Trials of Mana Review — Class Changing Into a Brand New Form
Despite a few hiccups along the way, Trials of Mana is a worthy remake of the original and also serves as a great entry point for new fans.
Seiken Densetsu 3 first made its appearance in 1995 for the Super Famicom but unfortunately, the game would never receive a Western release in its original form. Now, under the new name Trials of Mana, the game has finally arrived outside of Japan as a full 3D remake of Seiken Densetsu 3. Everything from the monsters, towns, gameplay, dungeons, and character models have been lovingly translated from the original 2D title.
And while this may be a solid entry in the Mana series, it begs the question of whether this can be considered a solid JRPG in its own right.
Trials of Mana follows a pretty standard fantasy plot that revolves around a diverse cast of JRPG archetypes as they save their respective kingdoms and the world from evil forces that are attempting to activate the Mana Stones and gain the power of the Mana Sword. Along the way, these characters aid the elementals that represent each stone and gain their alliance in return.
Although the story could have easily been annoyingly cliched and boring, there’s something about having such a straightforward plot with characters who are clear cut and consistent in their motives and behaviors. It’s charming almost and a refreshing change from the more convoluted plots that tend to drag down other narrative-heavy titles.
The real draw of Trials of Mana, however, is how the story and antagonist changes depending on the protagonist you choose at the start. Two characters share one villain though between them there may be vast differences in their narrative arcs. For instance, Duran and Angela have the same foe, the Crimson Wizard, but the reasons for why they oppose this baddie comes from opposite starting points.
Depending on what two party members you choose also affects how the overall story unfolds. A good example is my own party composition: thanks to how events unfold in-game, Riesz’s resolution with her kingdom, Laurent, occurred fairly early, while Kevin must wait until later chapters before his main plot is addressed. This also meant that due to Angela being the leading lady in my playthrough, Duran took a more passive role when Valsena’s liberation comes into play.
Even now, this kind of storytelling style is a rare find but it’s even more surprising when you consider that the original Seiken Densetsu 3 was made in 1995. Playing through Trials of Mana, I found myself amazed at how much dialogue variety there is since the scriptwriters had to predict every conceivable scenario for the player’s party composition. It’s not a perfect system, as sometimes story beats can be a bit awkward as they show their age, but it’s an extensive one that adds an incredible level of replayability to the game.
The gameplay in Trials of Mana is an absolute blast as the 2D combat from the original translates well to the 3D plane as characters move, attack, and dodge smoothly. You have a variety of basic moves–attacks, power strikes, and charge attacks –as well as Clash Strikes, which are denoted by a special double gauge called the CS gauge.
Despite the palette swapping and slight model changing of most enemy “families,” each type has a distinctive moveset, pattern of attack, and unique abilities. For instance, there are several foes that evolve into a stronger form mid-battle when a certain condition is fulfilled. The changing strategies among foes forces you to re-examine and modify your own strategy. It’s a constantly shifting environment that prevents you from getting too complacent, which makes for thrilling battles.
Bosses are no slouch, either. The first two or so are lightweights that merely test how well you’ve mastered the combat mechanics. After this point, the game takes off the proverbial kid gloves and proceeds to pound you into the dirt if you haven’t been allocating your training points, are too low level, aren’t paying attention to AOE moves, or haven’t taken advantage of class upgrades.
There are plenty of hiccups in combat, though. The camera, as in many action and action RPG titles, can be your worst enemy at times. Most of the time, it’s easy enough to adjust on the fly and enemies won’t punish you for not having them in your sights at all times. But when it gets stuck on corners or in tight corridors, wrestling back control while maintaining a steady assault becomes an exercise in patience that I didn’t consent to. There’s also the inconsistent nature of the targeting system, which can make the camera go haywire at times and will de-lock at random intervals.
The AI for party members can be hit or miss as well. AI is generally smart enough to dodge most AOE attacks, target foes with moves that make sense (ie: using aerial attacks on aerial enemies), and overall do well at abiding by the AI behavior you set for them. And if you set the proper behaviors, your supports and healers will reliably use the corresponding spells and abilities.
