When I am reviewing a portable game, I always feel guilty playing any game other than my review subject when I’m on the bus. I hate the feeling that I’m shirking my responsibilities just to get a few extra hours of Monster Hunter in, but this is a rule I probably should have suspended in the case of Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. On two separate occasions, I missed my bus stop, because the game literally puts me to sleep every time. The game’s narrative is derivative and oppressively mundane, and does a tremendous job of hiding an otherwise enjoyable, if not terribly original, JRPG. Although Trails in the Sky bares the Legend of Heroes moniker, it is not directly related to the previous three games that have been released here in the states. Originally developed by Falcom in 2004 for the PC, Trails is actually the first game in the “Sora no Kitseki” trilogy. The series was ported to PSP in 2006, and now, 7 years after its inception and 5 years after the port, the game has washed up on American shores thanks to the same fine folks at XSeed that localized my beloved Ys games.
To say the game feels like a 7 year old game would be taking the easy way out – especially considering that it feels more a like 17 year old game. The characters have the same plasticine shine that epitomized early Sega Saturn games like Shining Force III and Johnny Bazookatone, but that particular style has not aged particularly well. No longer able to impress me with their ability to make sprites from poorly rendered claymation scans, the characters looked as stale as their dialog. The music was also drab and uninspired. One selection from the soundtrack will lull you from one area to the next, not changing until you return to the overworld, which really confuses the tone of each event and place. The environments were, on the other hand, fairly detailed and interesting to explore. Dungeons are varied and challenging, and while I tended to spend as little time as possible in them to avoid idle chitchat, the towns feel much more habitable than your average JRPG burg. The attention to detail really made it feel like my lifeless, generic avatar was in a real place.
If the idea of a generic plot involving a girl and her brother that join a group of elite mercenary adventurers and become intertwined with the destiny of an entire nation seems dull and played out to you, let me warn you: you have no idea what dull is until you’ve actually experienced the uniquely tedious narrative of Trails in the Sky. Thomas Jefferson once said “never use two words when one will do.” This would have been sound advice, as Trails tend to use thirty or forty. Through the vast majority of the game, I felt like I was being held captive by dialog boxes while my party chit-chatted about the most inane subjects in the most round-about way possible. A diatribe about soup could last for 20 minutes, and at no point during that mind-numbing, compulsory conversation will you extract any relevant information about the plot, the characters or the gameplay. Just soup. Of the 40-50 hours of gameplay, expect to spend 30 of them wasted on idle discussion about who-knows-what.
If you take out the exhausting story element, what’s left of the game is actually engaging and even fun, but again, not terribly original. At first glance, the battle system looks like a combination of tactical and turn based battle systems, but I soon realized that the fights were very similar to Grandia II. Player turns are displayed on a timeline, and different commands effect your placement in that timeline differently. A spell may take 2 turns to cast, but your turns may come faster, whereas a regular attack will execute immediately, but you will have to wait longer for your next opportunity. Each character can also charge up a powerful special attack, which can be used at any time to interrupt the flow of turns. Some turn-slots offer effects like healing or a guaranteed critical hits, so managing your place in the timeline can be critical. Although the lack of real-time decision-making removes the tension from similar battle systems, the sheer volume of strategic factors makes for some exciting battles.
The beginning of the 21st century was a tough time for JRPGs: the market was flooded and public interests were changing. It’s no surprise that Trails in the Sky never hit US shores. It would have simply been lost in a hurricane of similarly average titles released around the same time. It could be said that I’m judging this game too harshly, as it was made to compete with the games of 2004, not the titles of today, but even by those standards, this game was hopelessly formulaic and endlessly chatty. Although there are fewer contemporary competitors to choose from nowadays, I would recommend that readers look to their backlog before picking up the latest Legend of Heroes game. If you feel like you don’t already own at least 15 better JRPGs, or if you simply have to complete your collection, then I suppose there are worse ways to spend your money. Otherwise, I would just peruse the PlayStation Store for some cheap classics.