This review is for Trials of Mana on Nintendo Switch.
If you thought Final Fantasy 7 Remake was the biggest RPG reconstruction of 2020… well, you’d be right. But hot on its heels comes Trials of Mana, the latest dramatic facelift of what seems like a never-ending conveyor belt of reimagined adventures from yesteryear.
The difference in the case of Trials of Mana is that the original title wasn’t available on Western shores until 2019’s Collection of Mana port bundle. Therefore the remake, boasting a full graphical and gameplay overhaul, offers a perfect opportunity for the many gamers who missed out the first time to experience the tale. And whilst the nifty new features certainly make for a palatable game, in some of its other areas Trials of Mana still shows signs of its age.
It all starts with a choice, and a big one at that – picking your party leader and two supporting characters out of six available. Once these are locked in, you’re stuck with them. I went with Duran, the strong male sword-wielder with ridiculous hair whom 90s RPG convention led me to believe was probably the real main character. In a decision that had nothing to do with character designs and everything to do with balancing out the abilities of the party, I completed my trio with mage Angela and all-rounder Riesz.
The main character chosen dictates which plot is followed, with three main story paths available. I delved straight into Duran’s version of events and quickly ticked off a bunch of classic RPG clichés. Within about 10 minutes, both of his parents are out of the way, he’s become a knight, his home has been attacked, and he’s found a reason to leave on a quest to travel the world. This is set in motion when an evildoer called the Crimson Wizard invades the land and easily dispatches the rest of the knights but departs before he can finish off the modestly named Hero King.
Duran survives and valiantly decides to journey in pursuit of the strength to defend the kingdom next time, leaving the king with no-one except the feeble remaining knights, presumably in the hope the Crimson Wizard doesn’t attack again tomorrow. He then finds a magical faerie who enters his body and starts talking in his head.
Elsewhere in my party was the witch from a magical land struggling with magic. Angela is disowned by her mother, the Queen of said land, and sets off towards the same city as Duran in search of power and answers. As for Riesz, she starts the game hunting around her castle for her little brother before finding him being manipulated into compromising their kingdom’s safety by a pair of evil twins called Bil and Ben. In a somewhat unfathomable turn of events she leaves him behind to be abducted, also winding up losing the fortress and hitting the road herself.
Before long, the trio had met one another by chance and joined forces to fight their respective battles. It’s here you get to play the opening sections of your other characters’ stories via flashbacks if you so choose, with no EXP or items carrying over so you don’t have to waste time hunting for items in every corner of the map. The grander plot soon reveals itself and it turns out we need a magic sword from a magic tree because the mana in the world is depleting. This involves finding crystals and gathering power from the eight elemental spirits. Meanwhile, the bad guys are after the same power to restore an evil lord who was sealed away years ago. Sounding familiar so far?
I quickly cursed my lack of research and regretted my choices. I had left myself without a healer, and like any completely normal RPG player I never, ever use any items. Even in a final battle, with the last boss within an inch of his life, I’m still inclined to debate whether I really need to use a consumable that would certainly finish him off.
Rest assured, I overcame my instincts and actually used items due to a few factors – healing candies are found regularly on the field and are cheap in shops (where the identical shopkeepers weirdly bounce around behind their counters), whilst my subsequent run-in with the actual healer I could have picked showed me how annoying her dialogue was. I was no longer sowwy and was actually vewy glad I’d ignored her (she talks like that…).
Trials of Mana’s combat is action-based, with enemies fought on the field without the need for a separate battle screen. It’s pretty straightforward – hit enemies with a quick light attack, a slower heavy attack, or execute a little combo to add some additional effects like knocking the enemy back or sweeping a wider range.
You can also effectively pause the battles at any time and direct anyone in your party to use ‘moves’ (ie. magic) or items. Another offensive option comes in the form of class strikes, powerful attacks built up by hitting enough enemies and collecting the blue crystals they drop to fill the gauge. Your teammates sometimes use moves and class strikes of their own accord, following the loose strategy you assign for them in the menu. However, I found that no matter what tactics I selected, the AI perpetually got themselves in trouble and were in far safer hands when I switched control, which can be done with the press of a button.
Outside of a couple of extra combos and class strikes unlocked as your party powers up, the battle system remains decidedly simple. I found typical encounters were all dealt with by using the exact same approach. Admittedly, they’re also broken up by plenty of boss fights, which add a touch of variety and demand a closer attention to elemental weaknesses and disabling the boss before they fully charge up a scary, strong move of their own.
To its credit, despite the repetitiveness of the combat, it never stops being incredibly fun throughout the adventure. Duran was by far the most enjoyable player to control, and it was satisfying to whack around cute creatures whilst rolling away from enemy moves scripted by a red danger zone – mostly. There are a few too many irritating flying enemies, and battles that demand you to work around environmental hazards like quicksand, slippery ice or poisonous puddles. With no block button, fast-paced dodging is your main way of avoiding damage and it’s a pain when you’re hampered by these extraneous factors.
