Who would've thought we'd be here, nearly 25 years after its original release, and Seiken Densetsu 3—now called Trials of Mana—has seen an official release outside of Japan. Not only that, but it gets bundled together with its two predecessors, Final Fantasy Adventure and Secret of Mana, two of the best RPGs on the Game Boy and Super Nintendo, respectively. There have been some unexpected revivals of old Japan-only games over the years but this one certainly ranks up there as one of the most welcome surprises (*cough* now we're just waiting for Mother 3 *cough*). But whether you're focused on its gaming history aspect or not, Collection of Mana is an incredible offer for old-school RPG fans.
In addition to its three games, the collection has a couple of minor bonus features. For one, each game has a quick-save function, which is particularly handy in Secret and Trials since you need to be at a save point in order to save your progress—FF Adventure, somewhat surprisingly for an older game, allows you to save anywhere at any time. You're also able to slightly adjust the screen's size while playing, since this is a straight up emulation of early 90s games so the resolution size would look odd on a modern widescreen TV. And finally, each game has a music player so you can reminisce on the fantastic soundtracks—Secret of Mana's infectious music should be particularly nostalgic for anyone that played the game back in the day. That's really it when it comes to new bells and whistles for this collection, which is admittedly a bit light and a few other bonus features would've been nice, but thankfully the games stand well on their own.
The first game in the collection, the one that started the whole series, is Final Fantasy Adventure, originally released on the Game Boy in 1991. Those details should give you a general idea of what kind of game this is: monochrome visuals with meager storytelling (and a handful of noticeable typos), but it's hard to deny that the gameplay was fairly ambitious for the time, and the real-time action-RPG gameplay holds up fairly well. Sure there isn't anything too fancy like special attacks, but combining your basic sword swipes and handful of magic spells makes for a pretty charming and light combat system.
Exploration in FF Adventure can feel rather aimless at times when objectives aren't clearly explained, but the game's world isn't so expansive that a bit of wandering is ever too much of an issue (and recovering full health and magic every time you level up is also a definite plus, so you don't have to feel tethered to the nearest town). You're even able to customize your stats as you level up—there may only be four stats in the game but that makes for a pretty unique little progression system for a Game Boy title. All that said, there are still a few issues of old-fashioned game design at work here, notably the way you have to constantly buy keys to use in dungeons, where doors will re-lock after you've passed through a few screens. It's just plain inconvenient at best and at worst it can be truly frustrating when you run out of keys inside a dungeon and have to restart or hope an enemy will drop a key for you. That kind of tedium might make this a game best played with a guide or walkthrough on hand. Still, even with its old-fashioned quirks, Final Fantasy Adventure remains a fairly solid, light action-RPG, one that fans of the genre should enjoy exploring at least for its historical value.
On to the most famous title in this collection: Secret of Mana, the 1993 SNES RPG that blends real-time combat with minor turn-based mechanics, all wrapped up in an innovative drop-in/drop-out three-player co-op system. It's not hard to see why the game is a beloved classic, even when competing against other highly acclaimed SNES RPGs. The combat is more immediate and satisfying than your average RPG from the time, but not a mindless button-mashing battle system either thanks to the recharge period after each sword swing, as well as the charged attack system. It finds an amazing balance between strategy and action, and manages to capture all of the satisfaction of both approaches.
The stylish graphics and incredible soundtrack remain some of the best you'll see/hear from that era—for anyone else that grew up playing this game, even just the title screen music is awash with nostalgic bliss. Sure the game has its share of minor annoyances, not least of which are the AI's atrocious pathfinding at times, or how frustratingly easy it is to get stunlocked by enemy attacks, but in the end those kinds of quirks do little to dull the brilliance that is Secret of Mana.
The third and final entry in this collection makes its debut in the West: Trials of Mana, originally released in 1995 on the Super Famicom but never brought overseas, should at least look pretty familiar to Secret of Mana fans. The graphics clearly borrow heavily from its predecessor, and the combat seems pretty similar at a glance, but once you get into it you'll find a clear evolution of the gameplay features from Secret. The most notable aspect of Trials is the branching character paths. At the beginning of the game you choose three characters to play as and, based on your primary character, the story unfolds in slightly different ways, primarily at the beginning and end of the game. It's awfully clever to customize the story like this, and certainly adds replay value by seeing the story in a slightly new angle each time you play. If anything the game could have pushed the idea even further, but as is, it still offers a smart way of keeping the story fresh and making the plot feel more personal for each character.
And of course your character choices heavily impact the gameplay, since each character is a different class (fighter, magician, cleric, etc.) and so have different strengths and weaknesses. It's a great way of customizing your approach to the game and, again, an excellent replay incentive. Combat itself feels pretty similar to Secret with some important distinctions. For one, there's no charge attack system. Instead each character has a meter that builds up as you land hits on enemies which then allows you to execute special attacks. It is far more fluid than Secret's charge attacks and helps battles flow much more naturally, like a fully action-oriented game. On the other hand though casting magic freezes the action on screen completely, so using a magic-heavy character like Angela means a lot of pausing during a battle, which gets old fast.
Battles are also sectioned off based on the screen you're on, and when you've defeated every enemy on screen the battle officially ends. It may not seem like a big change but it does affect how you approach battles when you're hoping for enemies to drop items, specifically the rare item drops needed to change classes late in the game. And finally leveling up is a little different, and is in fact similar to FF Adventure in that you choose which stat to increase when a character levels up. Unfortunately the Collection of Mana doesn't include proper digital manuals so you're better off scouring the web for details on exactly how each stat benefits your characters, but it's a nice touch of customization to the game's progression.
For as much as Trials seems to update or upgrade features of Secret there is one area where Trials is undeniably shaky, and that's the slow, clumsy UI for menus. It seems to simply be some sort of lagging framerate issue when you open up the main menu for changing equipment or checking character stats, but it does get a little obnoxious to deal with each and every time you do so.
A localized release of Collection of Mana seemed like a complete fantasy two years ago when Square Enix announced the game for Japan, but Western gamers finally have a chance to play an officially released Trials of Mana—and can look forward to a full remake next year. Collection of Mana rests squarely on your appreciation for classic RPGs. Each game is a straight port so naturally there are some frustrating design quirks from a contemporary perspective, but for the most part these games hold up as charming, unique action-RPGs, and fans of that era of gaming will love having all three in one handy package.
Rating: 8 out of 10 Mana Seeds