The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
Unfortunately, some of these parts make for very integral problems in Trails, to the point where they are exemplary of what’s wrong with Japanese RPGs. Despite these marks against Trails, by the time the New Game + feature rears its head, the player will be left wanting more.
Trails is a portable game, and has one of the main features any portable game should have: the ability to save anywhere. Players can save anywhere outside of battle or cutscenes. If stuck in one of those, players will have to use the PSP’s sleep mode. The saving is quick and the loading is very fast, but still just under par when compared against some of Falcom’s other PSP offerings. Battles normally do not consume much
time, though the cutscenes can get very long. In these instances the PSP’s sleep mode saves Trails from being a terrible on-the-go game.
The core plot of Trails is two kids who may or may not be romantically entangled questing about a kingdom and get caught up in a conspiracy that may endanger the kingdom – nay!- the world! This is really a theme shared with most Legend of Heroes titles; a lá Crystals in Final Fantasy, modern school settings in Persona, etc. And to be honest, the conspiracies and plot points which occur are very predictable. There are no surprises around every corner, and the few true surprises which do occur happen after the resolution of the core plot.
What Trails does very well is create a full world. The country of Liberl has history, order, and coherency. There are no volcano caves, ice fields, or random deserts in Liberl’s borders. The country exists in a climate and the climate is reflected appropriately. Several books, files, and NPCs detail the country’s history. And there’s a lot of history. The text in Trails is of massive proportions. NPCs constantly have different things to say between the completion of quests, and much of this text flavors the world with the sweet taste of background. This fosters a healthy does of exploration curiosity for the player.
Events in Trails also tend to make sense. While the plot of Trails is stereotypical to a fault, at least it is the job of the lead characters to uncover conspiracies. The two kids – Estelle and Joshua – are junior bracers. Bracers are a mixture of capable citizens, mercenaries, and private detectives rolled into a shell of justice. They have widespread and recognizable authority when dealing with the general populace, yet have no authority in the matters of politics or the military. It is the job of a bracer to resolve problems that affect the populace. Estelle and Joshua are literally contracted to move the plot along. This is a much more reasonable plot device than some fated farmboy or accidentally-lucky power child. While there is a lot in Trails that relies on the power of coincidence, an avid player will find there is at least an equal amount which is capable of being explained.
Characterization is also a very strong feature of the game. There is oodles of dialogue between characters to flesh out personalities. Every quest brings a little something more to the story or characters, and tons of dialogue pops up when just speaking with NPCs. Sadly, this is one of the double-edges of Trails – the characters need to shut the hell up. It is one thing to flesh out the background or show a side of the characters previously hinted at or flat out new. It’s another thing to waste time with pointless affirmations, constant restating of where to go, or the occasional redundant conversation. For instance, when moving onto the next part of a quest, the conversation might flow like this:
“So we need to head to the cathedral in the East block?”
“Yes, the East block cathedral would be the place to search.”
“Okay, let’s head to the cathedral. East block, here we come!”
To make this conversation even more redundant, there is a book kept by the players in which its main purpose is to record WHAT TO DO NEXT. The game is easily 50 hours long, and some decent amount of time could be cut out by cracking down on this crap. And it’s not just the time sink. Conversations like this treat the player like an idiot.
The characters are likeable and easy to get into for the most part. Estelle is the perky, gung-ho girl who is more likely to bludgeon her way through problems than anything else. More ignorant than naïve, despite claims from the game, Estelle is one half of the game’s driving force. Joshua, her adopted brother, is the calm and collected analytical type. However, he eschews the typical role by being honest with himself and his feelings. Several other characters, both stereotypical and decent, fill out the rest of the cast. However, it is Estelle’s biological father and Joshua’s adopted father, Cassius Bright, upon whom a majority of the interactions hinge. Through previous interactions with Cassius, the people respond to Estelle and Joshua, who in turn learn more about their father and each other.
