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Visions of Mana: Hands-On Preview

Careena and her companion Ramcoh in a snowy area in Visions of Mana

One of my favorite childhood games was Secret of Mana. Gameplay-wise, it landed squarely between Final Fantasy IV and The Legend of Zelda, and was one of my first introductions to action RPGs. The lush world fascinated me, and my brother and I poured hours into exploring, leveling up, and seeking weapon orbs, all while Hiroki Kikuta’s iconic soundtrack played. The Mana series has had ups and downs over the years, but when it lands, it really lands. I’ve been hoping Visions of Mana would be a return to form ever since Square Enix announced it in December, especially based on 2020’s stellar Trials of Mana remake. Based on what I’ve seen and played so far, I am incredibly optimistic!

Trees, the Breeze, and Cheese

As a designer, I have a particular fondness for games with great graphics, though for me, it’s not always about fidelity. I don’t care if a game is pushing realism like Final Fantasy XVI or showcasing a fantastic new take on pixel art like Octopath Traveler II — there’s room in my heart for anything aesthetically pleasing. I just want the visuals to work for the game and help set the tone. When Square Enix conspicuously left the Nintendo Switch out of supported platforms (Switch 2 launch title, maybe?), a small part of me wondered if they could squeeze Visions of Mana onto the current Switch. But then I played it, and… no. There’s a specific visual reference I’m going to make, and it’s to some of the original art for Secret of Mana and the original Trials of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3:

The Secret of Mana title screen, box, and Mana Tree art are the first thing many people think of when discussing the game. While it didn’t get localized until much later, its followup features an even more expansive and vibrant nature landscape in its art. Visually, Visions of Mana captures this so perfectly in 3D, I couldn’t stop reveling in the scenery. The design of the trees, the dream-like animations of the tufts of grass swaying in the breeze, and environment design that’s incredibly detailed yet still simple and clean, it all works. In screenshots, the game looks very nice, but sitting down and exploring the world is when you see it truly come alive.

Visions of Mana is not open-world, but each area is quite large. The team has managed to keep those areas interesting, and from what I saw, it does not succumb to the problem of huge spaces with nothing to see or do. There’s always a structure, monster, wildlife, hidden chests, and more to see that made me want to keep exploring and looking behind every rock in case something was there.

In fact, to emphasize and incentivize exploration, you find collectables like Grizzly Syrup, not unlike what you’d find in a platformer. One thing I spotted that doesn’t appear in gameplay footage (but I was not told I can’t talk about) is a tooltip that appears upon picking up your first syrup, which says something about how Dudbears love the stuff. And can I tell you, those little guys are some of my favorite minor characters in Legend of Mana. Since Legend is technically a side game in the series, I wasn’t expecting that reference, but I. Am. Here for it. I may even say… Dubababababa Dub.

You’ll also find Elemental Triggers dotted across the landscape that respond to specific elements. If you have the corresponding elemental vessel and interact with them, new paths can open. I used a few of these Triggers with Sylphid’s wind power, which creates a large updraft, letting you leap high into the sky and reach areas to explore or find treasure chests. Moon-based Triggers let you use Luna’s time manipulation powers to alter time and create paths that otherwise don’t exist.

My favorite “attention to detail” discovery was in the Fallow Steppe area — seen below — where there’s a small farm. There are sheep stables, hay bales, and a small outdoor kitchen. On a small rise nestled in the trees behind the farm was a little table and chairs. On the table was a tray with beverage containers, utensils, and a small plate with a partially sliced cheese wheel. The constant discovery of these little touches made the farmstead feel real and lived in. It was easy to picture the farmer taking an afternoon break at this table for some much-needed R&R. And I love that in games. Many players won’t see many of these things, but that the developers are taking the time to add these details, literally down to cheese wedges and forks, is very impressive.

Okay, okay, I know, I’m talking about food spreads too much. You want to hear about how the game plays. I hear you.

Visions of Mana Gameplay

Controls can easily make or break an action-oriented game, and there’s countless examples of both sides of that coin, as I’m sure most of you are aware (and the Mana series isn’t immune to problematic controls). Thankfully, Visions of Mana controls like a dream. Actions are smooth, attacks feel right and land in satisfying ways, and special abilities and items are mapped in a very intuitive way that makes them easy to access in combat. You can also bring the classic Ring Menu up during battle, but I generally stuck with the items mapped to the shortcut buttons — holding R1 brings up four ability shortcuts mapped to the four face buttons, and item shortcuts mapped to the d-pad. It’s a very clean way to ensure you’re only one button press away from eight quick actions, and it feels great in use. I imagine further into the game, with a larger item inventory and ability pool, using the ring menu may be more common, but the shortcuts work very well. The abilities I got to play with were fun, from fire and wind elemental attacks to series classics like Thunder Saber, that imbues your weapon with elemental power. There is also a Limit Break-type move on the L2 button when you want to deal a powerful blow.

