Secret of Mana (2018) Review – This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Mana Tree

It was the Christmas of 1993 and southern New Jersey was getting its worst snow storm in recorded history, thanks to a historically significant “El Nino” effect in the Atlantic Ocean. It was also significant for another reason that only I would care about that holiday season: I would receive, as my present, one of the most memorable games of my youth: Squaresoft’s Secret of Mana.

So yeah, I suppose you could say I was fairly excited about Square’s remake of the game and wasted no time in hopping on board its hype train. Negative previews and ugly rumors be damned, I wasn’t going to let anything prevent me from reliving one of the final and most powerful memories of my childhood. If it turned out bad, then, well, I could always blame Square again.

Secret of Mana
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Platform: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PS Vita
Release Date: Feb 15th, 2018
Players: 1-2 Players
Price: $39.99

First of all, it doesn’t help Square with this remake that last year’s Final Fantasy XII remake turned out so well. With all the added content, the updated visuals, the quality of life enhancements and the balance tweaks, it made an already decent entry in the FF series seem even better than it did when it had been released; a feat that I didn’t think Square was capable of anymore. Of course, that success makes every tiny sin Secret of Mana commits look all the more egregious, since we know now that they can do better.

To get it out of the way, yes, the game is a bit of a wreck in some areas as far as the stability goes. While it never crashed on me, I did run into a massive frame rate problem that occurred whenever I switched over to my 2nd display. If I – at any time – switched to another monitor, even before booting up the game, the frame rate once I loaded my save file would be so god awful that I’d have to perform a cold-boot of my computer just to get things back to normal.

There were also smaller problems, such as the sound effect the hornets enemies make when they charge into something playing nonstop outside of Gaia’s Navel, and both enemies and party members getting stuck in a scripting loop attacking thin air for 5 minutes…but my nostalgia forced me to overlook these shortcomings and soldier through it. For the most part, I’m glad that I did.

Those little nit picks aside, the game actually runs surprisingly well and the 60fps animations and smoother combat makes the game much easier to play then the janky 16bit original does on modern emulators. Sure, they kept the odd hit delay and the large window of invulnerability that unconscious enemies always gained, but I believe they kept that in the game not out of laziness, but due to nostalgia.

I did, however, see a lot of complaints about the combat…and I understand why. If you never played the original on an actual SNES, you aren’t familiar with how incredibly awkward the hit detection was, so when you play this new version and see that it hasn’t changed, you judge it against other modern action RPGs and come away confused.

For the veteran Secret of Mana player, this game is about as faithful to the original as you can get without paying a scalper online a couple Ben Franklins for a used SNES classic mini and booting the game up in that.

There are some nifty additions to the combat however, such as new animations and attacks as well as a very detailed look to each new weapon orb, which earned a smile from me as I rushed off to Watts the blacksmith to see what the next upgrade looked like in HD.

There’s also some not-so-nifty additions, like the complete removal of the action grid. This is perhaps the only thing that bothered me about the new game’s combat.

As old timers may know, the action grid was what determined how close your party members would get to an enemy and how likely they were to thwack it with their equipped weapon. With the removal of this feature, you are left to rely upon the very limiting scripting options in the menu, which don’t seem to work at all.

The game gives you a targeting option in the radial menu that will cause your party to converge on one enemy, but when that enemy dies, they return to their old non-moving, non-attacking selves and do little more than get caught on trees or knocked around by rabites. Not even the old SNES trick of “kiting” your other two members into an enemy sprite to get them to attack it works, since when you do that now they just take a couple hits and stand there clueless.

From my time on the forums, it doesn’t seem square is aware of or even cares about the atrocious partner AI, but if this remains un-patched, it’s a fairly large flaw in an otherwise tight and addicting ARPG combat system.

Another source of division among the game’s veteran players revolves around the new visuals and if they retain the feel of the original. While the community seems to hate the new graphics and frequently argues for an option to switch back to the original’s look (ala Halo anniversary), I happen to like the new 3D models. It retains the art style of the original but doesn’t go so far off the “Hi Def Remake Cliff” that it falls off the edge. Sure, it may look like a Gamecube game technological-wise, but it works with Mana and, for me anyway, strengthened my nostalgic bonds with it.

