Trials of Mana Review

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Seiken Densetsu 3 has been a game many western Mana fans had been waiting for since 1995. After Secret of Mana captured the hearts of so many people, there was excitement to finally get the next entry in the series. They would have had to wait a very long time to play it officially since it wouldn’t be until 2019 that the SNES gem finally got localized in Collection of Mana as Trials of Mana. Alongside this exciting news, Square Enix also announced a full 3D remake of the game was in development set for a 2020 release. This version would expand on the gameplay and add in voice acting in both English and Japanese while keeping faithful to the original game’s story and world. I among many was hesitant to dive right into it given the lackluster remaster of Secret of Mana, but I have to say I was left surprisingly impressed by this latest outing of the Mana series. It’s a huge step above that game, and despite its imperfections (and low budget) Trials of Mana was a fun way to experience a game that so many people consider to be a beloved classic.

Trials of Mana carries over most of the structure of the original SNES game. There are six unique playable characters and at the outset of your journey, you have to pick a party of three. The main story you experience will be dependent on your protagonist, but the combination of companions you chose changes quite a lot of neat details as you experience the plot. Your cast will have different dynamics depending on the backgrounds of each character, and even though there are some characters with “optimal” interactions based on the goals of their story it’s almost impossible to get a bad party. I picked Hawkeye as my protagonist with Riesz and Duran as the other party members, and while Duran sometimes felt like a bit of a third wheel at points due to having a different main antagonist than the others he still felt like a natural part of the group. It would have been nice if there was more of an attempt to make interactions from the conflict between Hawkeye and Riesz, but I do appreciate the attempt the writers made to flesh out these characters compared to the original game. I don’t think this system works flawlessly, but it goes a long way to encourage replaying the game because the events you see will always change in each playthrough which is really nice.

The story and general character interaction are solid at best and passable at worst, so you’re in for a very simple yet enjoyable adventure. For the time it originally released I’m sure it stood out more than it does now, but I can’t really call it bad. It’s nice every once in a while to just sit back and play a JRPG with a very straightforward and predictable plot, and this has enough fun moments between the characters to keep me engaged. The dramatic moments didn’t land to me thanks to the very stilted presentation of the character animation and cinematography but for the most part, I think the game does very well for being a lower budgeted Square Enix game. It’s a very ambitious goal to recreate the sprawling world of the original game in 3D, and the world looks absolutely gorgeous in the game’s art style, but it seemed that the animation budget was an afterthought.

Trials Of Mana Review Screenshot 1

What Trials of Mana excels at is its main characters, in both how they respond to the events around them and how their personalities end up showing through in the gameplay. Each character has a different kind of class type and unique moveset that grows the more you play. From what I played of the original I have to say that I enjoyed the combat here much more. It feels less clunky to engage in battles and thanks to the 3D perspective and lock-on mechanic I never felt like I missed an attack unless it was actually my fault. It’s a standard action game with a light and heavy attack, and combining them in different ways lets you perform a range of combos. The amount of combos starts disappointingly low and may lead to many people finding the gameplay stale, but thankfully there’s enough to mess around with in items usable in battle and special abilities you gain by leveling up. 

When one of your characters levels up they get an ability point to put in towards one stat. When a stat reaches a set amount, that character will gain a new ability or permanent buff. Character growth ends up being entirely up to you because of this, and since you can freely change between characters both in battle and out its a good idea to build every character up. The best way you can do this is in the game’s class change system, which was honestly my favorite part even if it showed up far too late (around 8 or 9 hours in). When your characters reach their first Mana Stone they have the option to switch their class between two options, Light and Dark. This branching class change system doesn’t change the story at all, but whichever option you go with will change a lot about how you approach combat and which classes you have access to. There are a good variety of classes because of this, another reason why replaying it is so rewarding. It is worth noting though that it’s impossible to feel as if you locked yourself into an unsatisfying route for a character, as it allows you to reset your class progress at these Mana Stones as well. Class changing also expands your moveset, allows more abilities to be unlocked, and gives you more combos and special attacks. I do think that even with class changing your combo potential is kind of limited thanks to the small amount you have access to altogether, but at the same time once I reached my second class change at the end of the main story I felt combat had opened up quite a lot.