When not using shortcut menus, up and down on the d-pad let you switch control between party members. While their AI seems good enough that I never felt like they would stand in danger areas (a major step up from your companions getting stuck behind every damn mushroom in the forest in Secret of Mana), I often swapped characters since everyone has different classes — more on that below! — and sometimes I wanted to cast a spell as Careena. Switching is effortless, and the camera smoothly scrolls across the battlefield so it isn’t a jarring experience.

Elemental Class

As you may have read in our interviews with Mana series producer Masaru Oyamada, Visions of Mana combines elements from past titles but in new ways. If you’re a fan of Secret of Mana‘s weapon-based combat options or Trials of Mana‘s class-based system, you will likely enjoy what Visions is offering. Elementals are a staple of Mana, and they’re integrated into the class system in a very fun way in Visions of Mana. Each of the familiar elementals open up a class for each character.

In the demo, I had Sylphid (wind) and Luna (moon) available, and three characters: Val, Careena, and Morley. Each elemental can only equip to a single character at once, but my favorite part of this system is that each character and elemental combo creates a different class. All three of my party members could use either elemental, but the class type, armor and weapon design, and abilities varied each time. For instance, with the Vessel of Wind, Val becomes a Rune Knight, Careena turns into a dancer (with super cool shiny pants), and Morley dons a bard-like look as a Nomad. With eight elementals and an unknown final character roster, the mind reels at the possibilities on offer in the full game. Some of our team here simply loves playing with classes in Trials of Mana, and I can already see them having a great time experimenting with this new class system.

Visions of Mana‘s Characters

Since my playtime was focused on the gameplay systems of Visions of Mana, I can’t say much about the characters or story yet, which is still largely under wraps. But I got some glimpses into the characters’ personalities through their battle dialogue and some short cutscenes while exploring and fighting a boss (Was it the Mantis Ant, you ask? Yes, of course it was the Mantis Ant, and it was a fun time).

Val seems to embody that classic optimistic JRPG hero, which feels right since he’s “soul guard” to his childhood friend, Hinna, recently appointed as the “Alm of Fire,” and is accompanying her on a pilgrimage to the Tree of Mana. The cat-man like Morley seems resolute and serious, no doubt based on a disaster that befell his homeland when he was a child. Careena is my frontrunner for fave so far, though. With a personality that seems as fiery as her mane of red hair, a Southern-ish drawl of an accent, and dragon tail and wing, she’s a fun character right off the bat. But couple that with her fun-to-play Dancer class and Ramcoh, her absolutely adorable sacred beast cub, who assists in battle, and the two guys just can’t compare.

The one major unknown based on the demo was Hinna. She’s with the party since it’s her pilgrimage, but was not playable or part of battles. I understand she has a guard for a reason and it’s even okay that she wouldn’t participate in battle, but as a battle and exploration-based demo experience, she was very much on the sidelines. Though I imagine that will not be the case in the full game, I want to see more of her and especially don’t want to see her personality be a one-dimensional “childhood friend and love interest who must be protected.”

The “Must-Play” RPG of the Summer?

When Square Enix revealed Visions of Mana, I was excited, because it’s been a long time since a new, full Mana game was released that wasn’t a remake or remaster. Square Enix repeatedly notes that Visions of Mana is the first new mainline game in the series in over 15 years, confirming it’s meant to be in the same lineup of games as Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana, Trials of Mana, and Dawn of Mana. And given how people typically feel about that last one, it’s high time this mainline series got a game to raise the quality bar again. It’s far too soon to say for sure if Visions of Mana can accomplish that, but everything I’ve seen and experienced has me very optimistic about its chances, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final release.

If you want even more Visions of Mana coverage, be sure to check out our dual interviews with Mana series producer Masaru Oyamada, and Scott’s own hands-on video coverage below!

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Mike Salbato

Mike Salbato

Mike has been with RPGFan nearly since its inception, and in that time has worn a surprising number of hats for someone who doesn't own a hatstand. Today he attempts to balance his Creative Director role with his Editor-in-Chief status. Despite the amount of coffee in his veins, he bleeds emerald green.

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