This is similar to what has happened with the voice acting, since the general consensus is that people don’t care for it. I, on the other hand, feel it adds a level of closeness to the NPCs and your two party members that didn’t exist in the original game. The little random discussions your party has while resting at the inn, the way Neko the cat merchant cutely delivers his cat puns when he makes his sales pitch to you, the wickedness of Thanatos coming across so plainly in his voice actor’s perfectly-timed inflections…I had no complaints with the sound as far as the voice-overs were concerned.

The music, however? Well…I have a bit of a problem with that. Maybe it’s different for some of you reading this, but for me, Secret of Mana was Square’s best soundtrack.

From that bone-chilling wail that starts as soon as the game boots to the steel-drum laced background music of the forest, back around to the absolutely terrifying music that plays during the final Thanatos battle, Secret of Mana had music that stayed with you forever and marked you the way a good lover or an unusually satisfying Christmas gift would.

Those tunes stayed with you, and you’d track down remix after remix, enjoying the complexity of those sounds and the fact that right there, in 1993, pure thunder struck the Super Nintendo and no one would ever get to uncork another bottle of that auditory greatness again.

Well, the HD remake’s new arrangement of tunes doesn’t recapture even a fraction of that greatness. While there are a few decent attempts made at replicating them (such as the aforementioned Thanatos theme and the mana shrine track) the rest are so completely flat and lifeless that I was absolutely floored when I switched to them in the menu.

I don’t claim to be an audiophile, but most of the tracks are missing instruments and have one or two less beats playing in the background than the originals, or just “round the edges” off of the drum beats to the point where they lose their “bite” entirely.

The “Mystic Invasion” theme is a good example of this, and I urge you to go look up both versions of the track on youtube to see what I mean. The original has a very dramatic, “tingy” high-hat cymbal crash in its 2nd layer of audio.

In the remake’s version, that cymbal crash is a flat, dull “thud” sound that sounds less organic and more mechanical than the SNES one. To make it even worse, the new track has a 3rd layer of sound, an occasional “Hammer whack” sound that resembled a smith’s hammer hitting an anvil. Considering this is dungeon palace music and not Gaia’s Navel, it makes no sense.

I know, nit picking, right?

There are other problems I have with the game that aren’t as nit-picky, such as no new added content (Though Primm’s tiger bikini DLC sure was hot!), no new game modes, and nothing new created to challenge kids who have played the game umpteen millions of times and want something to try their skill against.

A special 100 level dungeon or a boss rush mode might have been nice. The newer Y’s games added it in, and even Square’s own Final Fantasy 12 remake did something similar, so why not here too?

Or what about the rumored cut content that the game lost when Square refused to wait for the Sony CD add-on like originally planned and dumped what they had into a cartridge? It feels like they didn’t care enough about Mana to even attempt any of it. Which, sadly, may be the truth considering we still haven’t played Seiken Densetsu 3 in English legally yet.

When it comes down to it, I can only really recommend the game to diehard original Mana fans that like the idea of the character voice overs and the newer visuals, which is precisely why I continue playing it and not the original via my emulator.

Though I still think first time Secret of Mana players should try the 16 bit original first, open-minded veterans of the series like myself may find joy in hearing Randi, Primm and Popoi talk to each other and showcase their unique personalities.

The only gripe I have with that, however, is Square asking a whopping $40 for what is essentially just a new coat of paint, a rookie soundtrack remastering, and a few voice actors. If it was half that price, I could see recommending it more confidently to fence sitters, but until it hits 50% off on a future Steam sale, I’d say the majority of you should just hold off.

Secret of Mana was reviewed on PC using a review copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 6.5

The Good:

  • The new voices add flavor/personality to NPCs/party members
  • Smoother, more user-friendly combat
  • Experience gains come quicker, eliminating any need for grinding
  • Visuals look great and keep the theme of the original intact

The Bad:

  • Horribly remastered soundtrack (you can switch back to the original, however)
  • Several annoying glitches/crash bugs that still remain unpatched
  • No new content whatsoever, outside of meaningless costume DLC
  • The worst party combat A.I. I’ve ever seen in an RPG