The Japanese RPG is a genre that doesn’t seem to stir strong feelings for most gamers nowadays. Which is weird because it is also a genre that stirs very strong nostalgia in nearly every long-time gamer. Most of us remember the first time we blew the dust out of our copy of Final Fantasy 3 and turned the Super Nintendo on, or even further back going to Dragon Warrior on the regular Nintendo, and remember it very fondly. Well, if you’re like many gamers and have begun to lose the shine on the Japanese RPG… I’m afraid the game I’m reviewing today is likely to rekindle that long lost romance.
Characters with Character
The main characters of this game are Estelle and Joshua. Estelle’s father is a world-renowned hero named Cassius Bright who was in the military for a long time and was responsible for the outcome of the war but retired from the military when his wife was killed near the end of the war. He went and joined the Bracers and achieved renown among their ranks as well – being granted a rank that is only held by 3 other people in the entire organization and is only granted for solving a ‘national crisis’. Now, Estelle knows nothing of all of his achievements – only being aware that he’s a bracer. Joshua, her adopted brother, is a quiet and logical fellow who quite obviously has more than brotherly feelings for Estelle – despite her being completely oblivious to it. The banter between the two of them feels very natural.
Time to move onto the most important statement in this section: This game is full of people. I know that sounds like a pretty empty line, but take a second and re-read it and keep in mind that I mean it completely. The world of ‘Trails in the Sky’ is full of people. People who are more than just a way to get a quest to recover a phial from a dungeon. People who are more than just a way to find out which monster has the key you need to progress. Actual people. With personalities, histories, and lives. There is not a single person in this world who is a ‘throw away’. From the jerk of a general who hates the organization you’re a part of to the first villains you run into to the random archaeologist you just happen to keep running into. Each one of them has more to them than meets the eye. And that’s just the NPCs. The party members you get over the course of the game are all people too. From the absolutely adorable Tita to the obnoxious and mysterious Olivier to the refined and charming Kloe. And the relationships that form between characters are both charming and endearing.
This game has some of the best and most thorough character writing I’ve seen in almost any game, and that’s unusual for a JRPG, a genre known for having “Inn-keeper” or “Blonde-haired Guard”. But it’s true, this game makes every character feel both important and interesting. And some of these characters have stories that build over the course of the game, and if you talk to them from one mission to the next, they’ll change their dialog, move to different places, and sometimes even have some really interesting things happen with them. It helps to build that feeling that these people actually matter… and it’s really cool – something that’s been missing from too many games. Now, I can see some people being overwhelmed by the amount of conversation that happens in the game, and some may be turned off by that. But in my opinion, an rpg doesn’t need to be all combat to be effective – and while I don’t recommend that all rpgs move to a more heavy focus on this, it is very refreshing to see some do so.
A Story About a Boy and a Girl
The story really comes down to Estelle and Joshua finding their places within this world. The game opens with Estelle as an 11 year old girl – already stubborn and headstrong – being presented with the ‘present’ of Joshua – her new adopted brother. Yep, that’s the game’s opening. It then fast forwards 5 years to the two of them at 16 going out to join the Bracers and then the story progresses from there in a slightly predictable, but incredibly well written and exciting way. But despite the core story being a bit predictable, I promise you that some things will completely throw you for a loop throughout the game, and even though it is a bit predictable you will still enjoy this charming and amazing story. At the start, Cassius is called away on ‘urgent bracer business’ and then, when the airship he’s on disappears – Estelle and Joshua take it upon themselves to search for him. This search gives a perfect excuse for you to explore the world and ends up leading to the discovery of the core story of the game.
While this is a huge 50+ hour story, it really does end up feeling like a series of very personal, very connected character driven stories as a part of the overall story. The game contains a grand-daughters quest to rescue her kidnapped grandfather, a martial arts tournament, a play with a rather interesting twist, the uncovering of a political conspiracy, and much more. Each one of these stories is crafted with heart and charm and they all link together very well to build the complete game’s story.
Your interactions with all of the story will also give you a bigger understanding of the characters themselves, and Estelle’s father. Everyone seems to know him, and their knowledge of him colours the way they react to her in different ways based off of how they know him. The game uses this as a method to help enrich the character interactions as well as the story and history of the world.
But this isn’t a standalone game – it’s the first in a trilogy, and it also does that really well, leaving you hanging with your mouth agape and a tear in your eye as the game’s ending finishes and you realize ‘you’re ending it THERE?’ There is not a doubt in my mind that anyone who plays this game through the end will both hate and love this game’s creators. It is an absolutely perfect ending for the first game in a trilogy, leaving you with resolution to the game’s events but also an incredible sense of cliffhanger with something huge going on that is just looming on the horizon. After I finished this game I just sat there staring at my PSP for a good 3-4 minutes thinking ‘how dare you do this to me?’
Right Down to the Smallest Detail
Localization has been the bane of so many Japanese games that cross over to these shores. It’s a hard task to take a game designed for one culture with its own set of intricacies, nuances, inside jokes, pop culture references, and linguistic ‘tricks’ and convert it so that every aspect of the game works for a completely different culture. And you won’t find two cultures with a bigger gap than Japan and North America, if I’m to be completely honest. So I absolutely understand why companies so often get it wrong and I’m very forgiving of games that have been poorly localized because of that understanding. Then I play a game like Trails in the Sky and I become so disappointed with those other games because everything about the localization of this game is handled beautifully. Absolute congratulations need to be given to XSeed for this one. They’ve done an unbelievable job on it and they clearly understand that there’s more to localization than just translation. The game doesn’t make you feel like an outsider if you aren’t familiar with Japanese culture, and that’s the work of the localization teem at XSeed.
