Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PC, PS Vita
This about all the ways a developer can screw up a high-definition remaster. The new graphics can be dull and lazy. The game can run slow or glitchy. The sound can end up janky and low def.
Square’s new Secret of Mana remake makes none of these mistakes and yet still sits in that uncomfortable remake limbo. It’s still a fun title to play like the original, and although nearly every individual aspect has been improved, together these improvements feel sloppy and underdesigned.
Let’s start with graphics. The original Secret of Mana had fairly primitive sprites even for the SNES. They were bright and colorful but nowhere near as detailed as Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI’s sprites.
The remake updates the graphics from sprites polygonal models. For the most part, this makes the game more visually appealing. Environments are laid out exactly as they were in the SNES version, and seeing these flat 16-bit maps pop off the screen in brilliant HD is a treat.
Unfortunately, characters don’t fare nearly as well. This remake shares the same problem that Square’s other recent RPG project, Lost Sphear, had. Its low poly super-chibi polygon models are just not as endearing as low pixel super-chibi sprites. Technically they are more graphically advanced, but they feel like stiff moving puppets instead of epic fantasy protagonists. Maybe it’s because no one’s mouth moves when they talk, despite the addition of voice acting.
One thing that this remake does get right is framerate. Games that run at 60FPS are relatively common these days, but we haven’t seen many top down action RPGs take advantage of the power of our current generation consoles. Something about how smooth the characters move across the map is really pleasing. It would be interesting to see this treatment given to games like Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma. It fits the format really well.
For the most part, Secret of Mana’s battle system has been ported over from the original intact. It’s a real-time top down battle system that feels like what would happen if The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Final Fantasy IV had a baby.
While you can run around and attack enemies whenever you like, your attack power is determined by a charge meter that fills over time. This gives the battle a nice rhythm of attack and retreat that is every so often punctuated by special attacks and magic spells.
There isn’t any defend or evade button. The only way to avoid attacks is to either A) get out of the way or B) have the system decide that an attack has missed based on your stats.
It was easy to tell when attacks made contact in the original SNES version. If one sprite intersected another the attack hit, simple as that. It’s unfortunately not so simple in the remake. The hit detection is kind of wonky. Numerous times my sword swung right through an enemy I thought I hit. Similarly, I would run away from enemies when my HP was low only to get hit by an attack that had deceptively long range. Some attacks hit the whole map despite having animations that look like they hit a small area. The hit-detection will be the cause of more than a few frustrating and cheap deaths.
Aiming is another problem. In the original SNES version you could only aim in eight directions. This made ranged attacks easy to use. In this version you have a full 360 degree range of movement which is technically better than the original but in practice makes ranged attacks harder to aim.
In the original SNES version your AI controlled teammates were pretty dumb. Your teammates are less useless this time around due to better AI options. This also means your party members will move around more and stray further away from the main character.
In battle this is great, but out of battle they tend to get caught on the environment when you try to progress forward. You can’t move on unless all your characters are on the same screen so this means you have to frequently double back to make sure your teammates are following you. It’s like the whole game is one big escort mission.
Then there’s the difficulty, which is one of the only things that hasn’t changed from the SNES original. It’s wildly inconsistent with major difficulty spikes impeding your progress until you grind or luck your way through gauntlets of enemies. I guess I can’t fault Square for being faithful to the original, but if anything needed a bit of tweaking it was this.
I might sound negative, but I can’t help feeling like I’m nitpicking. Secret of Mana’s remake is still perfectly fun to play. I wouldn’t say that it’s somehow worse than the original. However, I will say that the remake somehow manages to highlight the originals flaws, flaws that we were much more likely overlook in the 16-bit era. You’d expect things like pathing, aiming and hit-detection to receive a noticeable upgrade in an HD remaster, but it really feels like any improvement the remake introduces is immediately outweighed by a flaw it also introduces.
If you are going to purchase this remake, this is the reason. The original Secret of Mana had multiplayer functions but they were limited and you needed a multitap to play with three players. The remake allows you to easily play multiplayer on any platform (except the Vita) so long as you have three controllers.
