Back when the PSP was young, earlier games in the Legend of Heroes series were released for it. They looked like drab, boring little games, and it wasn’t until several years later that I bothered with the system. But now, in what we should really think of as coming from beyond the grave, a new Legend of Heroes game quite unlike the others has arrived. For starters this is an XSeed release, and I’ve learned that XSeed doesn’t give us a game if they’re not willing to stand by it and play it themselves. But more than that, just looking at the game reminds me a great deal of Skies of Arcadia, and I know that sort of high-flying, never say die spirit is something I really miss in my RPGs in recent days. Of course, that’s just looking at a box. How fair a judgment can be made from this cover? Read on.
Good: Estelle is downright infectious
Bad: Fairly sudden points of no return
WTF: Need… Second… Chapter…
From the outset, I mention the cover of the game, and it reminding me of Skies of Arcadia. And why wouldn’t it? Pigtailed action girl, lots of open sky, and airships! Surprisingly enough, this isn’t too far off the mark in a lot of ways. While the game is, surprisingly, firmly planted on the ground, the entire game has a very turn of the century feel. There’s a definite blend of swords and other traditional fantasy fare with a society that’s clearly in the middle of technological revolution. Guns have been invented, airships cruise the skies, motor vehicles move freight, but most of all there’s a mineral resource which, in addition to fueling technological advance, also fuels character magic. So in this world where the fantastic and the wonders of the 19th century collide, perhaps it’s fitting that two distinct eras of gaming graphics exist side by side. Hearkening back to the original Playstation, we have 3D effects and vehicles coexisting with character sprites. The artwork itself is recognizable as Falcom’s work, and it uses the sort of character portrait boxes very ‘anime’ games so often sport these days, complete with expressions for every occasion. Oddly, the sprites themselves have relatively few different animations, so there’s a few times it stands out that they’re reusing some, but otherwise you really get what you might expect from the cover.
Falcom has some amazing musicians on staff. The Ys series has some absolutely spectacular pieces, and the best work they put out is quite possibly the best music to come out of a video game. So if I say I was disappointed in Trails’ soundtrack, it is only in that context. There’s not a bad track in this game, and the way it sets mood and creates the atmosphere throughout the game is very precise. Thing is, Trails in the Sky is a very upbeat and relaxed sort of experience, and as such the music made to set that tone can only pack so much in the way of emotion and energy. As such, far and away the standout here is Silver Will, which uses electric violin to achieve the same sort of pulse-pounding tempo as, say, Those Who Fight Further from Final Fantasy VII. It’s quite a ways into the game before it crops up, but suffice to say you’ll know it when you hear it. The vocals are also quality, if you’re into that sort of thing. Trails has some voice acting, but it’s limited to battles, and as such there’s no meaningful commentary to be made beyond the fact it uses established veterans like Johnny Yong Bosch, maintaining a basic level of quality.
Trails poured all its gameplay into the battle system, so we can focus on that. The system in place is really quite basic, a CTB turn gauge on the left hand side of the screen gives you a basic indication of the flow of battle, but keep in mind that it only displays a single turn for a given character at a time; if someone is going to be lapped, you won’t know it until other characters take their turn. Over time, for most battles in the game, the turn gauge will also show icons, which represent when AT Bonuses are going to kick in. These are fairly straightforward, either healing you in some what, raising your loot after battle, or boosting your attack and critical hit chances. Some strategy elements are in place, with characters having movement and attack ranges, spells having area of effect, moving but not attacking speeding up your next turn, but over time these matter less and less as both you and enemies become more powerful.
Otherwise, characters have two distinct set of resources, EP and CP. EP works as a standard magical resource, being filled when you rest and consumed when you cast spells. CP meanwhile fuels physical techniques, and starts at 0. It fills when you attack or take damage, each varying based on how much you take relative to the maximum HP of the target; oddly, attacking enemies with lots of HP actually gives you more CP than killing them in a single blow. While EP raises based on using the skill system (more in a moment on that), CP is rigged with a maximum of 200. The wrinkle in Trails’ system comes from this, because at 100 SP you can begin using the S-Craft, a sort of Limit Break technique which consume whatever CP you have, and gains a bonus at a full 200. What makes these unique is that, as long as you have the CP to cast it in the first place, you can interrupt the turn order to do so. Late in the game the regular techniques come into their own and compete for the CP, but for a long time you want to sit on CP and be able to pile on damage with a chain of S-Craft interruptions. Even if you don’t strategize that way normally, it makes for a great emergency button to say the least, never mind the times you may want to interrupt the turn in order to capitalize on AT Bonuses.
