[UPDATE: October 23, 2017] A Square-Enix PR representative reached out to assure me many of the problems I address in my preview are being worked on. The build I played was apparently from August, so some of the bugs I encountered have already been squashed.
Moreover, characters' faces will become more expressive. Full lip-synching may not happen, but characters will reportedly emote better than they do in the preview build.
In other words, the Secret of Mana remake is indeed being polished ahead of its February 15, 2018 release. Cool!
I've talked at length (say, twenty miles worth of length) about how much I love Secret of Mana. Square's SNES follow-up to Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy has definite flaws, but it also has lush graphics, a beautiful soundtrack, and loads of character.
Secret of Mana has already been upgraded and re-released once for mobile platforms in 2010. Another remake is coming in February: A "2.5D" re-imagining of the game for PlayStation 4, PC, and PS Vita, similar to the recent Adventures of Mana remake for mobile and PS Vita.
I'm very much looking forward to the Secret of Mana remake, but I'm not without worry. I'll play the game if Square-Enix includes a caveat stating I'm not allowed to access it unless I do so while wearing the south end of a dead skunk taped around my nose, but that doesn't mean I'm entirely happy with the game's visual direction. When word got out about the game, I was disappointed by its flat, seemingly lifeless graphics.
I've softened my stance a bit since going hands-on with the game at Square-Enix's Suite Spot event held earlier this week in Toronto. I'm still not totally on board, however. Parts of the Secret of Mana remake demonstrate loving, imaginative rebuilds of enemies and towns, but other parts are plagued by stiff character movements and bugs.
We're still over four months away from the game's launch, so there's time for Square-Enix to perform some clean-up—but what I played showed off a strange but obvious imbalance. I played a little bit past the first boss, and I was surprised at the contrast. The first foes you go up against—the adorable but deadly Rabites—leap and bound with energy. When you whack them, their eyes reflect their shock. They're a joy to watch (and to kill. Ahem). Another early enemy in the game, the Lullibud, now walks around on its roots instead of simply sliding towards you. The Mushboom enemy sweeps off its cap before trying to dust you with spores. And the first boss you encounter, the Mantis Ant, now has a complete body instead of a two-dimensional sprite that always faces forward. Its mandibles clack and it jerks its head back and forth as it searches for you.
It's great stuff, but it's brought down by the events you witness beforehand. Most notably, the characters' mouths don't move when they talk. They don't even flap open and closed during cinema scenes, which is all I'm really asking for, here. Every character looks like they're psychically projecting their thoughts at you. It's a weird omission, considering there's a surprising amount of voice acting in the game.
(The voice acting is uneven, incidentally. A couple are good, but most are just passable. There's an option to turn on Japanese voices, so no worries there.)
I understand this isn't a high-budget title and corners had to be cut, but it's odd how much care went into certain animations while others are just lifted from the SNES game with very cheap-looking results. In the opening moments of the original game, the main character is slapped around by the town bully. Said bully doesn't lift a hand during the scene (you see an impact flash instead), which is understandable given the limits of the SNES. However, he doesn't swing a fist in the remake either. You just see the same impact flashes.
Similarly, there's no animation when you climb into a cannon for fast-travel; you just "slide" into the canon sprite, same as you do on the SNES version of the game. Putting aside how we ought to see something here, the illusion of entry generated by two SNES sprites sliding behind each other doesn't translate well at all with the remake's 2.5D models.
You don't get to see a scaling overhead shot of the map when you travel by canon, by the way. You just get a loading screen. What a bummer. Seeing the world sprawl out under you as you cannonball towards your destination is Secret of Mana's first "Wow!" moment.
Then there's the bugs. I saw a few character sprites acting strangely; at one point I espied an old lady partway consumed by her own floor. She looked like she was doing the backstroke across her house. I had to laugh, but it wasn't as funny when my game crashed outright.
We're looking at a February 15 release date for the Secret of Mana remake. That's quite a ways away, especially for a game that's not especially resource-intensive. In other words, there's still enough time for Square-Enix to address my problems with the remake's stiff characters, bugs, and lack of lip-synching. In fact, the literature I was given for the game promises a "A newly arranged soundtrack," but the build I played used the original score. If the demo's music is a placeholder, there's a decent chance some extra polish is still planned for the remake's NPCs.
(I asked some of the Square-Enix representatives on-hand if they knew whether the characters will receive mouth animations; they weren't sure.)
From what I saw of the Secret of Mana remake, it might potentially be a treat for people who adore the original game as much as I do. Despite my initial reservations about the game's graphics, I got pretty excited over getting to see fully-realized models of the enemies and bosses I've thwacked again and again. I'm still worried about the stiff NPCs, half-baked character animations, and bugs, but none of those problems are insurmountable between now and the game's release date.
I hope Square-Enix gives this game the love and care it deserves, and I hope that love and care is applied evenly throughout every aspect of the adventure. So until February, if a masked man named after the Greek personification of death asks you to exchange bodies with him, yell "No!", run away, and tell and adult.