Secret of Mana review: You make me feel brand new

Credit: Square Enix
Credit: Square Enix /

Secret of Mana proves nostalgia doesn’t always lie, and classics can be as good as you remember them; enough to overshadow lack of polish in other areas.

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PS4 (Version reviewed), PC, PS Vita
Release Date: February 15, 2018

Finally, another game to cross off my list of, “You haven’t played that?! You’re missing out!” Secret of Mana nestles comfortably on the long list of SNES classics that everyone loves to praise. It’s not quite as high on that list, perhaps, like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger, but all other elements aside, the top-down co-op combat alone in such a game was an impressive feat for its time and one worthy of remembrance. My first experience playing Secret of Mana was with this remake, but it’s not at all hard to see why this game is so beloved and well-remembered beyond that notable feature.

Unfortunately, Secret of Mana’s remake provides an exercise in stark contrasts between systems that have aged well in classic games, and systems that have not. As an example, let’s look at the game’s iconic circles menu. Maybe, once, this made sense to someone. But as a newcomer to Secret of Mana, navigating the chaotic maze of the menu just to use an item was a nightmare.

secret of mana
Credit: Square Enix /

The AI for your party members is fundamentally stupid …

A few hours into the game, my pals Primm and Popoi learned how to use magic. Hoorah! Now I can nuke those Rabites from orbit. I eagerly dived into the menu circles to use a frost spell … and got lost in a maze of icons. There’s one menu with information about the magic where you can’t use it, and there’s a second menu not on the main wheel but accessible by toggling up and down for using magic, but with no indication as to how you swap off the current character to use the spells of the other. To add confusion, two different buttons open the menu on the controller, but in different spots and with different characters selected. It was only after far too much trial and error that I finally figured out the internal menu logic and mastered it, but that’s something that could have been solved with a simple sentence or two of instruction in an obvious place.

Once I escaped the menus and focused on playing the game, I discovered numerous oddities that betrayed a lack of polish. The AI for your party members is fundamentally stupid, with little capacity for intelligent attack decisions or even sensible movement. My friends frequently got stuck on walls, trees, bushes, and enemies, causing me to have to backtrack to find them or leave them behind and lose their help for the remainder of the map. It didn’t help that enemies have some befuddling rules for hit detection that I’m still not sure about.

secret of mana
Credit: Square Enix /

Cutscene and dialogue triggers, too, were bizarre. There are places where it’s possible to miss a dialogue trigger on accident and then hit it later at an illogical time, causing dialogue to happen out of order. You also have to wait for your friends to walk forward and move into the exact perfect position every time you talk to someone of even slight import, causing awkward and frustrating delays for some routine conversations. Perhaps the worst offense in this category is the uncanny valley-level lack of mouth movement in the cutscenes and the mediocre, pause-filled voice acting.

None of these problems broke the game for me, but they gave off an impression of sloppiness that I didn’t expect from one of Square Enix’s classic darlings, even in the first five minutes of play. And yet despite these flaws, the original’s goodness manages to shine through. Secret of Mana’s story may be a simple and familiar one, but it’s punctuated with sweet and often humorous moments of character. The cutscenes at inns helped pace the game almost perfectly and flesh out the relationships between the three teammates beyond circumstantial heroism, a feat many modern RPGs still fail to accomplish.

secret of mana
Credit: Square Enix /

In addition, though some of its finer aspects are dated, I enjoyed Secret of Mana’s take on top-down, action combat and the pleasant surprise of multiplayer co-op. Multiple weapon types with different effects, upgradeable throughout and usable by all, helped keep combat from growing stale and proved a pleasant shift from the usual RPG grind of always finding and equipping a slightly better sword. Leveling weapons and magic encouraged me to still fight my way through lower-level areas, something that proved a boon during a few unexpected late-game difficulty spikes.

So even though combat suffered from the weird hitboxes and movement I mentioned, I still mostly enjoyed myself in battle. Uncovering enemy magic weakness and weak points, learning their tells, and darting about different types of arenas kept spicing up what I thought in the first few hours would wind up being a repetitive slog. Similar puzzles were also applied to navigating the world. I’m always impressed when combat abilities have utility in the field, too!

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I can see where fans of the original would balk at this Secret of Mana remake. The old OST is better about two-thirds of the time (though you can mercifully swap between them), and the aforementioned lack of polish breaks immersion frequently enough to annoy. But as a newcomer to the game, I found a lot to love. The remake makes it abundantly clear why Secret of Mana was beloved enough to warrant this new approach in the first place, even if the execution of such a remake faltered. So while I look at the classic-styled minimap and wish for something more like an enhanced port the way Chrono Trigger had on the DS, as far as easy ways to experience the classics, Secret of Mana’s remake isn’t half-bad.

<em>Secret of Mana’s</em> remake lacks polish, but not power. The innovative-for-its-time combat is still fun and variable today, and its charming characters and precise pacing carry the story through the mechanically awkward moments. It may not be worth a revisit as a veteran, but those who have never played<em> Secret of Mana</em> should consider this a ripe opportunity.. Square Enix. . Secret of Mana. 7

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.