It can be a hard candy to swallow, but it’s still a treat.
You know what this Secret of Mana HD remaster makes me want most? A full Secret of Mana remake. While I love how this remaster has all the heart and joy of the SNES original from 1993, it misses an opportunity to elevate this classic RPG by bringing it up to modern standards in areas like AI, combat balancing, and even graphics. The result is a charming but clumsy 20ish-hour adventure that both frustrates and delights.
Much of this push and pull starts with the new art style, which attempts to convert the original’s sprites into 3D. On the one hand, Mana’s world design is scrumptious eye candy: almost everywhere you go you’re greeted with scenic fields bursting with flora and coated in cheerful, sugary pastels like so much colorful caramel. Wolves trot through clusters of glittering, multihued trees while quaint wooden signs point travelers toward their destination so they don’t get turned around by an endless procession of right angles. Even the imposing palaces guarded by hostile ducks wearing kettle helmets (don’t ask) look inviting when decorated with beautiful stained glass windows. These lovely settings feel like chicken soup for the soul.
On the other, there’s something off about the character models. The heroes’ large heads and saucer-sized eyes are pretty weird looking, and their mouths never move when speaking. The addition of awkward voice acting doesn’t help – performances seesaw between sounding like sleepy robots and fledgling Shakespearean actors. (You have the option of switching over to the Japanese audio if you wish, but don’t expect it to be much better. I found it strangely bland.) I’m not sure what happened, but it made what would otherwise be heartfelt moments between the heroes awkward or unintentionally funny. That’s too bad, because the story and characters are where Secret of Mana really shines.
The story and characters are where Secret of Mana really shines.
This whimsical coming of age tale is like a mix of Arthurian legend with a just touch of steampunk: boy finds magic sword, boy meets feisty girl and amnesiac sprite sidekick, heroes use magic sword to fight evil empire trying to revive forbidden technology. There’s a little more to it than that, of course–including some pretty emotional story beats that I won’t give away here–but the thing I like most about this charming fairytale is the budding friendship between the protagonist and his two companions. Their reasons for coming together are flimsy, but even when they squabble over names for their group and tease each other about their heroic antics, you can really feel the warmth and depth of their relationship.
It made me smile, especially when paired with a toe-tapping score that sounds great whether you listen to the newly arranged version or the original SNES composition. Secret of Mana is one of my absolute favorite video game soundtracks of all time (“Fear of the Heavens” still gives me chills), and listening to its harmonic blend of soothing flutes and jolly percussions evoked a lot of nostalgia. I’d even find myself humming along to one of my favorite tunes, “Into the Thick of It,” while I was smack-dab in the middle of battle.
Much like the visuals, combat is both strong and clunky by modern standards. Battles takes place under sunny skies and murky dungeons full of challenging puzzles, and every enemy you come across looks either cute (goblins who snore!), fluffy (bunnies!), or both (wolf pups!). Bopping them on the head is a lot of fun… until it isn’t. It’s nice that the developer made it so early enemies like those pesky kungfu-fighting werewolves can no longer mash you into a pulp, but there’s a missed opportunity to smooth out the original’s late-game difficulty spike. The remaster actually preserves it in full force, and it’s so severe it makes some dungeons feel unbalanced. Even Rabites and Howlers who were once easy targets suddenly become tough nuts to crack. It’s a good thing there’s a new autosave function and the added ability to expand your inventory to accommodate more health-restoring chocolates and candy, because I definitely needed both.
Also, player be warned: Secret of Mana crashed on me no less than three times. My advice is to save at inns frequently, otherwise you’ll end up grumpy like I did when I was bounced out to the PlayStation menu screen during a difficult dungeon run.
Combat is both strong and clumsy by modern standards.
Combating all these floofy and fluffy creatures is a charge and retreat affair: you attack using a spells and weapons, then scramble around until a meter fills up so you can attack at full power again. Because there’s no dodge or parry option and evasion is automated, combat comes down to well-timed offensive maneuvers. It also hinges on you trying not to get hit by a hulking knight in purple armor as you pin down the X button and charge up a special attack that–if the hit ratio is in your favor, and irksomely it’s sometimes not – will clean your opponent’s clock. It’s hardly a robust system, but when paired with a new ability to conveniently hotkey inventory items to the L1 and R1 triggers, issue more specific commands to your allies (not only can you now tell them which enemies to attack or which ally to assist, you can also command them to auto-charge their arms), and access to an impressive arsenal of upgradable whips, swords, axes, and other medieval weaponry, it works very nicely.
As I mentioned, dungeon scraps can get pretty tough, so it behooves you to micromanage your AI buddies on the battlefield. I’m sorry to say this, but even with the ability to issue specific commands your friends aren’t always very bright. Don’t get me wrong: they can be smart and responsive when they want to be (see: when I issued smart commands). But far too often I had to tap on the D-pad to change which character I was controlling just so I could show them how to circumnavigate a rock or coax them toward an enemy. Having to stop and help my AI companions is not something I needed to deal with, especially while fending off scores of enemies or trying to heal myself after opening a booby-trapped treasure chest. (Mana loves to ambush you with all sorts of weird surprise pranks, including balloons with stun capabilities and enemies that turn you into a giant, winged-cat-like Moogle.)
There is one fun remedy for your characters’ knack for face-planting into walls: get a friend or two to pick up a PS4 controller and join in for some local co-op. Playing with up to three people is a lot more fun than tweaking an AI’s marching orders every few minutes. And because Secret of Mana is so darn cute, it’s also kid friendly, making it easy to recommend to parents with small children who want to play with their mom and dad.