Republished on Wednesday, 10th August, 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of August's PS Plus Extra, Premium lineup. The original text follows.
Trials of Mana is a full 3D remake of Seiken Densetsu 3 — a Square-developed action role-playing game that was never officially released outside of Japan until last year, when it was included in the Collection of Mana on Nintendo Switch. And while it clearly doesn't have the budget or manpower of something like Final Fantasy VII Remake behind it, Trials of Mana is a faithful and fun recreation of a classic adventure.
To be clear, this is mostly an exact remake. It follows the same story, characters, and gameplay structure of the original — it's just that everything has been adapted to 3D. If you're at all familiar with the entirely 2D world of the original game, it makes for an almost surreal experience. Everything's here, just as you remember it, but you're free to move the camera and explore every little nook and cranny. Trials of Mana isn't the best looking RPG on PlayStation 4 — far from it — but there's a definite charm to the fantasy setting and its inhabitants.
However, being a faithful remake also means that the plot is trapped in a time when the genre lacked any real narrative depth. It's a tale of heroes standing against unquestionable evil, packed with one-note characters and twists that you'll see coming from a mile away. The old school story's only saving grace is that its gimmick of having six different playable characters remains somewhat unique, even here in 2020.
Indeed, right at the beginning of the game, you get to choose your hero and the two companions who'll eventually join you on your quest. Each character has their own prologue, providing insight into their often tragic motivations. What's more, later parts of the story change based on who you're playing as — you'll encounter different villains and slightly altered plot points depending on your chosen perspective. It's a neat system that goes a long way in giving Trials of Mana a distinctive feel and identity.
Having said that, cutscene quality leaves a lot to be desired. Working with such basic dialogue, the mo-capped cutscenes often appear awkward and distracting. It also doesn't help that the English voice acting is questionable at best, to the point where we'd recommend using the Japanese voice option. We can appreciate the attempt at updating the game's storytelling for modern times, but honestly, we'd prefer traditional text boxes over this.
Fortunately, the vast majority of this adventure consists of combat and exploration — and both aspects of the journey are very enjoyable. As you'd expect, the game's structure is predictably retro. You visit a town, stock up on new weapons and armour, hit the road, fight your way through a dungeon or two, beat a boss, and then arrive at the next settlement, ready to do it all over again. It's basic, but it's a tried and tested formula. Aside from some mildly annoying backtracking later on, the pacing feels just right, with very little downtime between one stage of the adventure and the next.
Trials of Mana isn't a particularly short experience, either. It took us near 30 hours to reach the credits, and by the time it was over, we had the urge to play through it all over again with different characters. Needless to say, there's a good amount of replay value here. And as mentioned, the title's straightforward pacing lends itself to multiple runs — you don't have to worry about rewatching lengthy cutscenes or skipping reams of dialogue just to get back to the action.
Speaking of action, Trials of Mana has a lot of it. The combat is, in a word, basic, but it's also approachable and quite satisfying. Every playable hero has access to standard square button combos, heavier triangle attacks, and an evasive roll. As you progress, you unlock additional character classes that grant you new magic spells and abilities, expanding the combat system to a point where it feels like you've got personalised control over how your party fights.
Outside of the game's many engaging boss battles, combat will rarely blow you away — but again, like the rest of the release, its simplicity is effective. It helps that controlling your party feels smooth and responsive, while pausing the action to use spells or items adds a nice rhythm to more tactical skirmishes.
There are also varying difficulty levels to consider. Casual mode makes fights a breeze if you're just here to take in the sights, while 'easy' and 'normal' are exactly what you'd expect. Elsewhere, 'hard' is worth a shot if you want a challenge. Enemies hit like a truck and some boss fights are brutal, but your AI-driven companions — reasonably reliable on other difficulties — are surely going to frustrate as they refuse to dodge incoming attacks.
It may be a full 3D remake of a classic action RPG, but Trials of Mana sticks rigidly to the structure of the original game. As a result, its storytelling and characters are one-note and largely forgettable — hampered further by awkward cutscenes and dodgy English voice acting — but its nicely paced gameplay feels surprisingly fresh in a time when modern RPGs have a tendency to drag on for hundreds of hours. What's more, its simple but smooth and effective combat system makes for some moreish action. All in all, Trials of Mana is a delightful throwback.