Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), PC, PS4
In 2018, Square Enix remade the beloved SNES action-RPG Secret of Mana and it… wasn’t very good. It was almost more of a port than a remake, with maps and gameplay yanked directly from its game of origin. The problem? The same things that made the game so charming and likeable as a 2D sprite RPG made it feel janky and under-developed at a 3D polygonal one. Add to that a broken menu screen, subpar voice acting, and genuinely awful animated cut-scenes, and the Secret of Mana remake felt more like a cash-in than a true love letter to the original classic.
Which made Square Enix’s remake of Trials of Mana all the more surprising. With Secret of Mana kind of bombing, why would Square Enix spend so much money and effort on remaking another Mana title, this time one that never made it stateside (until Collection of Manai which was just released last year?)
In my opinion, Trials of Mana is one of two things. It’s either an apology for the original Secret of Mana remake, or it, alongside the Final Fantasy VII Remake, is proof that Square Enix has finally understood how to make a remake compelling. Because, for whatever reason, Trials of Mana is a fantastic game. Yes, Square Enix released two remakes this month, and you really should play both of them.
Trials of Mana’s story is unique in that it’s many stories rolled into one. At the beginning of the game you will choose a party of three out of six main characters, and the story you get will differ depending on the party you choose. Maybe you’ll take control of the warrior Duran and chase down the Crimson Wizard who has been leading attacks against his country. Maybe you’ll take control of the werewolf Kevin and chase down the demonic skeleton jester that is corrupting his father and that lead to the death of his companion Karl. Maybe you’ll take control of Charlotte… on second thought don’t take control of Charlotte. Maybe you’ll take control of Hawkeye and go up against the forces of a Dark Prince fallen from light.
For the most part, you’ll visit the same places, take on the same quests, and fight the same bosses no matter what party you control. However, your introduction dungeon, final dungeon and boss, and every single cutscene in the game, will be completely different depending on your party and main character.
Trials of Mana manages to do this by keeping the scope of its story small. For the most part, it feels like a fairytale. Character motivations are simple and morality is basically just split into good and bad. This allows every main character to solve the same problems, just because they are good, and triumph over the same monsters, just because they are bad, while still letting the background motivations behind doing so differ in every route. It feels a bit like a Saturday morning cartoon in that way.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The original plot of Seiken Densetsu 3, the game that would become Trials of Mana, was simple too. Most 16-bit SNES RPG plots were. Square simply decided not to fool around with it too much.
I will say that the plot only works because the game is paced so well. Simply being a good person for the sake of goodness would get dry and boring if you had to cope with it for too long. But Trials of Mana keeps things changing up all the time. You’ll get a main story quest, set out, beat it in less than a half hour, and then immediately get a new one that sends you to a new place to fight new enemies and triumph over some new evil. You are always doing something new, pushing forward to triumph over a new evil. In a deeper, more involved plot, this sort of pacing would feel rushed, but in a simpler fairy tale plot, this pacing feels just right.
Square left the gameplay of the original Secret of Mana remake alone and it didn’t work out. The top-down 2D charge-move based hack and slash gameplay just did not translate well to the modern age of gaming. So, for Trials of Mana, Square gutted the whole thing and started from scratch.
The game isn’t top down anymore. Now it’s full 3D, allowing you to wander around massive maps and explore seamlessly connected landscapes. You can see all the enemies on the map before you encounter them, and if you attack them or they attack you, you will enter battle.
Combat feels a lot more like an action game with some RPG elements thrown in. You have two attack buttons, light and heavy attack, and you string them together in different combinations to do different combos. Light attacks are quick and deal more damage per second but deal less damage per individual hit and can't break through enemy armor. Heavy attacks are slow and can be charged to deal more damage and break armor, but leave you wide open before and after you strike. Using these in combination with each other will allow you to do combos that his in AOEs, knock the enemy back, stun the enemy and so on.
This system is spiced up with spells and special abilities which cost MP, which acts like MP in every other RPG, and your CS bar, which acts more like a super meter in a fighting game. You also have a variety of items, both offensive and defensive, at your disposal. Any of these abilities or items can be shortcutted to button combinations, or used via the menu which pauses time while you access it. It shares a bit of DNA with FFVIIR that way.
While this battle system sounds simple, it is undeniably fun. Simply wandering back and forth across a map and leveling is a blast. Boss battles are epic and adrenaline packed as you dodge massive attacks and unleash your own. You can program your party members’ A.I. or switch to them to control them yourself, and every single character in the game is fun to play and completely unique. Unfortunately, there’s no multiplayer to speak of, and while that’s very frustrating to anyone who played the original with two friends, the A.I. does a decent enough job stepping in for human players.
