Secret of Mana review –


Developer: Squaresoft    Publisher: Squaresoft    Release: 10/93   Genre: Action RPG

Next to Lunar: Eternal Blue for Sega CD Secret of Mana was my white whale, a game I coveted but seemed to slip through my grasp time and time again. At a steep $70 at release I had to be content with frequent rentals. Starting over every time was tedious of course but the game is so good it I did not mind. It would be a long 2 years before it dropped in price but it was worth the wait. Secret of Mana is an excellent action RPG and remains a classic to this day.

Long ago an ancient civilization abused the world’s mana and built a massive warship dubbed the Mana Fortress. In retaliation the Gods sent massive beasts to destroy the Fortress which plunged the world into war. The war raged until a hero wielding the Mana Sword crushed the fortress and its creators and saved the world. Now however the a boy unknowingly finds the Mana Sword and sparks a chain of events. The ruling empire seeks to once again terrorize the world by finding the Mana Fortress and it is now the boy’s task to restore the Mana Sword’s power and save the world.

The development history of Secret of Mana is interesting. Originally it was planned for the Super NES CD add-on and was quite a ways in development. Unfortunately when it became clear that the add-on would not materialize Square cut the game up to fit on a 16- megabit cartridge. The cuts are very clear as the story can be a disjointed mess that is hard to follow at times. The localization may have its issues considering what they went through but still remains charming in spite of that. The cuts have also left the game a bit buggy. Yet in spite of these faults the game is still pretty brilliant overall and one of the SNES’s best games.

Secret of Mana’s battle system is one of its most distinguishing attributes next to its unique menu system. Much like Zelda all action is real time but faster paced. The game does not completely abandon turn based elements since you can issue commands using the innovative ring menu. With the ring menu you can use magic, items, or change weapons without switching screens. In some ways it is a variant of the active time battle system from Final Fantasy and works wonderfully here. What truly set the game apart was its multiplayer element; you will not complete this quest alone. Not too far into the game your 3 man party will be complete which was unheard of for an action RPG.

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Everyone brings something to the table as the hero is the tank, the girl your healer and the sprite wields black magic. These companions will assist you and you can set their AI to be passive or aggressive to seek out enemies. Aside from their propensity for getting stuck in the environment it is really cool and made even more so by the fact that you can play with up to 2 friends.  I very rarely played coop but it was a painless experience and actually sped up the pace since I didn’t have to spend as much time babysitting the other characters.

The battle system is taken further by the numerous weapons and their charged attacks. The eight weapons you will eventually amass cover a wide spectrum, from swords, axes, spears, and even javelins and fists. Each is upgraded at set points and with each new level a special attack is learned up to level 8. These attacks can be particularly devastating but they need to be charged first, leaving you vulnerable. It is a nice tradeoff however and adds an element of strategy to combat.

The depth in the game’s combat also slows it down considerably and mostly not for the better. The power gauge is annoying in practice and makes battles drag. It does make battles more strategic but damn it, sometimes you just want to hack away. The number of charged attacks is staggering with 8 for every weapon but it’s also painfully slow to move around while building up power. Getting hit while charging loses it which sucks.

The game nearly buckles under the weight of its numerous systems. Leveling up weapons is a tedious process and one that each character does individually. To some extent you can stick to one weapon but there are definitely times where only ranged attacks are effective, most notably against certain bosses. Magic is also subject to the same leveling process but is even slower as the elements gain strength with each use. While this all sounds damning the truth is you can largely ignore some of these issues and still make it through the game. To get the most of its various systems you will have to do a lot of tedious grinding which is rarely fun.

Once you adapt to the game’s quirks Secret of Mana is excellent. This is a massive adventure with every new continent featuring some story event to look forward to. Generally the pace is even as the dungeons are not complex. The lack of puzzles is noticeable and forces the game to rely on its battle mechanics. It sounds like a recipe for monotony but the combat options though overwhelming keeps things fresh. If you are fortunate to play with one or two friends it is even better. If I do have one wish it is that the game was shorter. As much as I enjoy it there is a point where it feels like it is spinning its wheels. But that remains a minor complaint.

Overall Secret of Mana is mostly easy. Even with the limitations on healing items most will have little trouble breezing through a good portion of the game. Your AI companions can take hits in your stead and chances are they will as their AI is dumb. There are a few difficulty spikes, most notable being the Spiky Tiger boss early on. But these are few and far between. Once you have most of the elemental spirits it is possible to break the game. You can queue multiple spells in succession and essentially stun lock bosses to death. The magic grind is painful but the reward is worth it.

In Closing

Secret of Mana is an incredible game on nearly level. The story is charming, the graphics and art beautiful and it possesses one of the greatest soundtracks from that era. There is a reason why the series endures despite Square Enix’s many odd experiments with its mechanics. Play this game any way you can but stay away from the 3d remake.

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