Collection of Mana Review — Return to the World of Mana
Collection of Mana is the definitive way to play three games that redefined the action RPG genre.
I remember in 2017 browsing the multitude of video game shops in Akihabara when suddenly I noticed the Seiken Legend Collection sitting on one of the shelves. Of course, I knew of the highly influential Mana series and thought to myself, “Well, this would be a great opportunity to try some fantastic games.” Luckily, I held off and now Square Enix has finally delivered that same collection here in the west with three titles that built Mana’s legacy in the action RPG genre.
The Collection of Mana contains three games: Final Fantasy Adventure (also known as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden), Secret of Mana, and for the first time in the west, Trials of Mana. All three titles are great in their own right and offer wildly different gameplay experiences, making this a great compilation for newcomers and longtime fans of the series.
Let’s start with Final Fantasy Adventure, which released on the original Game Boy back in 1991. This is easily the most basic title in the collection as it offers an experience similar to that of the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. You play as a young man who’s imprisoned as an arena combatant his entire life. One day, a very close friend of his passes away which inspires the hero to escape. You then discover that the Dark Lord who imprisoned you is seeking to dominate the world alongside a wizard named Julius. From here, your adventures will take you through a multitude of areas where you’ll gain enough power to confront the Dark Lord.
It’s about as basic as a hero’s journey can be. But there are some surprising twists and turns that really make the game feel quite impressive for a Game Boy title. You may not get invested in the overall plot but there is a ton of fun to be had with the gameplay.
As previously mentioned, Final Fantasy Adventure plays similarly to the original The Legend of Zelda. There are a multitude of refinements though as well as some RPG mechanics that give the game its own identity. You can find a variety of weapons and tools that make both combat and puzzle-solving pretty dynamic at a very baseline level. You’ll be grinding, exploring, and experimenting with everything at your disposal. While it’s an inherently old-school experience, it’s really a fun game.
Square has also included some visual options that’ll allow you to change the perspective or make the game look like it’s on a Game Boy screen or even Game Boy Color. Other than that, there aren’t many modern new additions. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that Final Fantasy Adventure did offer one of my favorite soundtracks in the entire Collection of Mana. Hearing the beautifully orchestrated Final Fantasy Adventure theme in the Collection of Mana’s opening menu was really fantastic. I’d find myself sitting on that screen just to hear it every time I booted up the game.
Jumping over to the most influential title in the collection, Secret of Mana is a great look at the entry that would go on to set the stage for the modern action RPG. What sets Secret of Mana apart from other JRPGs at the time was its focus on real-time combat with deeper RPG mechanics. It’s nothing like other games of this era like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI gameplay-wise. While it might not hold up as well as those games in that regard, its colorful sprite visuals and intriguing storyline hold it in a league of its own.
The story in Secret of Mana might come across as basic at first but it grows in many unpredictable ways, telling a story that’s as heartfelt as it is epic. One day, a young boy accidentally pulls the Sword of Mana from a stone beneath a waterfall after being instructed to do so by a mysterious voice. This ultimately unleashes a wave of monsters across the land. The boy goes on to recruit a young girl and a character from the Sprite race, which sort of gives them a dwarf-like appearance. Together, they need to find eight Mana Seeds which will ultimately restore the Sword of Mana. Of course, there’s an evil empire and an ultimate baddy to discover for yourself.
Combat will definitely feel unfamiliar at first if you’re more accustomed to modern action RPGs. It does however quickly become accessible once you learn its basic mechanics. You can attack enemies freely using your weapon, but there’s a percentage bar at the bottom of the screen that indicates the power of your attacks. This ensures that you can’t simply spam attacks because if you could the game would be way too easy. You need to time your strikes to dish out the most damage. The young girl and Sprite character act as the mages in the group, but you won’t have access to these useful abilities until you defeat a couple of bosses.
Secret of Mana uses an incredibly pleasant 16-bit art style that’s just a joy to look at. Every location is wildly different from the last, giving the game a sense of scale and adventure. You’ll be exploring a variety of locations like giant fortresses, dark caverns, lush forests, and more. All of these areas are accompanied by a ton of unique enemies. Boss battles, in particular, were a lot of fun, as many are not as straightforward as they initially appear. Overall, Secret of Mana is a great looking game.
