You'd struggle to find a 'Greatest RPG of all time' list that doesn't somewhere mention Squaresoft's 1993 classic the Secret of Mana. The title was groundbreaking at the time, featuring an epic soundtrack, gorgeous sprite work, and an engaging story playable in three player co-op. Celebrating its 25th birthday, the Secret of Mana has been blessed with a fully-fledged remake on the PC, PS4, and PS Vita, and this new version comes with full voice acting, revamped visuals and music, and all-new character interactions. But does this dusty old classic still hold up well today, and is the HD remake the definitive way to play?
The Secret of Mana (as you may already know) follows the story of Randi, a fiery-haired young boy who finds a mystical sword when separated from his friends. By removing the sword from its resting place monsters are unleashed and begin terrorising the surrounding villages, so it's then up to you to re-energise the sword and rid any threats by visiting the eight mana temples that are scattered across the land. The story hasn't been altered at all and remains as charming as ever, but a few questionable choices have worked to botch its delivery (we'll get to that later).
When the launch trailer was first revealed many fans seemed divided by the new visual direction. The new art style feels like a cross between the blocky polygonal style of Toyko RPG titles I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphere and the cutesy animated look of Final Fantasy World. This might sound intriguing, but the visuals just feel a little dated and are so far removed from how we imagined things would look in 3D. Much of the title's charm is still retained though, as the world is still colourful and vibrant and enemies like mushbooms and rabites look as cute as ever.
You'll notice right from the opening cutscene that all characters (even minor NPCs) have voice acting. On paper this seems great, but the many lifeless performances work to diminish any emotional depth displayed and (worst of all) the mouths don't move. There's the option to toggle between English and Japanese (which we found more bearable) but really we shouldn't feel inclined to change. Another fresh touch is that characters will now engage in conversations when resting up at inns, which is an appreciated touch as it shows more of the character's thoughts and feelings. It's nice to see some original content that isn't present in the original, after all.
The original Secret of Mana is often regarded as having one of the greatest soundtracks in gaming, but how does it hold up here? The remake's music has changed extensively with all-new instrument sounds and a broader range that couldn't have originally fitted on a cartridge. The re-imagined version from original composer Hiroki Kikuta is odd in that somehow it makes these classic tracks worse than before, as some leading melodies have been drowned out by dissonant sounds and some of the new instrumental sounds feel sterile and bland. Another issue that we had with the soundtrack is that it often drowns out character dialogue which forced us to make tweaks within the options menu.
Besides these changes the Secret of Mana remains mainly how it has been for the last 25 years, as the combat system is the same, you'll encounter the same bosses, and you'll explore the same kingdoms. This may not be a bad thing if you're a die-hard and are in love with the game, but for new players it would have been good to fix some areas where it hasn't aged as gracefully. We wish that there was the option too to toggle between the original and remade graphics too, so that people who don't approve of the new look have a choice. It would also give those who haven't ever had the opportunity to experience the original game the chance to do so without buying a SNES mini or a Nintendo Wii.
Combat features an action-RPG style that differed from many turn-based titles of the time, and now with the move to 3D you can attack from all angles and have a lot more freedom within your movements. Besides these changes things are still the same, as you'll be charging up attacks before landing blows and casting magical spells to deal elemental damage. New players may find it strange though that dodging is purely randomised (something we really wish they had changed in this version), but what's great is that three-player co-op is still intact. Online co-op isn't featured though, which is odd considering that it can be played locally with a trio adventurers.
Secret of Mana: Remake sadly falls short in providing a definitive version of the SNES classic. Its visuals are subpar from a modern standard and little has been done to address some of its ageing features. It's certainly the same great game it always been at heart but with other more polished remakes like the Shadow of the Colossus on the market right now it's a pretty tough sell. Let's hope though that Secret of Mana opens the door for more classic RPGs to be recreated, please though, Sqaure Enix, don't let it be the same treatment for Crono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI.
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