Trials of Mana Review: A Sort of Homecoming

Trials of Mana Review: A Sort of Homecoming

A classic 2D RPG classic does even better in the 3D realm.

For decades, Seiken Densetsu 3—the Japan-exclusive follow-up to the beloved SNES game Secret of Mana—was a Questing Beast for Western JRPG fans. We relentlessly chased scraps of information about the title across game magazines and '90s RPG fan sites. Our efforts yielded an unsatisfactory resolution: Seiken Densetsu 3 was never officially translated for the SNES. When "Secret of Mana 2" failed to materialize, I typed angry anti-Squaresoft screeds on my beloved high school video game BBS.

A mere 25 years later, my teenage self has received everything she clamored for. Not only is Seiken Densetsu 3 available on the Switch with an official translation, but we also have Trials of Mana, a fully 3D remake of the adventure that eluded Western Mana fans for so long.

It's okay if you feel a little overwhelmed. I do, too. Take a breath, fellow belligerent '90s Square fans. Dare to believe. The 3D iteration of Trials of Mana is here, and it's good. It resolves a lot of problems with the original Seiken Densetsu 3/Trials of Mana, and it preserves almost all its charm, character, and challenge.

You might understandably be wary about Trials of Mana if you played the poorly-received 2.5D 2018 revamp of Secret of Mana, but go ahead and offer your fears up to the Mana Goddess. Trials of Mana is no mere reskin. It's a fully 3D action RPG that's been built from the ground up—and thanks to some important improvements, it's considerably more fun to play than its predecessor.

Much has been changed in the 3D Trials of Mana remake, but its story and unique telling is the same. When you start the game, you're asked to form a party of three from a selection of six characters. The storyline you follow depends on the heroes you take along. The overarching narrative is similar between the groups: Mana, the life-force that holds eight ferocious god-beasts in check, is weakening. Though the world is withering thanks to the depleted Mana flow, the three Empires that govern the world are more interested in freeing the precariously sealed beasts and harnessing their power.

Kevin (an exiled werewolf prince) and Charlotte (an infantile half-elf) fight the forces of the Masked Mage. Angela (a princess magician) and Duran (a disgraced swordsman) face off against the Dragon Lord. Hawkeye (a noble thief) and Riesz (a warrior princess from a mountain kingdom) confront the Dark Majesty. Not only does Trials of Mana's mastermind vary depending on whom you choose, but interactions between the characters are meatier if you choose a canon pairing, e.g. Hawkeye and Reisz. These tailored interludes are appreciated now, but they were beyond ambitious when Trials of Mana was a 32-megabit Super Famicom cart.

Pictured: Hawkeye about to get another lecture about his "weird" search history involving Vuscav the giant turtle. | Square Enix

Unfortunately, for all its effort, Trials of Mana's story isn't its strongest trait. Each character in the party can count on one revelatory moment, but otherwise most of the bad guys just say "Ha-Ha!" and monologue about power while the game's faerie guide freaks out about the depleting stores of Mana. There are touching moments—learning Kevin's battle moves by beating up the wolf cub that's his only friend prompted an "oh no" from me—but Trials of Mana is all about the fighting, not the talking.

Thankfully, fighting in Trials of Mana is sweet. When I went hands-on with the game at PAX West last year, I noted battles are much less chaotic than in the original 2D game. That stands. Encounters with enemies are more spread out, plus you have much more control over your characters' actions. The characters I chose at the start of the game are Kevin, who favors grappling; Charlotte, who's a talented magic user; and Riesz, who's a good all-rounder. I pound foes with powerful combo attacks (and I get to do it as a werewolf during the game's night cycle, because Kevin rules), while the adjustable A.I. ensures Charlotte takes care of healing as necessary. I rarely need to stop in the middle of an intense fight and make my party members perform heal manually, which comes as a relief if you're familiar with the first release.

The battles in 3D Trials of Mana feel like actual slugfests between good guys and bad guys. The skirmishes don't get old because they're quick, and because hitting cute Mana series monsters with swords and fists just feels good. Generous experience bonuses result in quick level-ups. Fighting in 3D Trials of Mana is a step above fighting in 2D Trials of Mana, which taught me to dread encounters because I would just push down the attack button and pray my party wasn't annihilated in the swirling chaos.

Can Kevin even pronounce 'phenomenal?' | Square Enix

Mana series veterans already know Trials of Mana is big on party building and character customization. When you level up, you earn skill points that you can pour into new spells, stat boosts, and skills related to each characters' Strength, Stamina, Intelligence, Spirit, and Luck. Customization starts off simple enough: A grappler like Kevin should specialize in Strength, whereas Charlotte benefits from upgrades to Intelligence and Spirit.

