PAX EAST 2024 - Visions of Mana second opinion

Note: This was the same demo that James also got to check out, so consider this just a second opinion and my thoughts on the game. To get his thoughts on Visions, check them out HERE, along with his interview with series producer Masaru Oyamada HERE.

When I hear the term Mana, memories of spell-locking enemies into oblivion, infuriating CPU-controlled party members, and one of my earliest forays into emulation/fan translations come flooding back to me. Square Enix’s recent reinvestment in its other historic non-Final Fantasy RPGs, such as the SaGa and Mana franchises, has made little Scott very happy. The Mana games, particularly the second and third games - Secrets of Mana and Trials of Mana, respectively - hold a special place in many retro RPG fans' hearts, myself included. That’s why when the first new entry in nearly two decades, Visions of Mana, was announced back in December of last year at the Game Awards, it quickly shot up near the top of my most anticipated games of the new year.  when the opportunity arose for me to get my hands on Visions of Mana, the first new entry in nearly two decades, I hopped on my fluffy pikul and headed to Boston. 

After a quick presentation laying out what I was about to play - one shorter free-roam demo to get used to the controls and the longer, more scripted one that led to a boss fight - I was let loose into this new world, together with two companions and my furry pikul friend. Right away, I was struck by how much it resembled 2020’s Trials of Mana remake in terms of visuals but with more refinement. The world is cast in vibrant colors, with the far-off distance resembling a painting almost while the characters faithfully adapt the series’ signature designs into the third dimension.

The three characters present in the demo included Visions’ protagonist Val, along with a cat-person of seemingly royal birth and a Mana series staple, a faerie, strangely with a southern drawl. Each had access to three potential class options, one coming from each of the two elemental spirits available along with their default starting classes, allowing for some options to try. I was particularly impressed by the fact that each element grants a different class to each character, and not just the same one to every party member, with every class using a different weapon type and having different attack options. We still don't know how large the final cast of playable characters will be, but even with just the three available in the demo I played, that's 30 different classes, each with 10 levels of progression to them (though it is still a bit nebulous on what these levels will add) to play around with in your party! Not to mention the possibility of advanced classes in the final release. I like a game that offers a lot of avenues for playing around with party compositions; I've always found that it makes replays much more enticing to do.

Visions of Mana features a large, wide-open world with plenty of goodies to track down and find. Even in the demo, Visions rewarded my exploration with treasure chests, crafting materials, and more, pushing me to try and reach that out-of-the-way ledge just to see what could be there. The traversal options at your disposal make even the sprawling areas pretty painless and quick to get around, thanks to the furry dog-like pikul you will earn that can quickly be summoned via a bell. While on foot, sprinting around and using the air dash also helped things along - I, along with a couple of other players, kept trying to discover a way to remain airborne permanently. We failed, but it was still a good time.

The elemental spirits, a recurring element (pun intended) of the Mana series, return in Visions and will appear to play an important role in allowing your party to navigate the game's world, similar to how power-ups work in, say, a Castlevania or Metroid title. Sylphid, the spirit of the wind, granted my party the ability to activate large wind currents, leading me to where the boss lurked. The sense that I got from the Square Enix staff that were on site is that there will be plenty of similar places around the world that will only be accessible through the use of similar spirit abilities. Hopefully, the rewards will be worth the backtracking to get!

When it comes to the combat in Visions of Mana, my feelings are a bit more mixed. Attacks are handled through a mixture of light and heavy varieties of ground and air attacks that require quick button presses, long button holds, and delayed presses, resulting in combos that take some time to get used to. I've never been the biggest fan of delaying button presses to trigger different attacks, finding that approach to be more of a hassle to reliably pull off in those tense moments and boss encounters. I would much rather have a Dynasty Warriors approach where stringing together different combinations of light and heavy attacks would lead to alternate results, but alas, that isn't the case with Visions. I hope that in the final release, they include some sort of training mode or combo list that you can access to give you a better sense of what a given class can do.

After playing through the demo five-ish times and vanquishing a very familiar giant green mantis boss, I can confidently say that I am excited for Visions of Mana to release. Mind you, I also came away with a good amount of questions and parts that I would like clarification or confirmation on, too, but those haven't put much of a damper on my anticipation for the game. It was clear that Visions still has some polish and tweaks it needs to go through before release - there was some pretty gnarly slowdown at times, and the target lock-on system in combat was ROUGH - but I'm confident that those can and will be addressed before the game reaches consumers' hands.   

The release of a brand new Mana game is a big deal, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the team can stick the landing so that Visions of Mana is just the start of a brand new renaissance for this historic series.

Visions of Mana will release for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC later this year.