If you had told me that one of my most anticipated releases from 2020 would be a remake of a game I’ve never played, and a series I have no particular love for, I would have had a hard time believing you. Yet here we are, deep in the throes of the quarantine and with little Nintendo news on the horizon, Trials of Mana has managed to capture and hold my attention for long enough that it has wormed its way into my heart. I do like this game very much, but to say that it is a perfect experience would be overselling the package. If anything, Trials of Mana has given me hope that we could potentially see more from this series, with some further enhancements to the systems introduced here, though I won’t get my hopes up.
Trials of Mana presents a marked toss-up in its opening moments, as the player is tasked with picking three of six playable characters for their party. The first of these selections will become the game’s protagonist, with their narrative serving as the framing device for the events that unfold. Though this selection largely impacts the moment-to-moment gameplay, it also determines the primary antagonist of the experience, with one of three villains appearing and challenging the player towards the end of play. Each antagonist is tied to two of the playable characters, so it is best to read up and make sure you’re picking the right protagonist for another run. However, this shouldn’t be much of a problem, considering all of the characters appear in any single run and telegraph their intended antagonists very clearly.
Trials of Mana is an action-based role-playing game, and players will have to utilize their full moveset in order to find success in battle. When engaging an enemy, a boundary line will encircle the battlefield, which is an indicator of the playing space as well as a potential escape route. You’ll need to push against the border for a short period without getting damaged in order to successfully escape, though there are some major encounters where you’ll be locked in combat. There are options for basic and charged attacks, as well as rudimentary combos that offer specific effects – a single basic attack into a charge attack is usually used to knock enemies off their feet, while two basic attacks followed by a charge attack will produce a wider swipe. Though charge attacks usually do take longer to execute, they have the added benefit of producing charge energy, which can be used to fill the charge gauge for Class Strikes.
You’ll start the game with only one Class Strike, but you will gain more and expand your gauge as you upgrade your class. Class Strikes are powerful moves capable of one-shot-killing many basic enemies, which can be beneficial for grinding in a variety of ways. The combat system uses a reward bonus mechanic, which grants percentage amounts of experience gains to the player depending on whether they took damage during a battle, defeated an enemy with a Class Strike, and the time it took to take out all opponents. These gains aren’t often substantial, but the bonus defeating enemies with Class Strikes does stack with each opponent felled.
The control scheme maps an impressive number of inputs, but the placement of the roll and jump buttons may not be to your preference – these are fully customizable, however. You will also have access to two Ring Menus, which feature any equipped consumables and skills, respectively. Pulling up these menus does freeze the action, so if you want a brisker combat experience, you can map four skills to the quick select list tied to the right bumper. You may also switch between any of your three party members via the trigger buttons, which greatly increases your potential for impressive combinations and massive damage.
You’ll spend most of your time either out in the field, which is comprised of multiple interconnected routes, or in towns, where you’ll need to speak with NPCs to advance the story, purchase items, or stay at the inn. The game uses a save statue system, and many of these are capable of healing the party completely, so you might question the inclusion of a paid inn system. However, this mechanic does factor into the game’s weekly cycle, during which specific elements will grow stronger in power, potentially providing an edge for the player or a problem for a dungeon to come. Likewise, the game also has a day and night system, where you might be able to catch a few sleeping enemies off-guard, or visit the Night Market for some rare and expensive benefits. Though you won’t spend all that much time in safe areas, they are undoubtedly important to the game.
Customization is one of the most impressive aspects of Trials of Mana, but it is unfortunately one of the least-thoroughly explained concepts. Each level-up will grant a single skill point, though sometimes you’ll receive a boosted number based on your level, which you can invest in a number of statistic categories. Though each skill point does increase a statistic, certain milestones on each statistic’s skill list will unlock additional point bonuses, skills, and attributes. Attributes in particular come in exclusive and shared forms, which allows another member of your party to adopt the attribute unlocked by another character, further strengthening their build. Though you want to try to invest primarily in your characters’ areas of strength, each statistic is tied to an element – sometimes two. If you want to have any of your party members cover all the elemental bases, you’ll need to spread your skill points across all traits, which feels a bit unnecessary. Additionally, you’ll only be able to invest so many skill points per class, so unless you hold onto them before you change, you’ll end up putting a few into some other areas.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Though its inventive party-building mechanic offers a wide variety of character setups and narrative possibility, the truth is that the storytelling on display isn’t very deep. Trials of Mana gives off a very Dragon Quest-like air, in that the narratives and presentation are fairly straightforward, sometimes lacking gravitas as a result. Only a handful of comedic characters and moments land successfully, and it’s usually due to a very understated delivery, something that Trials of Mana doesn’t really seem to understand all that well. There are some dramatic plots, here – a princess sentenced to death by her mother, a thief whose sister is held hostage, a beastman who kills a puppy – but very few of these have an impact upon the characters, who instead take to the main quest rather than allowing themselves to be wracked with emotion. Likewise, everything turns out pretty well in the end… for the most part.