As noted earlier, the world of Trails is in the midst of technological revolution, brought about by what are called Orbments. Orbal technology fuels nearly everything you see within the game, and that includes magical skills. Each character possess a unique Orbment set, into which they insert Quartz to enhance their abilities. The Quartz themselves come in 7 different elements, and each Quartz has two properties. It will have an overt effect, such as enhancing HP or decreasing casting time on spells, and will also add different levels of their element, though advanced Quartz will add multiple elements at once. Each character’s Orbment contains seven slots, but how those slots branch determines what magic they will actually be able to access. Essentially, the magic levels added by each Quartz are tallied based on what branch of the Orbment they occupy, and every spell in the game has specific requirements of magic levels in order to be accessible in battle. So for example, the schoolgirl Kloe has a single branch on her Orbment, thus all her element levels are tallied together. Meanwhile, the gladiator Zane has five branches, meaning that he can build up very few element levels and is better off equipping Quartz to maximize his stats and fight physically. The added wrinkle here is that most characters have some slots which much be occupied by a specific element, meaning that they will always have some levels in that element and should probably be built around that limitation. It’s a simple system, but offers that blend of character uniqueness and customization that is best for jRPGs.
Trails in the Sky has some of the most extensive background information I’ve ever seen in an RPG (only Ar tonelico has a comparably thick ‘Story’ section in its manual!), so before discussing the plot I should probably provide some of that context and terminology. The setting of the game, and home of all the principle characters, is the Kingdom of Liberl, a small nation between a large northern Empire, Erebonia, and a mid-sized Republic, Calvard, to the east. Ten years prior to the game, Erebonia and Liberl fought what’s called the Hundred Days War, in which all but their capital was taken, but a fierce counterattack opened the door to negotiations, which was overseen by officials from the Church and the Bracer’s Guild. The principle characters of the story are all affiliated with the Bracer’s Guild, an independent agency that blends elements of private investigators and mercenaries, though they are bound to avoid influencing the politic of their host cities to foster their presence in all nations through the continent. Instrumental in all these events and organizations is Cassius Bright, greatest warrior in the land, top member of the Bracer Guild, and father to our heroes Estelle and Joshua.
The story begins with Estelle and her adopted brother Joshua graduating from basic training in the Bracer’s Guild, and becoming junior members. As junior members, their next task is going between the various regions of Liberl to gain the recommendation of each branch, and this serves as the framing device for the story. While the story arc of each regional branch always contains elements building to a larger conclusion, Estelle and Joshua’s overall goal and station are always at the forefront, and their progression through the increasingly dangerous situations plaguing each city they encounter always serve as a marker of their growing skill, determination, and maturity.
What really makes the story work is the bond between Estelle and Joshua. While Estelle has more than a few idiot hero traits and Joshua is very much an enormously competent straight man to most proceedings throughout the game, it becomes clear through the game that neither can truly solve their problems on their own. Each knows the other better than they know themselves, and it’s through this knowledge and the combining of their disparate skills and temperaments that they can achieve anything. But even without that, the game is simply well written, with snappy dialogue and a keen awareness of the tone each scene wants to set. Estelle and Joshua alternate between fighting like brother and sister and bickering like an old married couple, but as they genre savvy among you might guess that’s not far from the truth anyway, and it really brings home the cast, story, and world of Trails.
Trails offers little in the way of bonus content; an optional bonus boss wouldn’t really fit given the context. By which I mean, you have to keep in mind that the Trails in the Sky we have right now is merely the first chapter. But cliffhangers aside, what Trails lacks in aftergame content is makes up for with a robust and systematic series of sidequests. As noted before, the Bracer’s Guild has elements of private investigators and mercenaries, and throughout the game it’s critical to divert from your current missions to complete additional quests for the Guild (lest you want to run out of money and get underlevelled very quickly, of course). These range from hunting down dangerous monsters to finding lost kittens (seriously), and generally speaking each segment of the story offers around 10 such missions, spread throughout various plot markers in that chapter. Beyond this, the game also offers hidden sidequests, jobs you can do but will not show up on the Guild’s quest board, meant to encourage the player to explore on their own rather than running from quest to quest. However, it’s important to note that most quests have time limits, as defined by story progress, so it’s important to check the board as frequently as possible for new quests and to do those before anything else.
What Trails in the Sky offers us is a rare breed, a game built around making a world and putting not only likable characters in it, but making us care about their pasts and futures in addition to their present. To a certain extent it prides itself on putting all the old cliches on clear display, old favorites like the requisite Tournament Arc, but establishing at each step that somehow it makes sense for them to be their. Even without the financial and material gains, I found myself compelled to complete each quest and annoyed early on when I realized I’d missed one or two. With that, I found myself finishing Trails in around 36 hours, and give it my highest recommendation for anyone with the means to pick it up.
Final Score: 8/10 Recommendation: Buy it now!