Trials of Mana is an Action RPG developed and published by Square Enix. It is a remake of Seiken Densetsu III that originally launched in Japan back in 1995 and, until last year, has never been available in the West. Now 25 years after its original launch, Square is bringing Mana back in a big way with this remake. But will it be enough to revitalize this once-great series, or is this remake a trivial undertaking? Here’s our review of Trials of Mana.
My first introduction to the Mana games was back on the original PlayStation with Legend of Mana. The gorgeous hand-painted art style and cute monsters appealed to my senses and the real-time combat was easier for me to grasp than the traditional turn-based RPGs at the time. From then on, I was captivated with the series and went to play Sword of Mana on GameBoy Advance and Children of Mana on the Nintendo DS. There hasn’t been a new Mana game available on consoles since the two 2007 flops Dawn of Mana and Heroes of Mana, so I was excited when Square Enix announced last year that this remake of Trials of Mana was in development.
STORY OF MANA
The story, or should I say ‘stories’, in Trials of Mana center around the six different heroes chosen to save the world. Of these six heroes, you choose one to act as the main character that will determine which of the three different antagonists will be most prevalent. You choose two ancillary characters to help you out, but unfortunately their stories aren’t as flushed out as the main character’s. To really see everything that Trials has to offer, you’d need to play through the game three times – one for each antagonist.
That said, the individual stories in Trials of Mana aren’t exactly engaging or riveting at all. Both the main characters and the antagonists are one-dimensional. That is something I wish Square Enix spent more time remaking rather than just copy and pasting the exact same dialogue from the original. My problem with each story is that they are all extremely cliché – like ‘my so-and-so died and I’m out for revenge’ or ‘so-and-so got kidnapped and I have to find them’. It lacks the emotional depth of something like Final Fantasy VII Remake (FFVIIR), or even Dragon Quest XI (DQXI), that makes characters a lot more relatable by humanizing their interactions rather than relying on old tropes.
I do like how easy it is to navigate from beat to beat in Trial’s story. There are no side quests – which may sound like a negative to some, but I found it to be extremely relaxing. When done well, side quests can be a natural tangential storytelling medium that enhance the overall experience. Often however, they are superfluous exercises in futility that only artificially elongate gameplay to give the illusion of depth. Instead, Trial offers a streamlined experience that helps direct players to where they need to go by an impossible-to-miss glowing yellow star on the mini-map.
Even the main story is something that I’ve seen before in Final Fantasy and other RPGs. There are elemental crystals find and save, and then the big bad guy does something big and bad and you have to go back to each crystal to defeat new bosses before you can fight the main big bad boss. It’s literally the exact same story that Bravely Default had and although I know that Seiken Densetsu III came out nearly two decades before Bravely Default did, it doesn’t alter the fact that it’s been done before – several times – by the same publisher. In this regard, I wish that Trials took a page out of Final Fantasy VII Remake’s book and introduced an almost completely different story with similar beats.
COMBAT OF MANA
What Trials of Mana did take inspiration from FFVIIR was the combat system. The combat remains real-time, just like the original, but has added a lot of quality of life improvements that make battles slightly less repetitive. One such improvement is the addition of a dodge roll mechanic, which greatly increases the fluidity of combat. And like FFVIIR you can stop time by bringing up either the Item or Move wheels, which are like spells, that allow for more tactical decisions during battles. Additionally, you can choose to swap to any character on the fly by simply pressing the trigger buttons. Much like how I played FFVIIR, I would unleash a Class Strike on one character, which are kind of like Limit Breaks, and then immediately switch to another character and perform their Class Strike as well.
