Note: this is a review of Trials of Mana from the Collection of Mana – NOT the 2020 remake. If you’re looking for that, go here.
As a longtime fan of both RPGs and the Mana series, I immediately jumped on the Collection of Mana – a compilation of the first three Mana games – when it released back in 2019. I blasted through the first two games, shared my thoughts, but was a bit burned out by the time I reached the third entry, known as Seiken Densetsu 3 in Japan before donning the Trials of Mana title for this collection. I had dabbled in Seiken Densetsu 3 over the years but was really holding any real investment for the officially translated version, which obviously didn’t come until over 20 years later. Having just spent around 50 hours completing the remake three times, and more or less loving it, I decided it was time to properly explore the origins of what many would consider the pinnacle of the Mana series. With that in mind, let’s dive into the final chapter of the Collection of Mana and see just how it revolutionized the franchise…for better or worse.
For a subgenre that often prides itself on overly convoluted narratives, Trials of Mana is surprisingly easy to follow. Our heroes live in a world where the planet’s life essence – Mana – is withering away. It has been said that the Mana Sword was a powerful artifact from a bygone era; a beacon of immense power capable of wondrous works in the hands of the just, and unspeakable horrors if ever wielded by the nefarious. The Mana Goddess once used this power to defeat and seal eight terrible creatures, known as the Benevodons, within phylacteries known as Mana Stones. However, the fading power of Mana in recent years has enticed many of those in power to try and awaken these Benevodons, and ultimately claim the Mana sword for their own – no matter the repercussions.
The player’s goal is to prevent these things from coming to pass; worst case, destroying the awakened Benevodons in order to restore balance to Mana. This is done from the perspective of three characters from a possible pool of six, with three pairs tied to their own shared antagonist that ultimately shapes the final path of the story. While the overarching goal remains the same across each of the three potentially different scenarios, dialogue, keys players, and certain destinations will change based on your chosen party of three. In other words, completing the game at least three different times will provide the most thorough experience from a narrative perspective, though arguments could be made towards finishing it six or more times depending on exactly how you select your companions each time. Replayability is the name of the tune here, weighing heavily into how much time (and enjoyment) you will get out of the game since a single playthrough might only take 15-20 hours to complete.
The dynamic nature of events in Trials of Mana, while nice, means you could easily miss out on some content if you don’t properly select your characters. The aforementioned “antagonist pairing” simply provides more exposition if you select the proper teams. Worse yet, improperly pairing characters on subsequent runs could set you down the same path as your initial run without you really knowing about it. If your goal is to see the three main splits of the narrative, just be sure that your party’s first and second slots consist of Angela/Duran, Kevin/Charlotte, and Hawkeye/Riesz – these pairings are a bit easier to see organically after completing the game a single time, but still might not be totally obvious to some. The “six or more runs” suggested earlier are for the serious completionists, as minor dialogue bits can change depending on your specific loadout (this was the case in the remake – I am only assuming it applies in the original, as well).
While the narrative in Trials of Mana may lack a certain level of “wow factor” due to its overall simplicity, the actual design and implementation of it, a la shared narratives, is anything but, remaining a truly impressive feature that could teach modern titles a thing or two. Octopath Traveler – better yet, whatever its non-mobile successor may be – could draw from this example of how to properly provide party options while maintaining a cohesive story.
Trials of Mana is an action RPG at heart, and I mean fighting is literally everything. There is basically no side content outside of a superboss that is, unfortunately, only accessible by specific characters. The upside to this is very little filler and decent pacing (at least until having to farm seeds for the final class changes), so if you end up enjoying the world, story, and the combat, then you won’t even miss such things. Trials of Mana aims to improve on the combat system of its predecessor, Secret of Mana, but is only partially successful in that endeavor. Gone are the days of notoriously bad AI – attacking at the worst times and getting hung up on terrain – excessively long charging attacks, grinding weapon and magic levels, and cheesing every boss with magic stunlocks; in its place is a more satisfying, albeit button-mashy combat system. Party members are able to dish out a basic melee attack every couple of seconds – an already significant improvement over Secret’s much longer cooldown (to a 100% charge). Landing any attack successfully will accumulate points that can then be used for class strikes; powerful abilities that pack a punch and are equally satisfying visually.
Melee commands are more or less done in real-time, including entry level class strikes, though later class strikes, items, and magic spells will stop the game completely until their respective animations are over. Enemy special attacks do this, as well, leading more chaotic fights to a constant “stop-go” loop that is the antithesis of what action combat should be. While this design decision does lead to the individual actions feeling a bit more impactful, it isn’t worth the trade-off that is choppy combat. Besides that, combat in Trials of Mana is far superior to that of Secret of Mana.
