April 15, 2011
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky stars Estelle Bright, your typical tomboy heroine who enjoys a good fight and isn't afraid to get dirty - and just so happens to have an extreme fetish for sneakers. Alongside Estelle is her adopted brother Joshua, who is the polar opposite of his sister, being the calm and rational one who usually stops Estelle from barging into situations recklessly. Early in the game, players find out that Estelle's dad, Cassius, brought him home one night out of the blue and ever since then the two have grown up together as siblings. Both siblings have been in training to become Bracers, a group of freelancers who act as a quasi-police force taking on people's requests, ranging from gathering items to slaying monsters. After becoming junior Bracers early on in the game, the duo find out they need to visit each of the branches laid amidst the kingdom to become fully-fledged bracers, thus begins their journey and the premise is set for the game's storyline.
While this sounds quite dull initially, Trails does a great job of building up the storyline by using an episodic chapter progression system that generally breaks up each of the game's chapters. As the story progresses, key plot points and twists begin to unravel, switching up the game from your typical easygoing adventure to an entangled conspiracy plot that eventually envelops the entire kingdom. Unlike most RPGs that tend to either undergo this type of progression too early or too late in the game, creating an awkward shift, Trails finds a very happy medium in its implementation and should really be commended for doing so. And considering the game will take most players at least 40 hours to complete, this is very welcome, indeed.
Helping the excellent story progression is the game's character development. Unlike the Ys series, Trails has a much more lighthearted tone to its story and characters. This is generally shown through the interactions with each character, such as when Estelle and Joshua bicker and bond with one another as any normal siblings would. The supporting characters and NPCs carry on this feeling with some very comical and humorous banter that doesn't feel at all forced. However, Trails does tend to put more of the exposition's focus on the main characters throughout the game, which undervalues the development of the game's supporting characters. While there is a fair bit of character interactivity to go around for all of the characters, one tends to get the feeling that more could have been done in this department.
This isn't as much of an issue for the game's NPCs, who are incredibly fleshed out for an RPG and is easily the best I've seen in a long time. XSEED was able to give each of them their own unique personality which changes as players progress through the game. Unlike most RPGs where the NPCs generally don't reveal anything of importance, Trails has their NPCs occasionally reveal more information about the current events taking place in the story or letting players know what off-the-beaten-path areas they might want to investigate, as Trails has quite a number of "secret" events that aren't revealed to the player unless they stumble upon them. Some NPCs that you see in one town will appear later in another and will reflect on the player's past actions, so if players completed a quest earlier in the game, an NPC might reference that when they talk to them later on. Trails also has quite an ingenious system in place when it comes to the game's treasure chests, each of which have their own unique dialogue when players try looking into the chests after pillaging their items. These remarks range from witty and sarcastic comments to numerous throwbacks to older RPGs, even going as far back as Zelda II. All in all, Trails gives the player the incentive to talk to everyone at least once, helping to make the game seem more life-like than other RPGs on the market.
While Trails excels in the story department, the gameplay department is a slightly different story. Trails's combat system is a standard turn-based system that takes place on a large grid. Each character has their own unique attack and movement range. If the character is too far away from the enemy they will get as close as they can, otherwise they will land their attack. To determine the turn order, Trails uses a system similar to Final Fantasy X where the characters and enemies take turns attacking each other. Depending on the actions taken each round, the turn order can be modified, which helps due to the game's turn bonus system, which gives bonuses such as HP healing and the ability to land a critical attack. Because both the characters and enemies can utilize this system, it becomes important for players to keep a keen eye on the order at all times.
So what can you do besides normal attacks, you might ask? In addition to normal attacks, Trails has a magic and crafting system. Magic works like as you would expect, where you spend magic points to deal an attack from afar, which in Trails allows you to attack from where you are standing without having to move. Crafting uses up CP (crafting points), which are gained by landing and receiving attacks. These range from simple stat boosts (either single or party-based, depending on the character) to more powerful short and long-range attacks. CP is also utilized in the game's S-Break system, which allows players to spend all of their currently amassed points to deal one massive attack on an enemy and also ignores the current turn order, which becomes paramount in the game's boss battles and more difficult enemies.
Trails also doesn't assign spells based on the character's respective class, instead allowing players to equip quartz gems, which are available in a variety of different elements. Each character has six available slots (although some of them are initially locked), but some of the slots for particular characters require a specific element, so it's impossible to let each character have access to the same skills. This does tend to specialize them somewhat, but each character does have access to the same core set of spells so it's not like only one character can be designated as the party healer.
As said before, Trails's world has groups of people called Bracers who take on quests from the townspeople. Due to the group's nature, this line of work involves backtracking - and lots of it. Many of the requests are timed, so completionists will have to spend time backtracking through various areas to complete each quest. And here in lies the problem. Outside of the dungeons, Trails includes a detailed mini-map that let players know where to go. However, this map does not update itself to indicate where the requester is located, forcing players to talk to everyone until they come across the person by chance. And if said request requires trekking into a dungeon, the mini-map goes away entirely, which becomes a problem because Trails' dungeons are very labyrinth-like and will make you lose you bearings unless you have a keen memory. There are no shortcuts either, so if you accidentally wander in the wrong direction, you will have to backtrack all the way out again. These issues are a tragedy, because the story events and character interaction that tie into these side quests are quite interesting and really help to flesh out the game's narrative.
As Ys fans already know, Falcom is known for their soundtracks. However, unlike Ys's progressive rock theme, Trails utilizes a much more airy and light theme, fitting the overall story theme explained earlier. Overall many of the tracks aren't that memorable, but do fit in well with their respective areas in the game, with the most memorable themes coming into play near the game's finale. Admittedly, the music isn't meant to be memorable as much as it's meant to fit in with where it occurs during the game, it's all very contextual. This isn't a bad thing, but after playing numerous games in the Ys series, fans likely expect a bit more out of Falcom's sound team. As for the graphics, the visuals are pretty decent for a game that originally came out in 2006 but most certainly have lost some of their luster compared with the handheld RPGs that have came out since then.
Unlike most current JRPGs that favor gameplay over story, Trails in the Sky eschews that notion and hearkens back to the "golden" era of RPGs that put more emphasis on the development of the plot and its characters. It's been a while since so much effort was put into properly fleshing out the main and side characters in this genre and XSEED and Falcom should be commended for that. For old-school fans who love exposition in their RPGs, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is an instant purchase. For everyone else, Trails's focus on story over gameplay might not be your cup of tea, but if you can overlook that fact then there's one lengthy and rewarding game waiting for you.Editor's Choice