An aspect in Trials that I hope more RPGs incorporate is the Strategy system. Similar to gambits from Final Fantasy XII, the Strategy system allows for customization into the AI’s behaviors in combat. Using this system, I made it so that my party would feel free to utilize both their Moves and Items with wild abandon, but to refrain from ever utilizing Class Strikes on their own. Maybe I just got so familiar from how I played FFVIIR, but I wanted to be in control of when Class Strikes got used. For others, you can set it opposite of mine where they use their Class Strikes as soon as they are able, but rarely use Items or Moves without your say so. This lets every player tune their party to perform best for their own playstyle.
The best parts of combat in Trials of Mana came during the boss battles. My favorite moments were during intense boss fights where there were tons of Area of Effect (AoE) circles that I had to avoid. Enemies’ moves are often telegraphed in the way of bright red projections on the ground, which let you know to avoid those areas unless you want to get hit. Several boss fights reminded me of mechanics from Final Fantasy XIV’s bosses, among other MMORPGs. One boss in particular seemed to be designed after the Demon Wall from the Final Fantasy series and, coincidently, gave me the most brutal boss fight in the whole game. Which isn’t saying much given that I never died once during the entire 30-hour journey.
ABILITY OF MANA
I attribute much of my battle prowess in Trials of Mana to the different abilities each character had equipped. When characters level up they receive points that can be allocated into five different stats. Each stat offers different abilities and passive bonuses, on top of learning new moves, after putting a certain number of bonus points into them. These new abilities must be equipped first in order to be active, and some abilities can even be shared between characters. So even though my mage, Charlotte, doesn’t gain much from her Strength stat it allowed me to learn an ability that benefited my main character, Duran, whom I was building as my main damage dealer.
At about the halfway point in Trials of Mana I started to feel a little overwhelmed by all the available abilities. My characters kept learning all these new abilities, but they hadn’t yet unlocked any new slots to be able to equip additional abilities. Slots are only unlocked after increasing a character’s class. Class 2 unlocked at Level 18, but Class 3 wasn’t available until Level 38 – and even then, there is a specific item to find for each character to upgrade their class. This allowed for a lengthy period of time in which my party felt stagnate and I didn’t feel like I was making any progress growing stronger – it was just the same repetitive moves played out in the same repetitive battles.
During this period in Trials, and honestly throughout the whole experience, I would have enjoyed some sort of optimization option for my characters. In FFVIIR you can choose to automatically upgrade weapons for offensive, defense, or balanced playstyle. A similar system could have been implemented in Trials to auto-tune abilities depending on those same three styles: offensive, defensive, and balanced. That way I wouldn’t have to spend so much time going over every new ability I unlocked to see if there was a better combination than what I already had.
ENDGAME OF MANA
A lot of the most challenging content becomes available after completing the main story. There is additional endgame content that Square Enix added into Trials of Mana that really felt rewarding. I won’t spoil any of the content, but I will say that it is some of the most fun I had in the entire game and offered some of the most difficult battles overall. In addition, Square Enix confirmed prior to launch that there is a Class 4 that was not in the original Seiken Densetsu III that I think really enhances the endgame combat.
Probably the best part however is once this extra content is completed, there is a New Game Plus mode available that retains all the items, shared abilities, and money from the finished save file and allows you to start over on a harder difficulty setting or with new characters. I do not usually play through games a second time, but when I unlocked New Game Plus mode, I immediately started a new game with the three characters that I didn’t choose before.
CONCLUSION OF MANA
Trials of Mana is a fantastic remake of an Action RPG that tragically never came to the West until recently. It is evident that great care has been taken to create an experience as close to the original as possible, although liberties to improve upon the story should have been taken on. Even the legendary soundtrack was beautifully remade with full orchestration, and Trials allows for either the remake or classic 16bit soundtrack to play via the options. Although the combat may get repetitive and boss battles are rarely challenging, Trials has a ton of charm and fun that is easily accessible for new players and old fans alike. For the amount of gameplay offered – especially in terms of replay-ability if you want to see everything – there are few JRPGs that are as enjoyable to play as Trials of Mana was.
Note: A copy of Trials of Mana on PlayStation 4 was provided by PR for review purposes.