Trials of Mana: The Insert Cartridge Review (Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC)
Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the two versions of Trials of Mana show strengths and flaws in opposite ways
Remakes are super hot right now. From the huge success of Final Fantasy VII Remake to Switch re-releases of the Bioshock trilogy, game publishers are leveraging nostalgia to sell old games to both new and longtime fans. One of the most surprising is Square Enix’s Trials of Mana for the Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Based on the 1995 game of the same name, Trials of Mana is a from-the-ground-up remake that attempts to capture the magic of one of the Super Nintendo’s most impressive — and elusive — games.
I grew up playing and loving Square’s Super Nintendo games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and the more action-oriented Secret of Mana. As the Super Nintendo’s lifespan came to a close and my love for Japanese RPGs really exploded with the release of Sony’s PlayStation — but there was one white whale that got away: Seiken Densetsu 3. 23 years later, I finally played Seiken Densetsu 3 in 2018 thanks to Neill Corlett’s legendary fan translation (originally released in 2000), and walked away from the experience impressed with the game’s graphics and soundtrack, but disappointed by its structure, combat system, and opaque character progression system.
In “Was Trials of Mana Worth Growing Up For?,” I wrote about the experience of chasing a white for two decades, only to find regret and disappointment:
At the time of its release, Trials of Mana impressively built on the foundations laid by its predecessors — refining the party-of-three system, realizing an even more beautiful and varied world, allowing for more customization than ever, non-linear narrative, and quest design — but 25 years of hindsight makes the cost of that progress obvious. In its imperfections, you can begin to see the unravelling of the Mana franchise (clunky combat, over-reliance on poorly designed systems, emphasis on graphics over gameplay). There’s no perfect Mana game, and that includes Trials of Mana, which is buoyed in reputation by its former scarcity, placed on a pedestal by western gamers who revered its existence as some sort of gaming holy grail.
In 2019, Square Enix surprised everybody by announcing two versions of Seiken Densetsu 3 — now officially called Trials of Mana — for North American release: a port of the original with a new official script as part of Collection of Mana for the Nintendo Switch, and a full 3D multi-platform remake.
While Trials of Mana was considered one of the Super Nintendo’s hallmark titles, there was still a lot of room for improvement in a modern remake, and this remake was a chance for Trials of Mana to become the game I’d dreamed of the late ’90s.
In the end, however, like its inspiration, the Trials of Mana remake is a roller coaster experience where its highest highs are matched by equally low lows.
The Forest for the Trees
The original Trials of Mana was one of the most beautiful games on the Super Nintendo. It featured an expansive world bursting with colour, and even if its character sprites moved about jerkily thanks to low animation frames, they were gorgeously detailed and the boss monsters are still some of the most impressive examples of sprite work available on any platform.
On first glance, the Trials of Mana remake retains the original’s beauty, with impressive environmental design, thoughtful use of colour, and nicely animated character models, but closer examination reveals an experience that is technically flawed and clearly developed on a low budget. Perhaps the most egregious example are the skyboxes found in many of the game’s coastal locations. We live in the era of amazing skyboxes, which are often just cleverly illustrated flat images posted beyond the horizon of the rendered environment, but Trials of Mana avoids this route and instead provides low-polygon alternatives that look out-of-place against the game’s otherwise attractive environments.
Despite these technical limitations, the visual design of the characters, enemies (especially the bosses) and environments is just as impressive as the original, and thanks to a consistently strong art style the game generally looks and feels great as you’re playing. The original oozed charm, and this remake is no different. It feels a lot like playing Dragon Quest XI, another Square Enix game built on Unreal Engine, but, thanks to the storied design history of the Mana series, it manages to set itself apart with a cartoony world that’s a joy to explore. It’s only when you go looking for the rough edges or look more closely that you start seeing the (literal) seams.
I was playing on Nintendo Switch, and, from looking at screenshots of other platforms, including some of those in this review, it seems like the graphical experience is improved on the more powerful consoles and, especially, PC.
Combat and character progression
The remake’s single most dramatic improvement is its newly-designed combat and character progression system. One of the main draws of the original was the ability to craft a unique party for each play through by choosing new characters and pursuing new classes for those characters. By the end of the game, your tactics and techniques would vary drastically based on which of the six playable characters you chose for your three person party. The remake retains this concept, but the execution, both in and out of combat, is improved in nearly every sense.
In my case, I completed the game with a party of Reisz, Hawkeye, and Kevin, and my main tactic was to buff my team’s stats using Reisz’s Starlancer abilities, debuff the enemies with Hawkeye’s Ninja Master magic, and let Kevin the Warrior Monk flip flop between healer and pummeler depending on how the battle was going. A party consisting of Duran, Angela, and Charlotte would take an entirely different route, focusing on Duran’s tanking, Angela’s huge magic spells for damage, and Charlotte’s healing.
Combat in the original was clunky and slow, dragging down and already padded experience that requires you to backtrack through old areas many times throughout the game. The remake still requires this same amount of backtracking, but the combat system is silky smooth, battles conclude quickly, and you start to feel more powerful as you progress through the game. This improved combat alone makes for a much more fun and effortless experience compared to the original, and is its defining advantage over the older game’s impressive pixel art graphics.
Each of your party characters can pursue different classes throughout a bifurcating class tree. There’s some freedom to experiment — as re-classing your character becomes optional late in the game — and as previously mentioned, reclassing can dramatically change the makeup of your team and your moment-to-moment strategy. The game also retains the original’s stat-based levelling system, though it’s much more transparent now, allowing players to more aptly build their team to suit their play style. Characters are rewarded training points when they level up, which can be spent on Strength, Stamina, Spirit, Intelligence, and Luck — providing stat increases and new abilities at certain thresholds. This system allows for even more flexibility within the class system and ensures that all characters make use of all stats.
