In past reviews, I have touched on a bit of the history of Nihon Falcom’s games. The big one, of course, is the Ys series. Out of Falcom’s repertoire, Ys is the most well known in the West. Its major boon to popularity here was its addicting easy-to-pick-up gameplay. Its ease of translation may have also helped, as more entries in the series were able to make it West quickly.
On the other end of the scale is Falcom’s other major series, The Legend of Heroes. While Ys has the focus on gameplay, The Legend of Heroes is all about story. America’s first taste of the series was a one-off release of Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes on the Turbografix-16, back when it wasn’t a series, but rather a spinoff of the series Dragon Slayer. Western releases would remain dormant for 13 years, until a PSP remake of the series’ fourth game was localized as The Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion. The series went through some Final Fantasy-style number changing, with the fourth gamereleased as the first (the numbering ignoring the previous Dragon Slayer release), the third gamereleased as the second, and the fifth game released as the third. Kind of confusing. The gamesreceived a rather middling response in the West.
In 2004, Falcom rolled out its big guns for the sixth game in the series, subtitled Sora no Kiseki in Japan. Developed for the PC, the story planned for this game became so large that Falcom had to split it into two games. The sheer amount of translation work necessary, along with lukewarm response to past entries, kept any Western publisher from even touching this game. That is, until XSeed Gamesthrew their hat into the ring.
After a famously rough translation and editing period taking place over three years and burning out multiple translators, the game, now subtitled Trails in the Sky, was released in 2011 for the PSP. The game became a cult classic here in the West, with players rabidly begging for a localization of the second part, now set for a release this year. Recently, XSeed released an updated version of the gameon PC through Steam.
The Trail of the Two
The two main characters of Trails in the Sky are Estelle and Joshua Bright. Estelle is the daughter of Cassius Bright, a powerful and world-renowned Bracer, while Joshua is her adopted brother who was brought home by Cassius under mysterious circumstances five years prior to the game’s main plot. Bracers are a kind of mercenary group, taking on various jobs for hire ranging from combat to mail delivery and just generally protecting the order of the world.
The game follows the journey of Estelle and Joshua to become bracers themselves, through their training and travels through the kingdom of Liberl to learn what it takes to be one. Unfortunately, it is impossible to go into any further details about the story without diving into spoilers. Trails in the Sky is an incredibly story-intensive game, and new twists can appear at the drop of a hat.
The meat of the game is in the story and conversations between characters. Every single NPC has a unique personality and things to say, lending life to the game’s setting. Part of the reason this gamewas a monster to translate was because of the NPC dialog, as every single one has new things to say after nearly every event in the game, no matter how small or insignificant. It can get to the point that it feels like they are actually living and experiencing the world alongside you, with all of them having differing opinions and outlooks on what is going on in their city or Liberl as a whole. It’s quite amazing, to be honest, and it can show how much love XSeed put into localizing the game.
One qualm many have with Trails is that there is so much world building that the pace of the game can slow to a crawl. Opinions of this differ from person to person depending on their tastes, but personally, this focus on world building is what helps make the game stand out from so many others. You can get attached to the world and its characters, making you care about what’s happening to them, rather than just going through the motions to defeat the next monster and move the game onward.
Trails in the Sky is a very traditional JRPG with a few unique bits in its combat. Combat takes place on a grid similar to strategy RPGs. Each character and enemy has a specific movement range, and planning out who to move where and attack what becomes more and more important as the game goes on.
Turn order is shown on the side of the battle screen, and along with that certain buffs that are given to characters on certain turns. While the buffs remain locked on certain turns, what character gets what turn can be manipulated with movement, attacks, and spells. Manipulation of the turn order quickly becomes a key strategy, as letting an enemy get buffs can quickly spell the end for your team. Alongside basic attacks and spells, each character has a unique power attack called an S-Craft. S-Crafts require a full bar of CP (earned through giving or taking damage) to pull off, and allow the character to instantly take the next turn.
Arts are not innately learned by the characters, but rather given to them through the Orbment system. Each character has an Orbment, a set of six “slots” connected by various patterns of lines. Players can buy or find Quartz, which when attached to the Orbment, give the characters certain Arts depending on the Quartz attached (in a way kind of like Materia from Final Fantasy VII). Each Quartz has a certain elemental rating taken from the game’s seven elements, and lining up Quartz to connect to each other via the lines in the Orbment can combine these element ratings and make more powerful Arts available.
