‘Trials of Mana’, a perfect little escapist fantasy

THE WASHINGTON POST – Role-playing games can be intimidating. They involve all this math, stats and different mechanics to memorise and track. Enemies might explode into a treasure trove of new items with benefits harder to read than your insurance policy.

Meanwhile, every new town in Trials of Mana offers you exactly one new weapon. No need for spreadsheets on the “loot grind” and decoding cryptic algorithms. Just get the one sword, which you know is stronger because it has bigger numbers than your last sword.

The brilliance of Trials of Mana is how it distils several core gameplay features to its truest sense. The “loot grind” to gain more equipment really comes down to comparing smaller and bigger numbers. Sometimes towns really don’t function as much else besides places to stock up on things and maybe get some loose context for the world. Sometimes, a simple classic like Trials of Mana is all you really need.

This game is mythical. It’s the direct sequel to the Super Nintendo classic Secret of Mana, a name whispered with just a little less reverence than one use for Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI. Known as Seiken Densetsu 3, it was only ever released in Japan in 1995, at the tail end of the Super Nintendo console’s life. Despite this lack of attention, Japanese gamers and intrepid importers praised the game as a celebration of all things that were great about the 16-bit era of role-playing games. The game attained near-mythical status for collectors and retro gamers, becoming a 16-bit milestone.

Last year, Seiken Densetsu 3 was finally released in the West as Trials of Mana under the Collections of Mana. And now, in 2020, here is a full-bore 3D remake of that same game for the PlayStation 4, PC and Nintendo Switch.

A screenshot of the ‘Trials of Mana’ gameplay. PHOTO: SQUARE ENIX

Trials of Mana is perfect for two types of players. First, there are folks like me who grew up with the 16-bit classics, and would love for a chance to dive back into that charming world of simple and immediate rewards.

Yes, this is a 2020 remake, but don’t expect anything as luxurious or literally game-changing like Final Fantasy VII Remake. This Japanese role-playing remake is far more faithful, at least in spirit, to its classic roots. Super Nintendo role-playing stories were often mere outlines of grand epics, and Trials of Mana makes little-to-no effort to update its dialogue and writing.

It’s almost impossible to get lost in this game. There are no side quests to distract your attention, and every quest is a simple matter of getting from Point A to B, another example of this game’s ability to distil gameplay concepts to their barest core.

All of this is introduced pretty slowly, but certainly not slower than some of the tutorials in today’s most complicated games. And the game is easy, even on its “hard” difficulty. Players who want high-octane engagement need not imply, but what if those new to the genre suddenly get bored halfway through the game?

The graphics are pretty, but rely mostly on the strength of its colourful character designs. Good art direction goes a long way to hide any technical issues, and Square Enix’s designers were on fire during the ‘90s.

But Trials of Mana was never meant to wow anyone with fireworks. It’s a simple updated remake of a legendary game. Time has humbled its legacy, as developers and studios iterated on the formula of the 16-bit adventure. Trials of Mana reminds us of why we fell in love with these games in the first place. The rules are simple, the rewards are immediate and obvious. There’s no better formula for escapist fantasy.