Square Enix had a major action-oriented 3D remake of a beloved old-school JRPG hit modern consoles this month in the form of Final Fantasy VII Remake, but would it surprise you to know that they had another coming out in the same month? While the name Trials of Mana isn’t nearly as ubiquitous overseas, the Mana series is yet another long-running and incredibly influential JRPG series that has lain dormant for some time.
For many Japanese fans, this new release is a 25th-anniversary remake of a SNES classic that is near and dear to their hearts. For most of the rest of the world, though, this will be the first time that Trials of Mana will be in their hands, and perhaps even the first Mana game they’ll be playing at all. Much like Final Fantasy VII Remake, this title serves not only as a trip down memory lane for long-time fans, but also as a flashy new entry point into the series.
The original Trials of Mana was a sprite-based top-down adventure that featured innovative, if clunky, real-time combat. Rather than trying to redefine the original experience from 1995, the new Trials of Mana feels almost painstakingly dedicated to perfectly recreating the original adventure with a fresh coat of fully polygonal paint.
Unfortunately, they missed a few coats along the way. While this remake boasts gorgeous colors and striking character models for your main crew, many of the details in the world and the environments you explore are left lacking. This is particularly an issue on the Nintendo Switch. While the game runs at a smooth 30FPS, there are plenty of fuzzy textures and even a handful of animation hiccups throughout the game that make the experience just a little less special.
Still, technical snafus aside, the care put into plucking the towns and characters of the original game and turning them into a 3D space is impressive. Character, monster and boss designs have hardly been altered from their original SNES iterations, adding an incredible 90s touch to the style of the game that scratches that same old-school itch that Dragon Quest XI did just a few years ago. Even minor but utterly iconic quirks from the original game, like the silly shuffling dance of the turban-clad shopkeepers, are faithfully rendered in 3D for fans of the original to appreciate.
That old-school appreciation even extends to the audio of the game, with a gorgeously remastered soundtrack that puts a modern spin on the iconic melodies and themes of the original game. A lot of the new music has the sort of heavy fanfare you’d expect from JRPG music, but a few of the more energetic battle tunes feature heavy usage of contemporary instruments like electric guitars that add some spice to the score. You can play through the game with the original SNES soundtrack too, alongside full voice acting in either Japanese or English. I’m extremely happy that the game supports dual audio, because a lot of the English voices dip into extremely campy territory and have almost every villain sounding like a Saturday morning cartoon arch-nemesis.
If you don’t have any nostalgia for the original release, there are still some novel ideas from the 1995 JRPG that are just as impressive today. Take, for example, the story of Trials of Mana. The game features six different playable protagonists, who each have their own unique journeys and villains. When you start the game, you’re tasked with selecting one main character who’s adventure you want to tackle. Alongside them, you’re able to pick two companion characters from the lineup, and major elements of their own journeys will be mixed into your experience. This leads to a daunting number of story variations for you to explore, as you’ll never get the full experience from one playthrough.
The best part is that none of these combinations ever seem forced or unnatural. While multiple playthroughs will break the illusion a bit by showing you which story beats can end up repeated or only slightly between characters, seeing the way major pieces of all six characters stories come together based on your crew is incredible. It also helps flesh out the backstory and existence of your companions so much more. Rather than having Angela and Riesz simply be one-note side characters, the fact that villains from their own journeys can show up at any time to halt your adventures helps establish that all of you have major reasons for going on this journey.
While the story and characters of the original Trials of Mana are perfectly recreated without much alteration, the gameplay has seen a massive change. This new version of the game sees combat playing out in the form of action-oriented real-time battles, like something you’d see out of Ys or the Tales series. You can switch between your three characters at will, utilising light, heavy, and special attacks to vanquish foes, while AI takes control of whoever you’re not using.
On top of all that, a new progression system lets you focus on which stats you want each character to grow stronger in. Putting enough points into Strength or Luck or any other section of the wheel will let you earn new Abilities, and some of these are Chain Link Abilities that can be equipped by any character. Even outside of the training screen in your main menu, you can often find new Chain Link Abilities just by talking to certain NPCs or completing certain quests.
Action RPGs appeal to me so much more than their turn-based brethren, and Trials of Mana manages to perfectly balance the importance of stat-superiority and ability management with the need for sharp reflexes and effective use of attack combos. My AI teammates would often lose that memo during boss fights though, rushing into danger and eating deadly blows almost instantly. The original Trials of Mana had full co-op capabilities, and the fact that the same can’t be said of this remake is a major disappointment.