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Review: Trials of Mana (Nintendo Switch)By Renan At 12.05.2020 22:48

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With the release of Adventures of Mana in 2016, the Seiken Densetsu franchise more or less rebooted itself - a sentiment which would be further amplified by 2018's Secret of Mana remake. Unfortunately, while AoM was a surprisingly competent remake which kept the spirit of Final Fantasy Adventure alive, Secret of Mana failed to translate the charm of its SNES counterpart, resulting in a pathetically inadequate remake. All this to say: while there was natural excitement for Trials of Mana, this remake very easily could have disappointed on all fronts. Thankfully, it seems Square Enix has learned its lesson, giving the Mana franchise a level of respect it hasn't seen in years. Where SoM was more or less Frankenstein'd together with AoM's assets, this has been built from the ground up to stand apart from its predecessors, both aesthetically and mechanically.

Seiken Densetsu 3 was the title that started solidifying the franchise's lore, aesthetic, and setting - so it makes sense its remake would follow suit in this regardā€¦ but the chibi graphics which defined the first two remakes have been thrown out of the door. Characters now have realistic proportions, and the enemy design better reflects Koichi Ishii's original concept art, albeit with the series' now signature vibrant colour palette. Mechanically, the 2020 remake abandons most of the original's combat intricacies, opting for a more traditional action-RPG experience. Battles were never slow, but they're much faster this time around, by virtue of characters being able to string combos with their light and heavy attacks. With the action now in 3D, every party member can roll and jump, allowing them to dodge incoming enemies.

All party members abide by the same control schemes, i.e. everyone has access to the following combo chains: light-light-heavy, light-light-light-heavy, etc. - but no two characters play alike. The novelty of the original Seiken Densetsu 3 primarily stemmed from its approach to party composition. Rather than giving the player a static protagonist with a set party like in previous titles, players are tasked with selecting three out of six heroes for their team. Whichever character is selected first will serve as the protagonist of the journey, while the other two party members generally just tag along and round out dialogue, albeit with their own arcs. It should be pointed out that although there are six playable characters (all of whom have personal plots), there are only three story arcs with two characters assigned per arc. With this in mind, anyone who wants to experience the full scope of any given storyline will likely want to pair characters accordingly.

Duran and Angela's plots both play into the Dragon Lord arc, the most traditional of the three storylines. In terms of personality, Duran takes after Sumo and Randi, the series' two previous protagonists. He even has the strongest claim to the Mana Sword, through his sheer determination and kind heart. It's Angela's side of the story, however, that puts most of the arc's inner workings into perspective. More importantly, Angela's development translates the cleanest to gameplay, as her personal goal is to improve her magic - something which happens naturally through levelling. For anyone keen on lore, the Dragon Lord arc dives the deepest into the story's history, lending the impression of a more lived in world than can be gleaned from the other storylines. It should be noted that if Duran and Angela are excluded from the party, both characters struggle to maintain as much story presence as their counterparts. Unselected characters will show up when relevant, but Duran and Angela's goals are so intimately tied to the Dragon Lord, there's little for them to do otherwise.

Hawkeye and Riesz lead the Dark Majesty arc, a classically epic tale about good and evil. Where the Dark Lord arc is in the spirit of the Mana franchise, the Dark Majesty arc promotes the series' demons to a major role. The result is a classic tale of good versus evil, but Hawkeye and Riesz's stories have a tragic quality to them which allows the overall plot feel more classic than clichéd. Both Hawkeye and Riesz suffer important losses at the start of their journeys, with their personal stakes higher than those of other characters. Thematically, their stories tie in best to the overall theme of sacrifice present throughout the narrative as a whole. Hawkeye and Riesz have to give up everything they've come to know to save the ones they love. Even Belladonna, the arc's chief antagonist, ends up having a motivation rooted in the idea of making sacrifices for others. It's not Shakespeare, but there's an appreciable, theatrical quality to how the Dark Majesty arc plays out.

Kevin and Charlotte headline the Masked Mage arc, originally the most disconnected of three story arcs, but always the most interesting. Kevin and Charlotte's stories aren't as classically tragic as Hawekeye's or Riesz's, but they both have surprisingly emotional backstories, explicitly centering itself on the nature of life and death. Both Kevin and Charlotte have to come to terms with the permanence of death over the course of their stories. Similarly, the most prominent antagonist of the Masked Mage arc, Goremand, gruesomely devours the souls of his victims - his ultimate goal, killing and devouring everyone alive. The arc is really only held back by Kevin and Charlotte's dialogue. Both characters are rather young, something the text reflects for better or worse. It isn't too bad in the case of Kevin as he mainly just drops words, but Charlotte's baby talk is "downwight infuwiating" at times.

