Square’s action-RPG classic deserves better.
Man, I was all set to make this week in Retronauts a loving tribute to the great action RPGs of Square Enix. Yesterday I took a deep dive into ActRaiser, and today the Secret of Mana remake for PlayStation 4 and Vita launched. What’s not to be excited about? Sure, the polygonal visuals of the remake look a little off, but Square Enix had already shown us that they can produce decent if unambitious Mana remakes with Adventures of Mana. Adventures took the first game in the Mana series, Final Fantasy Adventure for Game Boy, and gave it a straight visual overhaul. The maps, mechanics, and character A.I. in Adventures were admirably faithful to the older game, to the point where I had to wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just a 3D skin running on top of a Game Boy emulator — kind of like what Bungie and 343 Industries have done with their Halo Anniversary remakes.
If that were the approach Square Enix had taken with Secret of Mana for PlayStation, the result would have been a perfectly decent little game. Instead, what we got was something entirely different. Something vastly weirder, and far worse.
This new Secret of Mana is pretty much the same game as the Super NES original, but it also incorporates a lot of haphazard changes to the game mechanics. At times, it feels very much like a follow-up to Adventures — you get that same “reskinned ROM” impression. Some of the same combat glitches remain, and certain animations play out exactly the same as they did on Super NES. Incidental animations for things like activating switches have a sputtery, mechanical quality to them that sits at odds with the more refined character animation you see in combat.
After spending the past few days with the new take on Mana, my final impression is that this game began as a project very much in the spirit of Adventures. I feel like Square Enix kicked it off as a cheap, low-effort budget release that would have simply given the original game shinier graphics. Then, I suspect, somewhere along the way the company decided, “Actually… let’s do this as a proper remake.” But instead of going all the way with that idea, they just kinda touched up a few areas that play well in trailers without giving the dev team the time or budget to do a proper, top-to-bottom, comprehensive remake. So we get new visuals, some weird-as-hell new musical remixes…
…and heavily modified combat that doesn’t really work.
Some areas of this remake have become insanely difficult in ways that they never were before. As I mentioned in my review for Polygon, Mana now allows characters to attack in all directions, which makes it more challenging to line up attacks against enemies while also giving bad guys a lot more latitude to hit you. Monsters with ranged attacks are just the worst now; those cute like Ewok-like archers (Chobin Hoods, Robin Foots, etc.) are possibly the most horrible enemies in the game now that they can attack in 360º. It doesn’t help that for some reason they can now rapid-fire their arrows as well instead of waiting for their invisible turn meters to recharge, which makes it really difficult to close the gap and take them down. Likewise, any time you have to face a Biting Lizard (or, god forbid, Biting Lizards)m you’ll tear at your hair with rage, since the stupid things can gulp down your party members from any angle as well. A lot of tactics in the original game came down to sneaking into an enemy’s line-of-fire from the side in order to score a quick hit, and that becomes impossible here, but there’s not really any sort of compensatory tactic available.
The remake has other issues well, most of which I detailed in my review. The user interface is weirdly worse than in the original game. Of all the things to update, why get rid of user interface niceties like retaining cursor memory, or subtle visual cues to indicate which character’s ring menus you’re viewing? Why remove dumb-but-nice details like the cute little shoving animations when you push NPCs out of the way? Why do my character’s attacks miss more than half the time? Why did they not tweak things to make the game friendlier, like overhauling the way you need to grind out experience levels for every single spell class and weapon for each character?
There are other problems here, too, like some game-destroying bugs that forced me to restart, and the fact that the backgrounds in the Vita version scroll in a jerky stop-start fashion that sits at odds with the characters (who move a lot more smoothly). Those may have been ironed out with the day-one patch, so I didn’t ding the game for them in my review… but they sure didn’t make the game experience any more pleasant.
Not every change in the remake is bad. My absolute favorite weapon here is now the martial arts glove, which has a new grapple-and-throw animation that, if not new, I’d somehow never noticed before in my many hours with the original game. And the little party-chat conversations in inns are cute, if inessential. Those are pretty small improvements, though, and they don’t do much to balance out the way the other changes highlight or even exaggerate the original version’s shortcomings. I’ve always felt that Mana stood at a miraculous and precarious threshold between sheer genius and train wreck, and this remake pitches over into the wrong side of things.
I still love Mana, of course, as our Mana-focused episode from last summer. As I’ve said before, the Super NES game single-handedly drew me back into gaming when I was about to give up the pastime altogether. But man, this remake really makes me want a U.S. release for the Mana Collection Square Enix put out on Switch in Japan last year. I realize there would be some logistical issues with translating the ROM of Seiken Densetsu 3 into English, but surely if anyone could sort it out, it would be collection developer M2. Well, we can keep dreaming. And asking. As for myself, I’ll keep holding out for what I really want: A portable version of the original Mana.