Trials of Mana

"It harkens back to the halcyon days of spring break sleepovers playing at all hours of the night with your friends."

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Until Collection of Mana hit Japan in 2017, fans hoped they would see Seiken Densetsu 3 officially localized. But as the years passed with no news, hope dwindled until E3 2019. Square Enix not only announced an English version of the Collection of Mana, but also a remake of the now translated Trials of Mana bound for consoles in 2020. The time has come; Trials of Mana has completed its global journey. Fans can only hope that Square Enix learned from their past 3D mistakes and have crafted a memorable Mana experience once more.

The Mana series has never been known for genre-defining plotlines, but Trials of Mana definitely makes some engaging choices. Though the eponymous Mana Tree is once again in peril as Mana fades from the world, what makes Trials of Mana so interesting are the three central storylines and the villainous factions directly related to your hero of choice: Reisz and Hawkeye battle Isabella and Malochio; Duran and Angela must thwart the Crimson Wizard and Darkshine Knight; Charlotte and Kevin tackle Goremond and his mysterious master. The respective character prologues set up these conflicts before the fated quest begins in earnest with a fairy outside the sleepy village of Astoria.

Your chosen party gathers together the Mana Spirits for the better half of the game as you skirmish with the aforementioned foes along the way. Come the latter half, one force of evil takes centre stage and you're hurtled towards an inevitable final conflict to determine the fate of the world. There's also some variety and intrigue that contributes toward Trials' replay value. The player will see the struggles of the other groups in an indirect way through the prologues and secondary party member interactions at first, which encourages a subsequent playthrough from that character's perspective. And since these dyads are in simple opposition, it's easy to go through a second or third time without the plot becoming too confusing.

All of this is present in Collection of Mana and is nothing new to veterans. But now, through the use of voicework, more indulgent cutscenes, and a broader NPC population to deliver pertinent lore, the game's storytelling and worldbuilding is elevated substantially. The central cast of Trials of Mana feels far more alive with their newfound voices, some middling performances aside. The original localization is largely retained, but has been refined, adding personality to each character. This is especially apparent with the added banter between party members as they comment on specific plot developments outside of cutscenes. They will periodically remark on the conditions in dungeons, complaining about treacherous footing in Cascade Cavern or whining about the heat of the Burning Sands. No longer are these just sprite stand-ins, to be swapped out on a player's whims! This is a cast with feelings and opinions and you will be genuinely invested with each hero and party you create.

What further elevates this version of Trials of Mana are the graphical enhancements, which concurrently show its most obvious flaws. Despite the best intentions with fully animated performances, the limited physicality of heroes and NPCs alike undermines vocal performances and dialogue choices with exaggerated or conflicting movements. Facial animations are largely non-existent outside the main cast and often incongruous. Hated foes deliver dramatic, enraged monologues with blank expressions, causing dissonance that pulls you out of the moment. Cutscenes are further plagued by lagging texture loads, looking muddy for a moment too long as details fill in. What's especially baffling is, considering the simplicity of design work by comparison to other recent Square Enix launches, Trials of Mana is poorly optimized with framerate drops and odd scene transitions happening more than expected this late in the PS4's lifetime.

Still, the new 3D character models are wonderfully designed, capturing the 1995 spritework in fun and imaginative ways. The six heroes and their class changes are showcased perfectly, NPCs have a variety of hairstyles and accessories to create diversity (though there's a notable lack of diverse skin representation), and the robust bestiary from the smallest Rabite to the most fearsome Benevodon has been brought lovingly to life. Exploring the world from a new point of view, you'll experience wondrous, imaginative open landscapes to traverse fairly seamlessly. It's so gratifying to take in the lush greenery of Lampbloom Woods or watch the sunset from the shores of Astoria. Many of the dungeons now have environmental hazards such as slippery ice patches muddling combat, or an entire side-scrolling platforming segment with poison bogs. Additionally, many of the puzzles have been expanded, adding a greater level of complexity. Alongside shortcuts added in revisited dungeons, these changes add some challenge to break up the potential monotony of late-game combat.

The world map comes off a bit too simple, but the elements are vibrant and stylized. Inspired layouts appear alongside new gameplay, meaning you'll have plenty of winding paths and elevation to explore as you cross fallen trees or hop stones in rivers. Unfortunately, design suffers in towns where the small, repeated textures are obvious, especially in the many cavernous palace interiors, which results in bland, empty layouts. While roaming about, it's clear that goals are readily apparent. This may frustrate veterans since little has changed plot-wise and it's necessary to talk to previously optional NPCs. New players may welcome this as they sup up lore and pertinent details about the world. While it can seem to slow down the game, less nebulous goals do speed up progress and ensure less backtracking. Regardless, exploring each new environment to the fullest, both for tangible rewards and the simple pleasure of taking it all in, is a joy. What's more, players familiar with the Legend of Mana may remember Li'l Cactus, who offers stellar rewards if you can hunt it down across the land!

Hiroki Kikuta's original soundtrack was a thing of beauty, creating a diverse sonic landscape to capture the imagination. The remake's soundtrack remains faithful, arguably to a fault, in near every way, enriching each piece with fully orchestrated arrangements. There was a chance to get bold and play with this soundtrack — to refurbish the music along with the game — yet they played it safe. Still, the soundtrack remains as captivating as ever, with live instruments enriching every note. If the new renditions aren't to your taste, there's an option to switch to the original soundtrack.

A broad sound library further invigorates Trials' characters and environments, with an added collection of unique enemy sounds making it easier to keep track of the action, even if some sound downright unsettling. The newly vocalized story unfortunately comes with inconsistent performances that are a disservice to the vibrant cast of unique characters. Charlotte and Kevin maintain their odd speech affectations, which translated okay at best in text, but sound completely awkward in practice. Poor voice direction leading to several plodding, unnatural sounding cutscenes doesn't help. Still, some characters like Angela or King Richard manage to stand out among the rest. At the very least, you can always adjust the voice volume to zero if it isn't to your taste.