Trials of Mana features a robust character progression system that is fueled through player controlled stat allocation and multiple class changes. Any time a character levels up, they are able to put one point into any of the following attributes: strength, dexterity, vitality, intellect, spirit, and luck. Unfortunately, many of these attributes are either bugged, downright broken, or are simply of little use to certain characters/builds. The problem is that the game fails to convey this information to you – in fact, it doesn’t really explain attributes (or classes) at all! As much as it pains me to admit, occasionally referring to a guide might be a good idea, though each class’s min and max stat thresholds help to curve any potentially devastating screwup that could otherwise be insurmountable.
Each character in Trials of Mana has access to six classes that have a light attunement, dark attunement, or later a mixture of both. The first class change becomes available at Level 18 – a choice that will lock you into one of two choices for your second class change at 38. For example, Duran can choose to be either a Knight (light) or Gladiator (dark) at level 18, with the former granting access to either Paladin (light/light) or Liege (light/dark) at 38 while the latter offers Duelist (dark/dark) and Edelfrei (dark/light). Each of these classes come with their own pros and cons, though it is rather difficult to perceive these differences without referring to a guide. You can absolutely just go with your gut, or whatever class sounds cool, but in reality you could easily be disappointed in a class selection and then be locked into it for the remainder of the game (or until your final class change).
Seeing a pattern here? Trials of Mana lacks much of the information necessary in order to make informed decisions. Ideally, this version should have shipped with a digital (and translated) version of the original game manual; a 47 page reference that would have went a long way in explaining many of the things – even more subtle ones, such as the pros/cons of the elemental days – which just aren’t covered naturally in-game. But even that manual lacks the information needed to compare and contrast all the different character classes. Look, I hate excessive handholding as much the next person, but there is a certain level of basic information that just seems logical to include in games, especially when so much freedom is given to you for character development.
If you enjoy this insane level of “the unknown” then by all means go in blind, but I prefer to know just what I’m getting myself into when character builds are completely in my hands and their changes/upgrades are permanent for the entire 15-20 hour session. A potential in-between would be to play the remake version beforehand as most, but not all of the knowledge learned there can be applied to the original — hints to story progression and some navigational sense alone are well worth considering this route. Regardless, the highly customizable nature of character progression gels extremely well with the dynamic narrative that must be consumed via multiple playthroughs.
The original release of Trials of Mana debuted on the same year as a few other notable Square Enix products, including Romancing SaGa 3 and Chrono Trigger, and features some of the best pixel art from 16-bit era alongside these entries. There are a wide variety of locations to discover and explore, most of which have their own distinct look or setting. Many areas take advantage of intelligently designed layers and parallax scrolling – one particular fight in the sky is among the very best graphical scenes you’ll find on the platform.
Hiroki Kikuta had some big shoes to fill – even if they were his own – returning as composer of Trials of Mana after wowing the world with the previous Mana entry. He continues the tradition in emphasizing percussive instruments, much in the same way that made so many tracks in Secret – like Mystic Invasion – so stylish and memorable. Heavy percussive leads, on paper, may not seem like something that would bring about a varied and emotionally stirring soundtrack, but Kikuta is a master at his craft and absolutely doesn’t disappoint here. Although I’d argue that the Secret of Mana soundtrack is still the better of the two, there’s a lot to love here, as well.
It is a bit odd to think there are performance issues in a 20+ year old sprite-based Super Famicom game, but Trials of Mana does feature a pretty annoying hiccup in a rather unorthodox place. The UI and menus look really nice – certainly among the best of its time – but comes at the cost of severe input lag. This issue does NOT affect the ring menu out in the field, mind you, but does slow inventory and equipment management down to a complete crawl. Fortunately, you won’t be spending a ton of time in menus outside of the ring system, but it is something to keep in mind, nonetheless.
Many regard Trials of Mana as one of, if not the best RPG from the 16-bit era, and in certain ways I’d have to agree. The individual narratives that are interwoven to create a cohesive story, regardless of party makeup, was revolutionary for the time and remains an example that other games can (and should) follow to this day. Having virtually complete control over character builds is great, playing well into the overarching theme of replayability with the narrative, but it lacks much of the basic information necessary to really make sound decisions — made all more evident by the absence of the original game manual.
Having a guide handy – or completing the Trial of Mana remake first, like I did – prior to sinking your teeth into this version is advised, as it will help fill in the blanks of many things that are missing here. The button mashy combat – again, far better than its predecessor – hasn’t aged well though, and there’s a reason why it was completely changed in the remake. There are certainly reasons why one would want to play this version – to take in the sights and sounds of some of the finest aesthetics the 16-bit era had to offer, for example – but the remake offers far more potential satisfaction from a gameplay standpoint, making this one hard to wholeheartedly recommend on its own. The collection as a whole remains well worth the price, however, even if just for the occasional nostalgic romp.