Trials of Mana is a Square Enix action adventure JRPG that features six different main characters and a story that changes depending on which of them you choose. This is a remake of Seiken Densetsu 3, a game that didn’t see localization outside of Japan until 2019, 24 years after its original release. It’s a forgotten classic known for its twisting plot, class system, and beautiful graphics. This version sets out to modernize the original and make it more accessible to people playing video games in 2020 — and it succeeds.
Six in one
Trials of Mana starts with a simple choice: Whom do you want to play as? You’re presented with six characters from various backgrounds who have different strengths and weaknesses, and you select three of them for a playthrough. Duran the fighter is a swordsman with high attack and defense, but not great for mowing down enemies. Meanwhile, Riesz the valkyrie has more tools for taking on mobs but has a lower attack stat overall. Each character excels in certain situations, and part of the joy of this game is figuring out which hero or combination to use against the different types of enemies.
However, this is a JRPG, and the crazy plot is at least as important as min/maxing. Trials of Mana features a surprisingly dark story revolving around nations being manipulated into waging war, the dangers of abusing natural resources, and the eternal struggle between the ambitions of people and the importance of nature.
Each protagonist has a shared nemesis with one other hero, and the plot of the game will vary depending on your team makeup. For instance, if your main character is Kevin (the beastman grappler) or Charlotte (the half-elf cleric), then your story will focus on the machinations of Goremand and the Ferolian beastmen, with the other villains appearing in the background. You’ll get the full story if both are in the party. This choice is so important that even the final dungeon and boss depend on who your main character is.
A classy affair
Once the story reaches a certain point, you’ll be able to switch characters’ classes. People within Trials of Mana will talk about this without ever once acknowledging the fourth wall, which always gets a chuckle from me. When you finally arrive at the location, and the whole shebang has been well and truly built up, the player chooses a “light” or “dark” class to change into. Light upgrades tend to have healing and buff spells, while dark ones grant offensive and debuff spells. Either way, your butt-kicking goes up very noticeably and it feels real good. You can customize your characters further with more class changes and equippable chain skills, which are little buffs that you get for leveling up and talking with certain characters.
If at first you don’t succeed, trials, trials again
For a game that has all these options, Trials of Mana never feels overwhelming. Every choice feels like a good one, and there’s no harm in going back and trying new things, unlike in the SNES original. Frankly, everything in this remake is an improvement. The music is a gorgeous orchestration of the themes taken from the first three Mana games, and while you can switch to the 16-bit soundtrack, you’d be missing out on a lot of the more modern takes. Likewise, the graphics are a pleasure to look at. This is a colorful game, and the character and enemy designs stick close to the originals. While it doesn’t run at a full 60 frames per second, it’s every bit the pretty picture that the PS4 version is.
The game systems move smoothly, and you always get a concise explanation for what you’re about to do. Combat is fun and engaging with just enough tactical depth to keep it interesting, but without requiring a PhD in strategery to get past common mooks.
And the boss battles, my goodness. Each major encounter feels unique and makes you think differently about how to tackle it. There’s a sense of achievement when defeating a boss that’s directly proportionate to how large it is, and the reimaginings of most of these fights are a joy to behold.
Among the boss fights, combat in general, and character customization, it can be hard for a developer to find the right ratio of strategy to action. The team behind Trials of Mana struck that balance perfectly, and even a 10-20-second enemy encounter is a little puzzle to solve on the fly. Sometimes I’d rush in with Riesz to set off an area-of-effect attack, then take advantage of the distracted enemies by switching to Duran for a more personal touch. Other times I’d start the battle with Kevin, whose abilities were great at knocking off enemy shields, leaving them open for crushing blows. And then there were encounters where I’d just unleash a massive special skill and annihilate an entire mob. I felt satisfied and accomplished every single time, and I would sometimes go out of my way to fight easily avoided enemies.
You did what to the Mana Tree???
It doesn’t nail everything perfectly, though. The maps in Trials of Mana are mostly faithful to the SNES original’s, which means the camera can get pretty funky in small rooms designed for a 2D game. In fact, most of the areas are on the smaller side, and moving between them will trigger a loading screen. They’re seldom more than 15 seconds, but it adds up and starts to feel oppressive after a while.
Due to the complex nature of the story and the script, your characters almost never interact directly with each other. Additionally, the main campaign clocks in at around 25-30 hours. Considering you’d have to play through Trials of Mana at least three times to get the full story, it can become pretty repetitive.
As for the voice acting, most of the main cast is fine, but everything from the direction to the diction is strange more often than not. The voices rarely match the characters, and some of the accents and affects are truly wild. And while most of the performances are technically good, there are more flubbed lines than I’d have expected in an otherwise excellent game. And don’t get me started on Charlotte…
A classier affair
Trials of Mana adds a post-game campaign that gives your characters access to a fourth class level and a new dungeon. Getting the new upgrades involves a small personal mission for each of the heroes, which add a nice bit of nuance to their individual stories. The dungeon is a massive reward for enjoying the game, culminating in an amazing boss battle. The extra content clocks in at around seven hours in total, and it even has a little something for fans of the greater Mana series. Upon completion, you also get New Game+ mode.
Triumph of Mana
This Trials of Mana remake often feels like it came out of the ’90s, for better and for worse. Quirks in the localized script, over-the-top voice acting, and many of the wackier story beats are things we don’t get much of these days, but they were quite common back then. Likewise, the level design and some of the old mechanics can either feel familiar or quaint, depending on how you’re approaching them. Ultimately, I felt like a kid again playing this game, and that’s not a bad thing in my book.
Trials of Mana is a wonderful remake of a classic JRPG that most Westerners never experienced. More than that, it’s proof that Square Enix is willing to put in the work and learn from its past mistakes when updating old favorites. My hope is that it doesn’t get too overshadowed by the AAA titles that have been dominating gamers’ attentions this past month (including a remake of a certain other ’90s RPG). From the story to the soundtrack to the gameplay, old fans and new will find something to love in this game.
A review code was provided by the publisher.