Review: Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3)

I’ve reached an important milestone in my RPG playthrough project. Today I’m going to talk about a game that, for many years, was an extremely elusive JRPG for those of us in the west; the fabled Seiken Densetsu 3 – or as it is now called, Trials of Mana. As you may have guessed, this is the third entry in the popular Mana series. When I was a kid, I absolutely loved the first game in this series but I never managed to play the second chapter until I reviewed it for this site. The second game, Secret of Mana has a reputation that borderlines on legendary. For decades, I had heard nothing but great things about that game. But, once I finally got my hands on it, I was left feeling a bit underwhelmed. Sure, the game had its good points, but there was also plenty of glaring issues that made me question why it was so highly regarded. With that in mind, I’m curious to see how this third entry in the series pans out.

As I mentioned above, this game was exclusive to Japan for a very long time. It was originally released in 1995 for the Super Famicom. But, despite plans to do so, it was never localized for release in the west. Considering all of the hype surrounding Secret of Mana, it is no surprise that fans were very upset by this. But for the most hardcore fans, a way to enjoy this game in English did eventually become possible thanks to a fan-driven (and completely unofficial) translation project. Eventually, after more than two decades, an official English release of this game was finally made available as part of the Collection of Mana compilation for the Nintendo Switch. Personally, I never played around with the fan translation for this game. So, the official Switch release was my first experience with this title.

The story of Trials of Mana plays out a little differently than any other JRPG I’ve ever encountered. Yes, there is a singular background plot to the game. But, there’s also a secondary storyline that follows each of the six playable characters. You see, at the beginning of this title, you choose a main character to play. Once you’ve selected your lead character, you then select two other characters to accompany you on your quest. Each character starts in a different location in the gameworld, resulting in the earliest parts of the game being radically different depending on who you select as your main character. Your choice also plays a pretty big part in determining the ending on the game as well. This means, that to fully experience every storyline the game has to offer, you will want to replay it multiple times with different characters.

The main storyline for the game is as follows; In ages past, the Mana Goddess saved the world from destruction by sealing away eight evil beasts known as the Benevodons. After doing so, the Goddess turned herself into a tree in order to watch over the world for all time. Eons later, most have forgotten about the Goddess. However, there are several who plot to free the Benevodons so that they can use their terrible power to rule the world. It is up to a handful of heroes to uncover the power needed to prevent this terrible future for taking hold.

As I mentioned earlier, when first starting the game, you are prompted to choose one of six different characters. This selection will determine the main hero of the game. You are then prompted to choose two additional companions. The three characters you do not select, will remain unplayable, but they will appear in the game as NPCs. The following characters are available to play:

DuranWarrior – Duran is the son of a famous knight from the kingdom of Valsena and it is his intention to follow in his father’s footsteps. When his kingdom is attacked by a mysterious mage from the nearby kingdom of Altena. Duran sets out on a quest to become powerful enough to avenge his king.
AngelaMagician – The princess of Altena, a nation known for its magic users. After Angela sees her mother fall victim to the temptations of evil, she flees her home of Altena.
CharlotteCleric – Charlotte is the grandaughter of the Priest of Light. One day, her caretaker is sent on a mission to a nearby city. Charlotte secretly follows but when her caretaker is ambushed, Charlotte is left alone in a strange land.
KevinGrappler – Prince of the beastmen of Ferolia. Kevin is a trained martial artist who is exiled from his kingdom after he speaks out against his father’s plans to invade a nearby kingdom.
HawkeyeThief – A respected member of Neverl’s Thieve’s Guild. After discovering that the guild leader has been bewitched by an enchantress, he is framed for murder and forced to flee Nervel.
RieszAmazon – Princess of Laurent, the Wind Kingdom. After her kingdom is attacked, and her brother taken hostage by agents from Nervel, Riesz manages to escape and vows to rescue her brother.

After reading the character summaries above, you may notice a bit of a trend. Several of the characters come from kingdoms where the leaders have been tricked or bewitched to wage war on their neighbors. As you play the game, the true villains and their motives will slowly become clear. This is when the character stories begin to tie in the main storyline that encompasses the entire game. This makes for a very unique experience that makes Trials of Mana a very re-playable RPG.

In terms of gameplay, Trials of Mana follows the other games in the Mana series by continuing the tradition of being an action RPG. The game is presented in an overhead format and characters do battle with enemies in real time. If you’ve played Secret of Mana or the original Legend of Zelda, you have a good idea of what to expect. When the game starts, you are only able to control a single character. But, it won’t be long before the two “companion characters” that you chose join the fray. Once you have your three-person party, you can still only control one character at a time. The companions are controlled by AI. However, you can switch between anyone in your party at will.

Just like Secret of Mana, this game includes a multiplayer option. At any time you can connect a second controller and a friend can take control of one of the other party members. In my opinion, this is the best way to get the most enjoyment out of the game. Playing with a friend makes this game much more fun than playing solo. However, due to the length of the game, it may be difficult to find someone who will be able to play side-by-side from start to finish.

Trials of Mana also brings back the infamous ring menu system.  For some reason, a lot of people really seem to enjoy this UI. Personally, I loathe it. I find the ring menu to be cumbersome and not very intuitive. It also seems a little out of place in an action RPG. I say this because whenever you open the ring menu, the action on the screen stops and it always feels a bit jarring whenever that happens.

