In bringing this charming and beautiful 16-bit game to the modern era, Square Enix has done a fantastic job transitioning from 2D to 3D, wonderfully recreating the feel of the original in great detail. However, this faithfulness is a bit of a double-edged sword, because Trials of Mana throws just about every mid-90s JRPG trope at you, making its locations and stories feel out of date in spite of the modern graphical overhaul.
Trials of Mana, known as Seiken Densetsu 3 in Japan, came out in 1995, but the original didn't see a Western release until last year's Collection of Mana. I'm of the belief that this is the most beautiful 16-bit game ever made, and the remake does a wonderful job capturing most of that beauty. Given the fact I'm an old man, set in his ways, I prefer the 2D pixel art of the original, but the remake translates its charm admirably in a way that kids today can appreciate. Trials of Mana has a gorgeous, colorful art style, with hyper-saturated colors giving everything a deep, dreamlike hue. On Switch, Trials of Mana looks lovely; on PS4 Pro, it's even better – and you’ll avoid the Switch’s frame drops if you play there. Even docked, the Switch looks like it's struggling to hit 30 frames, and in some cutscenes the framerate looks awful. It's particularly noticeable late in the story when you’re calling your dragon friend, Flammie. It's… it's not smooth.
I'm of the belief the original is the most beautiful 16-bit game ever made
Musically, the new incarnation of Trials of Mana’s modern arrangements of the original chiptune soundtrack sound phenomenal. One feature I really like is the ability to swap between the remake and the original 16-bit soundtrack at any time. Both are just so good! In fact, at one point I swapped to the original soundtrack and completely forgot to change back. It's a testament to just how great the original soundtrack is, and how faithfully transposed the old MIDI files are for instrumentation.
A 16-Bit Remake, For Better or Worse
These days, the term “remake” can mean anything from a borderline remaster that simply aim to recreate the original game scene-for-scene in a new engine to a complete reimagining of the old game’s themes, like an XCOM: Enemy Unknown or a Resident Evil 2. Trials of Mana’s remake is on the extremely loyal side of that spectrum, and just about everything plays as it did in the ‘90s. The ring menus of the original are here, used in much the same way, and they're a great solution to juggling spells and items mid-combat. Plus the sounds they make are like old-school ASMR.
Combat, too, feels incredibly similar, and I mean that as a complement because I've always liked the Mana series' unique action RPG battles. I love the balance between the real-time combat of action games with the party management of an RPG, which mercifully pauses the action so you can cycle through the rings to find the command you want to give without undue pressure. It takes some getting used to its chaotic rhythm, that's for sure, but when Trials' combat clicked for me, all the disparate parts and pieces felt manageable and made perfect sense.
The Best Modern RPGs
My main complaint about the 2020 version is that the camera doesn't follow you in battles: you have to move it on your own. There's already enough to think about with combos and charge attacks, and I don't need another thing to keep track of – especially something so important as being able to see what’s going on.
The real fun in combat comes from Trials of Mana's many boss battles. Maintaining your party through some of the tougher fights means thinking ahead, exploiting elemental weaknesses, and keeping everyone from dying through liberal use of magic and items. The AI for your party members does a great job keeping them doing what you actually want them to do, so you don't have to scream at the screen because your healer is running head-first into a melee attack while the rest of the party is on death's door. You're also free to swap between party members at any time and take advantage of one of their special abilities or magic spells when you need it to be used in a specific place. The ability to change characters mid-battle gives you even more flexibility. On normal settings difficulty felt a little on the easy side, but there's a Hard setting, too – that might be a good mode for returning veterans to start out on. (There’s an Easy mode as well, of course.)
A World In Peril
While I’m a big advocate of maintaining fidelity to the original’s gameplay, I found myself wishing Square Enix had been willing to make a few departures when it comes to the plot. The loyalty to the original’s story and locations means there’s lots of empty, cliche NPC dialogue to sort through ("Yippee! Long live Laurent!" and "Welcome to our humble town, traveler!" for example). That seems like the kind of thing a remake should leave on the cutting room floor, given the rare opportunity to improve a great game’s pacing. At the same time, there aren't any sidequests, or really any compelling reasons to talk to NPCs at all. I don’t want to be sent to clear the sewers of rats or anything but I could’ve used some local color.
I wish Square Enix had made a few departures in the plot.
That's not to say Trials of Mana is lacking in content. It's not. You pick from one of six characters at the start, as well as a secondary and tertiary character for your party. It took me just around 20 hours to make it through Duran's story with Angela and Charlotte as my party, but you're free to play through as any of the six characters and experience the stories from their points of view. Each one has their own story, all of which cross paths with each of the other characters at least once in the course of a playthrough. Also, when you meet one of the characters in your party for the first time, you're also given the option to play through the opening of their stories. In the interest of expediency I opted out, but Trials of Mana did a nice job recapping everything for me without forcing me to play through two extra hours of backstory. I appreciate the choice.
There are also class changes to unlock, with battle techniques and abilities varying depending one which you pick. Each class change has two options – Light and Dark – each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There's no penalty for choosing Dark over Light, they just present different options as you progress. You change your class at level 18 and again at level 38, so you can have a Light-Light, Dark-Light, or Dark-Dark character. For example, I chose the Dark class for Duran at level 18, which gave me the choice between Edelfrei or Duelist classes when the chance to change presented itself again. Edelfrei gains a 15% increase in weapon efficiency, while Duelist gets an increase in attack power after defeating enemies in battle. Abilities and charge attacks are also tied to which paths you choose, but ultimately I just chose the classes that looked the coolest.
I'm definitely enjoying myself in the excellent post-game, but I won't spoil the story elements behind it. There's a new Class 4 option (Square Enix announced that a while back, so it's not a spoiler.) that you unlock, and I'm going to tell you right now: I've only unlocked one so far, and it was the toughest part of all of Trials of Mana up to this point. The post-game is more substantial than I imagined it would be, both from a content perspective and from the way it adds to the existing story.
Trials of Mana is absolutely charming and does an excellent job keeping what works from the original while upgrading its aesthetics to the modern era. The combat system works well in its new 3D trappings, with a tough but satisfying learning curve. The transition to modern tech has introduced some camera problems, though, and I wish Square Enix had taken this opportunity to flesh out the world with interesting sidequests and to trim out some of the more tedious dialogue. Even so, exploring, battling, and waging war with bosses all remain really fun, and its JRPG tropes come off as charming throwbacks rather than eye-rolling cliches.