I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Trials of Mana is a return to normalcy for JRPG fans. But what does normal mean for JRPG fans in a post-Final Fantasy 7 Remake world? Even discerning JRPG fans might have barely noticed the Collection of Mana that came out last year featuring all three of the original Mana games and might just be hearing about Trials of Mana for the first time. So I’d understand if you are asking, “Solon? How did Secret of Mana, my favorite video game ever, and an all-time classic, become the best selling Square game of 1993- but its sequel went completely untranslated until right now?” if you are not from Japan, you’d be totally justified in not knowing why Trials of Mana is such an important and yet completely unknown game.
Secret of Mana was something of a surprise hit for Square outside of Japan, as they did very little to advertise its release in the west, but despite that it did extremely well! Becoming one of the best selling games on the SNES. When it came time for the sequel, which we now know as “Trials of Mana”, Square shuffled their feet for too long bringing it to the west. They had cited things like the certification in the west being tricky, and that there were just too many bugs in the game with translating, finally in February of 1996 going with “translation would cost too much.” All of which are valid problems, but in hindsight feel like excuses around the reality of the situation that they weren’t sure if people were still going to be playing SNES games by the time a translation would be finished. It was 1995, when Trials of Mana originally came out in Japan. There was only one major SNES game left in development for Square and that was Nintendo’s own Super Mario RPG, otherwise they were fully in development for the brand-new Sony Playstation. Suffice to say, Square’s vision was ‘Clouded’. So for twenty-six years, most of the world completely missed out on what could have easily been another instant SNES JRPG classic in Trials of Mana.
Trials in its original form was an elegantly designed game known for its six selectable protagonists who each come with their own interweaving backstories, antagonists, and conclusions. The ability to play co-op, and a progression system that lets you evolve each character’s class down four different pathways creating a possibility spectrum of 1280 different party compositions for any one playthrough of the game. It also featured a highly dense and unique pixelated style of presentation with a lot of BIG Bosses. Most importantly, the selling point of the Mana series during the era of the RPG was that this was one of the extra-rare “Action-RPGs” where you don’t have to take turns in order to do cool moves. You got the fun of Zelda’s responsive sword swinging AND the fun of Final Fantasy’s watching numbers pop out of bad guys. However, that was 1995. It’s a good sell, but can this keep up in 2020?
The game follows the story of six characters, each representing their own class and empire: Duran of the Warriors, Angela of the Mages, Kevin of the Werewolves, Charlotte of the Holy City, Hawk of the Thieves, and Riesz of the Babes (Amazons). You start by picking one main character and two other party members to create a party for the whole game and then the game explains how all three of those characters meet up as if it was their first ever D&D session. What is nuts is that each character has hard-coded sets of dialogue for each of the three party member slots they can be in, so there are a total of sixty different possible opening sections of the game. Eventually, they all meet at the Temple of Light where it is explained that they are needed to open the Sanctuary of Mana to retrieve the Sword of Mana to thwart each individual’s primary antagonist. And just for kicks, once they get there, they will be granted their character’s special wish by the Goddess of Mana. The rub is that the mana of the world is fading and now all of our party members are “technically” at war with each other. The warriors and the mages just broke a long-standing peace treaty. Everyone in the thieves guild is suddenly in a magic trance by a scary magic titty lady and together they have taken over the Amazonian castle. And the werewolves are sacking everything en route to the Holy City of Wendel. There is a power scramble as everyone seems to think some ancient monsters called ‘Benevedons’ who live inside crystals are about to be unleashed and they want to be on top when that happens. There’s also this little ‘prophecy’ about the Benevedons being slain and so all the bad guys are also banking on that to make sure the world stays together after they take over. Our heroes, however, are in their own little world trying to collect each of the eight spirits of mana who are cute, loveable, and silly little magic friends. So everybody has a full itinerary of events that changes for each playthrough of this game. Of course, once they collect those spirits, they end up getting to the Sword of Mana and well… it’ll probably be fine. I’m sure it will.