What truly sets this remake apart from the debacle with Secret of Mana is how the gameplay has nearly been completely restructured, almost all for the better, to present this adventure in entirely new ways. Locations are now larger sprawling landscapes, broken up less frequently by loading screens. How you interact with the world is obviously different, and the new jump mechanic allows players to explore this world as never before. The controls for the platforming aren't perfect, but manageable. However, establishing that you can generally jump rocks and logs sets up disappointment because some obstacles look jumpable yet bar your way with imaginary walls — a careless bit of design, though forgivable. What's less forgivable is making the jump and interact button the same so you wind up leaping over NPCs you meant to converse with, which wastes time and, more importantly, feels silly.

Arguably, the greatest changes made are found in the combat and status systems. Notably, they have done away with multiplayer in this version. It's unfortunate you can't play with your friends, but the new mechanics might have been a handful for couch co-op. Despite this, new dynamics ensure it won't grow stale. Players are able to freely traverse the maps, so combat encounters have boundaries to balance battle similarly to its predecessors. There are some obvious issues with the camera, which Square Enix attempts to mitigate with a poorly implemented target lock function with confusing control. Players now have two regular forms of attack: light for quick combos, and heavy for more impact and to earn gems that charge your CS gauge. The CS gauge can be utilized to unleash your character's class skills, powerful attacks that finish most common foes in one shot. Players can also make use of the new jump ability in combat, since plenty of enemies fly about and need to be brought down in order to finish them off. Most importantly, monsters now telegraph their special moves as red areas of effect illuminating the ground. These areas slowly fill in, indicating a charge time, giving players a chance to use the new dodge command to escape. This is especially important when fighting the various bosses in Trials, who have also received a huge overhaul.

Boss encounters are much more fun and challenging, encouraging true action gameplay and strategy via pattern recognition. Certain attacks need to be avoided by jumping, while others have a focal point to target before the boss uses its ultimate ability. Successfully neutralizing these focal targets stunlocks bosses, allowing players to wail on the enemy with abandon. Positioning also matters, since attacking an enemy from behind triggers critical hits more frequently. Furthermore, there are battle bonuses, rewarding players with bonus experience at combat's end based on performance. Overall, the new take on Trials' combat system is a welcome, flashy upgrade that is fun to participate in. Plus, if any of it feels too tricky, there are now difficulty settings to adjust the challenge. Hard doesn't seem to present much of a challenge at first, but later on, a few bosses can make you sweat even on Easy without proper planning. Luckily, this version makes it easier to take advantage of the day/night mechanic in Trials to use spells to your advantage in these large-scale fights.

There is a clearly complex learning curve to mastery with many new buttons and abilities at your behest. You now have two hot menus; one for your character's class skills and another for four items and/or spells. Players may be frustrated at first when they inhale a candy instead of triggering a class skill strike. That said, the wheel menu is back and allows you to pause the action as you select what to do next, though class skills aren't accessible there. Some new items even increase experience gains or permanently boost attributes. In addition, navigating the inventory system is no longer a lesson in tedium after a much needed overhaul to the menu UI. Equipment is also much easier to manage, with some new accessories as a welcome addition. Thankfully, shields now work for Duran, helping him become the tank he always could be! Updates have also been made to this title's unique seed planting mechanic, which is a welcome change, even generously placing a seed pot at the Sanctuary of Mana, which veterans will understand as an amazing change.

Fans of the original may recall fondly the various glitches plaguing it, with certain stats or equipment not functioning. For this reason, I chose Hawkeye and Duran, who suffered most from this, and found the game's growth system completely reworked for the better. (Hawkeye is a much better character with a working Luck stat!) With each level, you assign training points to one of your five governing stats. This steadily works towards unlocking stat boosts, spells, or the newly created Abilities and Chain Abilities, which provide passive bonuses like increased magic damage in battle, a better item drop rate, or earning CS points for taking damage. Chain Abilities can be learned from chatting with certain NPCs throughout the game as well, encouraging you to get to know everyone! You can focus all your training in a particular stat, but they max out at a certain point based on class level. This new system is great, offering a lot of flexibility and control over character growth and providing useful returns on the investment. Lastly, if you're not liking how your character is turning out, you can now reset the progression (for a steep price) by visiting the Night Market!

As before, hitting level 18 and 38 respectively qualifies you for a class change. Each character can follow the Light or Dark class path, just like in the 1995 version. This new take on the system feels better, with clear descriptions of your options, laying out the access to ability slots and training options, new class skills, CS gauge increases, combo moves, and new locked abilities that add powerful passive bonuses. You can also change your outfit to any class you've unlocked for a character. As before, the level three classes require a special item alongside the level requirement. Character growth feels more drawn out in this version due to the distribution of special items, letting you take advantage of the full breadth of abilities a given class offers. As with your stats, you can also reset your class selection with a specific item. You can now play with new classes without necessitating another playthrough.

But why would you not start another playthrough? This remake of Trials of Mana is wonderful, with its expanded storytelling, exciting combat, and loving recreation of all the game's artistic elements. The bits of added content are worthwhile diversions, offering more of a good thing. It harkens back to the halcyon days of spring break sleepovers playing at all hours of the night with your friends. Though it's not without flaws, you'll find plenty of joy in swapping stories about your party and how you crafted it. It's been a long time since I've had so much fun with a game, one that filled me with such warmth and joy consistently. It truly feels like the Mana series is back and ready to capture our hearts and imaginations once more.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.



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