Things get a little more involved when it's time to change classes. Even a muscle head like Kevin can become a powerful healer if he walks the path of Light, but that means funnelling some points away from Strength and into Spirit. Alternatively, Kevin can choose the Dark Side every time he has an opportunity to change, which turns him into one hell of a powerful wolf-boy. If a character build isn't working out, visiting any of the Mana Stones scattered throughout the world brings up the option to take another path. There's also an old woman who resets skill points. (For a price. Of course.)

Whatever kind of party you wind up building, Trials of Mana's combat offers a fun time. Combo moves, enemy tells, dodges, and half-decent party A.I. means fights aren't simply reliant on a standoff of stat numbers versus stat numbers. The energetic scraps bring the fights in Ys 8 to mind, though Trials of Mana is lacking in the "huge dragon-dinosaur enemy" department.

An additional "Oh my God, thank you" upgrade to the new Trials of Mana is a map, something the vanilla game sorely lacks. The map makes it much easier to explore the game's world without fear of getting lost or wandering aimlessly in search of the next target. There's incentive to explore, too: Trials of Mana's environments are filled with treasures, healing pots, and other goodies. There's also a running mini-game that challenges you to search for L'il Cactus, one of the Mana series' mascots. When he's unearthed, he awards a stamp. When enough stamps are collected, rewards like shop discounts and extra experience points follow. It was just enough to keep me determined to root out the prickly little bastard from every corner of the world.

The Crimson Wizard could tell you how his anti-gravity bracelets work, but then he'd have to kill you. | Square Enix

But even the hunt for L'il Cactus isn't enough to erase the realization that Trials of Mana asks players to retread the same ground several times over. When an objective is completed, getting to the next destination usually requires a long walk to the new marker. That means redoing a lot of old scraps with disposable enemies. The "Magic Rope" item brings players back to the beginning of caves and dungeons, which is handy. Traveling through Trials of Mana's overworlds means walking down familiar trails more than once, though. (At least until you befriend a certain winged pal whose cuddly face is a welcome sight for long-time Mana fans.)

I expect Trials of Mana's new art style will be contentious. I believe they successfully update the adventure's visuals while retaining the playful spirit of the Mana series' monster designs. On the other hand, they're not a sheer miracle like the sprite work in 2D Trials of Mana. 3D Trials of Mana looks good—better than the Secret of Mana remake, no doubt there—but I still look at those pastel Super Famicom sprites and wonder, "How the hell did Squaresoft do that?" Moreover, when a sprite-based RPG is uplifted into the 3D space, it becomes much easier to notice repetition in tile sets, room objects, and NPCs.

On the other hand, Trials of Mana's remixed music is gorgeous, which is a relief after the collaborative remixes for the Secret of Mana remake yielded mixed results. If you don't like what you hear, you have the option to switch back to the original Super Famicom tracks.

Flammie lives. | Square Enix

As for the English voice cast that's…well, it's difficult to describe it with words, so a grunt will have to do.

[Grunt.]

I will say listening to Trials of Mana's English voices isn't fatal, so that's a checkmark. Faerie's voice actor is invested in her role, and I grew to kind of like Kevin's unsteady, halting dialogue. (He is a feral boy, after all.) The biggest problem is Charlotte. Charlotte sucks. She's always sucked. For reasons known only to the Dark Forces of Mavolia, Trials of Mana's localizers replaced her R's with W's. I get she's supposed to be cute, but seriously? Every time I hear her, I think of the "H-Hewwo? Mr. Obama, I'm dwooooning!" meme. My third character, Reisz, is tolerable, though her voice actor really pours on the "formal, straight-laced princess" routine. You might want to switch to the Japanese voices, though there's unfortunately no subtitles for battle banter.

Charlotte needs to be launched face-first into a brick wall, but otherwise the 3D Trials of Mana does the original game justice, then goes beyond. Its art direction isn't as breathtaking as its source, and there are repetitious moments of back-tracking, but the battle system's teardown and build-up finally make fighting a real challenge, not merely a chaotic clash of luck and numbers. Mana series fans should be happy to have a quality remake for a classic game, and anyone who loves retro-style action RPGs will find a solid fight.

Trials of Mana is a strong remake of the classic 2D Super Famciom RPG that Western fans pined after for so very, very long. Its story is a bit weak, Charlotte's English voice acting might make you retch, and there's some notable repetition in the game's environments, but fighting through enemy hordes feels great. It's a considerable step above the 2018 revamp of Secret of Mana, so no worries there.

4/5

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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