The original Trials is a spectacle in world-building akin to the works of Tolkien or Herbert. This is largely due to its world map being one continuous space built at consistent scale. While other games of the era, like Final Fantasy VII, compromised by condensing their world maps into a zoomed-out sprite-filled scale model, Trials of Mana presented a full world with real-time travel, a day-and-night cycle, and a full week schedule to bring you into the world. These are now consistent features in most RPGs including the newly remade FF7, but were pioneered in Trials of Mana. You do a lot of traveling in Trials, sometimes by boat, or by cannon, by cute dragon-bird, or by goggle-toting Sea Turtles and so you get to see the world at different cultural scales throughout the game, meaning once you’ve gotten the ability to summon Flammie and fly freely you realize you are above the limits of the planet. You see the world from the perspective of a god. And the truth is that the world is small, the warring of nations is miniscule; and that heroism is the pursuit of peace for all people not just for one nation. The final quest is to quell all eight Benevedons by returning to each of the dungeons you’ve already been to, once again. This should feel like a big hassle, but instead it feels almost calming and clinical in the face of having just met with destiny at the Tree of Mana and coming face to face with an evil incarnate that matches the scale of heroism you have just been catapulted to. By this point, your adventure has scaled up from being simple adventurers and outcasts who once travelled recklessly by canon all the way to taking your place as the chosen hero. And the class system so gradually builds you to this point that it feels almost natural that anybody could have been the hero. Even you, Charlotte. And that’s the point. Trials uses six protagonists to build a monomythical structure that would make Joseph Campbell cry with joy, because it’s just so simple! Every one of these structural choices, from the level-up and class system, the protagonist choices, the multiple warring nations, and even the scale of how the world map is presented over time are all in service to telling this Plastic Monomyth that can so easily bend and sway that anyone can be the chosen hero of Mana. That is what Trials of Mana truly is, from the mechanics to the music, a classic Role-Playing Adventure game that portrays every fundamental of design and storytelling that Gary Gygax inspired into the genre in a package that is elegant and simple.
Trials of Mana has evergreen design, and that design carries through into today with much of the finesse that it had in 1995, in addition to a level of polish and execution that succeeds in bringing Trials to the modern era. Pressing the attack buttons to execute simple combos is faithful to the original while the addition of dedicated roll and jump buttons is precisely what the game needed to bring added movement to these expanded 3D spaces. Speaking of those larger 3D spaces, towns and dungeons are faithfully recreated and individual rooms drip with sacrosanct nostalgia for players of the original, however I find the cartoonish art style uninspiring compared to the more gothic original. It looks uncannily like Dragon Quest XI in a way that makes both games look cheap, which isn’t fair to Trials of Mana (but probably is fair to Akira Toriyama’s art styles in DQXI). While I’m nitpicking about presentation, the Switch had a few hiccups handling intense parts of cutscenes, many dungeon’s puzzle-gimmicks felt like out-of-place obstructions compared to the original’s more naturalized feel, the sound effects in battles are loud and can become grating, and the completely remade soundtrack is arranged exactly like the original but really could have benefited from an interpretation that better supported the instrumentation so I wouldn’t so reflexively switch to the original soundtrack in the options menu. It’s an incredibly faithful recreation of the original. Oh, and since this is such a faithful recreation of the original, that means they kept in the racist island village of talking monsters full of teepees and totem poles that highlights monsters as ‘Noble Savages’… You only go there for the head chief to point you towards the volcano and you immediately leave, this whole event didn’t need to be there back then and it definitely doesn’t need to be there now. That’s people’s cultures being appropriated as fantasy flavoring and more directly, the new waypoint system in this game is very good! Just take me straight to the Volcano! It is such a faithful game, sometimes to a fault.
That all said, Trials of Mana has made a lot of important changes and quality-of-life updates where it matters most. There’s a lot of great controller shortcuts that are easy to program and use. Bosses are as big as ever and have clear attack patterns that are basically like an MMO. The boss will signal an attack and if anyone stands in their zone they take major damage. Even though the bosses are substantially different translating to a 3D action-game, it seems to match up pretty well that my favorite bosses in this game were my favorite bosses in the original, and my most frustrating bosses now were also my pain points in the original. They seem to have nerfed the overpowered werewolf, Kevin, and buffed the magic users Charlotte and Angela which has made everyone feel really useful. Most importantly, they updated and revamped all of the menus and the progression system so it cuts out the bloat while still feeling in line with the original. For every level up, you choose a stat to apply one attribute point to, equip your character’s perks, and all your special class skills are automatically applied to your class choices. It is more elegant to operate than the original while allowing you even more creativity and freedom when building your character over the 20-ish hours of a single playthrough. It really feels like your playthrough is unique. As much as I loved the original, it had a major flaw. You could count on it like clockwork that the total time to your playthrough would increase by 5 hours of grinding for each magic user in your party. That is no longer the case, as during a casual playthrough I always felt like I was meeting the level curve appropriately with any group of three characters I picked! My only trouble I ran into on Normal difficulty was the difficulty spikes that happened when the game expected you to be evolving your character’s class to the next class rank. Bosses started killing me really badly before I was able to understand that every late-game dungeon had a hidden item in it that would evolve one party member. Knowing that now, the game would be a breeze to run through at any difficulty. If anything it could stand to be more difficult.
