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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED, Marvelous USA, Inc.
Release date: July 29th, 2014
Price: $19.99 via Steam
Language(s): English text and voiceover