Despite the long description of mechanics, the battle system in Trails is easy enough to pick up and learn. The arguably toughest part, using the Orbment system, is made easier by quick access to a list of Arts and their elemental combinations from a book in the item menu.
Outside of the battle system, the game offers a large number of sidequests ranging from killing monsters to finding lost cats. Each quest has a certain time limit to complete it (based on progression of the main story), and completion earns “Bracer Points,” which gives you a higher bracer rank with the more you collect. As of this game, the points are nothing more than symbolic, showing Estelle’s and Joshua’s climb through the ranks to become full Bracers, although each promotion also provides a new item to use. Sidequests make up a sizable chunk of the game, and skipping out on them can leave your party quite underprepared for the endgame.
The Kingdom and its Sights
With the English PC release of Trails, XSeed has fused together the best parts of the game’s original PC release and the updated PSP version. Support for HD resolution up to 1080p, unavailable in the original release, has been added. XSeed also added better resolution fonts to make the text (the biggest part of the game) more easily readable at these higher resolutions. Unfortunately, this caused great strife upon the game’s release, with numerous glitches and crashes occurring. While XSeed has been working non-stop to fix these issues, sometimes releasing multiple patches a day, a few issues still exists when playing in high resolution at the time of writing.
For a game originally released ten years ago, the graphics are quite fluid and detailed. Even little things like road signs have their text printed directly on them and are perfectly readable, rather than having to click on them to get a text box saying what’s on the sign like in many other games. In my multiple playthroughs of the game, on both PSP and PC, I have yet to notice many character models blatantly copied across the many NPCs. Aside from generics like soldiers, all of the townspeople and such look to have unique models.
Graphics during battle never get too flashy, and they use the same character models and styles as the main world. The camera mainly stays at one angle during battle, although it will zoom and pan while performing certain Arts and S-Crafts. The occasional zoom does cause characters to get pixelated when shown too close up.
In my personal experience with the game, I did have some issues with stuttered scrolling if I had any other programs open in the background. It seems odd that a game this old would have trouble running on a fairly powerful PC. Sure, it’s easily fixed by closing other windows before playing, but it still kind of irks me.
Can I just say “Falcom” and be done with this section? Same as in the Ys games, the soundtrack is done by their in-house band Falcom Sound Team JDK. While the Ys soundtracks were all about driving power metal to get the blood pumping, Trails’ soundtrack is more on the lighter and relaxing side. For the most part, this game is about world building and exploration, and it is all handled in a very laid-back style. The music gets this point across perfectly, even down to the jazzy upbeat main battle theme.
That’s not to say everything in this game is calm. The darker scenes and the major battles all have appropriate music to back them as well. However, the overall feel of the soundtrack rarely leaves its “upbeat” style. Compared to the band’s other work though, I have to reluctantly admit that the Trailssoundtrack is not one of their strongest. It’s not very often that I will pull up the soundtrack to listen to on its own, unlike many of the Ys tracks.
Trails also features some minimal English voice acting. Characters have various calls and quips they’ll shout out during battle, along with some post battle phrases depending on who lands the final blow. The lines are read well and the acting decently matches the characters. Unusually, XSeed went all out and got some well-known voice actors (Johnny Yong Bosch, anyone?) to read these few lines. An unnecessary, but nice, touch.
Memories of War
I have to admit, this game is hard for me to look at critically, as it is one of my favorite games of all time. Take that as you will, but despite some flaws (especially from the rough recent PC release), the game overall is an amazing experience. The story is incredibly well written and, despite ending on a massive cliffhanger, resolves just about every loose end started in this game. The gameplay is simple yet addicting, but there are deeper aspects to it should you choose to go more in-depth, and you probably will have to for the endgame battles. The game also allows you to save wherever you want, and autosaves incredibly often, making this a great pick-up-and-play-for-a-bit kind of game.
Some players will be incredibly put off by the games slow pace, but for those who give it a chance, you’ll find what I believe to be one of the best stories in video games of recent memory. Even if you have to seek it out on PSP, it is most definitely a game worth your time.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy purchased by reviewer for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.