Other than some dialogue quirks, the script on a whole is well composed and extremely true to the original text. Very little has been changed narratively, with scenes playing out more or less beat for beat as they did in the Super Famicom release. Which isn't to say there isn't any new dialogue. Rather, new text is incorporated during gameplay (in towns, in the field, in dungeons) so as not to break the gameplay to cut-scene pacing. As was the case with the fan translation and the Collection of Mana release, this is a strong localization of an already solid script. On a textual level, that is. As far as voice acting goes, few games have been as woefully miscast and poorly directed as Trials of Mana. The English dub would have been seen as exceptionally bad even when video game dubs were expected to be bad. There is an embarrassing lack of talent on screen at all times, with the only consistency being how characters will inevitably butcher their next line. It's especially a pity, because a more competent cast could have punched up the story's inherently theatrical qualities, something reflected in the Japanese dub - which everyone should immediately switch to before starting their play-through.

When it comes down to it, though, Seiken Densetsu 3's appeal was never in its story. Rather, it made a name for itself through party customization, non-linearity, and strong dungeon design. In turn, it's just as viable to compose one's party based on which set of three characters will be the most fun to control, rather than which party will result in the most gripping plot. Especially when taking into consideration that characters like Hawkeye and Riesz are arguably more interesting when they aren't in the party. Although all six parties control similarly, they each have their own unique quirks. Beyond every character having access to their own unique set of Classes (a distinction which only unlocked new spells and increased stats in the Super Famicom RPG), every class comes with a unique Class Strike. Needless to say, the original Tech system has been thrown out the window, with party members now dipping into a CS meter that doesn't recharge on its own.

Class Strikes are more or less each character's signature techniques, and help add a dynamic flow to combat. They're far more usable than Techs ever were, and they often make the perfect cap off for combos. It should be pointed out that each new class offers a stronger Class Strike, but there's always merit in using the earlier ones. With stronger Class Strikes taking longer to charge (and potentially missing as a result,) the snappier, albeit weaker, Class Strikes can be very handy in a pinch. Of course, players shouldn't pick their party members or classes based on Class Strikes. Class Strikes are a dynamic way of keeping combat fresh and engaging, but Moves ultimately matter more in the grand scheme of things. Essentially the title's stand-in for spells and techniques, Moves range from healing, to offensive magic, to skills that buff and debuff. Moves are tied to class, and every class after the first features multiple options for the player to promote into (with the last locked to the post-game). Each party member not only has its own set of moves, but Legend of Mana's equipable abilities make a surprise reappearance, allowing for even greater character customization than was present previously.

As was the case in Seiken Densetsu 3, learning new Moves is still tied to levelling, but the stat system has been overhauled entirely. Upon levelling, every party member gains points, which they can feed into their stats. The original release had no way of conveying which stats would offer new abilities, which didn't work (because some actually didn't), and which were simply useless for certain characters. Class specific stat caps could also make levelling less than ideal sometimes. Now divided into five stats - Strength, Stamina, Intelligence, Spirit, and Luck - each stat shows everything characters can unlock in their current class. From inherent stat buffs, to equipable Abilities, and brand new Moves, there's a constant flow of progression courtesy of the revised stat system. More importantly, levelling has been overhauled to happen more frequently. Where parties would naturally end SD3 in their 50s, endgame parties in the remake will comfortably fall in their 70s.

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As for the characters themselves, Duran is the series' traditional swordsman, and the only party member with access to shields. His attacks aren't too slow, nor are they too fast, and he can fight comfortably from mid to short range. More importantly, his exclusive access to shields very quickly results in him having the highest HP and defence of the party. Depending on which Class Duran is promoted to, he'll either gain access to healing or elemental buffs which change his sword's properties. Angela is a sorceress with access to the single strongest set of Moves in the game. Regardless of which class line Angela promotes through (Light or Dark), she will likely wind up the most powerful character in one's party. She's fragile and needs to fight from afar, but her magic has incredible range, and her stats will naturally result in her doing insane damage, even if her INT is comparatively low. Angela isn't that useful in terms of melee combat, since her rod demands she fight at close range, but her attacks have enough weight where they're satisfying to pull off and she has some of the best Class Strikes in the game.

