Visions of Mana preview - Mana versus mechanics

Visions of Mana preview - Mana versus mechanics
Images via Square Enix

Written by 

Joseph Kime

Published 

28th Mar 2024 13:00

If there’s anything that Xbox fans didn’t expect at January’s DEVELOPER_DIRECT, it was the appearance of a new speaker in the company’s hype-laden slideshow, especially not from a long-dormant RPG franchise.

It’s been fifteen years, but as series producer Masaru Oyamada told us in the shock reveal, the Mana series is ready for its return to the spotlight, and for the first time on Xbox. Sometime after the Final Fantasy Adventure days, it can be easy to forget how big a deal this truly is. Now could be the best time for Mana to return - the franchise’s dormancy has led it into an era where high fantasy rules the roost, with Dragon’s Dogma 2 and Baldur’s Gate 3 proving that players will heavily invest in magical worlds, and with all of the whimsy in the world, Visions of Mana has the opportunity to make the most of its environment here.

Final Fantasy mainline titles and spin-offs are rife, and now, we get to step back into a bright and exciting world for a welcoming adventure to the Mana Tree all over again - and as GGRecon found, long-time fans are likely to latch on in moments, even if it won’t talk around newbies quite so easily.

Back to the tree

Careena casts a spell in Visions of Mana.
Click to enlarge

Taking to Visions of Mana for the first time makes one thing incredibly clear - the RPG genre has sorely been missing an aesthetic like this. Following along with the stylings and bright splashes of colour that Dragon Quest’s more recent titles have made a home in, Visions of Mana offers a look at a lush, sprawling world that decides to divvy itself up into segments, rather than crack into an open world.

It makes sense for the game - to go so big is a bigger risk than many fans typically consider, and it lends itself to some genuinely beautiful locales, as our preview led us to rolling hills and steep, shimmering icy mountains. Fantasy deserves to be treated this way when it comes to visuals, and even though our look at the game didn’t come with any insight into Visions of Mana’s story, the connection between the far-reaching roads of the game and its narrative is going to be crucial to the successes of the title for long-time fans.

The presentation echoes Genshin Impact in many ways, though with one core difference - your team of adventurers feels far less powerful. On the surface, this seems like it should be a bad thing, but it does wonders to open up the world to feel dangerous and exciting, and as monsters who look like their eyes will fall out of their heads with a single bonk laying your fighters out more than expected is almost definitely lead to a satisfying progression system. The sheer scale of the world, even divided into segments, feels as though it could stretch on forever, and in a high fantasy game that demands total immersion, this is a feature that is genuinely invaluable.

But, even in spite of a world that feels like it could house many hours of gameplay, that gameplay needs to be as slick as it is fun - and in many ways, there is still room for improvement here.

Early jitters

Aegis looks out over a chasm at Mt Gala in Visions of Mana.
Click to enlarge

Visions of Mana is a game with all but immaculate presentation, but the pieces that hold it all together began to crack not long after our playthrough began. Climbing rocky areas to leap across gaps can be clumsy with a sprint mechanic that takes too long to take effect, leading to plenty of opportunities to unfairly send you into an endless pit, and the lock-on system is too slow to feel reliable. It becomes easier to avoid using the lock-on system at all and simply miss a few sword swings, and I made my peace with gambling every time I leapt from one platform to another.

The story is clearly a big deal in Visions of Mana, but it’s little without gameplay to tie it together, and so far, that gameplay feels rushed. It’s frustrating that the issues with the game feel as though they’d come with easy fixes, and though we of course played an early build, it doesn’t reflect the game in the way it perhaps can. Reflecting these characters, though, could equally be tough for newcomers to the genre who aren’t used to the melodrama of it all - characters regurgitate the same over-acted voice lines incredibly frequently as they collect items and finish battles, and though Careena as a character is compelling simply by being an anime-styled Southern Belle-type, she runs the risk of growing deeply annoying by insisting after a battle that “when push comes to shove, I don’t hold back!” every time.

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This doesn’t mean that gameplay doesn’t show strengths at all, though. Our look at the game ended with a dramatic boss fight that showed off the game at its best - a champion of a foe, brilliantly designed, doling out punishment without ever feeling unfair or frustratingly resistant to your magical attacks. The battle is light, but deeply enjoyable, and stands as the highlight of our time with the game by a country mile.

Spellbinding pending

Aegis sits on the back of a resting Pikul in Visions of Mana.
Click to enlarge

All of this being said, there’s still much to be revealed about Visions of Mana. A great deal of the experience of the game is going to be tethered to its narrative, and being offered nothing in the way of story beats during our time with the game has made it tough to gauge the entire experience.

There are creases to iron out for sure, but the potential remains great for long-time fans, even if it runs the risk of not being able to stand up as a beacon of its genre, welcoming new players into the fold. Providing Visions of Mana can maintain a level of whimsy and excitement for adventure in spite of its pitfalls, it can still offer fans what they’ve been looking for in a return to form.

Final Thoughts

Visions of Mana looks gorgeous, and the beautiful world implies that a whimsical, exciting adventure awaits in the return to the Mana series - but it has some spring cleaning to do before it touches down if it wants to do anything to convince players that now was the right time for Square Enix to return to this setting with boundless potential.

Previewed on PS5.

Joseph Kime is the Senior Trending News Journalist for GGRecon from Devon, UK. Before graduating from MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he started writing music reviews for his own website before writing for the likes of FANDOM, Zavvi and The Digital Fix. He is host of the Big Screen Book Club podcast, and author of Building A Universe, a book that chronicles the history of superhero movies. His favourite games include DOOM (2016), Celeste and Pokemon Emerald.

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