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The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Review

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Often built upon timeworn play mechanics and reliant on loquacious expositional elements to tell a story, the Japanese role-playing game can be a particularly contentious genre. But disparagers habitually neglect the JRPG’s emotional element. Very few types of games are as adept at cultivating a feeling of pathos in players. Originally released on overseas PCs in 2004 before being brought stateside for a 2011 PSP-based release, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky might just be one of role-playing’s most disputative entries.

The reason? Trails in the Sky is unabashedly verbose, with the original script purportedly containing over 1.5 million Japanese characters- which to put things in perspective, is about three times the size of the typical RPG. It’s little wonder than a number of U.S.-based publishers passed on the title, before XSEED undertook the massive localization effort. But devote a few hours to the game and you’ll understand developer Falcom as well as XSEED’s provocation; Trails in the Sky aims to construct the type of complex, realistic worlds that are typically limited to literary works.

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For some, this garrulousness will be a major impediment to enjoyment. While a journey across a vast domain is one of the hallmarks of the Legends franchise, here every character, and even as shopkeeper speaks in protracted detail. Exhibiting a perceptive localization, conversations provide more than just cursory character development and expositionary details. Inductive-minded players can occasionally read between the lines, learning about a character’s upbringing due to their linguistic formality or even a curious conversational trait.

More poignantly, dialog helps to make characters feel like living entities. On multiple occasions, you’ll converse with lesser characters- and then when speaking years later, find an implied developmental arc. Just one example can be found when players interact with the mayor of Rolent’s maid, Lita. When players first encounter the NPC, it’s evident that she has a close, almost kindred relationship with the mayor and his wife. Later, players might find the character in an adjacent church, selflessly praying for the welfare of the kindhearted couple. Pleasingly, these type of incidents are quite common in Trails in the Sky, transforming generic townsfolk into convincing personalities that appear to follow their own determinations and ambitions.

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Naturally, the ten year old script shows its age at times. Occasionally, conversations are inexplicably seeped in the mundane, goading gamers toward using a button to fast-forward through the tedious interchange. Other times, Trails in the Sky can be woefully redundant, such as when characters meet one of the title’s leads, and many have to remark on her tomboyish/tsundere qualities. But given the size and overall quality of Trails script, these minor transgressions are largely forgivable.

Redemption from these minor conversational elements can also be found in the game’s storyline, which echoes the innocent charms of yesteryear’s role-playing titles. The game’s prologue introduces players the impulsive but good-natured Estelle Bright on the night her father returns from an adventure carrying a wounded boy. Following a jump cut five years forward, we find Estelle and her adoptive brother, Joshua, have become close- with the duo determined to become Bracers like their father. Much of Trails in the Sky’s early hours center around their vocational ambition, as the pair attempts to maintain harmony through the accomplishment of small undertakings and the occasional creature killing assignment. While these endeavors are certainly engaging, the game’s plotline intensifies greatly, as the the Brights’ duties extend to protecting the entire realm. What’s especially endearing about the game is the rapport and gentle tension between the ersatz siblings, with each perceiving and handing events in their own distinctive way.

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Like many role-playing games, a generous assortment of side-quests complement the tasks necessitated by the main plotline. Pleasingly, Trails in the Sky tracks these assignments within an in-game notebook, ensuring that gamers will rarely wonder what they’re next course of action should be. But there are a few archaic quirks with the system. Backtracking without the help of any kind of fast-travel system can be a deterrent for players who normally like to tackle every potential commission. A bit more frustrating is the vague time limit placed on these undertakings; once you’ve left a hamlet, the list of possible side-quests for that area instantly disappears.

Given the age of the original game, one might fear that the battle mechanic might be a bit musty. Fortunately, the nuanced and forgiving combat components hold up quite well. While the use of battle order bar to determine turn order is fairly standard in the genre, Trails attaches a passive bonus system, which awards extras like light healing, an elevated change for a critical hit, or at attack boost- adding an additional element of strategic depth. Agreeably, the grid-based conflicts fuse movement and attack elements- allowing the quartet of party members to assault foes in a highlighted area, or simply toward the enemy if the opponent is out of attack range. While a seemly minor tweak, the addition helps to boost the speed of the turn-based encounters.

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Flexibility is furthered by the Arts system, which allows for ranged magic attacks, but demands an entire turn to execute. Or party members can employ the Craft system which give access to character-specific abilities, and if they bank enough point by inflicting and enduring damage, they can utilize a powerful S-craft strike, which can circumvent the standard turn order. Collectively, the flexibility of Trails in the Sky’s combat systems allow for a number of tactic approaches, making combat feel well-rounded and consistently fresh. Mercifully, a lost battle doesn’t usher players directly to the title screen, with the game extending the opportunity to retry the encounter against an assuaged antagonist.

Interesting, a next to nil experience payoff against lesser enemies removes the feasibility of grinding from Trails’ journey. Instead advantage can be found in the orbments system- where magic crystals allow access to Arts which can turn the tide of battle. Merely dropping the orbs into slots won’t be enough to allow players to harness their raw potential- many of the game’s most formidable abilities are only accessible once the crystals are positioned next to others, creating a synergistic effect. While the mechanic can seem a bit confusing at first, players that stick with it will be significantly rewarded.

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Considering the competency of Falcom/XSEEDs past Windows-based titles, Trails in the Sky performance on PC is a bit disappointing. Visually, the game’s modernized texture work and high framerate are to be commended. While the isometric perspective can’t complete with most contemporary titles, the aesthetic conveys a sense of nostalgic charm. Woefully, the upgraded texture work couldn’t be enjoyed in full-screen glory, running Trails in non-windowed mode corrupted every cinematic sequence. While players can use a controller or mouse and keyboard combo to play the game, neither input method feels natural, with button mappings on both schemes defaulting to unnatural defaults. Fortunately, most of these awkward bindings can be remapped, save for the tied talk/cancel functions for mouse users.

