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Trials of Mana (Switch) artwork

Trials of Mana (Switch) review

"Facing Trials with smiles"

Ahem... "Trials of Mana is a 3D remake of the SNES game Seiken Densetsu 3, which was never released in the US." There, got the statement all reviews are contractually obligated to make out of the way. Most will also include "Trials of Mana is low budget, and the commitment to its 1995 design makes it feel archaic next to more modern games" or something to that effect. Both of those statements - low budget and archaic - are true. In fact, if I wanted to, I could easily structure this review to show how mediocre the game is. But why would I do that when I had so much fun with it?

Yes, it's low budget. Graphically, it looks fine, but don't expect a wow factor, and sadly the Switch version looks a little out of focus (although at least it runs smoothly!). But then you run up against invisible walls, or you jump somewhere you aren't supposed to and the watch your character hovering in air as the game tries to push you back to a safe place; it makes you realize they just didn't have the manpower to account for all possibilities. At one point, a scene's dialogue indicates a crowd is beating up a minor character, but everyone is standing perfectly still. Or watch a character cringing in fear during a cutscene, and then stays that way the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the voice acting ranges from acceptable to laughable. Let's just look at the ladies. Riesz has the worst case of can't use contractions since Data, Angela is a Valley Girl who squeaks every time she jumps, Charlotte's lisp is so bad even Monty Python's Pontius Pilate would giggle, and Faerie is a 22 year-old kindergarden teacher. Not exactly the most professional.

Yes, it can feel archaic. There are no side quests, no quest log, no nothing but moving forward in the plot. And of course, the plot is nothing more than evil beings taking over the world and good guys stop them. Don't expect deep characterization either; everyone has their own simplistic motivations for adventuring out into the world, and no one ever evolves beyond that. Forget about open world, masterful level design, unlockable hidden areas, complex puzzles (or even puzzles at all!), collectibles, crafting, or anything beyond the mere basics. Just run through the mostly linear maps, collecting items and attacking enemies along the way, as you push your way through the completely linear, perfunctory plot.

If you want something more than that, I understand. But personally, I can look past the low budget stuff. And archaic? Maybe. But while some may claim it's stripped down, I appreciate the lack of bloat. Compare it to Ys VIII (the other "major" low budget action RPG on Switch) for example, which has segments completely outside of the main quest and returning to regions when it's night and special raids you have to defend and crafting and side quests and all sorts of stuff that just bog the game down and make you feel like you aren't moving forward. Here? You are constantly making progress. Much like Zelda, you are given the goal of collecting the 8 Macguffins early on, so practically every mission ends with you feeling a tangible step closer to your goal. And unlike Zelda, the Macguffins aren't clearly demarcated into dungeons or whatever, so the path to reaching these 8 are always fresh, and you never know exactly when one will appear. But they do appear, in rapid succession, leading to a brisk, refreshing pace. Nothing overstays its welcome and barely anything feels padded, just a steady keep moving, keep moving, keep moving feeling.

Speaking of a brisk pace, you'll find yourself leveling up quite often (I ended the post-game dungeon at level 75 or so with no grinding). So you're constantly getting stronger. As you level up, you gain points that can be put towards any of your five main stats (offense, defense, magic, "spirit", or luck). These points unlock stat boosts, magic spells, or abilities that grant you special bonuses during or after a fight (like absorb 2 MP when you kill an enemy or increased critical hit chance or whatever), but you can only equip a few of these abilities at a time. But while each character has their own set they can unlock, some of them can be unlocked for other characters if you want. So there's even a little strategy in who gets to equip a valuable ability. Hey, a little customization is never a bad thing, right?

Actually, scratch that, a ton of customization. In what is perhaps the game's shining element, you get to choose only 3 of the 6 possible characters when you start the game, including one as the leader. The other characters still show up in the story, but are never controlled. And the leader you choose changes the story, as it determines who the final villain you face is. That's right, there are huge scripted boss fights you'll never see on a single play-through! Meanwhile, as you play, your characters will get two class change upgrades, but can choose from the light or dark path each time (each encouraging a different playstyle), meaning four different classes after that second upgrade. Between 3 characters, 4 classes, and different possible villains, there are (math time!) 3,072 different ways to play the game. Yeah, obviously many of them are very similar, but it does mean that if you get the urge to replay it you can easily choose to keep it fresh. And seeing the other characters playing through their own stories without your help is a cool concept. Yes, I called the plot simplistic, but it's nice to see that you aren't the legendary hero, but rather just the lucky one who stumbled into destiny.

Sure, there's not a myriad of puzzles or gameplay elements. You run around the maps, collect treasures, and fight bosses. But that's really all you need. Like the good old SNES days, there's a host of tiny items to reward you for minor deviations, breaking up the combat with little dopamine hits. And since it's entirely possible to forge a team with no healing abilities, these minor treasures can be critical sometimes! The combat, meanwhile, is simple but fun. There's basic combos, super attacks that require building up a meter, magic, jumping, and dodging. Nothing innovative, true, but it all feels good. Certain combos work for crowds, others for stunning enemies. Enemy attacks are telegraphed with highlighted areas which keeps things from feeling frustrating when they all gang up on you. And they will all gang up on you; don't make the mistake that just because it's cute or has telegraphed attacks means it's easy. Enemy attacks pack a whallop; even a random squad can wipe you out if you aren't careful. And there's plenty going on during boss fights; huge areas of attack, minions, totems, ability to stun bosses if you break said totems... it's enough to keep the tempo up the entire fight, and enough to make the final killing blow a satisfying one.

Perhaps the reason I enjoyed it so much is not despite its archaic elements, but rather because of it. Amidst all the games attempting to sell drama and depth, it's refreshing to just have a good guy vs bad guy and no time pretending its anything else. Amidst all the realistic and muted avatars out there, it was fun to play as flashy, uniquely designed characters who feel like simple videogame characters. Amidst all the graphical flourishes, I can enjoy something simple, bright and colorful. Amidst all the grim seriousness out there, I just want colorful over the top folks whacking cute rabbits and mushrooms while shouting their simple catchphrases before riding off on a giant scuba-goggle-wearing turtle with a flag on its back. And instead of filling up a game with all the modern distractions to the main game, I'll take the directness of the 16-bit era. A fancy dinner is all well and good, but sometimes a well-made burger is what you're in the mood for. Is that so much to ask sometimes?


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Featured community review by mariner (May 18, 2020)

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