Like Ys before it, The Legend of Heroes is one of Falcom’s flagship franchises with a very spotty western release pattern. But while Ys is mostly caught up, we’re still missing a whopping five LoH games (by my count) with a sixth coming to Japan in September. And of the ones we did get, the Gagharv trilogy had its numbering jumbled up and the original only exists on the hard-to-find Turbografx-CD platform. It’s a difficult series to be a fan of if you want to play them all, is what I’m getting at.
Enter The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. This is, in fact, the sixth entry in the franchise and is itself split among three separate games. It originally released on Japanese PC’s in 2004, but didn’t make its way west until 2011 with the PSP remake. Now, XSEED Games (with the help of Falcom) has seen fit to port the game back to the PC while including features that only existed in the PSP version. Confused yet?
So, to summarize: Trails in the Sky is ten year old port of a port JRPG that manages to be a better game both narratively and mechanically than titles that just released for the first time this year. Now, join me as I explain why.
The game focuses on the kingdom of Liberl, a mere decade following an invasion from the nearby Erebonian Empire. A man by the name of Cassius Bright is hailed as a hero for his part in bringing the confrontation to a close. He has since retired from the military and lives out his days with his daughter, Estelle. One day, he brings back a bloody and battered boy by the name of Joshua and adopts him as one of his own.
As the years go on, Cassius builds up a major presence in the Bracer Guild, a sort of police force as it were, that operates outside of the jurisdiction of the military for the purposes of aiding the general populace. His children follow suit, quickly earning the title of Junior Bracers and taking the initiative of following in his footsteps. However, after a seemingly routine mission, Cassius mysteriously vanishes. Not ones to sit still under such circumstances, Estelle and Joshua go on a quest to find him, only to find out much bigger conspiracies are at play.
First and foremost, the writing is excellent. Characters both big and small are rife with personality, and despite how winded JRPG dialogue tends to be, every word is appreciated and enjoyed here. It certainly helps that Estelle is an incredibly likable protagonist. Female main characters have been on the rise in the genre as of late, but unlike say Milla Maxwell or Lightning, she manages to be a badass without having to maintain a cold demeanor. Her co-star, Joshua, on the other hand, does maintain that kind of disposition, though Estelle’s cheery attitude manages to soften him up under a number of circumstances.
The entirety of the game is divided into a four main chapters, plus one prologue, with each one having its own story arc of sorts. In fact, each one plays out like an extended anime episode all leading up to one conclusion that ties all of the threads together. Well, sort of. The game does end on somewhat of a cliffhanger, with a resolution that won’t come until the release of the Second Chapter later this year, so it’s something to be aware of if you’d rather get your story fix in one long chunk.
And what a long story it is. Probably the main drawback for most folks is going to be what a slow burn the plot is, especially at the beginning. It takes about an hour or two just to get to the prologue, and that itself takes about eight hours. You really have to prepare yourself for the long haul, especially since the story doesn’t technically conclude even after a fifty hour adventure, with the next entry reportedly having even more text. That being said, once it has its hooks in you, you won’t even notice the hours fly by and it truly is one of the better written JRPG storylines.
The combat in Trails, another aspect of the game that you’ll be spending a great deal of time with, is classic turn-based affair with just enough tweaks to prevent it from getting stale. Your party of up to four characters are positioned on a map opposite that of the enemy monsters. Positioning plays a key role here, making it something of a strategy RPG-lite as it were. When you choose to attack an enemy, your characters automatically move within range of a strike, though they can be manually assigned to one of the squares on the invisible grid. In addition to standard weapon strikes, each character has access to a selection of Arts (magic that uses SP) and Crafts (skills that use CP). Depending on the ability used, they can target individual friends and foes, or affect an entire range; usually a large circle or straight line. As in other games of its ilk, you also have access to items or can run away (with a seemingly 100% success rate).
Another facet of combat that plays a large role in your success are turn bonuses. On certain turn numbers, there’s a random chance that a bonus will be applied, such as a guaranteed critical hit or HP recharge. Since the turn order is illustrated using a column of portraits on the side, the key is to manipulate the turn order for the best possible outcome, such as boosting character speed. When a party member’s CP charges up past 100, they can use what’s called an S-Craft that is like an ultimate attack of sorts. More importantly though, is that S-Crafts can be activated at any time, giving that character the next available turn. So if you know a critical hit bonus is coming, you can move your heavy hitter to the front of the line and unleash that S-Craft.
Aside from experience points, defeating monsters earns you minerals called Sepith. These Sepith serve two purposes. The first is that they can be traded in for money in case you need more spare cash than what Guild Quests pay out. The second, and perhaps most important, is that they’re used in the creation of Quartz to slot your characters with. These Quartz determine everything from stat bonuses, to what Arts they will have available, essentially acting as your customization tool.
Outside of the main story, there are a number of sidequests at your disposal that come in the form of Guild Quests. These can be gathered up at the Bracer’s Guild in each town and consist of everything from destroying a tough monster, to escort missions. Successful completion earns cash and BP (Bracer Points) that determine your overall rank and climbing said ranks earn you even more items. Be prepared for a lot of backtracking to complete them though, as you’ll be hiking all over the countryside to find your marks and there isn’t a fast travel option to be found. Not all quests come from the guild, as some are “hidden” and found by chance talking to certain residents. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the game’s biggest problem: the alarming number of missables.
