Trials of Mana is one of those legendary white whale import games like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Monster World IV once were, and Mother 3 still is. I remember first seeing it in an old game magazine as Secret of Mana 2. Being a big fan of Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy Adventure, I was hyped for a sequel, but it never came. It was released on the Super Famicom as Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995, but it was never released outside Japan. That is, until Collection of Mana was released on Switch back in June, shortly after Nintendo's E3 2019 Direct. I went into Trials of Mana hoping for a better game than Secret of Mana, and I think I got that, but it’s definitely not the masterpiece I was hoping for.
Trials of Mana has a very cliche premise, but the way it tells its story is very different from most RPGs of the time. You play as the chosen hero, collect 8 stones, and get a magic sword to save the world from an evil being from another dimension. I’ve heard this all before. What Trials of Mana does differently is that it gives you different sides of the story depending on which characters you choose and the order you pick them in. There's 6 characters to choose from, but you can only have a party of 3. The characters you choose will become the focus of the story, and the rest will have much smaller roles. The overarching story is always the same, but each character has a unique intro sequence you only get to play when you pick them first. You also get to see more of your other 2 character's story when they're in your party. You still get to see the 3 characters you didn't pick throughout the game and take part in some of their major story scenes, but they don't stick around for long, and you never get to know them very well. This is a cool idea that adds a little bit of replay value to the game. I didn't play all the way through the game with different character combinations, but I did check out all their intros, and they're really interesting and worth checking out.
Even though the main story sounds like it could come from any other RPG. I really enjoyed each character's personal story arcs. Everyone feels like they have a good reason for wanting to get the Mana Sword (besides saving the world), and their origin stories often cross over in some way, so it makes sense when they team up, even though they might come from completely different kingdoms, or even be affiliated with each other's enemies. All the playable characters also have strong ties to the major kingdoms in the game, so it feels like you have someone on the inside, or you're someone important everywhere you go.
Like Secret of Mana, Trials of Mana is an action RPG with real-time combat. There have been some pretty big changes to the combat since SoM, though. The first thing you'll notice is that ToM has a battle stance you automatically go into when there are enemies nearby. You pull out your weapon and slowly walk around with your guard up. It’s a lot like how you charge attacks in SoM. You can't swing your weapon at all outside of this battle stance, and you can't run while in the battle stance. This makes avoiding enemies much harder than in SoM. The B button, which is used to run outside of battles, turns into your special move button. As you land hits on enemies, a special meter fills up, and when it reaches a certain point, you can unleash a more powerful attack with B, kind of like in a fighting game. You no longer have to hold the attack button to charge up a special move, like in SoM. ToM also introduces a short melee attack cooldown. You can mash A and whiff without triggering the cooldown, but you will not be able to attack again for a second after landing an attack. It's not super fun to press A and have nothing happen, but it's better than SoM's energy bar, which lets you attack wildly, but doesn't let you do damage until it fills up. Aside from the slow walk you're forced into while in the battle stance, I think the melee combat is a big improvement over SoM and its energy bar charging system.
The magic system in ToM is not nearly as good as the melee, though. It feels like a big downgrade from SoM's, and it slows the pace of the game down quite a bit. Picking spells works like in SoM, you have the same popup ring menus, but in ToM, the world stands still while spell animations play. Neither you or the enemies can do anything at all. You just watch fireballs and lightning fly across the screen. This time freezing also affects item use and all level 2 and 3 special attacks. The game might as well become a turn-based game around a third of the way in because that's what it looks like after you start learning spells. Then enemies start casting spells, and time stops when they cast spells as well, further slowing the pace of the game down. Boss battles basically turn into a race to see who can cast as spell first as soon as you regain control of your characters at this point. I had Angela on my team, and she’s a Mage, so I had to use magic as much as possible with her, and it sucked. Time didn't stand still while you used magic in SoM, and it felt much better.
I also have a big problem with the game's UI. It's not that it's badly designed, it would be fine if it wasn't so laggy and slow. It comes and goes, but there's a ton of input lag sometimes, transitions between screens are really slow, and it sometimes drops inputs for no apparent reason. It feels like browsing PSN on PS3. I dreaded having to equip stuff or having to do any inventory management. There's also no way to tell which character is buffed or what buffs they have active, and there's no world map, so traveling around the world can be a bit confusing during the first part of the game, when you have to use ships and cannons to get around.
When I played the recent Secret of Mana remake, I was disappointed to see that it was still missing a lot of content in the second half of the game. Thankfully, there are no 1 room dungeons in ToM. ToM's dungeons are pretty good, and they're not just caves and fortresses. Sometimes you fight your way through a forest, ghost ship, or mountainside to find the next Mana Spirit. There's lots of beautiful environments in the game, so why only use them to connect places together? I was a bit disappointed with the amount of puzzles, though. There's a few dungeons with switch puzzles, but most of the time, you just have to kill everything in the room to open a door. None of the weapon specific obstacles, like cutting stalagmites with axes or using whips like grappling hooks, carried over from SoM. I did like how you use the Mana Spirits to open new paths, though. These felt more like story scenes than puzzle solving, but I still thought it was a cool way to bring the Mana Spirits back into the game after you rescue them.
There aren’t a lot of SNES games that look better than Trials of Mana. This was a pretty late SNES game, and it shows. It blows Secret of Mana out of the water. All the sprites have more texture to them, the main characters have a lot of cool animations and expressions, and there's more lighting and shading in the environments. The bosses are all huge and very detailed, but none of their attacks are very flashy. None of my character’s spell animations looked especially amazing, either. The version of the game in Collection of Mana also gets rid of the framerate issues in the original, which is nice because it made the music slow down, too.
The music in this game is also pretty great. There's a lot of trumpet-heavy Squaresoft style music in castles, whimsical upbeat music in towns, and a few songs reminiscent of Secret of Mana’s OST. I enjoyed some of the less traditional sounding stuff the most, though. There's one sad song, "Innocent Sea", that sounds like it has a mandolin in it, or at least as close as a SNES MIDI can get to one, "Swivel" sounds like Peruvian pan flute music, and I even heard some Salsa and Reggae in there, which I didn’t expect to hear in a Squaresoft game.
Trials of Mana is a great looking game with a good soundtrack and characters you can really root for, but the way time stands still while unimpressive spell animations play really drags the game down. It could have been one of the best Squaresoft games on the SNES if it wasn't for that. Still, I think it’s overall a better game than Secret of Mana. I know the upcoming remake fixes the spell freeze, so I'm still looking forward to playing that next year.