Retro Review: Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana is an SNES-era action RPG created by Square Enix, and the sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure (though that wasn’t obvious at the time). The game removes most of the Final Fantasy trappings of its predecessor, though there are still many elements of that series that inform specific monsters and items. The style of gameplay is unique to the series, however.

The most significant gameplay addition in Secret of Mana is that of two additional party members. While Final Fantasy Adventure had basic AI companions, the three characters in Secret of Mana are all equally playable. You have your basic beefy brawler and two casters, one focusing on support and the other on attack. The concept is solid, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The game takes place in an overhead view similar to contemporaneous Zelda games, but the way enemies are stunned and left temporarily invulnerable when hit is at the center of a number of cascading problems. Throughout the game, you’ll compete with your AI-controlled companions to see who gets to continue the stun-lock for a given enemy at any time, which has the added effect of rendering charged attacks very difficult to effectively use in combat. Even out of combat, your companions do tend to get stuck on terrain and prevent you from moving forward. The game supports two- and even three-player modes, which presumably help with these issues, but if you don’t have someone to play co-op with, you’re stuck with an unsatisfying system.

The enemies in Secret of Mana are beautifully rendered (much like the rest of the game), but they also contribute to the frustrations in combat. Whenever you or they cast a spell, the targets become invulnerable during the spell animation, and that’s assuming the spell animation doesn’t inexplicably get interrupted. Spells are highly effective but need to be leveled up through constant use. It’s very easy to train up spells by casting them on weak monsters near town, so the result of this system is largely just to waste your time. Depending on your equipment, monster attacks tend to be either insignificant or absolutely brutal. The boss fights, especially early on, can be quite challenging as well. The first boss you fight ten minutes into the game can essentially stun-lock you with a basic attack, and while in this case you will be automatically resurrected whenever you die, other early bosses can do much the same without any such safety net.

There are certainly a lot of positives to Secret of Mana. First and foremost are the graphics, which are reminiscent of Chrono Trigger and among the best seen on the SNES. While the upgrade system is annoying (you upgrade weapons as well as spells, though since this just activates largely ineffective charge attacks it’s less of a problem), the result is a lot of strategy for an action RPG. You have eight weapons to choose from, all with different characteristics, and they can be freely distributed amongst your characters and swapped out at any time. Once your spells are upgraded, they are highly effective and using them well is very satisfying.

Still, Secret of Mana feels like a preview of the Square to come, with a focus on presentation above all else. The game is just too frequently frustrating to play, and the fun is always in danger of being ground into dust by repetitiveness or that one obnoxious enemy type in a given area. They were ambitious in almost every respect, but failed to make the core gameplay loop consistently fun, which is a pretty big error.

Review Score: C+