While this is no masterstroke, it is handled well and is key behind the two leads’ growth. Much of the essential dialogue is a lot of fun. A lot of conversation between characters flows naturally, and the game pokes fun at itself via little notes in empty treasure chests. Estelle is often made fun of in a charming and teasing way, and Joshua is down-to-earth enough to not get carried away. He’s put in his place just as Estelle is on several occasions. The ability to humble the cast without drama is something few games can pull off. Trails pulls off this very well.
The localization of Trails is a shining example for all games. Really, the flow of the game is handled very well thanks to Xseed’s staff. I didn’t expect the attention to detail the team put forth for Trails, especially at the sheer amount of dialogue, text, etc. Hell, there is even a novella and several short stories in the game, and the parts of those I was able to collect and read were great.
The graphics serve the game well. For a title made in 2004, the character sprites have held up well and animate nicely. The backgrounds are very well done and sometimes impressive, and lend much to the setting’s credibility. The towns are very well designed. The character designs are nothing special (in fact, Estelle and Josh bear more than little resemblance to Asuka and Shinji respectively), but service the characters nicely. Enemy designs are nice and varied, yet only the final boss sticks out with its odd-but-surprising design. Most of the dungeons are pretty simple or straightforward. Towards the end of the game the dungeons step up in size and design. Liberl itself is a giant racetrack, which makes the game almost frighteningly linear. Thankfully, there are enough pit stops to break its monotony. The sidequests, should the player choose to accept, will cover the majority of the country.
The battle system of Trails works really well. It combines grid-based movement, area attacks, the S-Break system (think overpowered attacks), timing, and turn-based combat fairly effectively. Briefly: Characters have a position on the field and certain actions (spells or skills inherent to the PC) either hit a single enemy or have a range. The field is made up of a grid akin to a tactical RPG. However, attacking and spells are, for the most part, streamlined from any TRPG. Select attack and a target, and the PC will run over and attack if they are in range. Target not in range? The PC moves closer as determined by the game. If a spell targets a certain area or the player merely wants to move the character, then the grid pops up and the player must select the appropriate space in a conventional TRPG manner. Note that moving the character means the character is unable to attack that turn.The biggest part of the battle system is the order of battle.
On the left side of the screen, character and enemy portraits are displayed in the turn order the participants will be attacking. Certain actions change the order of battle. Moving is the easiest way to switch up the order, though spells and their casting times will also switch it up. Changing this order is paramount, because each turn may also have a bonus associated with it. Bonuses include a strength boost or critical attacks (which affect everything, such as healing and magic), extra sepith, and recovering the three types of Point systems. Enemies and PCs alike receive these bonuses. The enemies will, more often than not, utilize these bonuses effectively. An example would be the sepith bonus – normally receiving the bonus nets the party extra sepith. If an enemy receives the extra sepith bonus, they might use an area or multi-hit attack to steal sepith from the team. The last thing of note is while actions and moving change the order of battle, only an S-Break attack initiated by the hotkey system can interrupt a turn, and once used in this fashion will prevent the PC from acting for a bit.
The description may seem full, but the system is easy to grasp and becomes second nature soon. It also allows for a great deal of strategy. The major downside the battle system has is that most of the game can be completed by skipping battles.
Most battles are fought to gain experience and sepith. However, the experience system cuts the experience received in half each time a character levels up. Characters level up fairly quickly since not much experience is needed between levels. 44 is the highest level attainable in a single playthrough to my knowledge. This does remove a lot of the grind associated with RPGs, but also makes fighting battles useless and tiresome since there is plenty of experience and sepith to be initially had upon entering a new area. By the time the party gets to the town or takes on a quest or two, it becomes easier to avoid battles than fight them. Due to the decent damage output of the enemies and the opponent’s ability to take advantage of battle bonuses, the battles simply do not reward the player for the effort it takes to engage in one once the experience points pass below a certain amount.