Now missable items/quests/etc are nothing new in JRPG’s, but much like random battles, they are becoming less common. They’re not often talked about as a downside in games, since they’re a characteristic of the genre that was just kind of always there, but they can really hinder the experience. Especially if your gaming habits learn towards that of a completionist, as there’s that pressure to follow a walkthrough so as not to permanently miss out on a portion of the content. Trails in the Sky is designed in such a way that every quest has a small window in which it can be completed, and once that window has passed, it’s gone forever. Also, once you complete a chapter, the primary town of that chapter can never be returned to again. Fortunately, there is a new game plus mode that allows you carry over items and gear so you can make a second sweep. But again, with an adventure that averages around fifty hours, that’s a bit much to expect out of anyone.
Much like the Tales games, there’s a cooking system in place where players can craft food items that offer healing and stat boosts that are, in some cases, more beneficial and inexpensive compared to the standard ones you buy at shops. So long as Estelle has consumed the item once and has the proper ingredients, it can be reproduced at any time with no penalty. Much like the quests though, many of these recipes are easily missed during the first go round.
One aspect that kept me sane much of the game was the ability to skip a number of battles without fear of penalty later. The experience points doled out by enemies scales with your level, meaning once you reach a certain point, the payout no longer makes battles feasible. This means that there is never a need to grind for levels, as once you hit a point that the game thinks you should be at, you can avoid combat altogether. And since you can see enemies before engaging them, it’s fairly simple to just run around them if you don’t want to get into a fight. This is especially relieving since some battles can take awhile if facing a number of tough enemies.
Hardcore JRPG vets may want to be aware that the game, even factoring in some of the optional bosses, is quite easy. There were numerous occasions where I would run past nearly all enemies save for those required for quests and was still able to progress with relative ease. And if I did fail, the retry option and the ability to save anywhere kept me from losing any progress. This isn’t to say the game doesn’t challenge you. Some bosses, especially in the late game can really give you a run for your money if you don’t strategize well. Also, there are encounters that trigger with opening specific treasure chests that will try to overwhelm you with numbers. Alternate difficulties unlock with successful completion of the game, though I didn’t play with them long enough to see how much tougher they make things. Shame you can’t pick them right from the beginning.
Visually, the character models are very reminiscent of the chibi sprites from the Saturn-era Shining games. They’re cute caricatures at any rate, though most emotions are going to be conveyed via the portraits displayed next to the text boxes. Surprisingly though, during cutscenes involving battles among two combatants, the sprites move with such fluidity that their retro appearance work to the game’s benefit. The backgrounds are rendered in three dimensions and can be rotated at will. Due to the increased capabilities of the PC platform, the game supports higher resolutions, making it look sharper than ever.
They soundtrack is particularly well done, even if it’s not quite as memorable as that of the Ys titles. Each town has its own distinctive theme, plus there are multiple tunes used for combat. The vocal theme song for the game is very beautiful as well. There is no voiced dialogue for the game save for the battle quotes, which given the mountain of text this game has is no surprise. While they don’t say much, the English casting seems appropriate for each character at least.
There were a few things I found problematic with this particular version of the game. There was a glitch that caused the game to crash when talking to certain characters if high resolution text was turned on, among other things (though patches have been swift throughout my playthrough). There’s an item that’s given to you early in the game that acts as a bestiary that doesn’t seem to work yet either. Also, I had more difficulty with configuring the controller than I have with other Falcom games. I used an Xbox 360 controller, and it couldn’t seem to identify the left and right triggers, the right analog stick, or the directional pad. There are enough buttons left over that a comfortable setup is still possible, but it’s worth noting that you may need to spend some time tweaking it a bit.
Even though I originally purchased the Trails in the Sky‘s 2011 PSP release, I hesitated on playing it, telling myself I’d play the series in order (spoiler alert: I never did). Now that the Second Chapter has already been confirmed with subsequent releases hinging on its performance, there could be no further excuse. I had to find out what it is that fans knew all along: that this is a damn good JRPG. The writing is fantastic, full of humor and touching moments alike, and the combat stays interesting throughout the duration of the game. And considering the amount of content you get for the $20 price, it’s a no brainer. If you didn’t own a PSP or somehow missed out on this gem, take a moment to rectify that mistake. I did, and my only regret is I didn’t play it sooner.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is an updated port of the PSP game of the same name, which itself was an updated port of a Japanese PC game. The visuals have been enhanced with support for higher resolutions, plus the translation has been cleaned up in places to make it more consistent with its followup. The story is very engaging, even if it has something of a slow start, and battles have enough strategic nuance to them that they’re enjoyable throughout the entirety of the game. There are some features, such as the monster book that have yet to be patched in, but even in the state it’s in, I can’t recommend a purchase enough. Especially since doing so is the only way we’ll see more of this franchise stateside. Bring on the Second Chapter!