The arrival of Final Fantasy VII: Remake once again rekindled the discussion surrounding the approaches you can take when refreshing a classic. Orthodox fans might grimace through every change or new story thread introduced to the lore surrounding a game they love, while others prefer that remakes should redefine a title, embrace risk and move forward, even at the cost of upsetting a section of the audience. Whereas the seventh edition of Final Fantasy walked its own path, the makers of this refreshed version of Trials of Mana decided to copy its precursor as perfectly as possible. It turns out that a well-trodden path is not always the best one to take.
So, what is the Mana series? In Japan, it's known as Seiken Densetsu, and essentially it's a cult classic RPG series, with its best instalments - Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana - harking all the way back to the time of the SNES. In fact, Trials of Mana is a remake of the third game in the series (1995's Seiken Densetsu 3).
The remake's creators have tried to reflect the content of the original and often succeeded with stunning results, and comparing individual areas, characters, or boss fights with their previous incarnations is a pleasure. However, as well as including plenty of good stuff, the remake also inherited a bunch of the original game's shortcomings, and there were a few. It not only upgrades those elements that we loved in the original, but it also includes those things that don't meet our more modern standards. To make matters worse, apart from during some key moments, one can also sense the impact of budgetary constraints.
Trials of Mana differs from other games of its kind because at the very beginning of the adventure we finalise the composition of our team. We have to choose three out of six heroes, with the first chosen character to be our main protagonist, with the other two being their companions.
Depending on the characters included in the team, your group conversations and relationships are bound to be different. However, apart from literally two, maybe three characters, the introductions of the others are rather uninteresting. To test diversity between different variations of the team, we completed the prologues for every one of them. Notably, we soon lost interest in the story of Riesz, whose sole objective was to find her brother, and who struck us as unacceptably two-dimensional, at least by today's standards.
Interestingly, most of the problems with the narrative are not the result of their construction, but rather with the way that they've been modernised. For example, the more natural and human-looking character models don't harmonise well with the stiff dialogue boxes and updated scenes. The pacing also suffered at times, and just as the story would run out of energy we'd find a cannon to blast the party to another continent. While JRPG tropes often allow the player to turn a blind eye to such solutions, there's just too much of it in Trials of Mana.
What once left an unforgettable impression, nowadays is an ordinary, far-fetched or even banal solution. It's just unfortunate that the creators didn't attempt to introduce at least some new features to the game. One can clearly sense that they were nervous about updating the adventure for modern audiences other than by improving the visuals, and even that isn't executed to perfection.
Yes, the six key characters are beautifully brought to life and the fact that they're fully voiced helped us connect with them even better. The locations we explored also delighted us, at least at first, however it soon turned out that the world of Trials of Mana is painfully empty. There isn't even a trace of the architectural diversity that even the original lacked back in a day. No matter which lands we visit, be it the knightly Valsena, the magical kingdom of Altena, or the port city of Beiser, almost every location and the people therein looked the same. When you're seeing the same NPCs all the time it's hard to ignore, and too often you'll see identical characters standing next to each other.
It's been a long time since we've encountered an RPG so limited in terms of the diversity of the opponents our team had to face, and in the genre the original helped to establish. Unlike the remake of FFVII, Trials of Mana doesn't attempt to increase the number of enemy types you'll encounter. Meeting the same monsters on both volcanic rock and lush grassland, despite their different colour schemes, left us disappointed that the creators didn't try to add a few quality of life improvements.
Despite all of this, however, there is something... magic about Trials of Mana, a charm that can't be denied. Throughout our journey, despite some frustrations, we had a surprisingly good time with the game - most likely due to the accessible combat system and some wonderful music (which, by the way, can be switched back to the original, much like in the remaster of Final Fantasy X). In fact, we're not sure which version of the soundtrack we prefer, as they were both equally enchanting.
Worth noting is an interesting form of character improvement where increasing individual attributes define not only stats but unique abilities resulting from them, and even access to different magic spells. While it works, it feels a bit outdated as we're forced to spend a lot of effort on planning the distribution of points. For example, for a sorceress Angela to be able to use fire magic, we have to invest most of our hard-earned skill points into her strength - because it's the statistic that the game decided to associate with fire. Although we enjoy planning out our builds as much as the next gamer, this setup didn't really work for us.
On the other hand, one of the better ideas was the system of promoting heroes to new, stronger classes, the choice of which could drastically affect your style of gameplay. After reaching certain milestone levels, every character can be sent down one of two paths on their class tree. To make things more complicated, each of them is assigned a value: light or darkness. Duran - who quickly became our favourite - was able to become either a shining knight or an aggressive gladiator. You can only choose one, and when deciding on a new class it's also worth bearing in mind the role each character serves in the party. Luckily, nothing stops you from experimenting, going first down the path of light and then at the next crossroads turning to darkness - the results can often be surprising.
Trials of Mana is a game that will most likely appeal to veteran fans of the genre classics, as well as those who still reminisce about the games of yesteryear. This faithful revival has its strengths; it evokes nostalgia and fulfils its role as a remake to the fullest. However, travelling across the world of Mana in its refreshed form, we couldn't help but notice the flaws that come from taking this approach. It's a pleasant, nostalgic game, but not much more, and we think this all-time classic would have benefited from at least a few modern touches.