Well, dog, it looks like we aren’t in the World of Mana any more… though things are still oddly familiar.
Secret of Evermore
Let’s face facts here. When reviewing Secret of Evermore, comparisons to Secret of Mana are all but inevitable. Games don’t exist in a vacuum, and in this case, the two are so intrinsically tied together in terms of both design and history that trying to separate them is all but impossible. So instead of attempting that, I’m going to take the opposite approach by making this article very much about comparing the two games. That being said, this article will likely be more useful to those who have read my Secret of Mana article already, as I don’t want to make people read the same points over again. In other words, I’m trying to perform the delicate balancing act of making this write up stand out on its own, without duplicating a bunch of information from articles I’ve already done. Whether or not that will work is yet to be seen, so please bear with me.
Without further ado, let’s talk about Secret of Evermore.
Muted, With a Glossy Finish
The presentation is the one part of the game where I can easily understand people’s preference for Secret of Mana over Secret of Evermore. If we are being technical, Secret of Evermore is far more impressive in terms of sprite design, animation, and detail, but it has a far more muted color palette than Secret of Mana does. Secret of Evermore mostly sticks with ‘realistic’ colors such as greys, browns and greens, and I can see how this could be seen as less appealing to a lot of people (myself included, if I’m being perfectly honest). There is an important reason for this choice, however, as Secret of Evermore is trying to recreate eras that actually existed, such as the prehistoric and medieval time periods. Taking into account that context, I feel Evermore made the correct choice. It created an atmosphere and environment that felt true to the story they were trying to tell; that a real world boy was being sent to all of these unfamiliar locations. They made it so nothing felt out of place, and the realistic color choices played a huge part in this.
When it comes down to the pixel art itself, I was astounded by the level of detail that made its way into this title. You need only take a look at the first boss to see how amazing the work is, and the cartoony aesthetic is very well implemented. Animations are some of the most fluid I’ve seen on the system, and the attention to detail is predictably well handled as well. There was a particular moment where some torches on the wall caught my eye, not just because the torch animation itself was good, but because each frame actually altered the light and shadow on the pillars they were attached to, and it was beautiful to watch. The only visual hiccups that occur in this title are some small bouts of slow down during some of the more intense sections, and while I of course wish this wasn’t there, it didn’t hinder my experience.
The music in Secret of Evermore isn’t all that impressive either, which when compared to its spiritual predecessor, is a devastating blow in terms of quality. Yet the implementation of said music is brilliant; in fact, it is much better than most games, even today. I’d say that about three quarters of Secret of Evermore’s music relies solely on ambiance. You will spend a lot of the game without hearing any melodies at all, instead just hearing the chirping of birds which, when you are lucky, will be accompanied by a drum beat or some other lone instrument. The use of subtlety is something that I cannot praise enough, and I found it overwhelmingly impressive. There are of course a few tracks that are more than just ambiance; of particular note is the stellar boss fight music which always got my blood pumping, even more so than it normally would in similar games because of the contrast between the subtle exploration tunes and the bombastic battle theme. Fans of the Elder Scrolls (and of course many other well recognized games) may be interested to hear that Secret of Evermore is where series regular Jeremy Soule got his start, and seeing how clearly he understands how to manipulate the sounds of Evermore, I can see why he has become so popular. While perhaps not as amazing at creating sweeping melodies as some other composers in the industry, he has skills a lot of other composers lack, the key one (which I have emphasized multiple times in these articles) being restraint.
A Boy & His Dog
I know this may be surprising given my captious views on story up to this point, but I really enjoyed the plot to Secret of Evermore because for once in an RPG the story wasn’t ‘Save the world!’. Don’t get me wrong; the plot wasn’t at all complex. There was no chance to relate to the characters, and the whole game was a rather basic “I’ve been transported to a strange land and want to go home”, but the very fact that this is a rarity made me enjoy it far more than I should have. The plot thickens a bit, dealing with doppelgangers and a mad science experiment. But it never goes all that deep into these ideas, and I wish it would have because I was genuinely interested in the game’s story. Of course, by the end of the game you end up saving the world anyway, because it’s a video game and that’s what you do. But when it comes down to it, Secret of Evermore never strays too far from its core: A story about a boy and his shape-shifting dog, trying to find their way home to Podunk U.S.A. (which is the actual name of his hometown, by the way).
Humor is another thing this game heavily relies on, and while I wouldn’t claim that the comedy is always funny, it is always charming. Our hero is an average teenage guy from the mid-’90s who has an obsession with old ‘B’ movies from the past, and they are constantly parodying movie tropes and throwing in comedic (albeit made up) movie titles throughout the game. It just adds a sense of earnestness to the whole thing that I really admired.