One huge criticism I have to give the game though is the difficulty being so inconsistent. It starts incredibly easy, and for the first five hours of the game I barely ever took any damage on the game’s normal difficulty. Eventually this mode does have a very sudden ramp up in challenge, and while I appreciated how I had to really start thinking about what I was doing more it highlights a very unfortunate aspect of the game’s combat. The party AI borders on braindead during boss fights, and they frequently made me waste large amounts of healing and revival items because they ran into easily missable attacks. It would have been nicer to have a more gradual ramp up in difficulty that started off a bit more challenging (hard mode still didn’t do it for me), and I feel like this could easily lead to many players feeling bored with the opening hours of the game and not wishing to continue. It’s worth holding out since the combat and challenge increase as the game goes on, but the AI is a huge problem and I hope it is addressed in a patch after launch.

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The movement itself is worth mentioning since this remake changes it drastically. You’re given a sprint and dash button, and while I loved their conclusion I can’t help but feel the movement speed is a tad too slow. Every character in my party moved at the same speed, which led to a cast that felt kind of samey. It would have been nice if they reimagined certain parts to make the movement of each character feel more unique, and the characters even syncing up their walk cycles exactly in cutscenes doesn’t help this. I do appreciate how the level design clearly was reworked to fit this new access to sprinting and jumping, and I have to give them credit for making it not feel so tacked on.

The Nintendo Switch port was surprisingly alright despite some initial issues. It ended up being slower than most versions of the game due to the framerate being capped at 30 frames per second, but this isn’t a game that requires split second reaction time anyway so it ended up being fine in the long run. I played it almost entirely in Handheld mode, and I never noticed any serious framerate dips. What I did notice when both docked and undocked is the texture pop in, most frequently happening with textures on the character models. It happens in cutscenes even, and was really jarring. I don’t think the issues are enough to make me think the port as a whole is disappointing, and I can thankfully say if portability is important to you this is a completely fine way to play Trials of Mana.

The redone music gets nothing but praise from me, which is thanks to the return of Hiroki Kikuta. You can listen to either the original soundtrack or the remade soundtrack by changing a setting in the options, but I found that the new music carried over the spirit and charm of the original while sounding nicer so I just stuck to that for the majority of my playthrough. The sound design, for the most part, is very solid, but I have to say I was kind of disappointed in the game’s English dub. I respect how basically every line of dialogue in the game was fully voiced, but the direction for the English voice acting felt lackluster. I’m not sure if this was intentional but it often sounds like a dub right out of the ’90s, and while the cheesy voice acting can be charming if you look at it that way I still think if they approached it with a tad more serious tone it would have led to a better product. There’s dual audio available to people who don’t want to listen to the English voices, but the game doesn’t subtitle battle dialogue so I switched back to the English voices after a few hours. It took me a while to really get used to it, but they actually did grow on me. The actors are good, they just needed better direction.

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If I were to criticize Trials of Mana for anything else it would be how linear it is. Linearity isn’t bad on its own, but there are very few rewards for taking time to explore when the game doesn’t want you to. Every area has a variety of chests and secrets to discover if you go off the beaten path, but the game doesn’t really open up to you until Chapter 5 where you’re given an airship. You’re given a way to traverse the sea a bit before, but this really only provides the illusion of exploration since most of the new areas you get to visit block you from entering until the game wants you to go there. The areas and dungeons themselves are pretty expansive and full of tons of interesting visual details, but usually, you can’t do anything other than what the game explicitly tells you to do. When a map does offer a separate branching path to a new area that isn’t in the direction it tells you to go, there is always a weird reason to prevent you from exploring it. It’s a minor gripe, and I think the new addition of the Lil Cactus that will hide in every area remedies this since it brings the focus to exploring these self-contained areas. Every time you find a certain amount, you get a new prize that improves your gameplay experience, but these didn’t add too much and I quickly stopped looking in every nook and cranny for him. All in all, the beautifully designed world of Trials of Mana felt primed to explore at your own pace but having been based on a SNES game creates a weird dissonance since it was designed as a very linear experience.

I know I have given just as many critiques as praises, but that’s because I did genuinely enjoy Trials of Mana. It is flawed and a bit too faithful to the source material in spots, but it does so unapologetically and I can’t help but admire it for that. It fleshes out the cast far more than what was possible for a SNES RPG and feels just as ambitious in so many ways. It’s very obvious this was a labor of love for the team of developers that just didn’t have the funds to fully see their vision through, but I must continue to say that I don’t think this hurts the game too much. Trials of Mana is a ton of fun, and if you want to experience a retro JRPG with the updated mechanics of games today then you’ll likely enjoy this a lot. Any of the issues I had didn’t stop me from having fun, and I know I’ll likely return for at least one more playthrough.

Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Square Enix

Total Score
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