However, they tend to have trouble with more complex behaviors such as avoiding very precise AOE moves or any sort of damage from normal attacks. It’s frustrating to say the least when party members fall prey to easily avoidable attacks and you’re forced to pick up the slack. This is compounded even more so if, like me, you have no white mage in your party and rely on your limited supply of items.
These shortcomings do very little to take away from both my overall enjoyment of combat and from my favorite part of Trials of Mana: the dungeons. While nothing is wrong with the more linear experience of modern JRPGs such as Final Fantasy VII Remake or Persona 5 Royal, I missed the more sprawling dungeon maps of classic titles. Fortunately, Trials of Mana completely delivers on that front.
Each area is set up with a unique gimmick that serves as the key to navigating. But as players will soon notice, there are tons of alternate pathways filled with hidden secrets and valuable treasures; completely optional but well worth your time to fully explore them. There’s also a Lil’ Cactus (which is literally a cute and tiny cactus, a franchise staple NPC) hidden in nearly every dungeon and town, and finding a certain amount of them grants you useful effects such as shop discounts, occasional double experience points post-battle, and more. Having the option to go nearly everywhere in a given dungeon is refreshing and reminds me of some of the best aspects of old school JRPGs.
As the party defeats enemies and levels up they begin to earn training points. These training points can be allocated to abilities and stat increases that correspond with the five categories: stamina, strength, intelligence, luck, and spirit. Naturally, characters have leanings depending on their class specialties. Trials of Mana does well in incentivizing the allocation of points to every category regardless of their perceived relevance by ensuring useful abilities and stat gains.
After a certain point in the game, Mana Stones grant the party the ability to class change. Each character can choose between Light and Dark paths, which determine future abilities they’ll have access to as well as how their stats will grow. The training points and the class system is simple but offers some nice options; even within the restrictions of each class, there are many ways to customize your allies depending on your playstyle.
Despite Trials of Mana being a remake of a mid-90s Super Famicom title, this game unabashedly takes its cues from early 2000s JRPGs. From the bright and colorful visuals, to the simple story, to the more experimental free-movement action combat style that started to emerge in that era to even the voice work, Mana is entrenched in bizarrely misplaced nostalgia. And yet its presentation works almost entirely in its favor, as it allows Mana to stand out from the crowd of super-stylized or hyper-realistic titles, much like how Xenoblade Chronicles 2 did so when it released in 2017.
The visuals absolutely shine as a result of this design choice, as they manage to balance simple designs and vibrant colors with genuinely stunning and detailed environments. Every time I enter a new area, I look forward to seeing how they’ll interpret its original 2D look into the new (yet retro) graphics.
Even better than the graphics is the soundtrack which is brimming with fantastic remixes. One of my favorites is the boss theme which blares as Full Metal Hugger emerges from the cave. The rest of the soundtrack is just as phenomenal, ranging from energetic battle theme chords to upbeat town melodies to the solemn music featured during more dire straits. Fans of the original Seiken Densetsu 3 are sure to be pleased by the amount of care and effort that has been put into this OST.
Conversely, the voice acting is where this stylistic choice suffers the most. Voice acting, which was a new frontier for many developers in the early 2000s, isn’t spectacular here, either. The English voice work is extremely inconsistent, as some actors sound quite comfortable in their roles while others flounder to summon any sort of consistent character voice and emotion. Don’t think you’ll avoid this issue by switching to Japanese either, as the voice acting is just as mediocre. If voice acting quality is a major concern for you, this could have a huge impact on your experience. As for myself, I found the voice work growing on me as I played through the game to the point where I honestly forgot how awkward it was.
Though not a perfect game, Trials of Mana is still a solid remake of a 2D classic that tragically never made it to the West until now. With a fun and strategic battle system, ample character class customization, impressive visuals, a fantastic soundtrack, and a post-game story episode with new classes for each playable character, Trials of Mana is an easy recommendation to both fans of the franchise as well as newcomers looking for an entry point into the series.