Trials of Mana
Seiken Densetsu 3 was an SNES title originally released exclusively for Japan. As the sequel to Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy Adventure, the title stayed overseas for over two decades. With the release of Collection of Mana for Nintendo Switch, Square-Enix fully translated and released the title in the west for the first time.
Dubbed as Trials of Mana, the third game concluded the original Mana trilogy while boasting some new improvements from its predecessor. Unfortunately, not all is perfect in the Mana world and even the prettiest games bear the unpleasant secrets. We’ll delve into the good and bad in the world of Mana.
The plot revolves around several characters, any of which you can pick at the start of the game. However, only several of them can lead the story, as it branches into three endings. In my playthrough, I picked Duran, the swordsman. His story revolves around revenge against the Crimson Wizard, who defeated him in battle. As he seeks to become stronger and face his nemesis, he encounters a fairy who quickly bonds with him. He learns that the world is dying and, accompanied by two friends, seeks to defeat the Wizard and save the Mana Tree.
The Mana series does a good job of throwing curve balls at players. Final Fantasy Adventure, released in Japan in 1991 as Seiken Densetsu, told a surprising story that involved death, betrayal, and even the hero feeling defeated. Trials of Mana continues its trend of characters facing tragic ends and trying to save a tree that might be beyond salvation. However, the story is by no means deep. Rather, you’ll find a number of substories depending on the character you have. Even the overarching story, which covers war, doesn’t feel consequential outside of liberating a town occupied by beastmen.
However, while the story drives the player to different continents to help other people in need, the character development doesn’t feature much growth either. Duran is as thickheaded and the same from start to finish, and the two party members I picked – Angela and Charlotte – don’t have more development outside of their initial motivation to join the quest. Speaking of Charlotte,, if baby talk dialogue irritates you, it might be a good idea not to pick her. Despite being translated in 2019, this is some of the worst writing I have seen in an RPG.
Also note that you can pick two other party members to accompany your lead character. Doing so will open up new dialogue options. However, the core story will be the same until the ending at least.
The visuals of Secret of Mana borrowed from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Lush greenery, well-animated characters, and large, vicious bosses helped make up both games. Trials of Mana takes it a step further. Even more gorgeous and detailed environments, enemy animations, and Mode 7 effects highlight Trials of Mana as one of the best looking games on the SNES. It’s like Secret of Mana with an extra layer of polish over it. Plus it serves as a precursor to another, wonderfully animated game using the same art style: Chrono Trigger.
Trials of Mana features a pleasant soundtrack. I wouldn’t say it’s as memorable as Secret of Mana. But it has some good beats, such as Heavensway. I’m also quite fond of the Kingdom of Laurent‘s theme. Plus you get your fair share of catchy boss themes.
One particular note about the sound effects will come to mind for anyone who played Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. The doors opening, several enemy attack sounds, and other sound effects were used in the classic JRPG. It’s probably tradition for Square to recycle sound effects between their games. One big example includes the “slash” sound effect in Super Mario RPG, which was later used for Cloud’s attacks in Final Fantasy VII. For anyone familiar with Square RPGs, hearing these classic sound effects are a recognizable treat!
Trials of Mana initially showcases the ideal Action/RPG. In other words, hack and slash action similar to Zelda, but with the menus and spellcasting of a JRPG. You run around towns, paths, sail in the ocean overworld, and later fly on a dragon to navigate. You’ll explore dungeons, fight off enemies, and level up with your party. Doing so allows you to allocate your points to stats.
Interestingly enough, you cannot level up one stat too much in any given timeframe. After leveling up the same stat a few times, it will lock out. This will force you to allocate your stats elsewhere.
This is a great way to balance the game to keep players from making polarizing builds. I never thought I would be giving my Fighter Intelligence stats. Yet, after leveling up Strength and HP past the point, I could boost my remaining points into Intelligence to boost his magic defense. Also noteworthy, you can change classes twice in the game. Promotions give you new stat boosts and attack abilities.
You’ll fight bosses at the end of each dungeon. Later in the game, you’ll return to the dungeons, finding new paths to fight even tougher elemental bosses. You’ll gather elementals to help you in battle, allowing you to cast magic, augment physical abilities, and more.
Finally, you can change to your party members at any time by holding L and R. You can take control of their abilities and make them cast magic until you release the button. Additionally, you can also play 3-player co-op.
Unfortunately, Trials of Mana doesn’t shine in any aspect outside of the aesthetic. Even though it seems like a Zelda-esque game at first, combat is slow. Magic spells take up time with animations and you can’t act while they’re cast. Since you will need them against bosses, this can eat up a lot of time. This becomes more apparent when you’re fighting the Benevodons, the late-game bosses with ridiculous amounts of HP. Even if you find a mundane strategy to beat them with, you’ll be doing it for upwards 20 minutes at a time.
Worse yet, the bosses themselves aren’t challenging by themselves. It’s easy to heal as long as your menu isn’t overridden by an animation. Rather, bosses might take 2-3 turns at once and mass-spell cast your team and kill them in one go. This is where Quick Saving is needed.
As mentioned earlier, combat is slow, even outside of boss battles. You cannot run around while you’re engaged in battle, so you must walk up to enemies. On the bright side, party members no longer get stuck, unlike in Secret of Mana. This means no more having to backtrack to rescue them behind a wall.
