Trials of Mana has the great misfortune of coming out two weeks after Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Even so, RPG fans shouldn't sleep on this spunky fantasy adventure. Rather than boldly moving to redefine a genre for the second time, Trials is cozy comfort food in game form. It's mac and cheese compared to FF7 Remake's highfalutin' tasting menu. A demo of the first two hours of the game left me wanting another helping of its snappy combat, lively environments, and fun tweaks to familiar storytelling.
Some of the best role-playing games of all time made their debut on the Super Nintendo in the mid-1990s, and Squaresoft (later Square Enix) was the company behind some of the all-time classic. But some of the most acclaimed RPGs from that era weren't released in the west when they first came out. Trials of Mana is a top-down remake of one of those games – Seiken Densetsu 3, better known as the direct sequel to 1993's classic Secret of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 2).
I'm a huge fan of Secret of Mana – playing co-op with my older brother back in the day helped kick off my interest in games. (Yes, I'm one of the few people who enjoyed the 2018 remaster that left others underwhelmed, largely because it's the exact same game.) Until Square Enix announced theTrials of Mana remake, SD3 has always had a bit of a Mother 3 mystique about it. You can already play the 16-bit version of Trials as part of the Collection of Mana bundle for Nintendo Switch, but I wanted to wait for the spiffy, tarted-up version. I'm glad I did. The game won't release for another month, but a demo will be available March 18 for PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.
Time to save the planet
Like Secret of Mana, in Trials you control a party of three do-gooders in rapid, hack-n-slash combat as you explore treacherous lands and eclectic towns. This time around, though, you can choose your companions right from the start, from an assortment of six. Whoever you pick as your main character will shape the version of the story you get. There's healers, archers, sword-wielders and mages. As you encounter your other chosen teammates in the wild, you'll have the option to see – or skip – their backstory.
As I lack imagination, I picked the sword guy, Duran. He basically looks exactly like the Secret of Mana protagonist, who also looks exactly like Crono from Chrono Trigger. For reasons unknown to me, he's wearing a crop top, which made me wince a little in every story scene. There's also a mage who's real magical talent appears to be keeping her jumblies in her dress, an annoying kid who speaks in baby-voice, and a tiger boy. It's all pretty cookie-cutter 90s RPG stuff, but very cute nevertheless. Endearing voice acting and jangly, cheerful music further brighten the mood. You'll also have the option of blowing past all the dialogue quickly, which would be very welcome on a second playthrough.
You encounter your companions and the playable characters you didn't choose pretty early on, and I was already wishing I'd chosen differently and thinking about the other story routes. That's a good sign for replay value, and an average playthrough is somewhere in the 20-25 hour range. So it's not quite the massive, 100-hour commitment of a Persona 5 or Dragon Quest XI, but you could potentially spend a lot more time with Trials of Mana.
The broad outlines of the story are very similar to Secret of Mana – you'll need to visit the eight elemental palaces to save the world from giant monsters. You'll move rather briskly through pretty, detailed environments, discover a cute new town, and then be on your way. Like its predecessor, Trials of Mana benefits enormously from tight pacing, which means you'll likely find yourself losing sleep to the lure of "just one more thing."
A vibrant world to discover
Exploration and dungeon crawling take a cue from the Bandai Namco's Tales games, meaning you'll revisit the same field maps more than once, but the ease of dodging enemies and finding goodies means it's not too bothersome. Each character is locked to one weapon type, unlike like in SoM, but you can do a variety of charged and special attacks that get stronger the more you use them.
Later, you'll be able upgrade your class, seemingly like in Fire Emblem or Shining Force, to access even more spiffy combat techniques. My demo ended right after I unlocked magic, so I don't know yet if using it involves plodding menu stuff that slows down the pace of combat. (This was definitely one of the less appealing "quirks" of Secret of Mana.)
If you have fond memories of Secret of Mana, as I do, this will tick a lot of your boxes. It's everything you liked about the SNES game (Flammie! Dancing item vendors!), with the welcome addition of modern sparkle and conveniences. Trials of Mana isn't the most revolutionary RPG out there anymore, but it's satisfying, nostalgic fun for those looking to escape reality for a few dozen hours. Which, at this point, is pretty much all of us.
Trials of Mana comes to Switch, PS4, and PC April 24.