Secret of Evermore is the only game to date to be entirely created by Square U.S.A., which you can see in the way it’s written. There was no translation process, and you can definitely ‘hear’ the difference when compared to other games of the time. It uses more intricate and less stagnant vocabulary, and it all flows together smoothly. It’s one of those things that I apparently took for granted, as I never thought it could create this large of an impact on a game’s narrative. While playing this game I could truly tell it was made in English first, which is an interesting realization to come to.
Though it may be hard to believe, Secret of Evermore has better storytelling than the majority of the Mana series, and given how little is actually here, that does not reflect well on the Mana name.
I’ve Got a Bone to Pick With You
In terms of combat, Secret of Evermore remains nearly identical to Secret of Mana, following the same basic hit-and-run design that made the original game so anti-climactic in my eyes. The developers, however, did some much-needed fine tuning that made the experience much more palatable. Hit detection in Secret of Evermore is much improved, and when you miss, there is actually an on-screen prompt to confirm it. Movement is a touch smoother and more responsive overall, and the game compensates by making the enemies attack quicker. This means there is actually a bit of skill involved in dodging your enemies. In fact, combat manages to be more challenging in general compared to Secret of Mana because enemy damage output is fairly high, meaning that getting hit actually means something, especially since you can only hold a small amount of healing items at one time and you have to go through about half the story before you get your first healing spell.
Speaking of spells, they are still chosen from a paused menu, and they still never miss, but the ‘chaining’ glitch that was possible in Secret of Mana has also been remedied. Even charge attacks have been made useful because there are only three levels of attack now, and damage is scaled appropriately so that using the charged attacks is useful for more than just making the ability look flashy. Most importantly of all, they fixed the annoying as all hell stun locks that occurred in almost every battle in Secret of Mana, and thank the heavens for that.
The biggest change to the combat lies in how magic is handled. Instead of using an MP pool to cast any spell you would like, this game instead uses Alchemy, which requires you to have found specific materials throughout your journey that you use as expendable items to create a specific spell effect. This isn’t as interesting as it sounds, as you don’t get to experiment with the mixes yourself. Instead, you are given the spell requirements (which only ever use two alchemical reagents at a time), and you expend them instead of MP.
I liked this concept in theory as it was an interesting change of pace from the usual way magic is handled in games, but I can’t say that it added anything of significance besides furthering the ‘realism’ of the setting. After all, we are playing as a normal teenage boy; he doesn’t have any special powers to speak of. As far as the spells themselves, you get a decent collection throughout your journey covering all your bases from damage to support, but some are clearly more useful than others. None of the spells were useless, however, and you could choose which ones you wanted to focus on. In the end, you are likely to pick only one damaging spell to level up for the majority of the game and perhaps a few support spells, which can become outright broken if you choose the right ones. I found a particular combination of two spells at the end of the game that made me invincible for a period of time and made every attack I performed a full on charge attack. Talk about your power trips. Normally this lack of balance would upset me, but because of the alchemy system, I felt that it actually worked.
The way that the alchemy system helps to keep the game balanced is subtle, but effective. Don’t get me wrong; alchemy is just as overpowered in Secret of Evermore as magic was in Secret of Mana, especially if you spend time spamming and leveling up your spells. The difference here is that you can’t simply refresh your magic pool by sleeping at an inn. Instead, you either have to grind for money to purchase the rather expensive alchemical reagents, or you have to sniff them out with your dog. This means that you can abuse your magical talents all you like, but if you are planning on using that strategy you actually have to work for it, and this is an interesting trade off that I appreciated.
I really can’t stress enough how much better these little tweaks make this game feel and I am so, SO glad the developers took the time to fix these issues instead of just using the old coding as it stood. I still don’t think this type of gameplay is good, but if Secret of Mana had been refined to this level then I wouldn’t have written it off as a failure the first time around. Hell, even the simple act of running has been improved in this title. Instead of being restricted to short bursts of speed in one direction before having to wait for the bar to fill again, the speed increase you are given lasts long enough to be useful and you can actually change the direction you are running in. Hindsight is 20/20 after all, and there’s really nothing that can be done about it now.
Character progression, on the other hand, has remained basically unchanged. The hero and the dog level up from a normal experience drip like in most RPGs. To be honest, I found the experience growth rate to be a bit slower than I feel was necessary, especially when we bring up the weapon and magic leveling scheme that the developers tragically insisted on carrying over from Secret of Mana. Evermore doesn’t so much improve on this system, so much as deciding to pick it up and move it slightly to the right. While magic leveling remains identical, weapon upgrades have changed. Instead of having a max level of eight for each weapon type, there is a max level of four, with each level granting another charge attack. This would be great on its own if it weren’t for the fact that now, instead of leveling up each weapon type, you have to upgrade each individual weapon. It doesn’t matter that you use the starting weapon (a bone) in the same manner that you swing a sword, you somehow don’t know how to do that spin attack anymore! This was annoying to say the least, but by the middle of the game, you are likely to have decided what your preferred weapon type is, and just upgrade that one while ignoring the other two types. I don’t particularly like this system, and it is one of the few things that I wish they’d left out entirely. At least this time I didn’t have to switch my weapon every five minutes to keep them all up to date.
