The Best Old School Title on the PSP
Trails in the Sky is, looked at one way, a prosaic experience, it boasts nothing in terms of innovation, has a desperately dated graphical engine and utilises modes of play which were properly delineated some fifteen years ago. So... what makes this obscure title one of the most compelling games on the PSP?
Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a port of Japanese Roll Paying Game brought out for the PC about eight years ago. It is part of series of games which the developers (Falcom) have been popping out at regular intervals, the earlier titles which also saw conversion and translation were notoriously botched so Trails hardly came to the gaming world with a pedigree which commanded a great deal of confidence. And, at first glance there is really nothing special going on. The graphics boast tiny sprites moving around reasonably pleasant, but by no means exciting backgrounds, getting into fights which have nothing stellar in their presentation and then talking to one another. And boy is there a lot of talking. Trails has one of the most extensive scripts ever seen on a PSP title. Here the look of the game fares a bit better, as the talking heads do an excellent job in conveying the emotional status of the characters, which is just as well as the characters and their emotions are the heart of the game.
Estelle Bright and her adopted brother Joshua are junior Bracers in the country of Librel. What is a Bracer? Well imagine a private organisation which combined the services offered by the police, helping hands and the Citizens Advice Bureau. They take on any number of different jobs from clearing out monsters who roam the highways to looking for a child's missing rock. As it happens they're the children of Cassius Bright, one of the most senior Bracers and when their father goes on a trip and ends up missing, the plot is under way. It's a sizeable story, easily taking over fifty hours as Estelle and Joshua wonder the length and breath of the country looking to find out what has happened to Cassius. On the way they continue take on jobs in the various cities they visit and after a while an odd assortment of events begins to take shape and it's a worrying shape, one which may change the nature of Librel and the surrounding nations.
What makes all this work is the charm of the two leads: Estelle, the classic Red Oni of Japanese literature, impulsive, warm hearted, rash and given flashes of temper and Joshua, the Blue Oni, intelligent, detached, thoughtful, are a superb pair with which to share an adventure. They mix up the comedy and pathos with equal facility, which is helped no end by the vast array of supporting characters whom they meet on their journey. You have the somewhat their sometimes sadistic gypsy mentor; the lunatic foreign bard; the shy but dependable upper class school girl; a martial arts champion and many more. None of the people feel extraneous to the story and all of them fulfil their roles to a much greater extent than merely demanded by the plot. It is beautifully well written, perhaps the best writing I've ever seen in a JRPG, as, for the most part, it avoids heading into the tedious soap-opera territory common in the genre. Indeed, with the possible exception of Persona 4, it's hard to think of another recent example which shines so brightly, in this aspect.
The majority of the game play is made up of exploration and fighting in order to fulfil tasks you take on through the Bracer's Guild. The fighting system is not dissimilar to that found in Final Fantasy VII. Here, though, instead of materia you use orbments, crystals which give you powers. Some of the powers are expressed in terms of faster turns, or greater health and some are fire balls, or water jets. Each playable character can use up to six crystals and the combinations of them determine the type and strength of those powers. As a system it's both reasonably straight forward and surprisingly deep. You can still be find new and different possibilities on a second or even a third play through. You can change the crystals in and out any time you aren't in combat and there's a lot of fun to be had in discovering what power are available and how and where they should be used. Beyond orbment system there are plain physical attacks and then craft skills. the craft skills also come in several types. Some are higher powered physical attacks, either striking enemies more than once, or more than one enemy and some preform buffs and de-buffs. Above these are the s-craft skills which act much like the limit breaks from FFVII and are the most powerful of your characters abilities. All the craft skills take craft points, which built up in a reservoir during combat. The ordinary craft skills take a small to medium number of points, the s-crafts take all your remaining points and can only be used if you have 100 or more points at the time. The use of all these various combat techniques, the positioning of your characters and the enemies on the grid and the flow of turns with several different bonuses which can occur if your turn or the enemies happens to fall at a particular time, makes for a superb tactical experience.
The exploration, which you'll have to do not only to follow the main plot but also to fulfil your duty as Bracers, takes you across the whole country. However the game is split into chapters and you only ever explore one region at a time. Each region has a larger number of areas, surrounding a central town and you'll find yourself scurrying back and forth continuously. One of the benefits of the exploration is the generous number of chests to find with new weapons, armour and items. It's all in line with the classical tropes of rpgs, but here it's done as well as it ever has been. The game is just so balanced and so well constructed than you never feel that anything you find gives you an inappropriate advantage. On your first play-through you may discover some of the fight can be a tad brutal, as you have to work out tactics and, very occasionally, you might be under-leveled or under prepared for the area, but this is rare and the game discourages over-leveling as there is a steep drop off or experience points after you reach a certain point and you can only really progress your character further by going to new areas with harder monsters.
The sound design of the game is solid, if unexceptional, save for the occasional piece of music which is so well timed and plot important, that it really makes you take notice. The voice acting is sadly, though understandably, minimal; this is a huge game, for the PSP and if there had been a lot of voice files they would have struggled to fit the game onto a single disk.
Games like this often stand or fall in western markets by virtue of the localisation, certainly the work done on one of the earlier titles in this series showed the pitfalls which can occur. Here, however, XSeed Games should be highly commended. While it's impossible for me to know whether they stuck faithfully to the tone of the original, what can be said is that their staff cranked out a script that was witty, charming, romantic, practical and compelling. No small achievement. In fact the only complaint it's possible to lay at their door is the length of time that it's taking for them to release the sequel. (this is particularly galling given that the game ends on a ridiculously potent hook of a cliff hanger)
So that's Trails in the Sky. An unexceptional game? Well yes, if you don't count brilliant writing, charming characters, a plot which when it gets going keeps you fascinated all the way to the end and beyond, expertly balanced game-play and an over-all experience which greatly exceeds far bigger titles. If you're an owner of a PSP and not sure if you like turn based JRPGs then this is definetely the game to try, if you are already a fan and haven't played Trails in the Sky... then shame on you, this is a masterpiece of a game and deserves your money, time and devotion. It's a hugely impressive title and utterly deserving of five stars.