Kilroy was outrageously easy. But you know what aren’t? Virtually every enemy with the exception of the Potos/Pandora encounters (Rabites, Lullabuds, Mushbooms). I almost wiped and got a game over from one or two Chobin Hoods (little jerks with bows), just obliterating Primm and Popoi with obscene damage. Then there was the next difficulty spike on the Upper Land, the large groups of enemies killing everyone over and over until I could get the hang of things. So, the difficulty is there still, but in different places. The spike of difficulty rises and falls in strange ways, but the game is still a lot of fun. It just meant leveling in different places and finding other ways to gain levels in safer places.
Combat is pretty simple: you swing/dash, and your meter charges to 100%. The higher the percentage, the better chance of hitting/dealing good damage. If you have over one orb, you can hold the attack button and it will charge slowly and do a crazy, cool attack when you release it. However, it will slow you down immensely and in almost every case, this is not worth doing. To find your weapons and spells, you use the “Ring System”, which was a unique way to organize all of your stats/skills. While it does not memorize where you were on each ring (each character has their own), you can set two abilities as saved, bound to L1/R2. They could also add L2/R2, but I’ll take this. While I’m bummed it did not save my locations on the rings quite as well, it didn’t bother me enough to make a stink about it. The “AI Grid” is also gone, and is simplified into helping the PC character, or only attacking when he does. I miss the Grid, which was a chessboard with positions that corresponded to aggressive/defensive/passive AI. This is another thing, that while it’s fine, it’s a really peculiar choice.
The biggest problem for me is that the game feels rushed. There are tons of glitches and bugs all throughout the game that either did not get caught or were outright ignored. There are moments when your attack simply doesn’t register with an enemy or the many cases of lag/frame issues. When in Pure Land, I had an issue in the cave between Upper Land/Matango, where the enemies would be hit, and pause in mid-air, before flying across the screen, and I wasn’t even casting spells to warrant any kind of lag of issue. This happened in a few areas, too, so it wasn’t really just an “Upper Land” issue. Other common bugs were found in Gaia’s Navel. If a character was casting a spell and I left them around a rock/off the screen, they were gone until I reset the game. If I tried to tab over to pick them (left and right on the D-Pad) I’d get a black screen until I tabbed back over. These are issues that likely could have been avoided. It’s also given random crashes/error messages like if I try to leave a screen with a disabling ability (confusion), it had a high crash rate in particular. These are things that likely could be addressed with an update, but I think a little more care in the testing department could have fixed this.
A Legend in the Making: Great (3/5)
Despite its many faults, I still love this version of Secret of Mana. It just has so many problems that could have been, and should be, addressed. I stand by the belief that the game needs online multiplayer, but I did not mark that against it. Some have said that the graphics feel lifeless and the soundtrack was bland, but I don’t really agree with that either. You do have the option to listen to the original soundtrack if that’s what you like. I do enjoy the new graphics, even if the original art was just fine and beautiful the way it was. The move to a more 3D graphical style is fine and doesn’t bother me, but I can see why some have argued against it. Visual updates are part of a remaster. There is one change I adore, and that’s being able to increase the amount of each item you can carry. Originally you get four items of each type and that’s it. But that makes some of the dungeons nearly impossible, only having Four Candies, Chocolates, Faerie Walnuts, Cup of Wishes, et cetera. Now you can set it up to 24, which is such a wonderful change. This is still a very solid game and I think it’s enjoyable, but the hit detection, frame skips and some of the difficult choices really slow this down from being a Game of the Year contender in my eyes. If it receives a patch and update that clears up some of these problems, I’d be a lot happier with it. As it stands, they hold it back from being a “great” remaster, to simply being a “good” remaster.