If there is one recommendation I might make in relation to the narrative, it is that you play without the English dub, which is absolutely atrocious more often than not. This can be seen most clearly in the character Charlotte, whose speech impediment is elevated to infuriating levels with the English dub. Many other characters fare no better – Angela in particular coming across as a bratty teenager, and the feral speech patterns of Kevin sounding awkward. In any case, the emotion is communicated perfectly fine via the Japanese dub, and it won’t negatively impact your experience like the English voice acting.
The Mana series isn’t the highest priority at Square Enix, so a remake possessing the quality of some other, perhaps meteoric, titles is not to be expected here. Even so, Trials of Mana manages to receive an aesthetic update that is very straightforward, but benefits from the strong character and enemy artwork from the original. The saturated environmental textures and blocky townhouses give the game a feeling of “retro, but updated,” with little attempt at realism other than perhaps some topographical elements. The Switch version suffers from a bit of a glaze in its draw distance, not looking as sharp as the other console versions, and stutters in a few odd animations here and there, though nothing that will impact play experience. The characters don’t emote much in cutscenes, but the combat animations are absolutely fabulous, each of the playable cast possessing fluid movement that may take a moment to start up, but successfully sells the weight and grace of each attack. Class Strike animations may get a bit repetitive for some, but I found them to be charming and a nice reprieve from the intensity of battles.
Lastly, the original soundtrack was impressive on the Super Nintendo and remains so today, as many of its catchy and intense tunes are just as good with new orchestration. The instruments have been updated, but the quality of some of the replacements is questionable, with some drum-heavy tracks feeling a bit too grating and repetitive. You can change the game’s music from the original instrumentation to the remake at any time, though I’d only recommend it if you prefer the “softer” set of sounds that comes with the SNES tracks. The remixed tracks are the same as the originals but with new instrumentation, so you won’t hear a great degree of variation between the two versions.
Impressions and Conclusion
Once you start your journey in Trials of Mana, the cycle of progression becomes very predictable, in a comfortable fashion. You’ll reach a town, investigate what rumors or issue pervades the atmosphere, travel to a dungeon, stronghold, or structure, and face a boss, with the potential to free an elemental spirit along the way. This is absolutely crucial, seeing as you won’t be able to perform specific kinds of spells and skills until you’ve befriended the prerequisite spirit. This also means that, unless you know where the main quest’s twists and turns will take you, you might end up investing points into a skill that you won’t be able to use for a few hours.
Though this is a newcomer’s mistake, it is indicative of an issue that pervades much of the experience. If you are unfamiliar with the way the game’s skill system works, you might not understand or even utilize skills for an extended period of time. There’s a number of aspects the game fails to communicate thoroughly to the player, which might annoy some as they feel their effort or time is wasted. You might accidentally end up making a class change choice that you regret, which is a major decision, as the game offers very few chances to reset your progress, with a skill point redistribution option available in one area and a consumable reset item offered very late in the game. It’s a reason I feel the game is likely best played more than one time through, as many of the lessons you will have learned painfully early on will benefit you in the long run. In the same way, you’ll need to grow accustomed to the weight of the game’s action combat, as there is something of an input buffer the game possesses where you will trigger a combination sequence long before the animations have finished. Though it may seem too sluggish for some, you can predictably attack and defend once you’ve grown used to the system.
The one who doesn’t know how to fight, however, is the party AI. The original Trials of Mana was a co-operative experience, which meant two players could take advantage of the party of three in order to co-ordinate attacks. The remake is a solitary experience, however, and it doesn’t help that the other two members of your party will often bumble around the screen during boss encounters, generally making fools of themselves. You can issue specific commands to your party members, including limitations on how many Class Strikes and consumable items they can access per fight, but you’ll want to make a dedicated healer out of one of them in order to reduce the number of times you end up having to save their skins. As hopeless as they tend to be in certain encounters, they’re also effective means at taking out and exposing multiple weak points, and you’ll want to keep them alive in order to utilize their skills later on.
Trials of Mana won’t wow you greatly with narrative or mechanical innovation, but its respectable twenty to twenty five hour campaign benefits from the varied final dungeon and boss encounters you’ll get to experience, should you choose the proper protagonists. Likewise, though equipment is a fairly straightforward and incremental system, skill distribution and character construction are extremely varied, allowing a great number of party compositions and viable class options. You’ll need to play through multiple times if you expect to see all of the lovely outfit options the developers have re-imagined and added to the experience. Boss encounters are plenty in the game and are extremely varied in their tactics and arenas, so tackling them with different party compositions – and should you dare, on higher difficulties – is a worthwhile effort.
Again, there is so much promise in what is a very straightforward and somewhat flawed experience, it almost begs the question of what future the Mana series might have. The quaint charms and lovely art are muddied by a lack of transparency in regards to mechanics and somewhat awkward AI. Even with its flaws, the game exudes a simplistic and frankly delightful atmosphere throughout, never dwelling too intensely on dark thoughts or over-complex narrative twists and turns. It’s a remake of an innocent game that manages to win over with said innocence, and well-worth the investment, should you be mindful of its occasional speed bumps.