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02 January 2016 @ 10:09 pm
Game Review: Secret of Mana  
Secret of Mana is one of the games that I mentioned in my Jill of the Jungle review that I missed due to not owning any 16-bit consoles. I remember playing it at friends' houses, and at the time I thought it was fascinating. A multiplayer RPG? A RPG that's not turn-based? Charging up weapons? What is this sorcery?!

I didn't actually play much of it, though--I remember friends grinding spells in the Pure Land, and I remember the witch's castle in the haunted forest, but that's about it. Much later, softlykarou and I tried to get through the game, but we missed a Sword Orb somewhere and couldn't find it, so we gave up. Over a year ago--November of 2014, according to the date on the first screenshot I have--we tried again, and this time we finally got all the way through.

And finally, I can say that I think Secret of Mana is stupid bullshit.

This would set the trend.

So, one of the innovations that made Secret of Mana so interesting to me was the multiplayer. It allowed two players out of the box and three if you had the multitap, theoretically allowing for better strategy as each role--melee damage, offensive magic, and defensive magic--were filled by a separate people. On our run, I usually directly controlled the Girl and softlykarou controlled the Boy. She left the Sprite to me as well, so I handled all the magic and she handled the melee. Well, what melee was possible.

And that gets into why the game annoyed me so much. This is an action RPG with some of the worst hit detection I've seen in a well-regarded release. Attacks would just go through enemies like they were mist or EVO contestants exploiting iframes. There's a mechanic where you can charge attacks to do more damage, but we rarely bothered because it was impossible to predict whether softlykarou would spend ten seconds charging just to clip through the enemy's sprite or not. On the other hand, magic always hits if you get the spell off, so especially during boss battles, softlykarou did a lot of running around feeling useless while the Sprite spammed attack magic until the boss was dead.
softlykarou says: "Why does no one love melee? I just want to hit things with my sword!"
This went double for bosses that flew, or leapt around the arena, or who were too dangerous to approach. It brought back memories of World of Warcraft, where softlykarou's warrior was always getting The Fire dropped on her while I sat in the back and cast spells freely.

And sometimes hits worked! Sometimes we could chain multiple physical attacks together and keep an enemy stunned. Sometimes some attacks missed. Sometimes the enemy could chain-stun us, occasionally leading to situations where one of the party went from full health to dead in two or three hits while I couldn't do anything. There was no way to predict or mitigate any of this except standing in the back and chain-casting spells, so that's a lot of what we did. And running past enemies because fighting them was too annoying, and if your game is an action-RPG where fighting is annoying, well...

The fights were cute, though, I'll give it that.

Some of this is because we did decide to split the roles up, it's true. In a game where one player controlled all the characters, there wouldn't the problem of feeling useless because the AI is better at figuring out where to hit to actually connect. But that wouldn't help the battles with flying or jumping or hazardous enemies, and it would actually make one aspect worse--menu access.

See, you can only access the menus when your character is active and able to act. You'd think this makes sense, but there's a button specifically used to access the menus of computer-controlled characters so you don't constantly have to swap the active character. Except that when the character you're controlling is incapacitated, this button doesn't work, forcing you hit select to swap over to someone who can act, use the menu, swap back, and basically making the extra menu button useless in precisely the situations where you'd most want it to work. That lead to several needless deaths and at least one party wipe.

All of this came to a head at the Mana Fortress. After two bosses that demanded only magic, one where weapons were useless and one where it had a melee instagib attack so softlykarou didn't go near it, we got the Mana Beast. A creature that can only be hurt by the Mana Sword, so finally the roles were reversed. I cast buffs and then danced around trying to draw its Lucent Beam spam while the Boy flailed away at it. It was ten minutes of the most boring boss fight I've played in years and I'm incredibly thankful that we beat it on the first try because there was no way I was going through that again.

Though come to think of it, all the boss fights were boring. Against normal enemies, we could deal with missed attacks and some clipping, because it was merely annoying instead of dangerous, but on a boss fight we wanted to maximize our DPS so softlykarou would get a lot of staring at the screen while the Sprite cast offensive magic and then getting extremely narrow windows of opportunity to attack before I'd hammer the menu open and cast more spells.

The plot is full of this kind of depth and nuance.

