Trials of Mana (Demo)
The Trials of Mana Demo Shattered My Hopes and Dreams.
Trevor | March 22, 2020
As a huge fan of the third Secret of Mana, now rebranded as Trials of Mana, I've been eagerly anticipating the upcoming remake... until I played the demo, that is.
The Third Secret of Mana game has always been an elusive sleeper hit in the west. Prior to its first official release on the Switch summer of last year, most people played a fan translated ROM in the late 90's and early 2000’s. It circulated on all sorts of shady websites on the internet, named things like "Awesomerom" or "SNEStrove." It's a game many people would've loved to play legally and couldn't, and it left many asking, "why has this never been released here?"
Who can say? Terranigma, Mother 3, Sekien Densetsu 3 — all popular games a U.S. audience couldn’t legally purchase. Nintendo moved in mysterious ways back then. Heck, two of those you still can't.
Seiken Densetsu 3 was an inventive product for its time. At the onset, the player is presented with a cast of six characters and chooses three. One serves as the main character, while the other two take on a supporting role. This made it far more replayable than the usual SNES RPG, as not only did every character have their own unique origin story, but the dialogue and dynamics between your chosen cast changed, too. Nowadays this isn’t quite as inventive a concept (Octopath Traveler in 2018 takes a similar approach) but in 1995, it was groundbreaking.
But this article isn’t about Seiken Densetsu 3, a game you absolutely should play.
It’s about Trials of Mana, a 3D remake you should probably not play.
Trials of Mana.... does not seem good. There's enough decent stuff here that I wouldn't call it bad per se, but a price tag of $50 seems very steep, especially after the hour or so I spent with the demo on the Switch.
I think the best way to break this down is to go through my personal journey, step by step.
Part 1 — The Thief of Navarl
Like the original game, you’re presented with a selection of six characters. I opt to take the first team I put together as a kid back in the day for posterity's sake. My main character is Hawkeye, a prominent member of an underground city of thieves called Navarl.
At the character select screen, everything seems fine. The characters are maybe about 20% more anime than I anticipated, but hey, that happens in J-RPGS. Sometimes they’re really anime, and sometimes they’re sorta anime. Not a dealbreaker for me, by any means.
It’s when Hawkeye’s opening scene plays that I first got some doubts.
The environments on display are profoundly bland. Everything is flat and square, with little-to-no detail work. And, when I bust up into this guy’s house to jack his stuff, he apparently keeps all his riches in this single chest in the corner of his room. Not the best wealth management solution here.
I realize the 32-bit original didn’t have much detail work either, but it was also made thirty years ago. For now, I presume this was a design choice and not just laziness, in an effort to remain as faithful to the original as possible. If that’s the case, though, I would argue there is such a thing as being too faithful to the source material. The SNES game lacked uniquely designed homes because of technical limitations. Preserving those here does no one any favors. Not me, not the game, not the march of human progress.
When I arrive home to Navarl, I’m not feeling much better about this remake. Much like the previous city, Navarl is all flat corridors and blocky rooms, containing maybe one NPC who has some vapid nonsense to spout. Usually something like, “the king sure is acting strange!” or, “I can’t wait for my next mission!”
It’s also around now I notice the story is proceeding at a breakneck speed. In the first five minutes, I’ve returned home to find the leader of my people is now under the spell of an evil sorceress. My best friend Eagle, who appears to be his son, wants to go confront her. He too is then placed under a spell and forced to fight me. Then she kills him, and I’m arrested for the crime. This is all accurate to what occurs in Seiken Densetsu 3, but seeing it all unfurl so fast back then felt more forgivable. By sticking to 100% accuracy here, it really reveals how boilerplate all these origin stories are. No single event gets any room to breathe before you're whisked away to the next one.
There’s voice acting this time around, but I’m not sure I’d call that an improvement either. The issue isn’t so much in the performances, I think, but in the staging. There’s an inordinate amount of pauses in the action as character models finish their sweeping hand motions. A complete lack of urgency in everyone's actions betrays the performances. Everything looks languid, like everyone’s really tired and ready for a nap. This is a real shame, because the voice actors sounds like they really committed to the bit, even when the lines are pretty hammy.
At this point, gotta say, not loving my time with the Trials of Mana demo. It’s been mostly cutscenes. Sometimes, I get to walk forward to the next cutscene. But that’s okay, because after a jailbreak, it’s finally about to pop off.
Part 2 — Knives Out
After my little cat buddy from the opening scene busts me out of prison, I get to make an escape. This is where I finally get to spend some time with the combat, which is resoundingly eh. Each character has a light attack, heavy attack, a dodge, and a jump. When a battle starts, a circle locks you in with nearby foes. From there, it’s mostly slashing and spinning. Eventually, you’re able to activate some powerful moves once you build enough meter from attacking.
It’s around now I find myself asking — why is there a jump button?
So far this game has been faithful to an absolute fault, but for some reason we have a jump function bound to B. Why? Are there going to be platforming sequences in this world of perpetual flatness? Futhermore, why are there both a jump and dodge button in combat? Wouldn’t it make more sense for jump to become dodge once a battle breaks out? Or will there be situations where I have to jump in battle where a dodge will not suffice?
