Friday, November 8, 2019

Secret of Mana (PlayStation Vita)

The Angels Need Not Fear

Once upon a time, Nintendo was pondering a compact disc addition to its sixteen-bit Super Famicom / Nintendo Entertainment System for want of competition with rival consoles of its generation, the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis and to a (far) lesser extent, the PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16. They first attempted a contract with Sony, which became serious to the point of a prototype CD system having physical proof, but negotiations eventually fell through. The Big N had similar experience with Phillips, behind-the-scenes politics resulting in the maligned Hotel Mario and “Unholy Triforce” of Zelda CDi games.

Among the planned launch titles for Nintendo’s CD add-on was a sequel to the Squaresoft Game Boy action roleplaying game Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, renamed Final Fantasy Adventure in North America. The mentioned fallout forced Square to strip down the first Seiken sequel to fit a sixteen-bit cartridge. Regardless, most consider the resultant game, given the English name Secret of Mana, a classic, later given ports to tablets and the SNES Classic, not to mention an overhauled remake for the PlayStation 4, Vita, and PC. One would consider the upgraded rerelease and opportunity to restore the purged content, but does it do so?

In ancient times, an advanced civilization exploited the world’s ethereal energy source, mana, to construct the Mana Fortress, an avian warship. This angered the gods, who sent giant beasts to war with civilization in a conflict that ruptured the world, until a warrior used the Mana Sword to destroy the fortress. When the game opens, an empire seeks to unseal the world’s eight Mana Seeds to restore the Mana Fortress. A boy named Randi happens upon said sacred weapon, resulting in his banishment from his hometown and rendezvous with the maiden Primm and androgynous sprite Popoi, who aid him.

Combat follows the same general rule as in prior incarnations of the game, where Randi and his allies happen upon a number of weapons with which they can assault the enemy. Each has a gauge that quickly charges to one hundred percent, which when full allows them to execute a physical attack for standard damage, although these may miss depending upon their hit percentages. Players can attack before these gauges full charge, although doing so is a bad idea, as damage will be far less, miss rates greater, and battles consequentially drawn out.

Killing enemies grants experience that levels weapons, unlocking charge attacks that slow their movement during charging and allow them to execute far-reaching physical strikes. However, these tend not to be worthwhile, as they can still miss, and given that only three enemies can occupy the screen at a time, standard attacks, given the ability to push foes around without fear of damage and close them in to attack them all at once, suffice just as well. The player gains Weapon Orbs from defeating bosses and occasionally from treasure chests that allow Watts the blacksmith to empower their armaments, allowing for further weapon leveling and more powerful charge attacks.

Early on, Primm and Popoi receive elemental magic that consumes MP, its use acquiring them experience for occasional leveling and more powerful spells, their level cap dictated by how many Mana Seeds Randi has sealed with his sword. Primm specializes in support and healing magic, whilst Popoi specializes in attack spells, which can be incredibly useful if the player uses the Analyzer spell to reveal enemy weaknesses. Given that some enemies such as ghosts are only killable through attack magic, however, permanence in use of the Analyzer spell against specific foes would have been welcome.

Unlike contemporary three-dimensional action games, the remake retains the original version’s top-down perspective, negating the camera problems present in 3-D titles such as the Kingdom Hearts series. Even so, the rerelease inherits some problems present in the initial incarnation such as the occasional idiocy of the AI, with allies having poor pathfinding and occasionally snagging against walls and other objects, though in these cases the player can control them manually and bring them around. Regardless, leveling weapons and magic can be enjoyable, and the port has features that make it preferable to the original game such as autosaving between room and environment transitions.

Secret of Mana was the first game to utilize a ring menu system, with this interface being easily navigable, items and magic having descriptions, and so forth. Shopping also uses ring menus, the game luckily showing if prospective equipment increases or decreases stats. Within the menus, moreover, the player can bring up a world map that tells their current objective, although a mini-map during flight is oddly absent. Moreover, the remake, akin to many other Japanese RPGs, makes viewing playtime difficult, and the in-game clock is somewhat slow. All in all, control is perhaps the game’s weakest link.

Significant new content in the remake includes chats among Randi, Primm, and Popoi whenever the player pays to stay at inns, which give them some characterization absent from prior incarnations. The characters are generally likeable and have sufficient backstory, with some background for the game’s world revealed upon starting a new game and some implied at a temple adjacent to a town. Granted, Secret of Mana still follows the “evil empire” cliché, with a dash of amnesia for Popoi, and the translation, while more than functional, makes some odd choices such as referring to the sprite child as “they,” which mars a key endgame scene.

Further noteworthy is the addition of voice acting, virtually all storyline and non-player character text accompanied by voices, which generally fit the characters, although the dancing merchants sometimes have variants in their vocals, and while much of the voicework is hit-or-miss (with the somewhat odd battle dialogue not helping), players can change to the Japanese performances instead. Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack has also been remixed, for the most part sounding superb, although those who swear by the original version’s music might not care for some tunes; however, there is the option to switch to the Super NES incarnation’s 16-bit tracks, and the aurals are generally pleasing.

The visuals are fully three-dimensional, with superb art direction indicated by the scenes that play during the backstory narrative when starting a new game. The character models for the protagonists Randi, Primm, and Popoi very much resemble their art, although many will notice during voiced cutscenes that involve the 3-D sprites that lips don’t move in sync with dialogue at all. However, the top-down battle visuals definitely look nice, with good environments and colors, and enemy models, in spite of plentiful palette swaps, contain nice design. Although the remake could easily pass for a PlayStation 2 RPG, the room for improvement isn’t as great as some have suggested.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough can take from twelve to twenty-four hours (slightly uncertain given the game clock’s sluggishness), and while there are trophies that add a little lasting appeal, one can acquire them all in a single playthrough.

Overall, the Vita version of the Secret of Mana is for the most part a solid rerelease that hits the right notes regarding its game mechanics, autosaving, well-written plot, great remixed soundtrack, and pleasing visuals. It does have control issues and to a lesser extent the hit-or-miss English voicework, and those expecting significant new content might experience disappointment. To be fair, though, most of said material cut from the initial release found use in other Square RPGs like Trials of Mana and Chrono Trigger, and those who haven’t played the original may find it their cup of tea.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy purchased by the reviewer, without the multiplayer features utilized.

The Good:
+General solid game mechanics.
+Autosaving can be godsend.
+Well-written plot.
+Excellent remastered soundtrack.
+Pretty graphics.

The Bad:
-Some control quibbles.
-Occasional awkward dialogue.
-English voicework can be hit-or-miss.
-Not much reason to play through again.
-Not enough new content to lure those who swear by original version.

The Bottom Line:
A good remake that doesn’t take many chances.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Mechanics: 7.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 7.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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