SECRET OF MANA / Squaresoft / SNES

The Mana series seems to be fated to be sometimes wonderful, often beautiful, and yet filled with niggling little flaws and odd design choices such that it never quite reaches the realms of the sublime. Secret of Mana and Seiken Dentetsu 3 were the high points of the series, and even these didn't quite achieve gaming nirvana - though they are easily worth a visit for the fun combat engine, and for Hiroki Kikuta's soundtracks.

Mana has the distinction of both using a unique action-oriented combat engine, and of being playable by up to three players at a time (via use of that old SNES 5-player adaptor whose name I've forgotten - MultiTap or something, I think). Though you won't be able to play multiplayer right from the beginning - it takes about one to two hours to get all three characters into your party permanently. From there, though, up to two other players can jump in and out of the game at any time, or you can have the computer fight on your side with customizable AI.

Battles are something between Legend of Zelda and a standard RPG - you fight it out in action-oriented style, until someone casts a spell, at which point the action freezes and the intended target is automatically hit. This is where the first of the game's niggling flaws comes in - spells are basically unavoidable in this one, and if you are playing multiplayer the action slams to a halt anytime anyone goes into the menus to cast one. This is true of items as well, and with the later battles where you need to heal frequently, the action becomes very stop-start and jittery. It's tolerable when playing solo, but immensely irritating when playing with a group. Also a problem, though less frequent, are the dreaded "combos of death" where certain enemies can surround you and just keep hitting you repeatedly until you die, with no way for you to respond or get out of it.

The battles still work out pretty well, and the game has you level up your weapons and magic by using them rather than via grinding. You still grind EXP for core level-ups that affect your HP, MP and stats, but you can selectively specialize in particular spells and weapons if you choose (or just spend an oodle of time levelling everything). I really like the "learn by doing" concept in games, when it works well as in Quest For Glory, but in this particular game it only half works. Levelling weapons by fighting is fine, and fairly painless, but levelling spells by casting over and over again gets really tedious and repetitive. Healing and buff spells don't count towards level-up either - you have to find an enemy to hit them with to get points.

Most of the game time is spent in battling, which really is for the best because the story is threadbare and confused, the translation is a bit below Square's usual standard of the SNES era, and there's very little to do in any of the towns but talk to pointless NPCs and visit the shops. The whole of the game is combat, really; you have the occasional maze or easy switch-pushing puzzle in the dungeons, but mostly the game is about admiring the pretty pastel art and excellent music while you tune on monsters.

Speaking of the music - it's the closest to reaching the sublime out of all elements of the game. Hiroki Kikuta has a very unique style, and hardly did any other work in the field of gaming beyond the two SNES Seiken games. I think the game is worth sitting through just to experience his music alone - I sometimes use the word "beautiful" when describing game music in an offhand way, but when I say it about this game's music I mean that it genuinely is beautiful. Soulful pieces that are perfectly suited to their environs. Most of the time, that is. Like the rest of the game as a whole, there are a few blips. Namely, some inexplicably jarring and overly dissonant pieces that are seriously annoying and snap you right out of the nice mellow groove that the rest of the game puts you in (looking at you Dwarf Town music). On the whole, though, the game's music is phenomenal and this is one of my favorite soundtracks ever.

All in all it's an odd, but nice, experience. If you look at GameFAQs review section for this game, it's the absolute pinnacle of the extreme fanboyism/anti-fanboyism that dominates the place and makes their reviews 99% useless. Most of the people there gave it a gushing 9 or 10 out of 10, and then there's the usual brigade of trolls that marches in with the 3/10s and the "this game was way below my expectations everyone said it blew Chrono Trigger away what the hell you are stupid if you play this now i'm going to exaggerate the game's flaws and use cusses and random ad hominem attacks because i'm a very sad and troubled little boy inside" stuff that's become the GameFAQs Standard of Quality. The game is not at either of those extremes, of course; it has it's graceful and wonderful qualities and it's little moments of frustration and WTF, but ultimately things stack up much more on the positive and pleasant side than the negative. Give it a look; at the very least it is unlike any other RPG out there.

Videos :

* Multiplayer gameplay video
* German commercial