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Trials of Mana review: Believing in magic

It's been 25 years, but Trials of Mana is coming to western audiences and it's been given a modern shine. Was it worth the wait? Our review.

4

Square Enix is widely recognized for Final Fantasy, but it's far from the only RPG series that the publisher has put together. There's also a big following for Secret of Mana, the 1993 Super NES classic. There once was a sequel released for the game called Trials of Mana, but many in North America may be unfamiliar with it, considering it was originally released only in Japan. However, after almost 30 years, Square Enix is finally bringing Trials of Mana to western audiences with a new modernized remake. And while it may explore an old story, there's plenty that's new to discover for series fans and newcomers alike.

Chronicles of 'Mana'

Trials of Mana review

The story for Trials of Mana is far-reaching and not one that can be explained in simple terms. That's because the game follows multiple protagonists and depending on who the player's primary selected hero is, the story will unfold differently. The gist is that the forces behind the magical essence of Mana are dying, especially as villains seek out the power of the Mana Stones, eight giant monoliths each representing a different element.

The main characters can be a bit much for casual players and JRPG fans alike, many of them containing an annoying quirk or two. Angela is a spoiled brat. Charlotte can only speak in baby talk. Hawkeye is a cliched thief with a heart of gold. The characters and their interactions can get grating at times, which is a shame because their individual stories certainly aren't bad.

In fact, it's the Trials of Mana story itself that stands as this game's greatest triumph, mainly because it offers up the possibility of multiple playthroughs. The beginning and end of the journey will differ depending on the characters chosen, though elements of other characters' stories will be sprinkled in over the course of the central narrative. In many instances, one player's story will not be the same as their friend's. While everybody is seeking out the Mana Stones, the reasons behind doing so and the overarching narrative will vary. That's an immensely fascinating idea for JRPGs, one that more effectively ties in the world's characters than one of Square's other recent JRPG efforts, Octopath Traveler.

The story isn't without weaknesses, though, outside of the main characters' more annoying traits. Watching three different evil factions vie for the end goal is a cool idea, but sadly something that doesn't last very long. Depending on the player's primary character, their villain will take center stage while the other two top baddies quietly exit, stage left. At that point, there's a sense that the end is near, but it actually is not. The final stretch of the game goes on far too long. Between the verbose cutscenes and some unwelcome repetition near the end, it's not unreasonable to wish that the game would just cut to the chase. However, those are ultimately minor quibbles, because the story itself is a strong one and it's supplemented with some outstanding gameplay elements.

'Mana' points

Trials of Mana review

Trials of Mana sticks to its action RPG roots and fits in beautifully as a modern entry into that genre. Parties of three will enter battle as soon as they're spotted by enemies, engaging in a combat circle. Each character can attack with weak and strong attacks or combine them into multi-hit combos, while also digging into their Magic Points to cast powerful spells. There are multiple elements with a rock-paper-scissors formula that determines strengths and weaknesses, but more often than not, you'll be hitting minor enemies repeatedly until they fall down. That's not a crack at the game, either. The individual character builds offer enough variety that trying them out is one of its bigger joys. For example, I liked trying to buff Angela's magic to the point that I could wipe out piles of enemies in a single blast and tweaking Hawkeye's melee strikes so that he could inflict poison on foes.

Class Strikes are special attacks that can occasionally be executed and will either wipe out minor foes or help immensely against bosses. There are handy tutorials that explain everything and make it all clear as day, even to those not fluent in JRPG.

Trials of Mana also carries along a neat feature that allows players to "switch" classes. While the game uses the word "switch," it's really more of an upgrade. Switching classes opens up cooler magic, additional spell slots, and ups character stats significantly. It can only be done around a Mana Stone for narrative reasons, which is nice for the story, but not so nice for anybody who reaches the requirements to switch and doesn't have a Mana Stone at the ready. This issue fixes itself near the end of the game, but not without raising a more troublesome one.

Each character can switch classes twice and once it's time to switch a second time, a level requirement isn't enough. Players must also find a special class item that they pull from planting special seeds. That's where the idea of switching classes jumps off a cliff. The special seeds can be difficult to find and worse than that, you may roll the same item for the same character twice. That means the upgrade door isn't open for other characters and if characters haven't switched to their third class by the late game, they're in for a world of hurt. It got to a point where I really wished that the third class was just tied to a level requirement. The idea's not broken, so why fix it?

World warriors

Trials of Mana review

Another thing that Trials of Mana's story opens up is a vast world that can be explored on foot, by sea, or by air. The eight elements of the Mana Stones means that Square Enix's artists got a chance to create a multitude of different environments and they certainly didn't disappoint. The outdoor visuals were beautiful to behold as they stood out with bright colors and heavy detail, whether it was an outdoor forest, a snowy field, a haunted ship, or the inside of a treacherous volcano. Even the towns look like they were crafted with love.

That's good, because players will often see those environments quite a bit. While level grinding isn't as bad here as it is in other Square Enix games or other RPGs of this variety, it is present to a degree. And it's not just players fighting to level up their stats. It's players fighting to level up their wallets. Gear near the end of the game gets crushingly expensive, especially given how quickly it goes out of fashion. You might save up just enough for that latest piece of armor only to travel to the next town ten minutes later and find yet another upgraded piece available.

Repeat 'Trials'

Trials of Mana amazed me with just how robust a story it has to offer. There isn't a lot in terms of side quests, but this is not a game that needs any. There is a lot of story to go through and a lot to explore well after the credits roll. And while I'm not a huge fan of the characters, they didn't sour me on the game to the point that I won't keep exploring. Lore-hungry RPG fans will have a lot to feast on with this game.

It has its problems and its quirks, but I've greatly enjoyed Trials of Mana. I would easily call this the best RPG remake that Square's made in a long time. At least I would if that other Square Enix RPG remake didn't exist.


This review is based on a PlayStation 4 code provided by the publisher. Trials of Mana will release Friday, April 24 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch for $49.99. The game is rated T.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Review for
Trials of Mana
8
Pros
  • Massive story that differs depending on characters selected
  • Huge world to explore
  • Easy and fluid combat
  • Multiple ways to build characters
  • Beautiful environments
Cons
  • Characters can be annoying
  • Tying a third class switch to class items is a drag
  • Can get grindy
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