It seems that Square’s cult favourite Mana series has been enjoying something of a renaissance of late, and the latest product of this resurgence is a new remake of Trials of Mana. Seiken Densetsu 3 – as it’s known in Japan – never saw a release in the west when it first debuted in the ’90s, and only got introduced to western audiences last year as part of the recent Collection of Mana. That collection had actually seen a release two years earlier in Japan, however, and shortly after its launch there, the developers saw fit to begin production of a remake of Seiken Densetsu 3 that was then planned to introduce the game to western audiences for the first time. Bearing this in mind, development was approached as if the studio was creating a brand-new game – rather than ‘just’ a remake a-la the somewhat disappointing return to Secret of Mana – and the final result is something curious to behold.
Trials of Mana is a fascinating project, then, purely in how it feels simultaneously new and old. Certain elements – such as the simplistic storylines and environments – give away that this project is based on a game from decades ago, while other elements – like the brand-new combat and progression systems – are clearly drawn from more modern game design. Somehow, it all comes together remarkably well, making for an enjoyable, beautiful, and content-rich RPG that adequately represents its legacy while innovating in some key ways.
The multi-threaded narrative of Trials of Mana has its roots in the original Super Famicom release – an approach that was quite ambitious for its time – yet the setup still holds its lustre today, offering up a diverse story that requires a couple of playthroughs to adequately see in its entirety. The main premise is that the fabled Mana Tree, which houses the spirit of the Mana Goddess, is withering away, and the chosen hero must retrieve the Sword of Mana from the tree’s roots to save the world. Contained within this premise, then, are six characters you can choose to play as, each of which has their own sub-plots and stories. You decide your party when you start a new save and you can only pick three of them for that run, which means you'll need to undertake several playthroughs if you want to see everything that the plot has to offer.
On an individual basis, characters are relatively simple and driven by easily-defined goals and conflicts. Duran the Warrior, for example, begins his story by failing to properly repel the assault of the evil Crimson Wizard on his kingdom, and his character is from that point forward defined by an almost single-minded desire to become the greatest warrior in the world so he can beat the wizard when the two face-off again. Those of you looking for a thought-provoking or intensely deep narrative will be a little disappointed by the relative shallowness on offer, then, but Trials of Mana does manage to excel in how it puts forth a friendly, whimsical world packed with small plotlines to uncover.
As your group goes from town to town in search of whatever McGuffin the plot requires, there are usually small subplots that play out in that town to give it a bit of a ‘chapter’ feel. One subplot may see you searching for a lost dwarf deep inside a mine, while another may see you shrinking yourself down to the size of a mouse to interact with a Kokiri-like race of small, elvish creatures. Though none of these plotlines prove to have all that much emotional depth and they all have pretty predictable ends, they nonetheless help the story move at a brisk pace and keep things feeling varied. Just about around the time that you’re beginning to feel fatigued at a particular plot point, Trials of Mana wraps it up and asks you to move on to somewhere else, ensuring that you get a comprehensive tour of the world it builds.
The bulk of your adventure will be spent on the roads and dungeons between towns, which are packed to the brim with monsters, treasure chests, and other collectables to keep you busy. These routes are generally linear in their layouts but feature a fairly wide array of side paths and alternative routes to check out in search of better gear and items. Again, Trials of Mana demonstrates remarkable control over pacing in this manner, as the environments are large enough that they don’t feel cramped but small enough that they don’t feel overabundant. The leash is loosened enough that you can spend a fair amount of time freely scouring every corner for well-hidden collection points and treasure chests, but never enough to the point that you aren’t meandering your way towards the next plot point in some fashion. Trials of Mana’s age shows through here somewhat in the relative simplicity of the environment designs, with puzzles and complex routes only popping up once in a blue moon, but it’s still enjoyable to see what each new area has to offer.