Hawkeye stands out as the party's jack of all trades. He doesn't excel in any one area, but he's all around an excellent character to round out any party. He's incredibly fast, he hits surprisingly hard, his abilities allow him to poison enemies and find more items, and Hawkeye's moves ultimately centre on debuffing enemies. While they can be used as traditional spells (Hawkeye's actually the second best caster after Angela), his assorted Jutsu can lower an enemy's attack and defence, while exploiting any weaknesses. That said, Hawkeye's daggers mean he has to fight at close range, and he has far from the highest Stamina in the cast. Riesz, like Hawkeye, is designed around being a more balanced party member, but her high offense and defence will keep her perpetually on the frontlines. Riesz's lance isn't as strong as Duran's sword, but her quick stabs allow her to deal a considerable amount of damage from far away. Along with her Class Strikes packing a punch, Riesz is the party's best buffer, with her Light Classes contrasting Hawkeye's debuffing Jutsu. Riesz can actually gain access to debuffing through her Dark Classes, but any party with both Hawkeye and Riesz should follow the Light.

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Kevin has the least amount of Moves in the party and will primarily serve as pure offense. While he can gain access to some handy supportive abilities, he's a character who will spend the majority of the game exclusively punching enemies. Thankfully, Kevin is a heavy hitter, and his close ranged martial arts make him fun to control - especially as he gains longer combo chains through his Class changes. Kevin will wind up strong regardless of how he's promoted, which can be seen as either a comfortable safety net, or bland progression depending on the player. That said, being a beastman, Kevin becomes exponentially stronger at night. Transforming always made for a novel gimmick, and it's arguably even better implemented in the remake. Charlotte is the ideal support character, and pretty much the party's only means of having guaranteed access to healing. Not only can she inherently heal HP and cure status ailments, Charlotte to a wide array of supportive and offensive magic depending on her class changes. Like Angela, she's a spellcaster who physically fights from close-range (Charlotte with a flail), but she shouldn't be up-close anyways. Unlike Angela, however, Charlotte isn't half as broken, and likely won't be leading the action even if she is the chosen protagonist.

Regardless of whom players choose to outfit their party with, combat is extremely satisfying. The World of Mana has never employed random encounters, instead allowing the player to engage with enemies on-screen. Earlier titles in the franchise would lock the screen so to keep the action cantered, whereas the remake now spawns a circular arena whenever the party instigates a fight. With the introduction of a proper combo system, abilities, and on the fly party switching, the action is as fast as it is tight. Consideration has been made in ensuring non-boss encounters aren't mindless, too. Although the overall difficulty curve skews on the easier side of things (about in-line with the rest of the series), certain enemies start battles with barriers that the players need to break down. These barriers ostensibly serve as shields, locking an enemy's health bar until the barrier is broken down. Although Moves can get through the barrier, they need to be broken through Heavy attacks. While this can be done by chaining combos - and some later ones are especially deadly - every character can hold down their heavy attack to release a charged strike, dealing extra damage to barriers in particular.

Along with barriers, certain bosses will adopt a secondary health meter when charging up particularly dangerous attacks. Players can chip away at these health bars to cancel the attacks outright, potentially staggering bosses in the process. Any boss techniques, counterable or otherwise, will also mark any affected areas on the battlefield in red, giving players time to reposition their party or dodge. All the same, boss attacks will also chase the party at times, requiring players to pay attention to when an enemy is about to strike. Although the RPG doesn't explain it, there is a perfect dodge of sorts in place that only triggers when a character dodges just before they're attacked. It's advised that anyone remotely experienced in the action genre (RPG or otherwise) play on Hard. Normal actually does get more challenging past the mid-game, but the curve evens out by the endgame, and none of the final bosses will pose a satisfying challenge. Still, even easy, battles are fast, fun, and just frantic enough to keep them engaging all throughout. With plenty of enemy and boss variety from start to finish, it's hard not to appreciate how well realized the core combat is. The only real flaw is how stiff the default walk is, but toggling run on fixes any potential issues with movement. The camera might be too manual for the liking of most people as well, but it's nothing anyone versed in the medium can't quickly adapt too.

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On the subject of movement, it's worth pointing out how jumping and rolling have affected dungeon design. Naturally, in moving Seiken Densetsu 3 into 3D, the remake has adopted verticality into its level design. One might assume that dungeons are fundamentally changed as a result, but a painstaking amount of effort has gone into translating the RPG's settings exactly as they were depicted in 1995. Verticality is now present, yes, but only as an addition to the level design, never as a replacement. This actually ends up remedying one of the RPG's more notable flaws: its lack of side content. Dungeons were filled with memorable set pieces, decent puzzles, and featured tight design that put Secret of Mana to shame. At the same time, every dungeon was more or less one and done with little to find off the beaten path. This wasn't damning in the grand scheme of things, but it's a case of simplicity working in spite of itself, not because of it. Square Enix's 3D remakes of their 2D titles have been historically superficial at best, so it's nice to see Trials of Mana recognize how spatial depth could have benefited the original level design.