The menu system is something worth noting as it doesn’t hold up super well. Each character has access to a radial menu that you’ll need to access using different buttons. It looks cool but it can definitely be a pain to scroll through in the heat of battle. Whether you need to use an item, equip something, or use a spell, it’s all done through the radial menus, and I didn’t really think it flowed into the overall gameplay too well. Nevertheless, Secret of Mana is certainly a game that still feels great to play in 2019, making it awesome for those who have never experienced this timeless classic before.
Trials of Mana will likely be the biggest addition for longtime fans of Mana games as well as those hungry for games that Squaresoft didn’t localize in the 90s. It’s definitely the most refined Mana title in the collection and it looks great too, as it released on the cusp of the first fully 3D console generation. The story is more intricate than the previous two titles with a large variety of dialogue, themes, and characters. It’s also worth pointing out that this is the most replayable title in Collection of Mana.
You begin the game by choosing three out of six heroes. You’ll be playing the entire game as those characters. While the other characters aren’t absent from the game, their tales play out alongside the journey between your three party members. One might think this could make the overall story feel a bit disjointed, but I didn’t find this to be the case. Obviously, it also gives players the chance to replay Trials of Mana a number of times, experimenting with different character combinations. If you’re also worried that this may affect the overall difficulty of the game, I didn’t find this to be the case either as you can really build your characters in ways that benefit the party makeup no matter what it may be.
The story has a multitude of branching paths and storylines to discover. There are a variety of villains you’ll encounter but your ultimate goal remains the same throughout. Your hero, the one you choose first on the game’s opening screen, must acquire the Sword of Mana from the Mana Tree before it dies. To do this, you’ll have to trek across the world, acquiring the power necessary to take the Sword of Mana and have your woes extinguished. Each character has their own motivations and goals which will drive the way the plot unfolds for you.
Combat feels more refined than Secret of Mana as it’s easier to target enemies and attack efficiently. The game does still rely on that radial menu system to use items and magic. However, there’s a more modernized menu system that you can use for other things like equipment, battle strategies, etc. It’s pretty clunky when it comes to navigation but it gets the job done.
The six heroes have access to different classes as they progress in the game’s story. Once you reach level 18 you can choose what track you want to take your character down. Additionally, leveling up allows you to allocate skill points for the first time in the series, really allowing you to build characters that are all your own. It’s simplistic when compared to modern standards, but it’s a nice addition to the game that was noticeably absent in Secret of Mana.
Trials of Mana also has another new feature with its weekly schedule. The game transitions from day to night and each day of the week offers different benefits in battle. It’s definitely a surprising feature and I did not initially know how much it affected gameplay until exploring it deeper.
A lot of what I said about the visuals in Secret of Mana can be applied to Trials of Mana. The game is overall a lot more dynamic in terms of visuals with more detail on every character, environment, and item. Sprite effects also look really solid when it comes to visual flair. I also really enjoyed every party member at first glance. They don’t necessarily fall under any archetype that you’d find today in a multitude of JRPGs. With so many players jumping into this game for the first time, they’ll undoubtedly want to try them all in multiple playthroughs.
I’ve seen some folks who are a bit wary to jump into Collection of Mana due to its $40 price point. I personally think that the collection will easily give you a hefty amount of gameplay for the asking price. Final Fantasy Adventure is the shortest of the bunch, but both Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana will take you well over 20 hours to complete.
Collection of Mana is a great chance for newcomers and longtime fans to revisit this long-dormant series. While Square Enix did try and breath new life into the series with the Secret of Mana remake last year, I’d definitely say that this is the best way to experience that game as well as its predecessor and sequel. The novelty of having these titles at home or on the go with Nintendo Switch has been mentioned time and time again but it also cannot be understated here. The collection as a whole has me super excited to ultimately get my hands on the Trials of Mana remake in 2020 as I’ll be interested in seeing how the game makes the transition into a modern action RPG.