One of the great SNES Squaresoft games was Secret of Mana. Due to the screwed-up naming conventions of the time it was actually a sequel to the Game Boy Final Fantasy Adventure, which was Seiken Densetsu the first, which was actually a Final Fantasy spin-off. The history is a little messy but it all works out right, except for the fact that the third game in the series, Seiken Densetsu 3, never left Japan. Seiken Densetsu 3 was a fan-favorite of importers thanks in no small part to its multiple storylines. At the beginning you got to choose three characters from a cast of six, one of which is the primary hero and the other two being backup. It provided good replay value in what was already a huge action-RPG, although selecting the cast for the first play-through was a major challenge in its own right for completionists. That choice rears its head again thanks to the complete remake, Trials of Mana, which brings back the cast, story and gameplay systems of the original while updating everything else.
I recently got to play a good two hours of Trials of Mana, starting from zero and RPG-ing my way to the first boss, and there’s a lot going on in there. I chose to start as the thief Hawkeye, whose story begins with a heist on a corrupt noble. Hawkeye’s band steals from the rich and does the whole Robin Hood thing, but behind the scenes the leader Flamekhan has been manipulated by the seductive Belladona. After much drama, talking and exploration, Hawkeye is on the run from his home but determined to free it from Belladona’s grip. Every one of the six characters has their own story that sets them on the road, tracking down the eight mana stones to fight the evil in the world, and when you meet a party member you can choose to play their intro as if you’d chosen them as the main character. On top of their individual stories each is their own character class, complete with a list of abilities to dominate each encounter.
Combat comes with a good-sized pile of variables for each character, with everyone getting to choose between a light and dark class and eventually two stronger classes per alignment. Kevin the Beastman, for example, starts off as a basic Grappler, can choose between the dark-aligned Brawler or light-aligned Monk, and eventually with enough levels upgrade can ascend to Divine Fist or Warrior Monk on the light side and Fatal Fist or Enlightened on dark. Each class has its own abilities to learn and, if you discover the class isn’t what you’re looking for, it’s simple enough to switch back. There’s a huge amount of customization per character, and with three in the party it should be easy to get lost tinkering to make everyone as effective as possible. This doesn’t even touch on the AI roles, which define each characters’ moves when you’re using someone else.
None of that was apparent in the bit I got to play, though, due to a combination of being higher-level options and a lack of time to get to grips with the depths of the menus, so instead I followed the plot and beat on monsters. Honestly, I enjoyed the combat more than the dialogue, although it seems highly likely this was due to the need to spend a good chunk of time setting up the story. The characters are all likeable and the ones I met had good voice acting (with the disclaimer that it’s not the fault of Charlotte’s voice actor that her dialogue dwops the aws in hew convewsation in a way that guawantees I’ll avoid hew stowy fowevew) but it takes a bit to get the ball rolling. Once moving, though, Trials of Mana starts to feel like you’d hope a modern rebuild of a classic action-RPG would. Combat is nicely responsive with a good variety of monsters, all of which show their attack areas before landing the hit. Switching between characters is as easy as tapping a shoulder trigger, meaning there’s practically no end of options at any given moment and all sorts of ways to battle through a dungeon, cave, or overland field. There’s a lot to discover, and I had a great time dashing, dodging, and learning the timing of each new monster.
Seiken Densetsu 3 got stranded in Japan for far too long, not making US landfall until last summer’s Collection of Mana. Now, less than a year later, it’s about to show up again in its all-new form. That’s a lot of Mana, but the series is considered a classic for good reasons. Its beautiful worlds and memorable characters bring the RPG elements to life, and even with all the combat options there’s a straightforwardness to its encounters that keeps them flowing along. It’s been 25 years since Seiken Densetsu 3 originally lit up the Japanese SNES, but Trials of Mana is almost here to make up for the wait. And if you can’t hold on until the game’s April 24 release, a demo is showing up on March 18 to help the wait go by just a little bit more quickly.