I don't demand deep and intricate plots from my early RPGs. I love Final Fantasy I, and its plot is "You're the Warriors of Light because reasons. Warriors, revive the power of the crystals ORBS!" with a few detours along the way, and that's great. It's not even another 16-bit RPG thing, because in the last few years I've played Final Fantasy IV and replayed Chrono Trigger and those both (mostly) work. But I was just rolling my eyes most of the time here, when I cared, which wasn't often.

Alright, I know about the halo effect and the fact that my dislike of the gameplay biased me against the story. But it seemed like sometimes there was too much included, and sometimes not enough. Long ago, there was an ancient civilization that used mana for power and also had VHSes and a subway system, but they were destroyed because their hubris angered the gods, who sent terrible monsters against them until they were wiped from the Earth. I'm a sucker for an And Man Grew Proud storyline, and I can get behind this.

But it doesn't matter for most of the game. You're trying to stop the Emperor, from The Empire, from getting the Mana Fortress. He wants it because reasons, or because Evil has a higher pay grade than Good, or something, I have no idea. There's an ancient sorcerer named Thanatos, who's make a bargain with "the underworld" and is manipulating the Emperor because he wants to use the Mana Fortress as an unstoppable superweapon, thus allowing him to create a peaceful world as fear will keep the systems in line. Thanatos eventually stages a sudden but inevitable betrayal, killing the Emperor and his hencemen and stealing the fortress, then you kill him. Then you kill the Mana Beast. Also, the Boy's mother is a tree and his father is a ghost. No, I don't actually think it does make more sense in context.

That's a good way to attract wandering murderhobos.

A lot of elements are introduced too late to have any impact. I can see that they were going for a widening scope, where you start as a boy exiled from his village and a girl hoping to track down her boyfriend and then realize that there's a threat to the entire world, so the stakes gradually ramp up higher and higher over the course of the game. Except I think they ramped up a bit to quickly after meandering for a while. The Emperor is introduced too late and doesn't actually have a personality, most places in the game are characterized by their terrain or if they have non-human inhabitants rather than culture, and so on.

I did check the wiki entry about the game and found this, which makes me a bit more well-disposed toward what remains:
After the contract between Nintendo and Sony to produce the add-on failed, and Sony repurposed its work on the SNES-CD into the competing PlayStation console, Square Enix adapted the game for the SNES cartridge format. The game had to be altered to fit the storage space of a SNES game cartridge, which is much smaller than that of a CD-ROM. The developers initially resisted continuing the project without the CD add-on, believing that too much of the game would have to be cut, but they were overruled by company management. As a result of the hardware change, several features had to be cut from the game, and some completed work needed to be redone. Most major of these removals was the option to take multiple routes through the game that led to several possible endings, in contrast to the linear journey in the final product.[23] The plot that remained was different than the original conception, and Tanaka has said that the original story had a much darker tone. Ishii has estimated that up to forty percent of the planned game was dropped to meet the space limitations.
That explains a lot. It felt like a lot of was left unexplained or briefly glossed over, and after a game where you fight Santa, who turned into a frost giant because children stopped believing in him, and beat him back to his senses, an ending where you kill your transport for most the game, the Girl's boyfriend is possessed by an evil sorcerer and you have to kill him, and then the Sprite vanishes as Mana leaves the world seems like massive mood whiplash. They're probably remnants of the original plot that mostly didn't make it in.

And also, cartridge limitations meant that huge chunks of the script had to be cut, so what's left is a disjointed mess.

The feeling is mutual, lady.

And now I'm a bit sad, because that original game sounds like something I would have enjoyed much more, as long as they could fix the hit detection problems. There's a retranslated version of the script for iOS that might fix my problems with the story, but the thought of playing an action RPG on an iThing is anathema without any alternate control method. And even then, it wouldn't fix the fact that most of the original story is just gone.

I can say there is one aspect of thegame I really liked: the way mana is divided up. Earth, Fire, Water, Air, Wood, Light, Darkness, and Moon is pretty close to how I tend to split things up when I draw up fantasy worlds (though replace Moon with Metal). It's also pretty close to Exalted's divison--just add "the stars" as another element. That's not really enough to salvage the game for me, though.

This is one classic that I won't ever be coming back to. Final summary:

Current Mood: annoyedannoyed
Current Music: Secret of Mana - NightTime Evolution (Harmony OC ReMix)