You know the adage, I’m sure. You wait an age for Square to revive one of its beloved 90s RPG epics, then one comes along and causes such a stir you almost completely miss the second one that follows in its immediate wake. Or something like that, anyway. While Final Fantasy 7 Remake is an outlandishly expensive and extravagant exercise in blockbuster modern gaming, for better and for worse, the Trials of Mana remake is a much humbler affair, as its more modest launch attests. It’s just as valid a revival, though, even if it isn’t without its own faults.
Chief among those is something you can’t really blame Trials of Mana itself for. This doesn’t have the warm veil of nostalgia around it like Final Fantasy 7, simply because Trials of Mana never really had an outing beyond Japan until a translation of Seiken Densetsu 3, as it was originally known, popped up in last year’s Collection of Mana, and as such it’s only the truly dedicated who have any vintage memories of the action RPG. I certainly can’t pretend to have any of my own, and muddling through the first few hours of the 16-bit Trials of Mana was my first experience with the game.
So one good thing about this new Trials of Mana is that it’s a lot less muddled. This is, from the foundation upward, still an eccentric take on the RPG genre – you pick your party from a cast of six from the very off, and are locked into your chosen trio for the remainder of the game, while the actions that complement your standard attacks are carried out via a fiddly ring menu system – but it’s been de-fussed. You’re still locked into your choice here, but the combat is much less fiddly and easier to parse – indeed, when you have a full party and are flitting effortlessly between the three, it’s got a supremely satisfying flow.
It has a breeziness that’s backed up by the rest of Trials of Mana – and that’s a series staple, really. There’s something in the combination of sun-kissed glades, bouncing rabites and Hiroki Kikuta’s ebullient soundtrack – sensitively remixed here, and also available in its original Super Famicom state if you so prefer – that has always made the Mana series feel like the perfect summer RPG, and this new entry is no different. It reminds me a little of Ys 8, another perfectly sunny action RPG, though Trials of Mana has its own uplifting identity. It’s gently stirring, in its own way.
Such breeziness hides a serious amount of depth, mind. The customisation and class-swapping runs seriously deep, something which this remake is also faithful to. You might be limited to three of the six characters in any given playthrough, but you’re perfectly free to build each party member out to your own tastes, and the character crafting is as enjoyable here as it’s ever been. Refined menus help that enjoyment along, as does a new map that makes it perfectly clear where you need to head next – something which was sorely missing when I blundered through the original Trials of Mana last year.
There are faults here, mind, and some of them run deep. I’m only half a dozen hours in and I’ve already had the Switch version I’m playing hard crash on me three times, which is less than ideal – though it feels like a more modern problem to have compared to the issues Trials of Mana’s repetitive structure presents. The looping of backdrops can soon become nauseating, but not nearly as nauseating as the voiceovers which lurch towards the very worst of anime excess. A small tip – if you want to avoid an aneurysm, avoid selecting Charlotte in your party, as her voiceover is one of the single most annoying things I’ve come across in games this year, whether you’re playing with the Japanese or English dubs.
It’s a shame as it undermines the otherwise gentle air of Trials of Mana, and the attempts to flesh out the story are likewise full of such heavy-handed blunders that it ultimately counts against what’s otherwise a noble attempt at a remake. Played alongside the Final Fantasy 7 Remake, with its excess found elsewhere as the original’s first five hours are padded out with hollow sidequests and barely interactive traversal scenes, made me realise that for all their dazzle these two remakes from Square show that we’ve lost so much by way of restraint in all the years in-between. They’re fine games, both, but both only end up suggesting that maybe some things were better in the 90s after all.