Trials of Mana Review

The original Trials of Mana came out when every RPG Square spat out seemingly turned into a cult classic, and Trials of Mana is no different. It is well loved, at least in Japan where it actually saw a 1990s release. 2019 saw the Collection of Mana released in English for the first time on the Nintendo Switch. We also recently saw a remaster of Secrets of Mana, the prequel to Trials of Mana, and it was bad, to say the least.

Thankfully, Trials of Mana has seen some true love in the most recent remake. Putting it’s best foot forward, Trials of Mana (2020) has shaken things up and brought us 3D graphics, a more fluid combat system, and a delightful rebuilt soundtrack.

Fans of the original Trials of Mana will be happy to know that this is a faithful remake, only with more content in the form of additional post game content. Right down to the … charming dance that all the shopkeepers seem to know. I guess you have to get your steps in somehow. 

You start the game by picking your party from six potential heroes. All of them have an appropriately Tragic Backstory™ and there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to end up with at least one member of royalty in your party. Disgraced royalty, of course, because this is still a JRPG from 1995, and that particular brand of edgy hadn’t quite worn out its welcome yet. Whoever you pick first will be your protagonist, and their story the main one that guides the plot.

Your villains can be one of three, which one depends on your protagonist. Your choices are young Gandalf the Red, Totally-Not-A-Succubus, and a possibly dead, slightly robotic, and somehow planty jester. I don’t know why he’s planty, it’s just a feeling I get.

The core plot of the game is the same across all play through. Fetch some Mana Stones in order to find the Mana Sword, and fix the world’s Mana problem. Where Trials of Mana really shines however is in the first and last few hours. Each playable character has a different opening chapter, and you are given the option to play any of the ones in your party. Each introduction chapter gives you a better idea of your party characters, the world you’re playing in, and the villains you’re trying to defeat. Those villains take up most of the last few hours of the game, completing their story-line alongside yours, meaning that with three different playthroughs you can get three different endings, and final boss fights. It almost feels like you’re playing three different games considering how distinct each villain is, and subsequently how different their endings are.

The party members that you don’t choose do still pop up during the game in cameos, and the same is true to a lesser extent for the villains. Proof that you don’t need to be the protagonist to have a fulfilling life. It’s a nice little touch, and definitely makes for a few really cool moments on second (or third) playthroughs. Add in the different possible antagonists, and you have a truly remarkable game as far as replayability is concerned. Something even more impressive when you consider that it was created in 1995. The fact that so little of the plot has changed tells you how good it is.

The two biggest differences from the original Trials of Mana game is the art style, and the combat. Both of which have been completely overhauled because the game moved away from the flat, sprite based art style, to a shiny 3D world.

The best thing about moving from 2D to 3D is that extra dimension. Combat is both horizontal, and vertical. Some enemies need to be kicked or pulled down in order for melee characters to wail on them, while some of the bosses are easier to dodge while you’re in the air, above the red glowy attack indicator. It’s a level of freedom that makes playing a lot more enjoyable.

Being able to jump really helps with dodging, but what helps the most, is a dodge button. Funny that. Dodging and jumping are both new and bring with it a fluidity to the combat that just wasn’t possible for the older sprite based style. It adds a little more action into the game, and offers a satisfying way to make combos, and fly across the battlefield that is almost expected in modern JRPGs. I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XV.

You can shoot yourself in the foot when it comes to party creation, simply because the information you’re given about each character is minimal. It would be easy to accidentally pick a character you don’t like playing as. Luckily, switching characters in combat is as easy as an L2/R2 button press. I didn’t dislike playing as Hawkeye, but I found Kevin much more satisfying for my playstyle (whacking stuff until it dies, I am a simple gamer), so it was nice to know that I’d never feel trapped, or forced into a certain style of combat.

Combat is fast, without being frantic, and it has depth without being overly complicated. Just when you really get used to it, Trials of Mana throws sub classes at you once you hit level eighteen, keeping things interesting as you learn new skills, and potentially change your play style to suit your preferences better.

The only real downside in combat is that your AI are stupid. Really, really stupid. You can set a basic pattern for your AI to follow. Use ranges attacks, or melee. Defend, attack or heal as the priority action. It’s more than the original game allowed, but more often than not, you end up just watching your party standing still as they get walloped with massive damage simply because they wouldn’t move out of the giant glowing cone of doom. If your party members only fight half of the time, it almost defeats the purpose of having them. Luckily, for me at least, when you change over who you are controlling, it seems to kick them back into it, and that was something I tended to do a lot in order to aim the ultimate attacks of my party where I wanted them.

While most of the change to 3D is done well, there is one area that is lacking. More than lacking. It’s horrible. That is the animation. There’s nothing quite like watching Hawkeye perform a very dramatic, and dexterous jump, and look like he doesn’t actually know how legs work, to kill the adventuring mood. You get used to it after a little while, but sometimes it becomes particularly noticeable, just for a moment.

The animation being terrible clashes with the fantastic art style. Going from sprites to full 3D means there were a range of ways to design characters. The Trials of Mana remake embraces the bright colour schemes of the original, while taking it a step further. Not being held back by the technical limitations of the SNES, Trials of Mana has made an enjoyable world to explore, that still smacks you in the face with the fact that it is a fantasy world, and therefore is, by definition, fantastical. 

The world is big and open with heaps of nooks and crannies, the characters are realistically proportioned, while still looking like JRPG characters (big, shiny hair, and crop tops), and the towns have beautiful detail and bright colours that almost make you understand why the big bad wants to rule everything. If you were going to take over a country, you’d take over one you actually like, right?

The 1995 OST is beautiful, and it wouldn’t be fair to call the remade music an improvement, perhaps more of a refinement. The OST has been rebuilt, leaving you with the same feeling of being on a grand adventure, but with crystal clear quality and more of an instrumental sound, rather than a technological one. You can switch it up and play with the older music if you want to feel really nostalgic, and no one would blame you. 

As a remake, Trials of Mana (2020) takes the best of the original, like the plot, characters and music that made it a cult classic, and douses it in a pool of modern conveniences. If you’ve never played a Mana game before, this is as good a place to start. Great music, art, characters, and combat make for an enjoyable game, even as hinky animations, faulty combat AI, and the dated cheesiness only found in a 1995 JRPG drag it back a little. 

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