Trials is a breezy quick RPG to play, almost all the way through, despite some aesthetic hoops to jump through. So, what are the big upgrades to this new version? With almost the entire game fully voice-acted, the cutscenes do an incredible job drawing you into a world of Tolkien-esque power struggles. As you are collecting the mana stones on your adventure, there is always the feeling that events are developing in real time around you. Characters feel more lively than ever, which makes it mind-boggling to take in how many party members have unique dialogue with one-another throughout any one playthrough of the game! For an example: there’s this heartwarming moment with Riesz where she finds a friend who is now undercover as a barkeeper since the fall of the Amazons and when I played through it a second time, it turned into… well… It didn’t sound like how normal people talk! And this is the kind of ‘literalized’ meta-humor you can expect the entire way through the voice acting in Trials of Mana. It might be jarring for some if you aren’t expecting it, but they really did just copy-and-paste every single line from the translation of the original version and stone-cold read it verbatim. I found it endlessly endearing, especially with Charlotte whose baby-voice is not as in-your-face as I was expecting or as bad as any other fantasy-RPGs awful fake European accents. It’s just fun and light-hearted, which is great because Trials has this way to reel you in with something cutesy or hammy just to break your heart and make you empathize moments later. It walks a line with its tone to always keep you entertained.
The understated magic of Trials is in its combat & RPG systems which meld like peanut-butter and jelly in a way that has no right to be this fun for 40+ hours, but it is! The way each light and heavy attack combination functions in combat gives you a lot of precise control over your character’s positioning in relation to whoever you are hitting. I used the basic attack combinations all the way through to the end of the game and I still feel just as slick when I use my light-heavy combo to push one enemy away before jumping into a light-light-heavy combo for bread-and-butter damage to keep up pressure while nudging my way out of a massive AOE attack. It flows really nicely! You’re mostly just mashing the attack button, avoiding enemy attacks, and switching between party members to manage each character’s abilities, health and mana pools, so it’s exactly like Final Fantasy 7: Remake (although, Mana did it first). There still is the classic MMO problem of the AI being infuriatingly dumb around giant AOE attacks and not striking the appropriate targets so we don’t get a full party wipe from certain bosses, but if you stay on top of the level curve by fighting wild monsters, you can always survive the worst of those attacks.
With the addition of a post-game dungeon, new classes for each character, the Lil’ Cactus progression collectibles, and a New Game+ unlock, this new version adds that little extra panache needed to make this a modern RPG. Trials was always ahead of its time (as proven by how FF7 finally just copied the Mana-style of a static 3-character-party action-RPG), but now it feels like it fits perfectly into 2020 as an easy-going and exciting RPG that finally gets to stand alongside Cloud’s over-the-top extraordinary flashy antics, as opposed to being overshadowed by him into oblivion. While the world remains so cold, I find it to be a small flicker of justice that 24 years later, Cloud and the success of FF7R can finally be used to help pick up Duran, Angela, and the gang rather than completely squelching them from existing. I highly recommend playing Trials of Mana for anyone who has just finished FF7R and are now ready for a light-hearted engaging RPG that finishes their story arc in less than 20 hours while kindly inviting you to play through it multiple times for even more fun stories. I’ve never felt so connected to Square’s JRPG history before finally getting to play the modern Trials of Mana, and now I have a game that can continue to fill my quarantine days without the apocalyptic fervor of FF7R. I grade Trials of Mana an enthusiastic and Very Normal Four Stars – ★★★★