Aside from that, character progression is pretty standard. No more scouring the map for weapon orbs; just simply finding equipment in chests, winning them from bosses or buying from shops, and I was appreciative of this return to form.
Enter the Labyrinth
One thing I can see people getting rather frustrated with is Secret of Evermore’s reliance on mazes for progression. I went into this game expecting to dislike the map design, but I actually found it rather entertaining. Almost every area is a maze, but I didn’t find any of them particularly difficult to navigate. I also felt that completing mazes was a great trade-off compared to the constant backtracking of Secret of Mana. Don’t get me wrong, Secret of Evermore has you backtracking as well, but when you do so it only takes a couple of minutes to get there and it is far less frequent. Speaking of which, in terms of pacing and repeated content, Secret of Evermore also falls back on the game design choice of sending you back to the areas you have already visited. However, all of those return trips combined can be done in about an hour, while Secret of Mana has you doing it for several.
Here is another improvement I didn’t even notice until I went back to read my Secret of Mana article: I can’t remember having even one moment where my dog got stuck and wasn’t able to properly follow me, and if it ever did happen, my character was not stuck behind an invisible wall until I fixed the issue. Thank you, devs, for fixing this glaring issue of Secret of Mana’s. In relation to this, Secret of Evermore threw out the mulitplayer component that existed in the last title as well, and all I can say is good riddance to that feature.
While it didn’t happen as often as it could have, Secret of Evermore had a few sections where the dog and the hero would be separated and you would be stuck controlling one or the other to solve some sort of puzzle or make them meet up once more. This leads me to another point in Secret of Evermore’s favor: The fact that both characters have a unique skill set, both in terms of combat and in terms of utility, makes the game a far more enjoyable experience. Small touches like the dog being able to sniff out items on any given screen, or the hero only using alchemy, makes them actually feel like different characters and different species, not just in terms of visuals but in terms of gameplay. This lends validity to the world. Even the fact that if the hero dies you instantly get a game over (a huge red flag when it comes to most games) makes perfect contextual sense in this setting, and I applaud that.
Those aren’t the only factors that lead to this world feeling authentic, however. There are four areas in the game, and each one uses their own type of currency that has its own exchange rate, which was another small but pleasant touch that I enjoyed. There is also a large trading mini game that takes place primarily in a single town, where you can exchange goods directly to unlock some rather powerful pieces of equipment and trinkets. This is a section that some people will find more enjoyable than others and it takes a lot of time, dedication and experimentation to really take advantage of it. The game leaves it as a completely optional feature, though, so I see no reason for it to negatively affect someone’s playing experience.
I previously said that exploration and world design were the only places that Secret of Mana succeeded in. Aside from the visual appeal of Secret of Mana’s locales, I feel that Secret of Evermore’s exploration and world design outclassed it in every single way.
I have to admit that I enjoyed Secret of Evermore for the most part despite its flaws, and that is kind of surprising to me as I was sure I’d like the JRPG styling more than I would the Westernized version. I stand firmly by my opinion that Secret of Mana is barely playable, yet Secret of Evermore was a game I enjoyed from beginning to end, give or take a few annoying sections. It just goes to show that minor tweaking and fixes really can make a huge difference in the long run. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Secret of Evermore was good enough to warrant me ever playing it a second time, but once was an enjoyable experience.
I feel it is a shame that this game has such a bad reputation. People attribute its existence to Seiken Densetsu 3 not getting released outside of Japan, which is a fallacy. Seiken Densetsu 3 was not released mostly due to its initial release date, which would have had it competing with games on the original PlayStation as opposed to just other SNES titles. It is also rumored that the numerous glitches presented in the game wouldn’t have passed Nintendo of America’s strict quality control guidelines, though I’m not sure if that theory holds as much water. Either way, Secret of Evermore’s creation was a completely separate project that in no way, shape, or form contributed to the lack of Seiken Densetsu 3.
Well, I’ve visited the Mana tree eight times and traveled the world of Evermore. I’m left satisfied that I’ve completed the series in its entirety, but unfulfilled when it comes to series quality. There will be more on that next week when I finally conclude the Stiles’ Series Synopsis on the Mana series. Check it out for a complete series ranking, as well as tying up some loose ends that I wasn’t able to in the initial articles. It is also where I will be announcing the next Stiles’ Series Synopsis, so I hope to see you there!
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net