Outside of battle you’ll have all the same RPG systems the original gave you, and once again they are straightforward and uncomplicated. Every level gives you training points which can be spent on new abilities and increasing your stats. Every town gives you a small selection of new equipment, which never does much outside of increasing your attack and defense. You’ll eventually get to change your class which gets you more abilities to fool around with. It’s just the right amount of customization to let you tinker with your character without causing you to spend ages in the menu.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the pacing once again. Trials of Mana might be a quick burn in it’s story but it’s a slow burn in it’s gameplay. The battle system is kept rather simple and action focused for a good fourth of the game, until you change your class for the first time. There won’t be much to do aside from thwack at enemies wildly unless you actively chose to play a magic class. However, once you do change classes, the battle system opens up tremendously. Every battle will become something of a puzzle, asking you to use the right abilities, dodge at the right times, and take on enemies intelligently rather than with wanton button mashing.
And as slow as this burn is, Trials of Mana’s navigation system keeps is going fast. The mini map is fantastic and you are constantly given an indicator telling you where to go no matter how lost you are. This means you can put the game down for hours, days, weeks at a time and pick it up again, look at your story log, and immediately know what to do. Not to mention, you can eventually unlock map upgrades which will show you the location of treasures and sidequests, meaning your goals are always immediately accessible. More RPGs should integrate simple streamlined map systems like this. It’s 2020 and there’s no reason we should be wandering around thinking “where do I go next.”
It’s very clear that Trials of Mana is a lower budget game than… well practically any recent Square Enix release. The environments are simplistic, the textures are flat, and the voice acting…. Hooo boy the voice acting. It feels like it’s coming straight out of a PS2 era RPG, which is to say it’s awkward, stilted, and flat.
In fact, everything feels like it’s a generation behind. Character animations in cutscenes are kind of stiff, repetitive, and over-exaggerated, once again like PS2 era models. NPCs all have the same model and limited animations. Characters talk to each other in battle but they constantly say the same quips over and over again. All of this feels a generation or two behind and all of it is very clearly a result of the remake having a very small budget.
But you know… it works. It really does. The rest of the game is designed so well, and with the retro aesthetic in mind, that I not only didn’t mind this jankiness, I kind of liked it. After all, we all remember games from the PS2 era that still hold up today. This kind of feels like that, a retro game made in a modern era.
Not to mention the game still looks and sounds great where it counts. It runs at a silky smooth 60FPS at all times on every console except the Switch, and even then slowdowns are rare. In-battle effects are simple but gorgeous. Menus are both eye-catching and easy to navigate. And the music is superb.
You can choose between a new remade soundtrack or the original 16-bit soundtrack at any time in the menu, and both are fine choices. The original Secret of Mana’s remixed soundtrack was kind of off putting, losing the whimsical theme of the original tunes and relying too heavily on electronic sounds. Trials of Mana, on the other hand, gives you an appropriate fantasy orchestral soundtrack to jam out to. It’s just great.
Replayability and nostalgia
Trials of Mana is built with replayability in mind. A single run-through will only take you a little over 20 hours, even if you excessively level your characters and complete many, if not all of the game’s sidequests. Even so, you are only seeing a small portion of the game’s content.
There is so much more story and gameplay to be experienced in subsequent playthroughs. Not only do you get to reload your data in New Game +, keeping your levels and abilities, you also get to learn exclusive abilities that can only be unlocked in second playthroughs. Not to mention there’s still plenty of classes that you still haven’t played with, and three whole other characters with a whole different story to play through should you like. Then there are new combinations of characters which will get you even more new story combinations for further playthroughs. And then on top of that all, there’s a brand new post-game story, made completely new for this remake for you to experience.
Square took a much different approach to Trials of Mana than it did with FFVIIR. Instead of taking artistic liberty with the game, it has translated everything nearly 1-to-1 from the original. Even the script is pulled almost directly from the recently released translation in Collection of Mana and much of that was inspired directly from a fan translation that was released decades ago. From beginning to end you are getting the original Trials of Mana exactly as you remember it, just with modern graphics and updated gameplay.
But after that, all bets are off. The post-game, as I said before, is totally new. New Game + runs are also totally new with brand new abilities you never had in the original game. Square wanted to have its cake and eat it too, and it succeeded. It both delivered a faithful remake of the original and made a totally new game all at once, and somehow separated the two such that fans that wanted either would still be satisfied.
Trials of Mana is just a good game. It’s a good remake and a good game. I’m likely to play through it multiple times just to see all of the content. It’s not a blockbuster AAA massive event like Final Fantasy VII Remake was, but it is a damn good RPG, that kind of feels like RPG comfort food. It’s easy to play, easy to access, fun, enjoyable, simple, and replayable. It’s everything we could have wanted from a remake of one of the most well-known and well-loved Japanese exclusives of the 16-bit era.