Playing in multiplayer gets around a lot of flaws. Since you aren’t relying on AI, you never encounter frustrating pathing errors. You sidestep hit-detection flaws since your friends can protect you and cover enemies you otherwise can’t hit. Figuring out what weapons to equip to which character becomes a delightful puzzle when strategizing with your friends. Everything about this game gets better when you experience it with other people.
Still, it’s not entirely clear whether the game is built for multiplayer, or whether it’s just that good company can enhance a flawed gaming experience. In fact, it seems as if it specifically wasn’t built for multiplayer as you cannot play online in any way.
Improvements and Fixes
There are lots minor improvements that make this remake a fun to play but there are equally many improvements that should have been made but weren’t.
Adapting the original 16-bit maps of the SNES version as a mini-map was a stroke of genius. Allowing you to hotkey spells and items adds another level of depth to the action-based battle system. You can even increase the number of items you can hold at one time in the options menu. It feels like cheating, but it’s a great improvement over the original’s limited inventory system.
Major improvements have been made to the audio. The score has been totally redone, featuring techno/orchestral remixes of every song in the game. I personally think the new soundtrack is amazing but purists can switch back to the original soundtrack at any time from the options menu.
Voice acting is also new to the series, and it’s… okay. It’s surprisingly extensive, at least. Even random NPCs have voiced dialogue.
However, the performances aren’t great. I can’t even recommend you change the voice track to Japanese and play in blissful ignorance because the Japanese performance isn’t that good either. You can turn the voice acting off in the menu if you want, so it’s not like it’s bothering anyone. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have been better.
Speaking of the menu, Square somehow broke it. For whatever reason your cursor position isn’t remembered as you enter and exit menus. This is the exact opposite of how the original, and every RPG since, has handled menus. It resulted in me frequently entering the wrong menu screens, using items I didn’t want to use, and basically spending far too much time screwing around with something that already worked perfectly in the original. There’s also a menu lag that only ever seems to occur when exiting menus.
A new auto-save feature is a welcome addition, especially with the game’s random and sudden difficulty spikes. Unfortunately, you only get two save slots outside of the auto-save which is frankly weird for a modern day RPG. I had 15 save slots to work with in Persona 5 psuedo-infinite saves in Lost Sphear. This is just a needless restriction.
Finally there is the script which has received a rewrite. It’s a better translation than the original SNES script, but it doesn’t do much to help the pacing. Within the first 10 minutes you’ll fall down a waterfall, pick up a magic sword, be exiled from your humble village, get fired out of a canon, and meet an immortal sage. This sort of pacing was standard in the SNES era, but in modern times it can give you plot whiplash.
The only new story element is the addition of small cutscenes that play any time you stay at an inn. These are very reminiscent of skits from the Tales series. They unveil more about the personal lives of your characters and their individual motivations. They are fun for a little while, but since you have no choice but to watch them every time you stay at an inn, you’ll find yourself fast forwarding through most.
To be blunt, this new version of Secret of Mana is just a nostalgia cash-in. It could have been better. It should have been better. I probably would have given a really thorough remake of Secret of Mana a near perfect score. I still had fun with Secret of Mana but I could have been having a lot more fun.
But did I have $40 worth of fun? That’s a trickier question.
Secret of Mana is available on a lot of platforms these days. You can play it on your Wii. You can play it on your SNES classic. If you really wanted to you could buy a reproduction cart off eBay for about the same price.
The HD remake is better than these options, but it’s not definitively better. It’s certainly not $40 worth of better.
It’s pretty, but the gorgeous environments aren’t quite worth the puppet like characters.
In battle hotkeys are great, but they aren’t worth finicky menus and wonky hit-detection.
Multiplayer is better implemented, but most people don’t play RPGs in multiplayer mode.
Every single improvement has its own counterbalancing flaw.
Now if you haven’t played Secret of Mana, by all means pick up this version. This is a game that deserves to be played and this is a perfectly fine way to play it. But if you have already played, this remake isn’t going to blow your mind. It will remind you why you loved the original but it won’t make you fall in love all over again.