Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out Now
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PlayStation Vita, PC

Secret of Mana has always been one of those titles that I loved playing when I was younger, but didn’t seem to get much attention from those around me. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s got a huge fan base, but my friends seemed to be into more mainstream titles and didn’t have time to fool around with old SNES RPGs. It’s a shame, right?

Besides including the original game on the SNES Classic, Square Enix had also decided to give the game a revamped and remade release on the PlayStation 4 and PC. I was excited at the announcement, not only because I love the game but because it gave a lot of those friends of mine who ignored it the first time around a chance to finally play a title which I’ve always considered to be an absolute classic.

Unfortunately though, whilst Secret of Mana still maintains the enjoyable essence of the original game, it seems to have taken a step backwards as opposed to evolving itself for modern gamers.

Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana puts you in the shoes of Randi, an energetic young boy who finds himself embarking on an epic adventure when he accidentally stumbles upon the Mana Sword. Of course, there’s a fair bit of mystery behind the Mana Sword, so when he’s banished by the village elder for taking it and making his hometown vulnerable to attack from monsters, he heads out on a journey to discover more about the sword and why he is able to use it. Add to this the two colourful character he meets along the way who have their own agenda, and it makes for a charming and whimsical adventure that ends up seeing them all working to save the world.

It’s a neat little tale and one that send you across an assortment of wondrous locales to meet plenty of unique individuals. One neat addition that comes with the remake is the conversations characters share when staying in inns – rather than heading straight to sleep and resting up, they’ll take part in humorous exchanges that aren’t too serious and show off the character’s quirky personalities. Don’t get me wrong, Secret of Mana never takes itself too seriously anyway, but it adds a little extra fun to the narrative that returning gamers wouldn’t have experienced before.

My absolute favourite aspect of Secret of Mana has always been its combat though, with it adopting an action battle system that would feel a bit familiar to those who played the likes of the classic Legend of Zelda games. You’ll run around maps and fight enemies across open environments, all whilst slicing-and-dicing them freely through quick button presses. There’s a twist to combat though thanks to the power meter at the bottom of the screen that drops every time you attack. If you wait until it charges back up to 100%, your next attack is more powerful and accurate than it would be otherwise. It promotes strategic play and a lot of movement on the player’s part, which is a lot more satisfying than simply mashing buttons and hoping for the best.

It’s satisfying and fun, and it feels exactly like it did in the original release. This time around you do get to use the analogue stick though, which is a lot more intuitive than the old D-pad. It gives a bit more freedom as to where you can hit enemies and it just helps combat flow better, which is always a good thing. It’s probably the biggest change made to the game’s combat, but it’s both a surprisingly significant and positive change.

Secret of Mana

You’ve got plenty of different weapons to use in the game, whilst the support characters have magic attacks they can use too. Admittedly, it could be a little awkward using these attacks as you’d have to manually select them from the menu each time, though they do help spice up combat and allow you to use tactical thought when taking advantage of your opponent’s vulnerabilities. Again, it feels just like it did back in the original release.

You have team mates to help you out in-game that you can issue various commands to, but they’re not always the smartest. Besides not attacking the enemies you want them to, they’ll often get stuck running in the environment or will demand you walk back through a map in order to fetch them. There was one point when a character got left so far behind, they just disappeared – I had to re-load the game in order to get them back. You can switch between characters freely so you can always use their abilities, but when controlled by the A.I. you shouldn’t expect them to be too effective.

You can play the game in local co-op though, which is quite neat. Having other people take on the roles of your support characters is helpful when taking on some of the tougher boss fights, whilst not having to micromanage their every move helps too. When controlled by the A.I., they’d often leave themselves vulnerable to incoming attacks, but when human controlled they’re a lot smarter (well… if your friends are). Of course, having to manually select weapons or skills through the menu can break up the flow for players when playing together, but it’s still a very fun way to play the game.

Secret of Mana

The in-game menu is still slightly awkward to use, with it taking the form of a ring that you’ve got to carefully navigate through to change weapons, use items, and do just about anything else in the game. Veterans of the game will find it easy enough to use, but newbies might find it a little convoluted when compared to a more traditional RPG menu. Your items don’t actually get a description in-game either, so it’s hard to tell what does what without actually manually using them first. Some items are hard to come by too, such as the ‘Cup of Wishes’ which revives fallen characters – since the game doesn’t tell you what they do, you might not necessarily know what you need to purchase from shops before heading into a tricky dungeon.

There are a couple of other issues that I noticed when playing, such as the fact that shops don’t tell you when you already own a piece of equipment or what stat differences they have compared to what you’ve already got equipped. There’s a big emphasis on buying new equipment in the game, so the fact that you’ve typically got to wing it based upon an item’s price instead of its stats was a bit annoying – it’s not the kind of problem you should have to face in a modern RPG.

Then there’s the fact that your characters always line up together whenever you’re in a story progressing conversation, which just looks so clumsy in-game; characters awkwardly walk around and through each other as they form a perfectly neat line in front of the NPC. It just looked unnatural in-game and the fact that it took a good five seconds or so to perform made it feel like a waste of time. It’s a minor issue, but one I noticed time and time again.

Whilst it has its flaws though, the remake brings some real neat additions to the game too. I’d be remiss not to mention the mini-map – it sits at the top corner of the screen and shows exactly where you are (duh), but it utilises the art style of the old SNES release of the game. It’s a cool little throwback and was something I could really appreciate when playing the game, even if it isn’t necessarily needed from a gameplay perspective. Another welcome addition was the auto-saving, which saved my butt on more than a few occasions.

Secret of Mana

Visually, Secret of Mana still looks as charming as it ever did. The 16-bit visuals have been replaced with 3D models, but it looks delightfully vibrant in-game. However, whilst it looks nice enough, there’s a bit of a dated feel to it. It’d be easy to think you were playing a PlayStation 2 game, which isn’t helped when you consider that characters’ mouths don’t move when they talk. A remake would typically completely revamp the visuals of a game, and sure, they’re completely different, but the overall presentation is a little bit lazy when compared to other remakes.

It’s worth mentioning that the monsters look great though – especially the bosses. Secret of Mana has some pretty iconic boss battles, so seeing them here with this all-new look was actually pretty neat. It’s just a shame that the quality isn’t consistent everywhere.

Another new addition to the game is the implementation of voice acting, though it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It works well for the most part, but there are some NPCs that don’t really deliver their lines with much enthusiasm. The fact that characters’ mouths don’t move when talking doesn’t really complement its use either – if anything it looks a little jarring. The soundtrack itself is great though, with remixed renditions of the classic tracks playing throughout. The original soundtrack is available too for those who prefer them, though.

Secret of Mana

Despite having its fair share of flaws, the fact that Secret of Mana is a remake of an already great game really helps it out, especially since the core gameplay itself hasn’t really changed up all that much. However, it released nearly twenty-five years ago – whilst it’s as charming as ever, there’s no denying that it feels a bit dated when compared to modern action-RPG releases. It’s not necessarily a bad thing (especially for a fan like me), but I think Square Enix missed an opportunity to improve upon the formula and modernise the experience. Instead, they’ve just made it look a bit different, which probably isn’t enough to convince those new to the game what all the fuss was about to begin with.