I would like to begin by stating right up front that I have never played the original SeikenDensetsu 3. While this will come as a shock to almost no one due to the fact that the game never had an official western release, I was still surprised to find myself starting up SD3’s 2020 remake of Trials of Mana.
Typically when I approach a new game with an established history I generally try to start from the beginning. If the game is part of a series then I always want to play each game in the order they released, or, in the case of a remake I will always make an effort to explore the original material. And so it was when I saw the Trials of Mana demo making its rounds on various platforms. I have fond memories of co-oping the game’s predecessor, Secret of Mana, with my best friend growing up and as such thought I knew exactly what I would be getting myself into (aka more of the same gleeful combat and world saving adventures, but with a fresh coat of paint). By the time I had finished the very lengthy demo I realized that Trials of Mana had much more to offer than a 16-bit nostalgia trip.
Trials of Mana begins with having you select three of six available characters: Druan, the swordsman, Angela, the Magician, Kevin, the Beastman grappler, Charlotte, the Cleric, Hawkeye, the thief, and Riesz, the Amazon. When I was presented with this selection screen, years of JRPG conditioning assured me that I would be able to recruit the remaining three characters along my journey, giving me a team of six that I could swap in and out at various points throughout the game. When asked to designate a “main” character and their two companions and then once again asked to confirm my choices, I realized that this was not the case. The three characters you select from the start are the only three characters you control through the entire game. I was pleasantly surprised by this design choice and equally as impressed that a game originally created in 1995 would have this kind of innovation.
As the game begins, you are introduced to whomever you selected to be your main character and progress through what I’ll call their introduction chapter. For my playthrough, I selected Duran as my main character alongside, Angela for my spell caster and Riesz for support. Duran’s story begins simply enough with a tour of his hometown of Valsena where he serves as a promising member of the castle guard. After a walk around the town to get the feel of movement and an idea of what shops and inns look like, it’s off to the castle for a combat tutorial in the form of a swordsmanship tournament. From what I was able to gather with my single playthrough, each hero’s introduction chapter follows a similar pattern before the main event occurs, which sets them out on their adventure.
In Duran’s case it was a surprise attack on Valsena castle. Duran, having dozed off during his guard duties awakens to find the castle in flames and many of his comrades slain by a mysterious man in red robes who calls himself the Crimson Wizard. After a brief chase, Duran confronts the wizard only to be unable to land a single blow. Upon realizing that Duran was the best Valsena had to offer, Crim concludes that Valsena is weak and that he and his allies can take the castle at any time before departing for good.
While Valsena suffered heavy losses by the Crimson Wizard’s attack, they still managed to defend their king, to whom Duran pledges that he will become the strongest swordsman in the world and defeat the Crimson Wizard in the name of Valsena. With that, our adventure begins in earnest with the main character setting off on their quest and encountering his companions at certain points early on in the story. Interestingly enough when your main character meets a companion for the first time you are asked if you would like to play through their introduction chapter or skip it, giving the player a chance to experience their stories up to the point where they meet the main character.
When I first realized that I would only be limited to one character’s main story, I was more than a little hesitant to continue. The idea of having to play the game six times in order to grasp the entire scope of the story filled me with dread. Thankfully, this was not the case as Trials innovated yet again this time with its storyline structure. Each of the game’s six heros are assigned one of three primary antagonists who is featured in their introduction chapter.
Duran and Angela both have it out for the Crimson Wizard, while Kevin and Charlotte are after the jester-like villain, Goremand. Lastly, Hawkeye and Riesz have their sights set on the dark beauty, Belladonna. While your party will encounter each of these villains on their journey, only one of them will be considered the prime antagonist, while the other heroes and villains serve mainly as cameos. In the end you will have no cause to worry as by the time the credits roll you will have seen the conclusion to whichever characters you’ve selected, and with six heroes that means that realistically you will only have to play Trials twice to see the full picture and with new game plus you should be able to complete the game in half the time.
Regardless of your party configuration and the villains assigned to them, the main thrust of the story remains the same. It eventually comes to light that your party’s main villain is after a mythical weapon called the Mana Sword, which would grant its wielder the power to rule the world. The blade is watched over by the goddess of mana, who upon realizing that dark forces were scheming to steal the blade for themselves, dispatched faeries to seek out a hero to serve as defenders of the tree. The faerie eventually discovers the leader of the party and thus the overarching save the world plot found in almost every RPG of the early 90’s is revealed; “Find the thing, beat the boss, save the world”.
Moving on from the strange but unique storytelling mechanics, let’s discuss the real bread and butter of the Mana games. I’m talking of course about the combat! Staying true to its roots, Trials adopts a real time combat system albeit from a behind the back camera perspective rather than the top down view of the original. Also absent this time around are the charge up bars from Secret of Mana, in favor of a percentage meter that you fill up via heavy attacks, which can then be used to unleash devastating class skill attacks. These attacks at higher levels are super powerful. At one point Duran’s level 4 class skill hit a boss for almost half of its health.
Each of your party members will level individually and you can add training points to various stats to unlock new spells or equippable abilities. This system can be further tweaked and strengthened by Classes. Classes, which are unlocked at certain levels and if certain conditions are met, are essentially job promotions that will unlock new melee combos and class skills as well as changing your characters appearance. Each class provides the player with a light choice or a dark choice. With each option determining stat increases as well as skills learned. The primary difference here seemed to be “do you want this character to play defensively or offensively.” For example, at level 18 Duran can choose to promote himself from a generic fighter class to either a knight who is able to equip a shield, or a gladiator who forgoes the shield in favor of more speed and attack power. The game will also allow you to switch these classes at times, so do not be afraid to experiment with various party configurations and soon you will start to see that delicious power creep that only early RPG’s that existed before the advent of level scaling can provide.
Visually I found Trials of Mana to be stunning. While each location felt familiar almost to a fault (ice stage, fire stage, desert stage, ect.) I didn’t seem to mind as they were filled with vibrant colors and clever level design that had me exploring every inch of each area to eek out that last hidden treasure. Even when it came time to backtrack through some of these locales, new sections were unlocked and even new ways to travel through them, which I found incredibly refreshing. The remastered audio tracks also added to my enjoyment of Trials. Even though many of the towns had a very similar tune that I started to get tired of, it made up for this by having a unique track for each of the combat areas you encounter. All in all a quick view of the classic gameplay and original soundtrack was enough to convince me that Square Enix did its very best to stay true to and enhance the original game.
When it was all said and done, both the main and post game had taken me around 30 hours to complete. It was a silly hack and slash romp through colorful combat areas that had me killing enemies that for the most part were entirely too cute for their own good (looking at you dragons). The story beats were predictable and for the most part the game was pretty easy on a normal playthrough. At the end of the day, Trials of Mana is just another remake of a classic game, but as someone who approached it as a complete stranger, I cannot help but be impressed regardless. I may not be one to say whether or not it truly stayed faithful to the original. However, what I can say is that I had so much fun that I’m ready to find out for myself.