Secret of Mana (PS4) review: Lost magic

If there was ever a game that didn’t need to be remade, it’s Secret of Mana. The original is just as beautiful today as it was in 1993; pixel art doesn’t age like 3D models so, especially pixel art of Secret of Mana‘s quality. The original game still plays very well, too, so there isn’t the need for a remake to come in and tidy up arcane systems that have long fallen out of favour.

Though unnecessary, a remake of Secret of Mana still could have been decent. If it simply stuck to what the original did well while bringing a few modern conveniences and a refreshed art style, it would have been fine. Instead, what we got is a remake that somehow feels now dated than the 25-year-old game its based on.

The most obvious change is in the look of the game. Gone are the crisp 2D sprites and detailed environment art; in their place is bright, polished, but rather generic 3D cartoon style. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such an art style, and the Secret of Mana remake is a good-looking game, generally speaking, but the original’s unique identity is lost in the process.

The contrast on brought into stark relief by the minimap, which uses the original game’s pixel art. This is no doubt intended to be a neat little Easter egg for longtime fans, but all it really does is highlight how much has been lost in the remake.

To go along with those fancy new 3D models is a rearranged soundtrack and voice acting–and Secret of Mana benefits from neither. While not as iconic as the likes of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI, the original Secret of Mana still had a beloved soundtrack. For the remake, the new arrangements are all overproduced and horribly mixed. In some cases, it sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard–and that’s not something I say lightly.

The English voice acting is similarly grating on the ears. Performances are overacted way past the point of comic effect; they sound awkward and unnatural, to the point of becoming a distraction. The Japanese voices are more tolerable, but they still raise the question of what is actually gained by having voiced dialogue in a game like this at all.

All of that would tolerable if the game beneath it was as enjoyable as the original was. What you’ve got here is a simple action RPG, but I’ve held back by fiddly combat, clunky menus, and some of the worst AI I think I’ve ever seen in a game.

The SNES version of Secret of Mana tried to take a slower, more considered approach to action RPGs. One of the ways it did that was with a system where an enemy, after being hit, would briefly fall over and become immune to damage for a half second or so. You could still hit them in that time, but the damage wouldn’t actually pop up until their “invincible” state ended. At the same time, a power meter of sorts meant that wildly swinging your sword was less effective than a more methodical approach; each attack emptied the bar completely, but it didn’t take long to refill, and attacking with 100% power did a lot more damage. Between those two systems, there was a rhythm to combat that gave it an almost turn-based feel, only without the menus.

The remake keeps those same systems, but now that invincible state seems to last a lot longer. I don’t know if its to do with the 3D animation system or what, but what used to be a few frames’ worth of hitstun now lasts a good second. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to break that rhythm that the two systems. Before, the timing of the different systems lined up so that if you attacked just as you hit 100%, you’d usually catch an enemy just as they dropped their invincibility; now, combat seems to mostly involve waiting for enemies to stand up again while you sit on a power bar that’s already full.

AI party members complicate matters further, because they tend to ignore timing completely and just attack. If their attack lands first, the enemy falls down again and your swing just whiffs, creating this bizarre dynamic where it feels like you’re fighting your own party to get hits in within a tiny window. That’s less of an issue when you’re dealing with a group of foes, since you can just go attack a different enemy, but it’s an odd game indeed where telling your party members to do nothing is often the most efficient strategy.

On a similar note, the AI for computer-controlled party members is just abysmal in general. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of pathfinding whatsoever, so characters regularly just get stuck on bits of the environment as they try to walk directly to where you are. In combat, I regularly saw my so-called allies attacking the air, or attacking trees, walls, and other non-interactive bits of the map. Sometimes, it was because there was an enemy on the other side that they felt compelled try and attack despite the obstacle; other times, I couldn’t figure out why they were doing that at all. In the Secret of Mana remake, having active party members actually seems like a hindrance more than anything else.

If you want to cast magic, use items, or change weapons, you need to use the menu—which is a far clunkier version of the original game’s ring system. On SNES, pressing the menu button dimmed the screen, paused the game, and opened a ring of items around your character. Even though it was functionally the same as any other JRPG menu, it felt less detached from the action of the game, because it wasn’t a whole separate screen, and having a ring of menu items that cycled around your character was intuitive.

The remake still has that ring system, only now that ring is contained within a completely separate menu—defeating the point of having the rings at all. If you want to switch characters, for example to change their equipment or select magic spells to cast, the ring no longer centres on the chosen characters; instead, you have to rely on vague colour changes in the UI to know who’s menu you’re actually looking at. Aside from the accessibility issues this presents (what’s a person with some form of colour blindness supposed to do?)  it’s a very inconvenient way of dealing with what shouldn’t be a complicated issue.

While the remake sports all these needless or outright harmful changes, it leaves alone the sort of quality-of-life changes that probably could have done with updating. There’s no way to see in game what an item does, for example, or to see equipment stats when you’re browsing a shop’s wares. On SNES, you at least had the instruction booklet, which included lists of all items, their effects, and the stats of different equipment available; the remake has nothing.

Likewise, the game makes it very difficult to keep track of where you are and where you’re meant to be going. If you missed or forgot the one line of dialogue that tells you where to go next, you can expect to spend a great deal of time aimlessly wondering around trying to figure out what to do. Some will enjoy that, no doubt, and some games are made for it, but in a story-driven game like Secret of Mana, that just gets frustrating. There is a journal of sorts that records brief details of what you’ve already done, but it doesn’t really help with what to do next. Admittedly, that was an issue with the original game, too, but what better time to address that than with a remake?

Somewhere, hidden away beneath its numerous flaws, the Secret of Mana remake is still Secret of Mana. It still has the same simple but captivating, environmentally-conscious story, the same beautiful world, and the same quirky characters. It still has a light Zelda-like spin with weapons and tools that help you solve puzzles—like a whip that you can use to cross gaps, provided there’s a post on the other side to grab. Sadly, it feels like you have to put up with a lot of unnecessary frustration to find that special something.

The original Secret of Mana has aged relatively well, so I can’t understand why Square Enix didn’t choose to simply port that game to PlayStation 4. The brought to to Switch in Japan as part of the Seiken Densetsu Collection, so would it really be that hard to bring it to other consoles as well?

A remake is only worthwhile if it improves on the experience it’s remaking, and Secret of Mana‘s remake doesn’t even come close to that. It ignores the handful of areas where the original game really could do with some modernisation, and instead it makes a whole lot of pointless or outright destructive changes, to the point that it feels like playing a low-budget, generic JRPG instead of an all-time classic. If you want to revisit Secret of Mana, or even experience it for the first time, you’re much better off picking up the mobile port of the SNES original.

Secret of Mana is developed published by Square Enix. It’s available now on PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PS Vita, and PC.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.