The 3D remake of Trials of Mana helps novices get acquainted with RPG basics

Trials of Mana distills several core gameplay features to its truest sense.


By GENE PARK | The Washington Post | Published: June 5, 2020

Role-playing games can be intimidating. They involve all this math, stats and different mechanics to memorize and track. Enemies might explode into a treasure trove of new items with benefits harder to read than your insurance policy.

Meanwhile, every new town in Trials of Mana offers you exactly one new weapon. No need for spreadsheets on the “loot grind” and decoding cryptic algorithms. Just get the one sword, which you know is stronger because it has bigger numbers than your last sword.

The brilliance of Trials of Mana is how it distills several core gameplay features to their truest sense. The “loot grind” to gain more equipment really comes down to comparing smaller and bigger numbers. Sometimes towns really don’t function as much else besides places to stock up on things and maybe get some loose context for the world. Sometimes, a simple classic like Trials of Mana is all you really need.

This game is mythical. It’s the direct sequel to the Super Nintendo classic Secret of Mana, a name whispered with just a little less reverence than for Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI. Known as Seiken Densetsu 3, it was only ever released in Japan in 1995, at the tail end of the Super Nintendo console’s life. Despite this lack of attention, Japanese gamers and intrepid importers praised the game as a celebration of all things that were great about the 16-bit era of role-playing games. The game attained near-mythical status for collectors and retro gamers, becoming a 16-bit milestone.

Last year, Seiken Densetsu 3 was finally released in the West as Trials of Mana under the Collections of Mana. And now, in 2020, here is a full-bore 3D remake of that same game for the PlayStation 4, PC and Nintendo Switch.

Trials of Mana is perfect for two types of players. First, there are folks like me who grew up with the 16-bit classics, and would love for a chance to dive back into that charming world of simple and immediate rewards. But then, it’s also a great primer for anyone who’s been intimidated by role-playing games, or even more action-heavy games like the Devil May Cry series.

Yes, this is a 2020 remake, but don’t expect anything as luxurious or literally game-changing like the Final Fantasy VII Remake. This Japanese role-playing remake is far more faithful, at least in spirit, to its classic roots. Super Nintendo role-playing stories were often mere outlines of grand epics, and Trials of Mana makes little to no effort to update its dialogue and writing.

What’s different, then, is how it implements modern action role-playing design concepts into an old but classic formula. The combat is now fully 3D and moves in real time like an action game. There’s one button for basic attacks, another for slower attacks that hit harder, a jump button and a dodge button. Big enemy attacks will be telegraphed by red flashing lights on the floor, which is the player’s signal to move. Massive multiplayer online RPGs have used this system for years, and it’s a neat visual trick to implement in real-time combat.

It’s almost impossible to get lost in this game. There are no side quests to distract you, and every quest is a simple matter of getting from Point A to B, another example of this game’s ability to distill gameplay concepts to their core.

All of this is introduced pretty slowly, but certainly not more slowly than some of the tutorials in today’s most complicated games. And the game is easy, even on its “hard” difficulty. Players who want high-octane engagement need not apply, but what if those new to the genre suddenly get bored halfway through the game?

Well good news, it just means you’re probably primed for something more complex and challenging! Did you think the dungeons were too straightforward? Maybe it’s time you finally checked out one of the 17 phenomenal The Legend of Zelda games. Mana offers similar gameplay, movement and combat (complete with a lock-on targeting system for enemies). But the Zelda dungeons also have puzzles to solve and enemies to beat that require a bit more thought than a simple button press.

Maybe you liked the combat and wish it was more exciting? You’ve got an entire genre of character action games to explore, from the five Devil May Cry games that created and innovated the genre, to 2018’s award-winning God of War for the PlayStation 4.

If you enjoyed the character customization and “loot grind,” you’re probably ready for Diablo 3, another simple action role-playing adventure. Its “loot grind” is infinitely more complicated, but Trials teaches you basic concepts like “strength” and “magic strength,” more than enough information to tackle anything Diablo throws at you.

That’s not to say Trials of Mana offers little. On a “normal” difficulty, it offers at least 20 hours of gameplay, including a new chapter. And like the original game, it offers you six heroes to choose from, all with their own stories, abilities to learn and weapons to gain. You can take up to three of the characters through the whole game. And each character comes with at least six different classes, only widening the combat possibilities. The game’s combat is basically a simple Streets of Rage-type brawler with RPG mechanics, but the combat and class variety spices things up considerably. New Game Plus, meanwhile, allows players to run through the story again (with different lead characters if you want) with all your items and stats intact.

The graphics are pretty but rely mostly on the strength of their colorful character designs. Good art direction goes a long way to hide any technical issues, and Square Enix’s designers were on fire during the ’90s. Some characters look a bit outdated (notably the huge busts on the warrior princesses), and one character’s voice acting is irredeemably terrible in English.

But Trials of Mana was never meant to wow anyone with fireworks. It’s a simple, updated remake of a legendary game. Time has humbled its legacy, as developers and studios iterated the formula of the 16-bit adventure. Modern classics like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim have done wonders to build believable characters, settings and compelling contexts for adventure.

Trials of Mana reminds us of why we fell in love with these games in the first place. The rules are simple; the rewards are immediate and obvious. There’s no better formula for escapist fantasy.

Platforms: PC, Switch, PS4
Online: trialsofmana.square-enix-games.com