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We are currently living in the era of nostalgia – where titles of the past get remade or rebooted for the purpose of reimagining their glory or for reintroducing them to a new audience. Square-Enix has been getting great at this with their remaster of iconic Final Fantasy titles like FF8 and Crystal Chronicles for current-gen consoles, as well as, of course, the current gaming sensation that is the FF7 Remake. But SE has also been busy reviving classic underground favorites as well. Trials of Mana, originally known as Seiken Densetsu 3, was lauded as one of the most beautiful 16-bit games to ever come out of the SNES. This title never came out for a global release until last year’s Collection of Mana for the Switch. From there it was decided that Trials was to continue as the Mana series’s next current-gen remake for the Switch and PS4, following Secret of Mana that released 2018.
Trials does not disappoint in translating the 1995 classic faithfully to the modern era. The gameplay, though augmented with more detailed skill trees and combo systems, is still the familiar action-RPG the Mana series is known for. The story of all 6 characters have been recreated in a way that long-time fans that first played it back in the SNES will be awestruck at how they are as fantastical as they first played them. However, one might find that the remake is a little too faithful to the classic title that it may feel a little dated for a game released in 2020.
The plot follows 6 adventurers of varying classes chosen by the Faery to battle the encroaching evil and save the Tree of Mana from dying. Each character has a unique story as the chosen one, but they all eventually meet along the way in each other’s stories. Simple enough, right? Sadly, that’s as deep as it gets. When Trials first released, it relied on simple fantasy manga tropes (travelling to save a kidnapped loved one, journeying to prove oneself, etc.) as it was meant to be a quick game you can finish in under 8 hours. The limitations of the platform may also have something to do with it, but the point is that the original Trials only used barely enough plot to flavor that short of a runtime. As the story was mostly faithfully recreated to modern platforms – where there are expectations of long runs and replayability – Trials’ plot is exposed as somewhat barebones and lacking. Square may have added in a few details here and there, but it wasn’t enough to really flesh out the characters and their stories. In my run of the game, I barely spent 20 minutes in each location as the cutscenes were just simple quest prompts for you to keep going to the next location. The story progresses at the same pace of a 5-page children’s book where plot points just conveniently happen to move the story along. While it is, as mentioned, exactly as it is in the original, there were certain expectations for embellishments. I first played the game as a 5 year old on an SNES. The story was enough for me then. But a little more than 20 years later, when the game is re-envisioned on powerful platforms with great graphics, you’d think that the story would adjust as well.
The graphics are amazing, but it was built with the Switch in mind. It has a certain childish appeal, but is lacking in a few layers of ambient filters to those who look at the backgrounds. Details for each unit’s different classes really let them stand out from each other. As a bonus, you can even equip the other class’ costumes as a skin once you unlock them. It’s also great to see classic Mana creatures such as Rabites and Chobin Hoods in full 3D. The towns and certain maps have a certain charm to them, being very detailed and each evoking a fairy tale rural vacation-y feel in each location. While some stages look great for that open-world exploration, often times, there is no point for the sheer size of maps other than to make it “explorable”.
The gameplay may be the star of the show though as it offers a free-roam action-RPG with specials mapped on combinations of shoulder and face buttons. The combo system itself is simplistic, simply letting you tap repeatedly on the attack buttons, but it does allow you to cancel out of them with the jump and roll buttons – making battles as dynamic and to your own speed. The game also allows you to actively switch in between party members during combat. This allows you to coordinate your buffing, healing, and skill uses when you find that the default AI isn’t up to speed. The skill tree system is interesting. Each character has 5 elements that they can build using skill points they earn when levelling up. Points allow them to unlock stats and unique skills. As far as I know (currently level 75 in the game), you cannot max everything out, but the game does allow you to re-allot your points for a price so you can experiment with your skill builds.
The only flaws I find in the gameplay is due to the camera. Tracking isn’t the best and it goes all over the place if you use a move that moves you around a lot or you’re in a tight stage. The lock-on system is also a bit wonky. You switch targets by tilting the right stick, but it’s also the same stick used to control the camera so… good luck with that.
All in all, Trials of Mana has me feeling mixed. As a fan of the franchise, I enjoyed seeing the game reborn faithfully in a current gen platform. As a long-time RPG player, I found the game lacking that certain polish you’d expect from a Square title. While I am glad at all the improvements it made over the original and the remastered collection, it feels as though it was more intended for a newer, younger audience – which isn’t a bad thing at all. Heck, it’s already miles better than the disappointment that was Secret of Mana, I just wish it offered something more for the veteran players as well. Otherwise, Trials of Mana plays like a less refined Ni No Kuni.