Also, if my most basic combo knocks over enemies to prevent them from damaging me, why would I ever do the others, where I spin around but can still be hurt? Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply keep knocking my foes over, thereby mitigating all risk?
There does not appear to be a good answer to any of these questions. Just shut up and hit buttons, I hear the game say. So I do.
It’s not entirely unenjoyable, but with so many marks already against this remaster, middling combat isn’t going to cut it. Especially not for $50.
For some reason, I keep playing. We get the opening credits while Hawkeye escapes to another nation, also faithful to the original.
Finally, we arrive in the Jadd Stronghold, which has been taken over by a tribe of beastmen.
You can find all the other adventurers here, future party members and otherwise, embarking on the first step of their own personal journeys. It’s a cute nod to the original, seeing them all assembled here, but giving each their own lengthy cutscene really slows the pace to a crawl. It’s a continuing trend in this remake, really — long, obnoxious cutscenes in places where there’s really no need for one.
I find a few boxes of treasure on a roof, finally justifying the jump button. I guess.
Jadd Stronghold at least looks a little more thought went into it, but it’s still a pretty bland place. Yet another example of how strict adherence to remapping a 32-bit town layout doesn't produce the best results.
Part 3 — Glimmers of Hope
What follows next is a truly obnoxious amount of backtracking (this was true in the original as well, but I see no reason to preserve it). First we try to navigate through cave to the Holy City of Wendel, only to be repelled by a magical wall. At this point, the game literally tells you to sleep on it and see what happens later, so it sends you back to town to take a nap.
But not Jadd, the town you snuck out of. No, no. First you have to visit this other town and sleep there.
Then, you’re awakened in the night by a glowing light. After following it out, you discover its a fairy, and she’s going to help you bring down that cave barrier.
But, in yet another bizarre detour born from excessive purism, you first have to go back to the town you just left two minutes ago to discover its been razed to the ground. There’s nothing to do here except take a look around and say, “welp, sucks for them.”
Great. Back to the cave you go.
It’s here you finally meet your first teammate, which in my case, is Angela. In a curious move, the game now allows you to play through their opening as well, but makes it clear no items or experience you gain there matters. This was not an option in the original 1995 game, so I’m taken by surprise.
I say yes to see Angela’s story. Her hometown is a far more appealing place than Navarl at least, but her story is equally compelling as Hawkeye's. Which is to say, not at all.
If you select no, they’ll give you a synopsis instead. Honestly, more than adequate. Don’t say "yes."
The jump button’s purpose becomes clearer inside the cave, as it’s necessary to take down bats. It feels funky and I don’t love it. Sometimes the character comes to a dead stop in the air during an attack, and other times their momentum continues.
However, the combat does become more tolerable with another member on the field. I hesitate to call it “great,” but it’s here I found myself finally starting to enjoy the game... about an hour in. Not ideal, but better at least.
What changed, I think, is the enemies in the cave begin to require some actual strategy. Some prepare to throw an axe, then paint the ground red with the path it’ll take. Others have shields that require charged attacks to break. It’s not groundbreaking, by any means, but it promises something more substantial in the future than simple button mashing.
Finally, we come to the first boss (or last, if the demo is all you play).
First, a quick rewind. Let me set the stage for you in 1995. You run into this cave with your team of two expecting a boss. You don’t know what you’re going to find, but you anticipate some sort of cave monster will bar your way. Suddenly, this thing drops from the sky:
Intimidating, right? Full Metal Hagger looked pretty scary back then. Took up most of the screen too.
Here’s what he looks like now.
Full Metal Hagger has not aged well.
With that, the beast tribe from Jadd shows up and throws you off a cliff. The demo ends, but lets you know you can pick up right here when the game comes out.
Part 4 — Secrets Best Left Buried
I finished this demo confident about one thing — I would not be buying Trials of Mana. Not on release day for $49.99, at least. Take about $20 off that price tag, and I’d start to consider it. It would certainly be far easier to excuse the square hovels and bland textures at a budget price, but what I’ve seen here does not come close to justifying fifty big ones. With so many other games coming out around the same time — one of which is a much more impressive remaster of an early 2000’s favorite, from the same developer no less — it seems absolutely bonkers to pick this up instead.
My recommendation? If you really want to see what impressed everyone enough to download illegal ROMS of Seiken Densetsu 3, you can play the original on your Switch right now instead. The Collection of Mana includes the 1995 version of the now renamed Trials of Mana, and you can experience the source material in its entirety for $20 until the end of March. Playing this little piece of history in its original form is a far more valuable experience, I think, than this 3D facsimile of it.
At the end of the day, the best thing I can say about the Trials of Mana demo is it convinced me not to buy Trials of Mana. While the function of a demo from a company’s perspective is primarily to sell the game, they serve as a handy litmus test to consumers as well.
In 2018, I wrote about how Octopath’s demo sold me on a product I had reservations about. Trials is the inverse situation — nostalgia almost blinded me to a sight-unseen purchase, and the demo brought me back from the brink.
For a while it seemed demos were part of a bygone era, but today I’m grateful they’ve made a return and are adapting with the times. Maybe there’s someone out there who played Trials of Mana, enjoyed it, and is looking forward to picking their game right back up where they left off. That’s a great thing.
And as for me, I’m glad to have suffered minor disappointment for free rather than major disappointment for $50.