Thursday, May 21, 2009

VC look: Secret of Mana

Many gamers are familiar with Square-Enix's Mana series. Starting with Secret of Mana a large number of titles spanning multiple genres have been released over the years. Though the gameplay may change and very rarely are elements shared between multiple games there are a few constants: The storyline somehow involves a giant tree, the art is good and the music is excellent, and an utter lack of good game design. 

Secret of Mana is perhaps the first Mana title most everyone is familiar with. Known as "Seiken Densetsu 2" in Japan(Part 1 was a Gameboy title and Part 3 was a Super Famicom release) this game is a multiplayer action-rpg. Up to three players can get together at any time to take on the fell-beasts and evil rulers that threaten the precious Mana tree and the world. While most multiplayer action-RPGs today are more akin to Diablo in that they feature minimal story, maximum dungeons, and loot galore, SoM is more in line with traditional RPGs with its "town, dungeon, town, dungeon" manner of pacing.

Before long your party will consist of three characters. The boy has the highest attack & defense ratings but no magic. The girl has medium-tier ATK/DEF and uses defensive(healing) magic. The sprite has low-tier ATK/DEF and uses offensive magic. Each party member is capable of wielding eight different weapons that can be crafted to gain strength and special properties through the collection of weapon orbs(which are dropped by most bosses and found in some chests). Swords, spears, axes, javelins, whips, boomerangs, knuckles/claws, and bows are all at your disposal. As your weapons gain in power(and you gain in skill through constant usage of them) they gain additional levels for the charge-attack. By holding down the attack button the player will notice a meter growing next to their HP. Once it hits the level of charge-attack they wish to use they can release the button to deliver a special attack that does quite a bit of damage. Some of these weapons are required to traverse obstacles like going across cliffs & cutting down rocks but weapon-switching is a painless affair thanks to the ring system.

The ring system extends to all menus in Secret of Mana. With a press of the Y button you bring up your ring menu(X to switch between the other two party member rings) and by pressing up or down you can switch between the weapon, spell, item, and options/inventory/commands menu. Your last choice on the ring is temporarily saved so if you have a favorite spell it's always a couple button presses away. It's a bit off-putting for those used to picking their way through boxes and lists but over time it works out to be quite well done.

When not actively controlled by a second and third player your party member is taken over by a pretty basic AI. Though you can control how aggressive they are when dealing with foes as well as the level of charge attacks they use you can't command them to cast certain spells when necessary(None of FFXII gambits in here). In fact this A.I. tends to be a little too basic as they'll try to attack anything even enemies that can only be harmed by magic. Also when setting them to use charge attacks it's a bit of a crapshoot as they could miss entirely or simply drop the charge if you move around too much. Worse still there's a small chance they can get caught in some scenery and become trapped, potentially forcing a restart. 

Combat is an interesting beast in this game. Though it resembles an action-RPG more often than not it takes on properties of a real-time standard RPG. To start with when you swing your weapon a guage next to your hp will start from 0% and quickly make its way to 100%. You'll hear a tell-tale chime and will be ready to attack again. Though you can attack at any time if you aren't prepped you'll do little to no damage. Also though it looks like you hit enemies still have an evade stat and in some states(like knocked down) they can't be attacked at all. Thus it's beneficial to know the behaviors and attributes of every foe. Charge-attacks are a risky endeavor and honestly outside of a few scenarios they simply aren't worth bothering with. The strongest ones take a very long time to charge leaving everyone open to attack. Also if the player gets attacked just as they're about to perform the charge they'll lose it. The game really should have given an invincibility period or some way of ignoring the damage unless it was fatal as it would really make the charges more useful(shrinking the charge-time required would also be helpful).

Magic in Secret of Mana is divided into eight spirits which represent water, earth, wind, fire, dark(sprite-exclusive), light(girl-exclusive), moon, and mana. When spells of a certain spirit are used repeatedly they can gain levels(which are limited by the number of mana seeds sealed over the course of the game) and thus become more powerful. Most of the sprite's spells are self-explanatory as they involve killing the enemies with fire, ice, or whatever else works best. While the girl has access to a large variety of spells that give weapons elemental properties, raise defense, or provide a wide-range of shields and stat-buffs all you'll really need to know is healing and curing. The only way to benefit at all from buffs is to gain enough magic levels so that they'll last more than a few seconds. In order to gain magic levels you have to progress the story enough to reach the seeds and then spend a long time at the inn casting spells on your party repeatedly. In the end unless you're a completionist it's pointless to bother with the girl's magical abilities because outside of healing they're useless.

The dungeons in Secret of Mana are very linear and don't offer anything in the way of traps. This probably shouldn't matter too much since so much of the game is spent in combat but the lack of variation aside from the locales can grow rather dull after awhile(especially if the enemies you face happen to be more powerful clones of prior enemies). The bosses for the most part are very easy(except for the third boss "Spikey Tiger" who can be a serious nut). Main reason for this is because after a short time the Sprite gains access to attack magic. From then on if a Boss is weak to a particular element the fight is usually over before it even begins. Like the enemies, some bosses suffer from "hit-stun". For those who play fighting games hit-stun takes on a variety of properties and most of them lead to the possibility of combos. So in Secret of Mana you'll find that a number of bosses can be spell-comboed into oblivion, making a good percentage of them rather trivial. I guess this is somewhat balanced out by the fact that there's somewhere close to 50 bosses in the entire game with some dungeons consisting of two or more but most fights are over before they even begin. Even without magic most fights become too easy after a certain point as bosses tend to do too little damage to the party in comparison to what they can dish out. You could limit yourself further by choosing not to buy the best armor or level up your characters/weapons as much but again there's little merit in doing so.

Overall while Secret of Mana offers an excellent soundtrack(one of the best on the Super Nintendo) there's little reason to play through it as the game is too easy and has too many bugs. The game also suffers from a poor translation that borders on incomprehensible at times. Furthermore this game came out over 15 years ago and it offers nothing that hasn't been bettered by newer action-rpgs. The only way one could justify a purchase of this game today if it was purely through nostalgic reasons. In fact that's the reason I bought it. 

On the bright side there's little truly awful about this game(aside from the bugs). Unfortunately as the Mana series progressed the series continued to go downhill. It's a shame because while these developers have some good ideas their execution leaves a lot to be desired(though the art and music remain quite good...shame this blog really doesn't care about that).

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