A big part of this has to do with the combat breaking up the exploration and injecting some much-needed energy into the experience. Here, Square flexes some of what it’s learned from modern game design by implementing a simple but demanding combat system that properly balances skill and strategy. Battles take the shape of a real-time system, with each character having a collection of light and heavy attacks that can be utilized alongside a variety of spells and class abilities. Repeatedly hitting enemies also has the passive ability of causing them to drop “CS Crystals” which will slowly build your party’s respective CS gauges. Once those hit certain thresholds, characters can then unleash powerful 'Class Strike' attacks that dish out tons of damage and often can hit several targets at once.
Though most mook battles on the road don’t require an intense amount of focus to overcome, combat certainly proves to be a highlight throughout the whole of Trials of Mana. MMO-style ‘danger zone’ attacks – where your characters must dodge out of the way of a telegraphed strike – will perpetually keep you on your toes, and the way in which various attacks and abilities can be chained into one long combo proves to be quite satisfying. You’re also incentivized to do well in combat through a grading system, which grants you percentage buffs to earned experience the faster and more effectively you finish the fight. This all boils down to a combat system that, while not overly difficult to manage, nonetheless sidesteps an issue with a lot of RPGs wherein battles become the sort of thing you ‘autopilot’ through.
Along with the expected bumps to your stats that come with each level up, your characters also gain skill points that can then be invested into five different skill trees for each member. Though the general focus of each tree remains the same across your party, the specifics of what gets unlocked is unique to each member. This means that each character more or less has a unique list of abilities they can equip to themselves, with the only exception being “chain abilities” that can be used by any party member once they’re unlocked.
The best part about this system is that it allows you to specialize each character to the role you want them to play in your party, and the options for further narrowing down their role become more abundant as you move forward. For example, each character can change their class for the first time after hitting level 18, but you’re given the option to pick either the ‘light’ or ‘dark’ version of that next step. For example, when changing the class for Riesz, you can either choose to have her next step focus on buffing your party, or on debuffing the enemy.
It’s important to think about what you want to do next, then, but Trials of Mana luckily allows you the option to roll back a class decision later on if you change your mind. Though it would be welcome to have more than three party members to work with for a given run, Trials of Mana ensures that there’s a nice balance of flexibility and complexity in the character growth systems, which works well for keeping you engaged in the long run. There’s always another unlock dangled just beyond your reach that you’re eager to equip, and the combat system that rewards careful, effective play grants you the agency to shorten the time to that next unlock if you want to push for it.
Trials of Mana borrows heavily from Square Enix stablemate Dragon Quest XI in its presentation, offering you a colourful and spirited world that looks gorgeous for the most part. Though the cities and towns tend to blend together as the hours wear on, each new locale you experience in between them has a distinctive colour palette and design that really leaps off the screen, whether you’re playing docked or handheld. This is somewhat handicapped, however, by the continuous appearance of pop-in and slow-loading textures, which tend to take you out of the experience. It can be lovely to stand on a cliff and watch over a small glade of bouncing rabites kissed by the setting sun, but when you take a few steps and trees on the edge of your vision start to appear or disappear, the illusion is easily broken. Make no mistake, Trials of Mana looks great for the majority of the adventure, it’s just that the details can sometimes disappoint.
Matching all of this is a soundtrack that does a wonderful job of jumping between genres and tones, though there aren’t many tracks that prove to be very memorable. All of the expected baseline-heavy dungeon tracks and panpipe-ridden village themes are all present and accounted for, and some even are given the orchestrated treatment to elevate the sound quality a little bit more. The soundtrack satisfies in this way, then, it’s just not necessarily one that you’ll be searching out after putting Trials of Mana down.
Trials of Mana proves itself to be a successful revival of a lost classic, smartly infusing new design and content where necessary while still maintaining the spirit of the original. Multi-threaded storylines, an enjoyable combat system and flexible character progression combine to make this one a fantastic experience from start to finish, even if occasional performance problems hinder the experience somewhat. We’d give Trials of Mana a high recommendation to RPG fans and newcomers alike; there’s plenty here to love for both camps, and we hope that this release could act as a blueprint for future entries in the Mana series.