Gameplay, Story and Value:
While I docked Final Fantasy Adventure (the prequel to this game) for being too derivative, there were still enough unique elements to the game to keep it interesting for a while. Additionally, the gameplay was very good and the combat was precise to make for an ultimately enjoyable experience, despite its inability to hold my attention long enough to see it through.
Secret of Mana takes all of my thoughts on Final Fantasy Adventure and effectively flips them. While FF Adventure had a fairly bland world to explore with mechanics that never felt fully intuitive, Secret of Mana brings varied and beautiful zones and dungeons to travel and fight through, with fun magic and weapon leveling systems. Meanwhile, while FF Adventure’s combat system was fun and precise with a menu and leveling system that was easy to understand, Secret of Mana’s combat is horribly inaccurate and its menu system is, while original, very cumbersome.
Like FF Adventure before it, Secret of Mana’s story is fairly… generic. Being generic in and of itself is fine, but the story isn’t told in a particularly compelling way and as such didn’t really draw me into the world. Characters are introduced at a much better pace than in the previous game, and you’re never left feeling like there was ever too much information left out for you to follow along.
Combat is, conceptually, very interesting. Your weapons all gain levels along with new levels of charge attacks. Many of them are multipurpose and finding new weapon orbs is always exciting. It’s the actually act of fighting things where the game falls apart, however. Combat is floaty and inaccurate, and timing your attacks is very unintuitive. Things get even worse when you pick up your second and third character, and you never know when or if your attacks will actually land on a target! Combat had the potential to be satisfying, as on occasion it really was, but the overall “jankiness” of it just made it unenjoyable for the most part.
Likewise, the game’s ring menu system was fine at first, but as the game went on and found myself with more items, equipment, spells and characters to manage it just started to feel like a mess. It’s not something so terrible to judge the entire game on, but it stands out amidst the rest of the issues I have with Secret of Mana’s gameplay.
Presentation, Music and Sound:
All the issues I have with Secret of Mana on a technical level can almost be completely forgiven thanks to the game’s audio and visuals alone. The game has an excellent art style that’s both soft yet vibrant and bear an almost mystical quality that lets you get lost in its visuals. The forests, caves, dungeons, towns and temples all look fantastic, and the sprite work is great as well. As you travel through the game you’ll encounter new seasons and color schemes and everything comes together very nicely.
Of course, while the graphics are great it’s the game’s audio that really shines. Sound effects are all serviceable but the music is simply amazing. The game’s opening piano piece grabs you instantly and the rest of the music is just as good. Towns and forests are upbeat and exciting while still being somewhat playful, while temples, caves and dungeons all have perfectly accommodating tracks. The boss fight music is also quite epic. Secret of Mana’s music has stuck with me over the last 20 years and with good reason!
I dunno… I feel like I’m letting someone down here. Maybe myself? All the love I had for this game 20 years ago just couldn’t save it for me. I tried and I tried but with every passing day I wanted to play this game less and less until finally I just had to call it. The story isn’t bad, but it’s not good enough to keep me playing through the other issues I have with the game either. The lasting memories, though… The music, the atmosphere, the… Rabites… All that is still fantastic in my mind, and they’re memories I’ll always value.
The actual game though? I just really didn’t care for it…