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Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero

27 Sep 2022

You know, I could kick off this review by talking about the history of the Trails series, or its developer Falcom, or how long fans of the series have been waiting for the opportunity to play the game we are discussing here today (previous fan translation notwithstanding).

However, I’m pretty confident that if you’re here reading this, you already know all of that info. The history of Trails series localization is already famous amongst JRPG fans and many general gamers as well. Hell, we’ve already opened reviews with series/Falcom history. Three times, in fact.

So we’ll keep it short. Trails from Zero is a long-awaited release in the Legend of Heroes series, the beginning of the second main arc of the franchise, and often referred to amongst the fandom as “the best one” or “their favorite.” After finally getting the chance to dive in myself…I am wont to agree with the fans.

Developed by Falcom and published by NIS America, The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero was released on September 27th, 2022, for PC, PlayStation 4, and Switch. The PC version was played for this review.

A Tale of One City

Crossbell – a city-state on the continent of Zemuria. Its location puts it directly in between two of the continent’s largest superpowers: the Erebonian Empire and the Republic of Calvard. This comes with certain advantages. After becoming independent, Crossbell began to rapidly develop as a center of trade between the two superpowers, as well as other nearby countries.

On the other hand, though, this location and sudden growth also comes with political strife. Both Erebonia and Calvard wish to control Crossbell, and are making their influences known in the government. Outside influences are also taking advantage of this internal strife to further their own interests.

It’s this Crossbell that Lloyd Bannings returns to after three years away training to become a detective. Following in his brother’s footsteps, he has accepted a job with the Crossbell Police Department. His plans quickly go awry, though, when he finds out his assignment: to become the leader of the new “Special Support Section,” a group of random and mostly untrained people who perform odd jobs to help restore the reputation of the Crossbell Police.

The Trails series is rather infamous for having slow burn stories, and while I wouldn’t say Zero completely breaks that mold, it definitely feels like it starts quicker than either Sky FC or Cold Steel. I attribute this mostly to the game’s core cast of characters, the Special Support Section.

It’s a tight group of characters (only four) that are brought together right at the opening of the game, and they stick together forming your core party throughout. We don’t get an overly-large cast developed slowly a la Cold Steel, nor a group that’s constantly shuffling members in and out a la Sky – here’s the cast, you’re with them throughout the game, and you get to see them develop from beginning to end. Immediately jumping in to the main cast makes Zero feel like it launches out of the gate much faster than other “arc starter” Trails games.

Tighter focus really is the name of the game in general here in Zero. Unlike the country- or nearly half-continent-spanning romps of other Trails games, Zero‘s focus is entirely on the city of Crossbell and its surroundings. And while the limited scope may sound initially disappointing to those coming from other series entries, it’s a huge boon to Zero‘s writing.

Focusing entirely on one city, Falcom can really dive deep into the details of it. Citizen’s thoughts on its rapid expansion. The lives of people in the core city versus those living in the outlying farming and mountain towns. How the power struggle of the nations surrounding them affect daily life. All of this is just plain interesting to read, and gives Crossbell vastly more identity than any other town or city in any of the other Trails games I’ve played through.

Now for the million dollar question: can newcomers to the famously dense Trails series start with Zero? After playing through, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible…but it isn’t quite ideal. While Cold Steel‘s story isolated itself from past games to create a new jumping-in point (with just a few references sprinkled in here and there), Zero has many more callbacks to the Sky games. From referencing plot points with numerous characters talking about “the recent event” in Liberl to characters from Sky straight up making appearances, there’s quite a bit here that would be lost on those just jumping into the franchise with Zero.

If you’ve never played a Trails game but are really interested in Zero, I wouldn’t try and stop you from jumping in here. However, I would admit that it’s not the most ideal entry to start with.

Polish to a Shine

If you have played any of the Sky games, the combat gameplay here in Zero will be immediately familiar to you. Completely turn based, you take control of four characters on a grid for each battle. You can attack if in range, move if not (giving the character that simply moved their next turn faster), spend CP on one of your character’s Craft attacks, or cast magic in the form of Arts (which requires time to cast).

Really, there isn’t much new here compared to Sky SC…and I don’t take issue with it. It’s still a game of manipulating turn orders to your best advantage and setting up the field to use your attacks at their most efficient. I absolutely loved the combat in Sky SC, and felt immediately at home here in Zero.

