Whimsical fantasy has an appeal all its own. That is why stories like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are eternal, and why The Neverending Story and Willow are still remembered despite their shortcomings. Enter Secret of Mana, a flawed game that nevertheless captured the hearts and minds of gamers all across the 16-bit era. So when Square announced a sequel in the works it was not surprising to see a throng of fans waiting for it to drop in the west.
This never happened. Some blamed Square for not ridding the game of its substantial bugs. Others pointed fingers at the game known as Secret of Evermore, stating that we got it instead of the true sequel ala FF Mystic Quest. There were even some Nintendo fans intriguing against Sony, saying that by 1995 they were already courting Square. Regardless of what really happened that fateful year, one thing is certain; The West lost out on one of the greatest gaming experiences ever put to a cartridge.
This is a journey that begins with you. Right off the bat you are asked to choose a main character and two sidekicks from a cast of six. From the Thief who can attack twice in a row to the Brawler that becomes a freaking WEREWOLF at night, each has their own unique play style which guarantees that everyone will have their favorite. Mine? That would have to be Duran the Warrior. I’m a traditionalist, what can I say?
Much less typical is the revelation that each main character you choose also has their own starting location! So Hawk begins in a desert town, Angela starts in a snowy magic castle, and Kevin originates in a kingdom of eternal night. Each scenario fleshes the character out and helps to establish the motivations of both the protagonists and antagonists. Thus it is well worth playing all of them just to see the full scope of the conflict.
After the individual openings, the stories begin to merge. Secret of Mana 2 begins in a world where magic is vanishing from the landscape, immediately setting up a much different geopolitical climate than the last game. In that adventure Mana was returning, with the effects culminating in an arms race to harness its power. In contrast, Secret Of Mana 2 opens to a world dealing with the disappearance of Mana from the world, inciting vulnerability and aggression throughout the various kingdoms. It’s a novel way to flip the script and tell a very different kind of story, showing magic as a dangerous commodity, yet one that the people of this realm cannot live without.
It adds a lot of flavoring for one of the best ARPG combat engines in history. To call Secret of Mana 2 a RPG is really pushing it, as the game’s real-time combat now has much more in common with a beat em up than your typical role playing game. Enemies are more numerous and hardy this time around and you can now attack as many times as you want for full damage. Gone are the days of waiting for your meter to charge in order to attack! In SoM2, the charge meter finds new purpose with the introduction of special attacks, some of which are well worth waiting for (guaranteed critical, room-clearer, ect.).
Adding to the combat options is the inclusion of the new class system, which enables each character to specialize in two different ways, thereby putting the player in full control of their play style. Do you want Duran to carry a shield as a knight, thereby allowing him to be more defensive, or use two-handed weapons as a gladiator for more devastating damage? I will not spoil any more but suffice to say, discovering the diverse classes and how they alter gameplay is as rewarding as discovering how different combinations of characters affect the challenge. Also of note is the level up system, which lets you select one attribute to boost each time. Though stat caps are limited based on the character, it’s still a fine example of player choice while still differentiating characters enough to make them unique. All of this skyrockets Mana 2 ‘s replay value, giving us the closest taste of the original Final Fantasy’s open party system as we can get.
The ring system makes its return and has also been improved, allowing the player to carry more items and access the spell and tactics menu without as much confusion. This streamlining means that more players will discover the advantages of setting computer AI, and with the addition of more carrying capacity, spellcasting is finally viable as a game-long tactic! That said, it is still awkward equipping characters, and until one realizes that they can only equip the person they are playing as it can be quite frustrating.
Secret of Mana 2 even introduces a weekday system and a day/night cycle to shake things up. Different monsters and people appear during the day and night, so you will want to go through each area at least twice in order to see the full scope of the game. Each day of the week also coincides with the strengthening of one magical element, and should always be a consideration when tackling areas full of elemental enemies, or determining when to fight a powerful boss.
By now you must be asking “BUT DOES IT INCLUDE MULTIPLAYER?” The answer to this question is likely to relieve and also disappoint. You can still hook up a second controller with a friend or loved one and go through an amusing journey to save the world, but depending on how many want to join in you may be a buddy short. Secret Of Mana 2 only supports two players this time around (Though there is a 3 player support patch available). Another thing to consider is that while Mana 2 is not nearly as bad as the AI in the first game, there are still a few instances where players may find themselves trying to get their companions un-stuck.
In regards to graphical design, this game just might be the finest example on the system. Everything about this just screams excellence. Sprites are expressive and animate wonderfully and the bosses are towering, have multiple moving parts, and never recolor. The settings are colorful and full of detail and creativity ranging from a moonlit kingdom of forest & crystal to tropical islands full of mystery. But nothing tops the hand-drawn backgrounds that bring everything to life and give off a sense of scale that no other game comes close to achieving. Each hand-drawn background inspires, from the Heavenly Stairs showcasing the world below to the boss battle that takes place atop a flying dragon in the sky. I am rarely blown away by presentation, so consider this an impressive feat!
Less impacting is the sound design, which at its best is equal to its predecessor, but which falls flat in most regards. That is not to say that there are not beautiful tracks throughout the game, or that the tracks don’t compliment the situations at hand, but Mana 2 relies far too much on a few key themes, never giving us the variation and consistency of the first. Still, what is there is quality, and this is a minor quibble.
This was the last Square game I played until my re-entry into the hobby spurred me to try Final Fantasy XIII, so for me Secret Of Mana 2 takes on a whole different kind of significance. It is the last photo of a world frozen in time; A world of whimsical fantasy, deliberate and measured humor, the triumph of art over power, and the idea of the player-centered universe in an RPG. And it was never localized for English speakers. A shame, because Secret Of Mana 2 tops the original in almost every way, and stands toe-to-toe with any action RPG on any system, old or current. It is an eternal reminder of what a studio can do when it is faced with limitations and fan feedback, two tools that helped Square hone Mana to a knifes edge. This is one yellow brick road that is worth treading time and time again.
Five out of Five Stars
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