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SummaryEdible at best.
The GoodVery beautiful looking.
Real-time combat is preferable over the regular turn-based systems.
Action is fast, but also has some depth to it.
Having companions is kind of nice.
The BadMana sword is replaced fast.
Hits often don't register.
Multiple enemies can fuck your shit up.
Chests more often than not contain traps.
FREAKING EVERYTHING does poison damage.
The Bottom LineStory
I have yet to play Secret of Mana completely and this is more of a first-impressions review than an actual final product, but so far I am not very impressed with the game. After we type in a name for our characters we get to see a little cut-scene showing off some of the areas we get to see in the future. Through text-boxes throughout this scene we are told that the gods gave people magic, but people abused it and made weapons out of it. The gods got angry with the Humans and created monsters to battle it out against the weapons the people created, eventually resulting in the human fortress been destroyed by a hero with a so-called “Mana Sword”. Both then disappeared… until the player takes over control. As gameplay starts we find ourselves in a forest where we run into the legendary Mana Sword by pure coincidence, upon pulling it (as instructed) though, the town is besieged my monsters that the sword protected it against.
The hero, in my case “Sam”, is then banished from the village because he pulled the sword. This starts an epic journey against… I have no idea. People keep telling me that I should fight the monsters and save humanity, but if the monsters are attacking me, then aren’t I provoking the gods? Where is the character on the morality scale? The story doesn’t have much impact, especially when the legendary mana-sword gets outdated REALLY fast. You use it to kill a few rabbits, but at the very first area you are told to visit you receive a spear that does more damage and has longer range. “And thus the mana-sword disappeared forever into the dark depths of Sam’s backpack. Until the day Pixelspeech figures out how to sell items”, doesn’t sound too epic to me. It’s just incredibly silly and considering the rather serious tone of the game, it feels very out-of-place. There is a lot of dialogue too, which is odd for a SNES game, but I didn’t mind that too much. It only got annoying then they started throwing options at me, what is the point? The game is very linear, so giving me dialogue options is just for show-off.
“But hey, Super Nintendo games are all about the gameplay right? Just look at Super Metroid and Mario World, those have very little story and are still awesome, right?” Yes, that much is certainly true, but I’m not too fond of the gameplay either. Secret of Mana is a very combat-heavy game, which I personally enjoy since it balances well with the loads of text we have to read in calmer sections of the game. However, the combat is sticky at best and insanely frustrating at worst. You can’t just spam attacks all the time, there is a small bar at the bottom of the screen that depletes every time you hit something and then regenerates. If you land a hit when the bar is full, then you will do regular damage or critical hits, but any sooner and you do minimal damage. It’s a clever system, but every single hit stuns an enemy (or you for that matter), giving you exactly the right amount of time to wait for the bar. This takes all the pacing out of the fight, but it only gets frustrating when you try to strike an enemy afterwards and the terrible hit-detection doesn’t register your hit. Here is a pro-tip: NEVER rush your attack, wait for an enemy to stand up and then hit him. If they are still doing their animation to stand up, then they are immune to all attacks for like two seconds.
To make matters worse: The combat is also incredibly difficult. Every single hit sends you flying, just like the enemies do. If there is more than one enemy fighting you though, then they just gang up on you and leave you with no chance to ever get up. Getting hit just once when there are two enemies or more is pretty much an instant-kill. The game is also big on traps and poison-damage, which became clear to me when I realized I had seen seven different types of enemies so far and five of them did poison damage to me. The first boss you run into also has a magic attack that you can’t dodge, which is already unfair when you use it for a final boss and in the first dungeon of the game you run into bats that can stun you any time they want, which is also impossible to dodge. The aforementioned traps are also ridiculous, you see, there is a random chance enemies drop chests for you to loot after killing them. Now, I complained in my review of Resident Evil 4 that there we like five boxes that throughout the entire game that contained snakes, but this is far worse. Every single chest that drops has like a 50% chance to have a trap, which can do poison damage too! I am not even exaggerating, throughout the six hours of play I have undergone so far, I have looted 6 chests with actual items inside and 9 that had traps!
I have done a lot of complaining so far, so let’s focus on something more enjoyable for a while. The presentation in this game is nothing short of stunning. After the cut-scene at the start of the game we see a quick shot of the camera flying over the world map, which is quite amazing for games this old. You also get to see a similar shot every time you use one of the cannon-travelling systems, you got to love public transport sometimes. The game is also consistently very colorful and even the dark caves I ran into were at least somewhat interesting. That is mostly thanks to the cutesy design on the enemies, which I suppose is somewhat strange to see in a game that pushes the dramatic story so much, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Enemies too are very colorful and some very simple choices made even the basic enemies enjoyable. I have lost count of how many times I fought black bats, but the designers behind this game made them purple… That’s already a bit more colorful and the color doesn’t deviate too much, so it’s still recognizably a bat and a hostile one at that.
Animation-wise the game is also quite pleasing to look at, which is due to the many different poses the enemies and characters have. Aside from just walking, the player character can also run, attack with different weapons, be knocked down, stand up again and interact with several items. For a normal person it seems like no big deal, but I personally found it a very sweet novelty. The only real problem I have is that opening chests looks very stiff, the character literally lifts it up and smashes it into the ground a few times before throwing it away. This would seem fitting for characters like Conan or Joe & Mac, but not for characters that are clearly civilized and reasonably intelligent.
Replay-value and extras
I see very little reason to replay this game after I am done with it. Unless the game takes a sudden turn for the amazing, it’s just a little too tedious. The combat starts to wear on you very fast and to play it for the dialogue alone is a bit silly. There are plenty of places where I find games with good presentation and since the presentation here is not by any means stellar, I might as well replay No More Heroes or DinoCity.
Since this is an RPG though, there is always the challenge of training your guys to the maximum level and collecting all the best weapons. This can soak up a lot of time, so I suppose people who like the game enough don’t have to restart anytime soon. That’s a pretty measly reason to keep playing though and since I am not aware of any kind of collection-quest or other 100% challenge, the extras part of this review doesn’t really count for much.
Secret of Mana is one of those titles that only really grew a fan-base several years after it was released, making it a pretty big cult-classic after a while. It also comes at a pretty high price, 40 friggin’ euros for the cartridge alone. I had to pay an additional 25 euros for the manual and box! Was it worth it? Well… I am kind of a collector, so any rare game is a worthy purchase for me, but for the regular person who just likes his retro-games, I’d say an emulator is a better choice. The game can be entertaining and it certainly looks very promising as you play the first hour or so, but after that it really dies down and a sticky combat-system and confusing plot really get to you. I can’t even force me to say it’s worth playing for the visuals either, though it comes very close to reaching that.
Die-hard fans of JRPG-games likely disagree with me on plenty of fields, so if you count yourself among them, then don’t mind my rambling and go try it out, it’s quite unique. More western-loving gamers are likely to be turned off, but the real-time combat can win some open-minded people over.