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Capsule Review - Secret of Mana

Title Secret of Mana
Developer Square
Year 1994
Platform SNES
Capsule Rating
Capsule Review: Secret of Mana is an ambitious failure, a game that tries desperately to be an epic adventure but falls far short of the mark. There's plenty of things that catch the eye at first, but which are visibly void of substance the second you take a closer look. The arty much-quoted bit in the opening is the perfect example of this. "Time flows like a river, and history repeats"? Well, if time flows like a river, it would be impossible for history to repeat, wouldn't it? Since a river always changes, and the canonical way to say something always changes is to compare it to a river? It sounds good, but it makes no sense.

Am I being petty in pointing out something like this? Well, no, because it's emblematic of the problems with the game. The beginning is appropriately portentous, but the story loses its cohesion very quickly. Around the time you've beaten the Haunted Forest, you start moving from environment to drastically different environment, with no real attempts to piece it together. Okay, so occasionally a recurring villain or character pops up and says something, to remind you that there's a story here, but it's not interesting; it just gets in the way, since when that happens one has to make a conscious effort to remember who everyone is and why they're there.

The point of making the world of Secret of Mana continuous (you don't walk around on a world map as such) must have been to make the game more immersive, but not only are the environments too bewilderingly different for this to work, the makers didn't even bother to see this idea through to the end; you're thrown into separate segments of the world by Cannon Travel (a remarkably inane concept), thus making the world if anything less of a piece, not more. Other potentially revolutionary ideas suffer similar fates, like the battle system. You fight Zelda-style, but you also have allies; unfortunately, this means that the computer has to control them. The AI is actually reasonably intelligent, but switching between the characters (to access the magic) is a chore, and most of the time they'll get stuck in an obstacle and won't be of any particular use. Yes, you can play this game multiplayer, but now that most people have unplugged their Super Nintendos for good, that is most likely not an option. Furthermore, more often than not "challenge" comes in the form of tight passages packed with enemies; practically unstoppable cheap shots ensue. Further still, many of the major enemies are just about invincible to conventional attacks; thus, you'll have to waste hours building up your magic so as to be able to use the one spell they're weak against to beat them.

The game is not particularly technically impressive when compared to Chrono Trigger or Terranigma. The graphics are similar to the former of those two, but boast far less detail, though a few of the locales are memorable, like the oddly coloured mushroom town or the beautifully rendered springtime forest in bloom. The soundtrack has a couple of left-field successes, most notably the excellent grasslands theme, but is for the most part as forgettable as the rest of the game. If you're really hankering for a Super Nintendo RPG, use the time you could spend playing Secret of Mana to go through Chrono Trigger one more time.

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