Mercifully, when your AI teammates abandon what little common sense they have and get killed, they still gain EXP at the end of battle along with a free revival with 1HP. This is crucial, because their frequent suicide wishes would otherwise be completely unforgiveable. Experience taught me it was much more prudent to control Angela during boss fights, so I could get her to safety and spam her spells whilst my melee fighters took the brunt of the attention.
Characters grow by acquiring training points when a level is gained. These are spent in the training screen, where new moves and stat increases can be unlocked depending on which section you allocate your points. As there aren’t enough points to learn everything, this grants some neat player choice about which direction to take your characters without being overwhelming. There’s also a welcome simplicity in the frequent equipment upgrades. Most towns have precisely one slightly stronger weapon and armour per character which are bought from the bouncing merchants and equipped immediately. It makes for an efficient interface that doesn’t require navigation through umpteen needlessly complicated menus.
The exception to the rule comes in the item belt, which oddly demands that the player equip an item and use it on the field rather than letting you consume it from the menu. Within battle, this is completely understandable, but even outside of encounters you need to take these unnecessary steps to heal up or gulp down a stat-boost potion.
The gameplay may be generally user-friendly, but Trials of Mana isn’t always an easy game. It holds your hand for quite a while, the nice friendly world and cartoony enemy designs lulling you into a false sense of security before a substantial, sudden difficulty spike. More often than not your struggle is AI-induced, as by the time you’ve switched characters and got them out of harm’s way, the previous character you were controlling has inexplicably lost half of their health and needs rescuing themselves. On many occasions did I long for the more conservative approach of FF7R’s AI.
The setting is colourful, vibrant and endearingly goofy, even if it does sometimes overstep the mark. I thought the party hopping into a cannon to be blasted over the sea would be a quirky one-off, but it turns out this is legitimately the main method of travel for a large portion of the game. In defence of this gameplay mechanic, the world is remarkably small. Exploration between landmarks never takes very long, and towns typically have a couple of shops and smaller populations than a Jar-Jar Binks fan club meeting.
Both on the field and within these miniature settlements, the jump button lets Trials of Mana include a sprinkling of surprisingly fun platforming elements. In dungeons, hidden items regularly demand a physics-defying jump and roll in mid-air whilst in towns, leaping around the rooftops invariably leads to a secret chest or two. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed these parts, which are not plentiful, they otherwise highlight how many invisible walls are present. You can jump along the roofs of one town, yet a cannon-blast elsewhere and a bunch of identical ones are arbitrarily inaccessible.
The small world and small towns lead onto the fact that Trials of Mana isn’t a long game. I completed the main story in under 19 hours, and had also polished off the drawn-out post-game dungeon within 21 and a half. This is unusually short within the genre, but it was actually refreshing to play a JRPG that didn’t demand I neglect everyone in my family for 80 to 100 hours. Part of this is down to dialogue exchanges getting straight to the point, to the extent that the key plot events feel glossed over and never have a chance to breathe. Cut scenes whoosh past faster than Angela’s firebolts and no sooner have you saved a kingdom than you’re straight back into a cannon and shot right into the next segment.
The other problem is that even within the streamlined runtime, there still manages to be an awful lot of backtracking. In the first five hours I’d been to the same towns repeatedly, and it’s all the more jarring when the repetitive, forgettable music lacks any dynamism and doesn’t even get broken up with a battle theme. The world may be aptly fun-sized, but the more you plod around it the more you feel it’s been tightly wrung for every last drop of content. Even the post-game dungeon involves just wandering around most of the same places again, but with some Halloween decorations.
The narrative never deviates far from the classic (read: generic) RPG plot and at one point the story has the luxury of taking an extended break by sending you off to fight a long list of bosses in whichever order you like with no plot in between. We trek to all the usual spots – ice fields, a fire cavern, a desert, a dark forest, up a tower, and wherever else you probably went last time you played an old RPG. Before you jump on my back and tell me to check my expectations – yes, I know full well this is a remake of a 1995 JRPG and one of the very games that helped establish these tropes in the first place. There is always a certain comfort in familiarity but if they’re going to release it as a full-price new game today then it has to be judged as such.
The tired formula could all be forgiven if the characters were more memorable, but regrettably don’t particularly develop themselves beyond their baseline motivations. Given the party choice system, it’s often clear much of the script is a template to be regurgitated no matter who you’ve chosen. As a result, I never really bought into the party’s relationship. I’ll grant that it’s better than Octopath Traveler in this regard, where additional party members literally disappeared from view when not directly tied to the chapter, but it still never quite felt like these characters were growing together and forming true bonds.
A few significant revelations and plot events come around, but since we never spend any meaningful time exploring the characters, they don’t pack much of an emotional punch or feel remotely earned. It’s not that they’re unlikeable, just that I fully expect to forget all about them within a month.
In fact, that probably sums up Trials of Mana. It doesn’t provoke any deep thought or pull on the heart strings, but that doesn’t seem to be its true intention. Sometimes gaming is about having some good old-fashioned fun, and there’s definitely pleasure to be had for anyone harbouring a passion for action RPGs, as long as you don’t mind retracing plenty of old-school steps. Trials of Mana is a good thing in a small package, but doesn’t go far enough with its changes to be a great one.