One of the reasons we play roleplaying games is the freedom of expression they afford us, and Trials of Mana goes above and beyond the original in many ways to offer the player even more options — even if the complexity of the system doesn’t reach the heights of many modern RPGs.
Written on the flea
In contrast, the game’s narrative remains almost unchanged from the Super Nintendo release. I enjoyed the story a lot in the original, and found the way its narrative unfolded as the three separate story arcs wound around and through each other to be unique — if not quite so compelling as something like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger. I wasn’t worried about the story in the remake. I knew it would be solid, if unremarkable. But the funniest thing happened: The same story I loved on the Super Nintendo felt flat and over simplistic on a modern console — like a caricature of a golden age JRPG.
A lot of this comes down to poor cut scene direction, which often features the characters standing and lifelessly mimicking the same gestures over and over, and some of the worst voice acting I’ve heard since the PlayStation 2. This creates a stilted narrative experience that is impossible to take seriously.
I believe the reasons for this are twofold: 1) The script is almost identical to the official release of the Super Nintendo version in Collection of Mana, which means the writers were working within the boundaries and style of 16-bit games, and speaking this out loud is not as natural as a script written specifically for a modern game, and 2) the original script and narrative structure that works well in the simpler Super Nintendo version does so because it asks the player to be a creative partner — making up the bits of story, including the character voices, narrative action, scene blocking, etc. — by using their imagination. Where the Super Nintendo version is like reading book, with the player bringing their own experience to the details of how the story plays out scene-by-scene, the new remake uses a more literal narrative approach and due to budget concerns could not provide an experience that matched that of a player’s imagination.
Outside of the voice acting and cut scenes, the translation and writing itself is fine*, and an improvement upon Corlett’s impressive but unpolished work from 2000, but it also highlights how much video game narratives have evolved over the past two decades. I can count on one hand the number of games I’ve played to completion where I’ve lost complete interest in the story by the end, but as Trials of Mana remake’s final cut scenes rolled, I had my phone in my hand and was mindlessly scrolling the social media hellscape.
*Good lord, Chawlotte. What were they thinking?
Melody of Mana
If there’s one notable strength shared between the new and old Trials of Mana it’s the absolute brilliance of Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack. Trials of Mana was a stand-out on the Super Nintendo for its high quality soundtrack emphasizing earthy wood instruments, string melodies, and pianos over the more orchestral and bombastic soundtracks of its contemporaries. Kikuta pushed that system to its limit and produced a soundtrack on the Super Nintendo that outclassed many on the Japanese RPG juggernaut PlayStation in years to come.
Kikuta returned for the remake of Trials of Mana and proved he hasn’t lost his touch. While the original soundtrack is available to players who want it, the arranged orchestral version is a beautiful modernization of one of gaming’s best soundtracks. The Mana series has always had its own unique sound — most often associated with Kikuta, but also the brilliant Yoko Shimomura for her work on Legend of Mana — but given the dearth of new titles over the past decade or so, this is the first time gamers have had a chance to experience its unique soundscape on a home console since 2006’s Dawn of Mana*. There’s something that just feels right about the game’s earthy, upbeat music filling a living room, and Trials of Mana’s soundscape more than lives up to the series’ musical pedigree.
It’s not often you see an artist take the opportunity to reimagine their work decades later, but Kikuta’s work here is at once astounding and great testament to the quality of his original compositions on the Super Nintendo.
*With the exception of the Secret of Mana remake, which featured a divisive arrangement that missed the mark for Mana fans.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Having recently completed both the original Trials of Mana and the 2020 remake, I’m left with the strangest feeling of duality. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, these two versions of the same game share a foundation, but their strengths and flaws are nearly polar opposites. The elements I loved about the original — the multi-tiered story, the system-pushing graphics — are the weakest parts of the remake, while its flaws — exploration and combat — absolutely sing in 3D.
Many fans got to experience the Super Nintendo version of Trials of Mana as part of the Collection of Mana release on the Nintendo Switch. Thanks to Super Nintendo Online, which offers many of the Super Nintendo’s best games right on the Switch, comparing the original Trials of Mana to other games of the era reveals a game that pushed the Super Nintendo to its absolute limit and eclipses many PlayStation games from an audiovisual perspective. The Trials of Mana remake feels more like a long-lost relic of the PlayStation 2 era — complete with rough texture work, bad voice acting, and a narrative that worked much better on the Super Nintendo. Still the much-improved battle system, terrific environmental art design, and robust character-building system, which encourages replays, makes Trials of Mana a fun experience for its 25+ hours. Too bad it could have been a truly remarkable game if it could have combined its improved gameplay with the high level of graphical fidelity and forward-thinking story execution of the Super Nintendo original.
Where many remakes attempt to modernize and reinvent their source material, Trials of Mana is stoically loyal to its predecessor’s structure, story, characters, and visual elements. Like Trials of Mana, I’ve changed immensely in the 25 years since its first release on the Super Nintendo. I’ve grown, and so has this game. It’s become something new for a modern era, and in that transition it’s improved in many ways, but lost some of the things that made the original game so special. I hold no special nostalgia for Trials of Mana — all my nostalgia is for the game I desperately invented in my head as a teenager while it was stuck literally half the world away in Japan — and yet I walk away from this experience feeling both satisfied and disappointed. Neither experience is perfect, but together the two versions of Trials of Mana form one of gaming’s most unlikely stories and I’m glad to finally be a part of that.