The game also has plenty of equipment available to help avoid battles, making it seem as if the game wants the player to skip battles. If an auto-battle function had been implemented, or a way to speed up battles was available, the point might be more negotiable. Even if a player does manage to get wiped out, the game’s default retry feature makes each retry battle progressively easier. As it stands, the focus on plot over fighting means Trails in the Sky might as well be a visual novel for a good chunk of its time.
Such features might be acceptable to those who wish to play RPGs for their stories, but this is a video game and it’s unacceptable to have a good battle system whose use diminishes rapidly. Arguments about fighting battles to gain sepith and make orbs have only little weight –characters often bring the latest orbs and equipment with them as they join and re-join.
As stated, characters level up. They also equip weapons, armor, and orbs. Orbs net both stat bonuses and spells. The spells are formed by combining orbs effectively in an item known as an orbment. Each orb has a value; the higher the value the more points an element will receive. Allot more points to an element, and more powerful spells are unlocked. Mixing and matching elements yields different spells. The orbment itself only has so many slots available and must be upgraded to make full use of the feature. Upgrading the orbment will happen very quickly. The aforementioned sepith accomplishes this, along with creating orbs. Sepith is also used as a means to make money. Sepith is found by defeating enemies, and like the game’s experience system, is fairly plentiful.
I could go on further about different systems or other parts of Trails, which brings me to one of the game’s strongest points: There is an absolute ton of stuff to do in Trails. I clocked 58 hours at the end, and still hadn’t collected all the books and recipes (there’s a very friendly recipe creation system in the game), and even missed out on a few quests and events. Not to mention a ton of background flew to the wayside. Trails will easily keep anyone busy.
The music is good. The team that handled the music of the Ys games created the music for Trails. While the tracks aren’t as memorable as the Ys series, there are some good moments when the music meshes very well with the events. Several of the overworld tunes were reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, actually. I certainly wouldn’t mind obtaining a soundtrack. The sound effects worked well with the game, too.
A New Game + feature is available when the game is beaten. Players are allowed to start a new file with all of their previous cash, abilities, levels, and items. Each different object to be kept may be toggled on and off before the new game starts. Also, there is a hard and nightmare mode attached to the replay. This is awesome, and enhances the minimal replay value of the game. Additionally, the endgame save may be used for the Second Chapter, upon its release.
This is one the aspects which causes some conflict in Trails. It is the first part of a trilogy of titles. As a standalone game, Trails is a well-executed yet generic and talkative story with a fun but eventually pointless battle system. As the first part of a series, Trails is a fascinating specimen which desires more research. After the main plot is resolved, the game heats up dramatically and then ends on a terrible yet awesome cliffhanger. The game entirely eschews its familiar trappings and boldly strikes out. Is the direction new? No, but game’s ability to handle what other games mostly ignore was a welcome change. Sadly, this change was hampered by the credits.
Trails in the Sky has left me terribly conflicted. I play video games for fun, and Trails offers tons of fun things to do. However, the battle system offers little-to-no rewards once the player is caught up with experience, leaving only data gathering, item collecting and the occasional boss fight to break the monotony of story. While the story is well executed and the very end extremely engaging, the bulk of the story is predictable and/or stereotypical. The localization is excellent and there’s a lot of good dialogue, but sometimes there is too much dialogue, and occasionally the game is plain insulting to the average intelligence. It all boils down to whether or not I had fun, and whether or not I can recommend the game.
For JRPG fans, Trails is a small grail, dipped in the waters of everlasting JRPG-ness. Drink deeply and be rejuvenated. For western RPG fans, you aren’t the audience. For people looking for entertainment, it’s a very good game with some pretty serious flaws that will eventually be overlooked. I did have fun playing through Trails in the Sky, and recommend the title to anyone looking for a lengthy RPG with lots to do. In terms of design, the game is lacking – but it doesn’t make the game unplayable, and the times I wound up enjoying myself were greater than the times I did not. I do look forward to the Second Chapter, which makes the game – something to be played as entertainment – a success.
Out of 10
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|The Verdict: Very Good|