Screenshot via Square Enix

Visions of Mana preview: Creature comforts in RPG form

Mana surges back to life after all these years.

Some RPGs sell themselves on epic, sweeping tales. Others on their complex, robust battle systems, or their unique approach to actual role-playing. Visions of Mana doesn’t necessarily lack in these departments, but its draw for me after some time spent in its world is simply cozy, familiar comfort.

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I was surprised that was the takeaway, after spending roughly 45 minutes or so blasting through a two-part demo at PAX East 2024. To be clear, I don’t hold any particular nostalgia for the Mana series, as I never played it growing up. Any personal attachment I have is mostly for the Secret of Mana box art, an all-timer if ever there was one.

Yet the second I started swinging weapons and bashing monsters in the overworld of Visions of Mana, it felt familiar, like I’d done this before. Maybe it was the influence of the Mana series surfacing. Or maybe Visions of Mana is just a cozy adventure to mosey through.

The Visions of Mana party: Hinna, Tal, and their dragon friend
Screenshot via Square Enix

There’s always a hero, there’s always a tree

Val, the hero of Visions of Mana, is a guard for his elemental alm and childhood friend Hinna. The two are off on a journey, a pilgrimage to the Tree of Mana, and countless perils and obstacles likely await.

I didn’t get a great sense of what the story is about in Visions of Mana, aside from a trip to the Tree of Mana and dealing with a lot of elemental affinities along the way. I’ll say that I didn’t really need an infusion of story to sell me on this, either. Most of the setting and vibe is communicated through the world and its characters.

Visions of Mana is bright and cheerful, even in frigid areas like the snowy Mt. Gala I battled my way across. Characters like Morley and Careena, my two party members alongside Val, clearly stick out. The world incorporates much of the Mana iconography you’d expect, and that’s on purpose, as Mana producer Masaru Oyamada explains to me in an interview after the demo.

“In terms of the world building, really, we started off with the visual of the Mana tree and kind of built things around that,” said Oyamada. “Thinking again, about you know, how much of an expansive field we wanted to achieve with this game. We originally started by kind of assessing the technological elements, how feasible that would be, and through that, that was really how we built the game and the world within the game.”

A Pikul in Visions of Mana
Screenshot via Square Enix

The open fields are fun to run around in, either on foot or on the back of the pikul, adorable dogs that act as the party’s mounts. They are perfect, and I swear to protect them from all harm.

This also means a world full of quests to accomplish, whether on the main path or through side quests. Oyamada says there will be reason to back-track too, thanks to the traversal options that different elemental triggers in the world offer. For example, the vessel of Sylphid, the Wind elemental, can control air currents; and so when faced with a rocky outcropping without many places to platform across, an elemental trigger can open new paths across.

Scrappin’ time

I also got a chance to dig into Visions of Mana‘s combat, which sees your team of three fight monsters and enemies in real-time, action-RPG combat. To put it simply, fighting feels good in Visions of Mana. Move sets are fairly simple, with two standard attacks and a small allotment of extra moves based on your class. It’ll feel right at home for anyone who’s played an action RPG in recent years.

The customization and skill application comes in when you start accounting for classes. Different elemental vessels open up new classes for each character, not only changing their arsenal of attacks, but incorporating elemental effects into their strikes. The Vessel of the Moon, for example, can create pockets of slowed time. I had Careena pick up the Luna Globe and she became a Moon Charterer, dropping tiny pockets of slowed time like Dio from JoJo’s, freezing enemies for Val and Morley to beat up.

The new Mana party in battle
Screenshot via Square Enix

Each character feels distinct in their own way, though. Morley wields blades and knives, at times reminding me a bit of Vergil from the Devil May Cry series. Val, meanwhile, has big Protagonist energy, often taking up the vanguard and providing defensive options on the field. I didn’t get a great feel for Careena, as her moves felt pretty varied between classes, but she definitely came off as both technical and able to really employ elemental effects. Oyamada says the team definitely wanted each character’s actions to reflect their individual personality and characteristics, and that comes across.

There are plenty of options, but they rarely felt overbearing. Even the difficulty felt tuned just right; fights had some challenge, some push-back, but I still managed to cruise through without too much trouble. I did run into a pack of ultra-high level foes in a lower level area, which seems like either a reason to return or a challenge waiting, for those willing to dare it.

A new Mana after all these years

It might feel a bit superficial to simply say, “Visions of Mana is a comfort food RPG,” but it really is. Characters wear their emotions on their sleeve, the world is bright, the combat is fast and enjoyable and rarely feels arduous. The music, something the team has talked about before in a recent Xbox showcase, ties it all together to feel like a grand journey.

On my end, I was curious why the team finally chose to pull the rip cord on a new Mana. While the series has seen some remakes and re-releases, this is the first fully new Mana game in over 15 years. As Oyamada puts it, the team had been working on remakes, but throughout the process he did think about what would be a good way to create a new installment.

Screenshot via Square Enix

“But at the time, you know, a lot of the original staff members who worked on the game, including [Koichi Ishii], had actually left the company,” Oyamada told me. “So again, you know, I was very much focused on, what can I do? In terms of like, if I were to make a new installment, what would be a version of it that people would accept? What would be, sort of, a game that would be worthy of being called Mana?”

Trials of Mana, the 3D remake of Seiken Densetsu 3, is the “big turning point” that Oyamada identifies. It was ambitious and fairly well received, and it got the team thinking about what it could do for a new installment.

Series creator Ishii had his own philosophy for the Mana series where, according to Oyamada, he wanted to give himself a “challenge,” in terms of making something new and in game systems. But Oyamada approaches it from the standpoint of “someone who just loves the series.”

“And so whether that be you know, the monster designs that [Ishii] originally came up with, or whether that be the visuals of the Mana tree,” said Oyamada. “Or whether that be, you know, like the way the system and the lore with which like, these elemental spirits reside in this world. I’ve always felt that those are some of the strongest parts of the past games, and so I wanted to be able to incorporate them into this newest game too.”

Screenshot via Square Enix

Indeed, Visions of Mana feels like a passion project from a Mana fan. It’s a sentiment that comes across even to me, someone not quite so well-read in his Mana. But I also think Oyamada and the Visions of Mana team are tackling something fresh here, too. The open zones and linear battle sections tying together, with elemental traversal and good, solid action, layered over with great art and music, all gives me the feeling of booting up an RPG classic on a Saturday morning. It’s even pushing the established envelope a bit on the tech side. Oyamada says that scope of work from increased platforms, and what the team wants to achieve on the technical side, are why Visions is launching where it is; notably, not on Switch.

Maybe that’s what Visions of Mana ends up being: a cozy Saturday morning RPG. If it does achieve that, I think it’ll be something worth keeping an eye on. Visions of Mana is currently planned for summer 2024 on PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.


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Author
Eric Van Allen
Senior Editor - While Eric's been writing about games since 2014, he's been playing them for a lot longer. Usually found grinding RPG battles, digging into an indie gem, or hanging out around the Limsa Aethryte.