If anything, Zero adds in a couple of options that can make battles more efficient. The first is one of the new bonuses that can be applied to a turn: Team Rush. If you can line up a Team Rush with one of your character’s turns, you can perform a field-wide massive attack with all four characters, often clearing trash mobs immediately. If you stun a random enemy on the field and go into the fight with full advantage, there’s a very good chance you’ll have quick access to a Team Rush, ending said battle in seconds. For the little bits of grinding you may need to do, landing these Team Rushes makes things quicker.

The other option is a game-wide one, and one of my favorite additions to the JRPG genre in recent years: toggleable high speed mode. At the press of a button, the entire game goes into overdrive. Not only does it make battles faster, zipping right through animations, but it makes the often slow bits of travelling through the world absolutely fly by. Really, any time I wasn’t in important dialogue or major fights, I always had my hand on the high-speed button ready to go.

Zero also features the series staple Orbment system, and the variant here feels extremely similar to Sky SC. Each character’s Orbment has various lines that your Materia-like Quartz can slot into, giving said character access to stat buffs and Arts. Each Quartz has elemental attributes (out of a possible seven elements), and creating lines of attributes unlock access to more powerful Arts. Also, like Sky SC, you can upgrade slots in each Orbment to be able to use stronger Quartz.

What I did notice is that developing each character’s Orbment seems much more efficient here in Zero. Like every other game, you have to spend “Sepith” currency to unlock and upgrade slots in each Orbment, naturally limiting development so you don’t get too crazy powerful immediately. Here in Zero, I had every character’s Orbment completely open, with a couple upgraded slots, by the midpoint of Chapter 2. A few of my characters already had access to higher end Arts, some that they didn’t even have enough max EP to even use.

Now, this doesn’t seem like an oversight by Falcom. Mostly because early Chapter 2 has a sidequest that requires the use of an Art that requires a fairly open Orbment to get access to. If anything, I appreciate the ability to open up every Orbment so quickly, giving me options to experiment with character builds relatively early in the game.

Of course, all of the above only matters when you’re in battle…and battles can often be few and far between in Zero. Trails is a famously verbose series, and the same holds true here, with often lengthy periods of dialogue between any exploration or battle. But if you’re familiar with the series, this is something you’re likely already expecting.

Refined in Age

If you’re not familiar with Trails, or your only experience is with Cold Steel, you might be a bit confused by the graphical presentation of this 2022 game release. Of course it’s generally known that Zero is an older game (originally released in 2010) that we’ve been waiting for for a long time. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that this was also originally a PSP game…and Falcom hasn’t ever really been known for cutting edge graphics.

However, the work that went into upscaling and cleaning up the graphics and textures for this release is honestly impressive. All of the text on buildings and storefronts is perfectly readable. City textures are crisp and clear. Even the natural vistas you’ll wander by during the game (which the camera will often pan to show off) can be striking, even considering the 2010 PSP game base this release originates from.

Also notable is the extensive voice acting here in Zero. While it is exclusively in Japanese, the sheer amount of it and the quality of it is just plain impressive. Knowing how dense these games are with dialog, I was expecting the voice acting during the opening hours to slowly fade out, perhaps only coming back during major plot points.

While the game isn’t 100% voiced (which would be a frankly absurd undertaking), it’s exceedingly rare for a mainline story moment in this game to not feature voice acting. And while I do read faster than the voices can play, having those performances there definitely help to sell the more emotional moments.

No Life Like City Life

Like many, I’ve been waiting for Trails from Zero for years. After falling off hard from Cold Steel due to its insistence of returning to a school setting multiple times, I had high hopes Zero would return the magic of the Trails games I felt from the Sky arc.

And not only did it do that, but it went even beyond my expectations. With a tighter focus in both setting and cast, a story that’s quicker to take off, and the refinements to a battle system I already enjoyed, the game in my hands right now may be on its way to my game of the year.

Just like the rest of the franchise, Trails from Zero won’t be for everyone. While it starts up faster than other entries in the series, it’s still a slow burn compared to most other games. There’s also just such a ridiculous amount of dialog, so reading-averse gamers aren’t going to find much to enjoy here.

But for JRPG fans, especially those like myself who fell in love with the Sky games, Trails from Zero is an absolute must play. Seriously, just flat out: go play it.

~ Final Score: 10/10 ~

Review copy provided by NIS America for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.