Recalling the captivating qualities of title such as Grandia and Lunar, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky evokes the virtue and charm of yesteryear’s epic role-plying adventures. The fundamental difference with Trails is the game’s attempt to bring its cast of characters to life through the use of an enormous conversational script. Obviously, the design decision won’t appeal to players to quickly tire of expositional elements, but for those looking for a grand adventure, especially on PC, The Legend of Heroes is peerless.

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The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
Platform: PC
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED, Marvelous USA, Inc.
Release date: July 29th, 2014
Price: $19.99 via Steam
Language(s): English text and voiceover
Often built upon timeworn play mechanics and reliant on loquacious expositional elements to tell a story, the Japanese role-playing game can be a particularly contentious genre. But disparagers habitually neglect the JRPG’s emotional element. Very few types of games are as adept at cultivating a feeling of pathos in players. Originally released on overseas PCs in 2004 before being brought stateside for a 2011 PSP-based release, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky might just be one of role-playing’s most disputative entries. The reason? Trails in the Sky is unabashedly verbose, with the original script purportedly containing over 1.5…

Review Overview

Gameplay - 90%
Story - 85%
Aesthetics - 75%
Content - 85%
Accessibility - 75%

82%

Good

Summary : Players with the patience to read through longwinded conversational elements will be properly rewarded by The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky sweeping storyline, stirring character development and engaging combat.

User Rating: 4.23 ( 3 votes)

About Robert Allen

With over 35 years of gaming experience, Robert ‘DesertEagle’ Allen is Tech-Gaming’s resident worrier/warrior who spends his days teaching at three colleges and his nights devoted to JRPGs.

32 comments

  1. Thanks for the review! I was worried that no one was going to cover this.

    Metacritic has ZERO reviews for the game.

    So is this recommended over the PSP version?

  2. I hope you do an interview with the team that’s localizing SC.

    Bought it for PSP but never finished it (not the dialog, but life..). This time I will see those credits roll.

  3. Good review but you failed to mention how great that soundtrack is. Excellent main theme as well as many other really great, memorable tracks.

  4. I was waiting for a review before purchase and not I got burned. It was $16.99 and now it’s $19.99.

    Next time write quicker, Robert!

  5. Rpgs are like good girlfriends. They should know when to stop talking and just look pretty.

  6. No second opinion for the game? That would have been great!

  7. Thanks for the review, Robert. First one I’ve seen for the PC version. Hopefully, we’ll get a patch to play in full-screen.

  8. Really good review. You covered all the things I wanted to hear about. Always heard TITS was long-winded, but never heard a reason as to why.

    • Please tell me that acronym wasn’t accidental.

      Back of the box quote should say, “I love TITS, I played for hours and still wanted to come back for more.” – Robert Allen, Tech-Gaming

  9. Pretty good review. I wonder if XSEED will ever make their money back on this one.

    At first, I though it had 1.5 million game characters. That would be a hell of a lot of NPCs.

  10. Can someone tell me IF and HOW this plays on the Vita? I’d prefer to play this on the go like most of my role-playing games.

  11. I’m going to pop some corn and wait for SeanNOLA’s comments. hehe.

  12. I’d love to see the original trilogy treated right, re-localized, and released in the proper order.

  13. Good review. If you don’t mind me saying I think I could just just as well. I’m a writer that’s played JRPGs for over 10 years and I’d like to write for you. What’s the best way to contact you?

  14. Wow, those screens look a lot better that the PSP game. Increase in resolution makes a big difference.

  15. Actually I’m not really a fan of RPGs where you can’t grind to adjust the difficulty. But I especially hate games that force you to grind to pad the length of playtime.

  16. Hmm, it’s the exact same price as the PSP version. I thought they’d lower the price.

  17. So basically it’s fun– if you like old rpgs and a lot of dialog.

  18. What the best (legal) way to get my hands on the soundtrack?

  19. I’d love to play something like this on tablet? Does anyone know if any Windows tablets could handle this?

    • Okay, so that’s a complicated question. Short answer “sure it will, but the experience will be terrible.”
      Assuming you get a Windows tablet, and not a Windows RT tablet, it should run fine, BUT it won’t have touch controls. IF it uses mouse controls (which I don’t believe this does, but Robert can correct me if I’m wrong) the best you’ll get is mouse emulation, which is a pretty terrible experience.

      A lot of games that you’d think would be great on a touchscreen end up playing pretty terribly. You really need to think out gestures and design your game with touch in mind. Poorly designed touch interfaces can lead to a lot of wasted movement and the result is very sluggish, unresponsive gameplay.

      I’ve been working for a touchscreen manufacturer for 6 years now, and every once in a while, I’ll get a wild hair and try a bunch of games out. I have yet to play a game that was not built from-the-ground-up for a touchscreen that was enjoyable.

      TL;DR: It will run. It will not be fun.

      • Let me add my two cents.

        Like Robert said on a desktop thew controls aren’t great and fiddling with bindings only makes them a bit better.

        I played with with a touchpad/keyboard combo and it was playable, but not the way you would want to play this. Vita or PSP is the way to go.

        The other is font size. On my 8 inch tablet, it’s readable but expect eye strain. If you have a 10 or 11 inch one, things would probably be much better.

  20. Good review. I hope you tackle Akiba Trip! Thinking about buying it.