Believe it or not, you’ll find no reason to explore in this game. Dungeons feel like labyrinths with branching paths, many of which lead to absolutely nothing except a mob of monsters. This becomes a quick waste of time with no reward for the player. Enemies will drop treasure chests no matter where you go, so going out of your way doesn’t matter. Furthermore, dungeons usually have the same three enemies in each dungeon. You’ll be fighting the same types of enemies over and over again.
Menus can lag. The main menu moves quite slowly, moving at a snail’s pace when equipping your gear. In battle, bosses can override your character magic menu, sometimes casting magic twice in a row. This might kill you when you’re trying to heal, so it always pays to use Quick Saves. Plus, your party members’ mid-attack animations will cause menu lag, disallowing you from casting magic when you need it. You may be opening your menu several times until you can finally cast that spell.
You get special melee attacks after class promotions. Unfortunately, this is many hours into the game. It would have varied the game up more if you could use them sooner. It feels they locked basic gameplay elements behind these promotions. Also, the way to promote to your second class is random. You can choose a “Light” or “Dark” class for both promotions. But you need a special item which is dropped randomly by enemies near the end of the game. Known as a “??? Seed,” you plant it and it randomly becomes a promotion item. Unfortunately, you don’t get to choose which promotion item comes out of the “??? Seed.”
In other words, if you seek a specific class change, you might have to farm for it. Meanwhile, in games like Fire Emblem, you simply use an item and, in some games, pick the class you want. I feel Trials of Mana made promoting classes far more complicated than necessary. Finally, you aren’t even offered a description for what classes can do. You’ll need a guide if you want to learn their stat growths and abilities.
Sense of Direction
You’ll find no map in this game except in the overworld itself, which you only access in the ocean or in the sky. While areas between towns and dungeons fall in a linear path, dungeons take a more labyrinth approach. This means you might be backtracking needlessly while fighting the same enemy types repeatedly in dungeons. And while NPCs tell you where to go, unless you’re really paying attention, you might not know where said town is. You might need to consult a guide for this as well.
In some ways, Trials of Mana improves upon Secret of Mana. You can carry more healing items, including Faerie Walnuts, which replenish MP. You do not need to grind levels, as your melee attacks will hit more often than not. Plus you don’t need to charge your meter just to attack. Rather, you get super abilities. But keep in mind stronger enemies may retaliate with a counterattack.
This is sort of a player killer for anyone unaware. Consider it trial and error against particular enemies unless you’re using a guide. On the bright side, at least you won’t get jumped by a Vampire boss right after taking out the initial first dungeon boss.
Unfortunately, despite fixing up Secret of Mana’s own flaws, it still paces itself slowly. Imagine playing A Link to the Past, but your melee attacks miss at times, enemies take far more damage, you move at half the speed, and exploring offers no rewards. Or imagine playing Final Fantasy, but you couldn’t cast magic after pressing your character’s action several times because of either menu lag or an enemy overriding you. Trials of Mana is frustrating like that. Excels at none of the games it takes inspiration from and feels like an average experience caught somewhere in between the two.
Trials of Mana offers multiple playthroughs on virtue of fighting a different final boss. But that’s only if you feel willing to play through again. Perhaps not using spellcasters may help the pacing. Just be sure to buy elemental attack items. After 30 hours on my first playthrough, I feel I would rather watch the endings on YouTube. With that being said, by the time I beat the Benevodons, I could not wait to finally finish the game.
Trials of Mana has its heart in the right place. But its execution is slow and flawed. In the Collection of Mana, I firmly believe Final Fantasy Adventure is the best game overall. Even though it’s not as pretty as the other two titles, I feel its pacing, dungeon design, and writing were the best of the three games.
If you’re looking for a better Mana experience, your best bet may be to try Sword of Mana for Game Boy Advance. As a reimagining of Final Fantasy Adventure, the battles pace itself incredibly well. Not only can you run around in battles, but you can attack quickly as well.
To buy or to wait?
If you’re interested in trying Trials of Mana, you can pick up Collection of Mana for the Nintendo Switch now. Despite being a slow-paced JRPG, the story paths, aesthetic, and writing may win you over. It’s an undeniably gorgeous game and worth trying if you’re curious about the hype that surrounds this game. Trials of Mana isn’t necessarily a bad game. But many flaws plague this title despite its warm intentions.
That’s not to say it’s not good because it’s old. Plenty of JRPGs from its era aged well, such as the aforementioned Chrono Trigger. It’s that the approach the developers took was a title that offered little incentive for exploration in a genre known for exploration. Not to mention you fight bosses that take much longer than they should due to high HP. Plenty of games came from its era that still hold up well. Unfortunately, Trials of Mana did not age as well.
Finally, note that Square-Enix is remaking Trials of Mana for next year. Unlike the Adventures of Mana and Secret of Mana remakes, this title is a full 3D adventure that looks to play similar to the Ys series. If you’re interested in this title but want something a bit more up to date, you may be better off holding off until the remake releases. Hopefully Square-Enix will polish the title and implement quality of life improvements and develop an Action/RPG we can all enjoy.
Thank you for reading our Trials of Mana review. Have you played the Mana series before? Let us know in the comments below!