Secret of Mana review

Rated: 3/5

So I played the SNES version, without the SNES, because I like being able to save when I want where I want.

Anyway, the game is highly regarded as a classic and as one of the greatest JRPGs of all time. When I first started playing it, I had to agree. Mainly because of the combat system during the first few hours of the game. No random combat that happens out of the blue, where you walk a few steps, the screen flashes, and your on a battle grid. Nope, it’s Kingdom Hearts in 2D, FFXII in 2D, and whatever other accurate comparisons are out there. Combat is done in real time, with real movement. Each time you do a physical attack, you have to wait a couple seconds (catching your breath) before you can attack again expecting to do a decent amount of damage, or be able to actually hit.

On top of that, you will eventually have 3 people in your party, where you control one, and the AI controls the other 2. And the AI does a so-so job. The biggest issue I had with the AI is how they would sometimes get stuck in a corner, and you had to move to a certain position so they would run in a certain direction (they usually run directly towards your character, but sometimes they are smart enough to navigate around corners). You can control how often they attack, setting if they want to constantly approach and attack the opponent, stay away from the opponent and guard the player character, and attack often or rarely. And you can effortlessly switch between any of these 3 characters. The main protagonist isn’t capable of casting magic, but is stronger than the others and has higher HP. One casts mostly support magic (healing and defense/attack boosts), the other casts mostly attack magic.

And the magic is where I had some issues with the game. It technically works like in other RPGs/JRPGs, some magics work better on some enemies, but are useless against others, you need to learn to time them effectively, etc. But to cast magic, you have to bring up a menu which pauses the game in a sense, pick your spell, pick your target(s), unpause, and then see the spell go off. In a sense, it’s like Dragon Age: Origins before there was a DA:O. I’m personally not a big fan of this style. I prefer a game either being all real-time, or all turn-based. A mixture of both breaks the pacing up for me. And you have to use magic against some enemies, and especially against bosses if you are to have a prayer of winning. They make sure you are forced to use magic because they limit the number of items you can carry, items that restore HP or MP. By limit I mean you can only hold a max of 4 copies of each item, and there are 2 that restore only HP, 1 that restores only MP, and 1 that does both, and 1 that revives characters.

It also has a Skyrim-style of level up when it comes to weapons and spells. Of course, if you kill enough enemies, your character will level up in the traditional sense increasing general HP/MP/attack/defense/speed/etc. But the more you use a particular physical weapon (there will eventually be several to choose from, some of which you will likely never use) the more it levels up. By level up, I mean you can charge your weapon up by holding down the attack button for a duration and release it to do a more powerful attack that does more damage and is capable of hitting more than one target. I didn’t do this often, but it works well against some enemies, especially when they have their temporary invulnerable moment (which is for a couple seconds after they are hit, while they are casting a spell, or when they are getting hit by a spell). Most of the time, you don’t need to worry about charging weapons, which makes their leveling up unimportant for the most part. However, each magic style also levels up the more they are used, and that is very important. The higher the magic type’s level, the more effective it is (ex: a higher level Lumina style which can cast cure can heal more HP than a lower level Lumina, and a higher level Luna can cast stronger beams that deal more damage). At one point, I had to stand around and grind a couple of my styles. This only happened once though, at the end of the game. For the most part, I found myself only using 3 or 4 of the spell types.

And, of course, there’s the story itself. It started out typical but engaging. But the further on the game went, the less I cared. I even kinda forgot about some of the plot while I played, because it became a game of traveling from one dungeon to the next, for reasons that are explained at the beginning of the game, but little is done to remind you of the progress you are making or why you are doing this after each dungeon. So the narrative suffered for that. Better pacing was needed.

The characters are largely forgettable. The girl who follows you (she doesn’t exactly have a name, you just name her whatever you want in the game) has a boyfriend who is in danger and who plays a big role in the plot, but not enough is said of him, and not enough is shown of him, for me to care. The villains are completely forgettable too. They had no character, they were just there. The villain in FFIII had more character than these guys, and I hated his 1 dimensionality.

That said, the 2nd to the last boss is fairly good game-play wise. And the last boss, well, it’s a gut punch. The last boss is a big twist in the game that makes sense in the context of the world, and it’s a real heartbreaker having to fight it.

So the ending was nice and emotional, but only for a few character and small plot moments. As a whole, the entire narrative could’ve been executed a lot better. I wouldn’t mind seeing the game remade on modern consoles with improved narrative and improved pacing. It’s worth playing to experience a classic and see what the big deal is. But it doesn’t hold up as much today as some other classics, like Chrono Trigger.  That being said, there is a lot of potential with the real-time combat in this game, and it’s the only long-term RPG game that has multiplayer, where another player can step in and out of the game at their leisure to take control of 1 of the 3 characters.  That can be quite fun, if you can find others who are willing to do that.  It’s only in more recent years that other games are finally managing to take advantage of this idea, mainly because of online play, because players don’t like playing in-person on the same screen anymore.  Then again, this also solves the single screen limit issue, where you can’t move until everyone else moves to your position.  Pros and cons.

PS: Where the hell is the scene at in the game that is on the title cover of the game? I’m talking about that picture at the top of this blog post. I played the game expecting that epic image to show up, but it never did.

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