The game’s attention to detail extends beyond localization however… with some of the most interesting little touches to be found. One of my favourite small touches in this game is the fact that if you go back to a treasure chest you’ve already opened, each treasure chest – yes every single one – has its own written ‘note’ left behind for you to read. These range from funny like “I feel empty inside” to very snarky like “What did you expect to find here?”. It’s such a small thing, but it really makes you feel the love put into this game.
The Life of a Bracer
As mentioned above, you’re a bracer in this game – a member of an organization sworn to help people. You are actually just a ‘Junior Bracer’ which basically means you’re a newbie. You’ll end up teaming with a variety of people for a wide variety of missions. These missions aren’t all just combat either. There’re some interesting investigative quests where you have to gather evidence and make a deduction based upon it as well as some more basic fetch quests where you just have to retrieve some item for someone. The quests really do vary, and many of them are completely optional so if you don’t like the sound of one – great, just don’t do it. The quests reward you with money as well as ‘points’ towards your rank among the bracers. When ranking up you’ll gain special bonuses that will often be unique and very helpful. I strongly recommend doing all the quests for two reasons. First, it helps you level up. Second, and more importantly, it helps to build the feel of the world, the characters’ stories, and it helps you to really feel like you’re a bracer which adds a lot to the experience.
A Sepith For Your Thoughts
The game features two different types of currency. The first is just a typical currency that you earn for doing quests and selling stuff. This one can be used to buy weapons, armor, and other general stuff. The other currency is called Sepith, and it is another thing that makes the game feel really unique. There are a number of different elements, and not just the ones we’re used to – they also include things like time and space. Each element has its own Sepith, and enemies will drop Sepith appropriate for the type of enemy they are. You use these sepith to craft crystals that you can equip to either bolster a character’s strengths or overcome their weaknesses. Depending on the combination of crystals you equip you will unlock spells that you can cast as well. It adds a truly thoughtful and strategic aspect to the game – all before you even enter combat.
The combat is another aspect that is very interesting in this game. While it does play a lot like a typical jrpg – turn based, methodical, slow, and menu-oriented – they’ve added a few strategic elements here as well. The game includes a battle field map, sort of like a strategy rpg except less defined, and each character has a different movement range as well as attack range based off their weapon. In addition, there are also turn bonuses – things like bonus Sepith, guaranteed critical strike, health restores and more – and different actions cause your turn to be delayed by a different amount allowing you to manipulate the turns a lot if you play strategically. In addition, you also have special almost limit break style attacks that you can use to ‘steal’ a turn, which adds a further layer of strategy that just serves to make the combat more engaging. Now, the enemy AI is actually quite smart and most of the time they’ll take full advantage of any of those turn bonuses that you let them have – even stealing Sepith from you if you let them have a bonus Sepith turn bonus.
The game’s graphics are pretty standard for this style of jrpg, sprite-based without all that much in terms of focus on graphics. The environments are clean and some of the background set-pieces are very pretty. The few cutscenes that there are are, on the other hand, done in a gorgeous anime-style that works very well. The music in this game is charming, beautiful and fantastically well-suited. There isn’t much voicework, but what there is is pretty well done. The voicework isn’t anything fantastic, but its not going to make you wince. The ending includes a rather neat little ‘fun’ segment after the final boss where you get to run around a festival and talk to people. I wish more games would do that, give you a little interactive reward after the end boss in stead of just a cinematic.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is one of the best RPGs overall I’ve played in a long time. With a refreshing focus on a character-driven and deep story, a fascinating level of openness despite its linear nature, and just enough strategy to break up the turn based feeling of the combat; Trails in the Sky is sure to bring feelings of nostalgia, wonder, and joy to any rpg lover. Beyond simply being a great game, it is also one of the most charming experiences you’ll ever experience. There is very little not to love about this fantastic game, and I cannot give it enough praise – it is probably the best game you’d never heard of.
- Every single character in the game, even the lowest npcs, feel important and like they have a story.
- Localization was done absolutely perfectly.
- Attention to detail is unbelievable.
- Strategic additions to combat make it a lot more fun.
- Variety in missions helps the game feel more dynamic.
- The game’s ending is fantastic, emotional and well-written.
- Interesting little interactive reward after beating the end boss.
- Fantastic and incredibly well-written story.
- Unique item and currency system.
- Very strong focus on open content despite linear core to the game.
- Relationships between the playable characters are interesting and fun to see develop.
- Characters truly do grow and develop over the course of the game.
- Strong focus on conversation and non-combat portions of the game are refreshing.
- Music is amazing and beautiful.
- Sheer amount of conversation and reading could overwhelm some.
- Combat is still turn based which may turn away some.
- Graphics are nothing special.
- Very little voicework, and what there is isn’t anything terribly special either.
- Ending is cruel and very frustrating.
- Game’s story has some elements that are a bit predictable.
Review written by: Sean