Dungeons not only have optional platforming challenges, there's treasure just about everywhere, and some of the chests are hidden shockingly well. Aside from chests, dungeons and towns feature search points that essentially function as alternate versions of chests, giving players even more to find at any given time. There is a mini-map and a waypoint system which can help guide players along, but any puzzles that require exploration leave the map unmarked, as well as chests for the majority of the game. Seiken Densetsu 3 is completely devoid of side quests, but the remake manages to add in Legend of Mana's Lil Cactus as the face of a play-through long side quest. Lil Cactus will hide himself in just about every single area in the world, bestowing prizes for players who find him enough times. His rewards range from offering an occasional EXP boost, making Inns free, and even marking where treasure chests are on the map. Lil Cactus doesn't come with plot relevant dialogue, nor does the quest line result in some grand narrative revelation, but it's an excellent example of how to add onto a title that was already complete without compromising its core vision. Lil Cactus rewards exploration while keeping the RPG's tight pacing intact.

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Making its grand debut in 3D is the World of Mana's signature day week system. Every day on the calendar is associated with a specific Elemental, buffing Moves of that element for the whole day. Not just that, there's a dynamic day and night schedule that is always running in the background, influencing everything in the game world - from when shops open, to when enemies fall asleep. The week system really isn't something the player needs to pay attention to, but it adds scope to the adventure on a whole, making it feel as though real time is passing. While the general aesthetic is excellent, and does a good job at bringing Seiken Densetsu 3 to life in 3D, the Switch release has traded the performance stability of the PS4 version in favour of portability. The RPG runs well enough handheld, and is comfortably playable from top to bottom, but expect dips in framerate and the occasional pop-in. Nothing game ruining, granted, but anyone looking to purchase the Switch port should understand that it is the technically inferior product - even if portability is quite nice.

It is a shame the Switch version is held back by performance hiccups, because this is the best remake of 2020, so far. Trials of Mana clearly respects Seiken Densetsu 3's vision, opting never to undermine what was already present in the Super Famicom classic. All changes are in the spirit of the original, and any additions are non-intrusive. There's even a post-game which, despite being written decades after the fact, is textually and tonally in-line with the rest of the script, while planting the seeds for Legend of Mana and Dawn of Mana's inevitable remakes. Considering how poorly stitched together Secret of Mana's 2016 remake was, Trials of Mana is the best case scenario as far as modern video game remakes go.

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Final Score
[i]Trials of Mana[/i] is the best entry in the franchise since 1999's [i]Legend of Mana[/i]. More than adapting [i]Seiken Densetsu 3[/i] as it was for a modern audience, the remake consistently expands upon the mechanics and core design of the Super Famicom RPG. Flat but engaging level design now has a layer of verticality, with plenty of secrets to uncover; combat strikes a sweet balance between skill-based gameplay, with even stronger party customisation than the original; and the plot, while simple, never compromises its integrity for modern narrative conventions, resulting in a story that's as classic in tone as it is theatrical in scope. The remake is only held back by issues exclusive to the Switch port - lower frame rate and resolution in comparison to the PS4 build - but even that isn't enough to sour the experience. With an attention to detail that honours its source material as much as it elevates it, this is a new gold standard for video game remakes.

9

/10

User Comments
#1 jesusraz (News Editor) - on 12.05.2020 at 23:19

I am absolutely adoring this game! I always wanted to play the original, but couldn't work through the fan-translated emulator edition, and for some reason lost interest when Collection of Mana came out... but wowzers, this remake is stunning. Even if the camera goes a bit all over at times, it doesn't matter. That soundtrack also blows me away! Fantastic game. I wish the team that did this could re-remake Secret of Mana (not played the remake, but I've heard it kind of ruins the original).

#2 Flynnie - on 13.05.2020 at 08:21

There are so many RPGs on Switch that need to be played!

#3 RudyC3 - on 13.05.2020 at 13:43

I played through this and streamed it in full last week. Took me about 31 hours to complete everything and get all my characters to level 99. I like a game that's not too long these days, and this one fits the bill nicely. And yeah the Switch version may not hold its 30FPS when things get too intense on screen, but I was overall surprised at how well it ran and looked otherwise, given the hardware.

It still just works on Switch, and portability has helped me through some grinding moments. With console RPGS these days, if I have to sit in front of a larger screen to grind, I get bored. Conversely I can't really appreciate story segments on a smaller screen the way I used to. So this version was the perfect one for me. Thoroughly recommended.

( Edited 13.05.2020 14:44 by RudyC3 )


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