QCF: Secret of Mana

ack when RPG’s were barely beginning to pick up in sales with western gamers in the 16-bit era, there was a humble release from a little-known company by the name of SquareSoft, named Secret of Mana—it revolutionized the genre for years to come.

Even 25 years after its initial launch on the SNES, the game has been ported time, and time again for the modern generation, with waves of new players also falling for its vibrant color palate, sprite work, and timeless action-oriented battle system. Strangely enough though, for all of the re-releases that Secret of Mana has seen, the game has never received a full-fledged remastered release on modern consoles up until now, with Square developing a new 3D rendered-revision exclusively for PlayStation 4, Vita, and Steam.

While the core gameplay from Koichi Ishii’s classic has still managed to have aged gracefully, the game engine’s translation over to a 3D-rendered world and models aren’t anywhere near as elegant as it should be, resulting in an admittedly beautiful, but undeniably underwhelming version of the beloved RPG.

Square’s development had their work cut out for them considering that this project is no ordinary remake, but in terms of aesthetics, the production in this re-release is simply stunning.

It would’ve been one thing to upscale the trademark vibrancy of the SNES gem with high-definition fidelity, but the team went out of their way to recreate every single asset with the vision of Hirō Isono’s color palate and Nobuteru Yūki’s composition, and they did so with gusto. Filtering the admittedly opaque visual style of the SNES graphic work into fully rendered models seems like a skeptical move to make, but the shift in design is crafted with the same kind of care and nuance to the graphics that originally made the game so iconic in the first place. While the 3D interpretation is strikingly good, a lot of its impact is unfortunately subdued by its arguably lazy animation efforts, and it’s enough to drag down what would otherwise be a stellar presentation.

While the most of the game’s dynamic actions like combat and movement are competently animated, the same can’t be said for any of the narrative sequences. Not unlike any other plot-heavy contemporary RPG’s, Secret of Mana has tons of exposition to its story, and as such the remake opted for modern choreographed cut scenes between characters to advance the plot cinematically over the antiquated pantomimed theatrics of the 16-bit original.

For some bizarre reason, however, the developers decided to omit any sort of facial speech animations for any of the character models in the remake; we’re talking no lip sync, or attempt at phonetic articulation whatsoever. It’s especially more difficult to overlook how awkward the absence of speech animation is when every single scene of dialogue that happens in the game is voiced, and when I say every single scene, I’m talking every interaction that’s engaged with an NPC, big or small. To be fair, the absence of a character’s on-screen verbal frames aren’t that oafish when the cutscene is a simple text-window exchange with animated character models garnishing them, but it’s jarring as all hell any time a full-on cinematic cutscene begins to play. This clumsy approach can especially suck the air out of what would otherwise be a wonderfully produced rendition of a beloved moment from the game, and reduce into something work that appears amateurish.

The musical arrangement is an entirely different beast, as it isn’t so much that it’s objectively bad per say, just wildly eclectic with musical styles that are used on the new renditions of the hallowed soundtrack. Granted, I won’t go as far as to defend all of the tracks, but the revisions to some of the more iconic songs like the orchestral take on “Whisper and Mantra” in the Water Palace, or the double-bass take on “Steel and Snare” was personally an improvement over their original counterparts. In either case, it was a smart move on Square-Enix’s part to make the arranged soundtrack optional, giving players access to switch over to vintage chiptune version anytime they’d please, and vice versa.

Gameplay-wise, purists will be happy to know that the remake plays it incredibly safe to the original and most of the core is left largely unchanged. The combat is slightly altered with enemy knockback being a bit floatier in contrast to the SNES version's more stiff recoil, but attack input and pace otherwise is very similar. The Menu ring interface and navigation are also a bit more streamlined in this iteration as well, with each option contain more subtext to whatever’s highlighted, and it also includes a game log mode to help keep track of where you may be at in the game progress-wise. One particularly useful optimization that this re-release offers is the ability to assign weapons or spells to the L1 and R1 one buttons for hot-key access, completely eliminating the need to open up a menu to break the pace of the game anytime you need something for dumb obstacles like an ax, or whip. Another addition that’s worth noting is the additional story and dialogue scenes that are peppered in various inn visits and other contextual points of interest in the campaign.

These scenes were never in the original game, which is interesting when you consider that Square had to roughly cut sixty percent of Secret of Mana’s original content during development when the planned launch for the new CD-based Nintendo PlayStation add-on for the SNES and Super Famicom was scrapped. It begs the question if the little refinements to the dialogues and localization that were subtlety thrown in to remake were the same little details that Ted Woolsey had to leave on the cutting-room floor when the game was first being localized because of the SNES’s limitations at the time. These updates to the script include the default names for the main characters, Randi, Primm, and Poppoi, along with some other paraphrased names and titles—it certainly adds a “director’s cut” feel to the package, even these nuances are a little minor in scope.

Honestly, there’s nothing inherently awful about this iteration of the classic Square RPG, but there’s certainly nothing extraordinary about it either, aside from the gorgeous visuals. Nostalgia just isn’t enough of a reason to buy this, especially when the classic is currently packaged in the readily available SNES Classic, well, other than that it’s half the price of that option. One thing for sure is that the Vita version of the remake is leagues, upon leagues, better than the atrocious iOS port, and is certainly the definitive way to play this game on the go between the two options. 

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