But putting aside my issues with the ring menu system. I found the combat in this game to be both an improvement over Secret of Mana, yet also a little step backwards. My biggest gripe with Secret of Mana was having to wait for the energy bar to charge up in order to land a powerful strike. Thankfully, that has been done away with in this game. Instead, you can now attack enemies as quickly as you like. But the combat just feels disjointed and inaccurate to me. In this game, whenever you swing your weapon, your character seems to freeze in place, but the enemies keep on moving. This often means that your opponents are frequently out of range and you now to have to pursue them only to have the cycle repeat once you’ve managed to catch up with them. It doesn’t happen all the time. But it happened often enough that it frequently annoyed me.

Since the power meter is not present in this game, there is a new combat mechanic that is worth mentioning, the “special attack”. After landing four successful hits, your character is able to use a special attack by pressing the “B” button. The effects of this attack will vary depending on both the character and their current class. This brings me to my next point, class changes.

In the character list above, I noted the starting class for each character. But, at two different points in the game, each character is able to pick a new class to evolve to. The choice you make has a major impact on the abilities and fighting style of that character. Sadly, the game itself doesn’t explain these options at all. It is my understanding that the original Japanese manual provided a little guidance in this area. Unfortunately, this is absent from western release of the game. If you want to know the differences between the different class options that are being presented, you’ll have to turn to the Internet for answers.

I realize that I’ve been pretty critical of this game so far. But, make no mistake, there’s also plenty of great things about this title. For starters, the storyline is excellent. The way that each character’s individual background intertwines with main story-arc is masterfully done. This is only made better by the excellent localization that this title has received.

The visuals in this game are simply stunning. Seriously, this game looks so good that’s difficult to believe it was actually a 16-bit title. In fact, I daresay that Trials of Mana might be the best looking SNES game I have ever laid eyes on. Everything from the character sprites to the background graphics are absolutely gorgeous.

Taking all of the good and the not-so-good aspects of the game and putting them into consideration leaves me in a very weird place. Trials of Mana has some extremely unique and bold aspects about it that really help it stand out from similar games of the era. Many of these things are implemented extremely well. On the other hand, certain aspects of the game feel disjointed and out of place. I can’t help but feel like this game should have been the crown jewel for SNES-era JRGs. Instead, it ends up feeling more like an unpolished gem.

If you’re a fan of the Mana series, you should absolutely take the time to play this game (especially if you have a friend to play along with you). More casual gamers or JRPG fans that prefer titles like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, might find themselves a bit put off by the UI and gameplay mechanics. Its important to note, that all three of the original Mana games have seen subsequent remakes over the years. I’m curious to see how the remakes compare and improve upon the originals. I look forwards to checking them out in the future.

Version Reviewed: SNES (Switch)

Difficulty: Hard –  Like other games in the Mana series, this game can pack a bit of a challenge. Honestly though, the difficulty can vary greatly depending on the characters you select for your party. The earliest parts of the game seem to be the toughest. But, as always with RPGs, if you take a little time to grind out some levels early on, you can greatly lessen the difficulty later down the road.

Multiplayer:  Local Co-op.

Story: This is one the highlights of the game. The main storyline is comprised of typical JRPG fare, but it’s extremely well done. Combine this with the unique background story for each character and you really end up with quite an engrossing tale. Great stuff here!

Originality: A lot of the things in this game have been seen before. But there’s also plenty that makes it feel new and unique. The selectable cast of characters is a great example. So is the branching class system. These two things really give Trials of Mana a unique and exciting feel.

Soundtrack: As was the case with Secret of Mana, this aspect of the game is pretty tough to score. On one hand, the music in the game is well composed, catchy, and interesting. On the other, rarely does the soundtrack seem to fit the gameplay. Overall, I do feel the soundtrack here is an improvement over the previous entry in the series. But a lot of it seems to come out of left field.

Fun: I enjoyed this game much more than Secret of Mana. But it still never hooked me the way that most JRPGs do. I will admit, that I really enjoyed the few times I was able to play side-by-side with my kids. I think that’s the real key to getting the most enjoyment out of this title. The single player experience just seems to lack a little something, and I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is.

Graphics: Hands down one of the best, if not the best, looking SNES game I’ve ever played. Excellent use of color, enchanting backgrounds, and exceptionally detailed characters.

Playcontrol: The control scheme for this game is a bit of a mess. The ring-based menu system just doesn’t jive with me. The character movement feels very janky, and the combat often feels a bit out of sync with itself.

Downloadable Content: None

Mature Content: None

Value: If you’re playing the Collection of Mana version of the game, you’ll actually end up with three full games for only $40.00. All things considered, that’s a pretty great price. The original game was never released in the west, so be prepared to pay a pretty penny for a physical import. In my opinion, the Switch collection is the way to go.

Overall score (1-100): 75Trials of Mana is not a terrible game. But it could certainly be better. I did enjoy it a bit more than its predecessor, and I truly appreciate some of the more unique aspects of it. But still, I can’t help but feel that the controls and combat could have been a little more player friendly in the end.

Original System: SNES (Super Famicom)

Available today on:  Switch   – (Updated as of Spring 2023)

Best Experience: Switch   – (Updated as of Spring 2023)

Other Games in this Series: 

Final Fantasy Adventure    –    Secret of Mana    –    Trials of Mana    –    Dawn of Mana

Legend of Mana    –    Children of Mana    –    Heroes of Mana

Sword of Mana (FFA Remake)    –    Secret of Mana (Remake)    –    Trials of Mana (Remake)

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