A Bracer's Impact

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Happy (and honestly a little melancholy) to report that I completed The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter: As I Olivier And Breathe over the midweek (hence why this blog is so late). I've much to take away from the game, beyond the amusing chest messages of last week, but the thing I wanted to focus on today is the structure of both Trails in the Sky Second Chapter and its predecessor, Trails in the Sky First Chapter. While both games follow a semi-traditional JRPG route of gradually establishing the setting and everything you need to know about the world and its characters for the opening acts, and then turning into a roller coaster of big eventful changes and dramatic reveals for its final stretch, the device through which the game's storytelling is delivered is via the conventions and quirks of the specific career of the protagonist (as well as much of her party).

In most games you play as a nebulous "adventurer" or "freelancer" role: one that is designed to give you the maximum freedom in how you choose to accomplish your goals. This absolves you from reporting in to superiors or being accountable for your actions (mostly; you still tend to get thrown in jail a lot in RPGs), but also robs your characters of the simple motivation of being a professional doing a job, supplanting it with other goals such as the pursuit of fame and fortune or a path of vengeance. The few RPGs that deign to give your heroes a day job are actually more intriguing because of it: even being a student (say, in the Persona series) will nonetheless gobble up large portions of your free time and force you to schedule your dungeoneering and world-saving to those occasional weekdays when you aren't swamped with coursework.

Estelle in a nutshell. Though to be fair, she's only this way around Olivier.
Estelle in a nutshell. Though to be fair, she's only this way around Olivier.

In Trails in the Sky, the protagonist Estelle Bright is a "Bracer": a job that collectively functions as peacekeeper, detective, mercenary, mediator, and spy - the overall chief objective of which is to maintain the peace and safety of the local citizenry by any legal means. While Bracers are given the freedom to operate as they choose, there are still certain laws and rules that they must abide by and certain approaches to problems that they should prioritize. This is part of the learning process in the first Trails in the Sky, where both Estelle and the player alike are new to this process and must learn by doing, and plays a larger role in the sequel now that Estelle is an established "Senior Bracer" and has certain expectations in that position. Rather than these rules feeling too restrictive, however, the player is drawn into role-playing the part by the occasional multiple choice response - what would a proper Bracer say or do in this moment? - and increased rewards for going above and beyond their perceived objectives. An example of the latter is being told that you need to test a weapon by getting involved in "about ten battles" with it equipped and then completing fifteen instead: the game only has so many variables with which to rate your performance on these objectives, and figuring out what the best result entails is part of the game's meta. Ultimately, the better you do, the higher you raise in the Bracer ranks, and the better reward items you receive upon hitting new tiers. This aspect is sidelined a little more as the game progresses towards its climax - professional conduct is less essential than saving the world, after all - but for most of the game it's this neat little tweak to the standard main- and side-quest format and an excuse to vary the player's objectives beyond "go beat that boss monster" or "get to the end of this dungeon."

The Bracer's Code can be seen on the right there. It's like the three laws of robotics, except there's no explicit need to tell you to protect yourself. Because that would be dumb.
The Bracer's Code can be seen on the right there. It's like the three laws of robotics, except there's no explicit need to tell you to protect yourself. Because that would be dumb.

To highlight what I mean, I've assembled a few examples of multi-layered Bracer missions provided throughout Trails in the Sky Second Chapter, discussing what is involved in the assignment and how the player might be tasked with accomplishing something outside the norm for a traditional JRPG. It's but one of the many facets that make these Trails games a bit more special than they might first appear (though I say that knowing that future games won't necessarily follow this Bracer Guild contrivance).

(Couple of disclaimers:

  • The first is that there might be some mild content spoilers, though I've avoided talking about the game's story and main mission chain.
  • The second is that I forgot to take screenshots of any of these missions while doing them, so I've broken up these little rundowns with more of those delightful chest messages. Can't get enough of those in my view.)

Election Office Assault

The mission: The mayoral election in the port town of Ruan is heating up, and a major campaign aide is found unconscious with a head wound. Whodunnit?

The process: A classic, albeit PG-rated, murder assault mystery for the Bracers to solve. I mentioned above that Bracers will occasionally be required to solve disputes and complex crimes: this is one of the few missions in SC that approximates police work. The assault victim, caught unawares from behind, is but one unreliable witness in a hotel full of possible suspects. Getting to the bottom of the case involves questioning multiple people about multiple subjects - where they were, their alibi, any strange behavior - until you eventually narrow down who was responsible.

Though this mission largely boiled down to speaking to the same five or six NPCs over and over, taking any new information or keywords to each one in turn, there's some really interesting mechanics in play that stretches the engine towards what is not normally a function of the game (branching conversations, abductive reasoning). You also have the choice to, at any time, bow out of the investigation and let the chief suspect take the fall. The true culprit, meanwhile, is more ridiculous than insidious. A fun deviation from the norm, all round.

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Recruiting Great Gamblers

The mission: A woman is at her wit's end because her husband refuses to leave the casino in the middle of a winning streak. Can't a few cardsharp Bracers knock some sense into him?

The process: This mission serves to introduce the game's casino in Ruan, which in true typical JRPG gambling form can be cheesed for huge financial gains relatively early into the game. Though slots, roulette, blackjack, and poker are available, this particular mission involves the latter. The goal is to play three games against this one opponent - one with Estelle, one with her partner Agate Crosner or Scherazard Harvey (you choose to accompany one or the other very early into the game), and one with the foppish secret agent Olivier Lenheim who is presently serving the group as an assistant.

If it wasn't made clear enough by the game up to this point, Olivier is a fantastic character and this mission really makes his strengths apparent. I won't go exactly into what happens - it's another one of those missions where it's not clear what the best choices are, though some knowledge of poker helps - but Olivier saves the day in the most appropriately inappropriate manner possible. (For anyone curious, someone was kind enough to upload the entire scene to YouTube and I've timestamped the video at the relevant moment.)

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Fishing Spot Search

The mission: The Fisherman's Guild is looking for the best spots to fish across Rolent, a relatively backwater region of the Kingdom of Liberl. The Bracers are to try fishing in any spots they find and report back.

The process: The reason I've highlighted this one is because there was some huge push back in the mid-00s in Japan before this game debuted (it took something like eight years for the localization to happen) to do more with the brief fishing mini-game seen in the First Chapter. In SC, players find fishing spots everywhere - there's a telltale ripple effect in the water to show you where to cast a line - and you then select the rod (only affects what bait you can use) and the bait (determines the type and size of fish) and have at it. A relatively simple timing-based mini-game ensues, and it's overall an activity that doesn't really factor into the story at all beyond this one side-mission. However, there is a whole library of fish out there to catch if you wanted something extra to do. There's probably a great article out there on how much Japanese players love angling in their RPGs, but I don't have a sufficiently informative perspective to write it myself.

The other reason I selected this relatively anodyne side-quest is because it's one of several where it's not clear where the cut-off should be, and is instead left to the player's discretion. There are, in fact, six fishing spots across Rolent, including one in Rolent's spacious sewer system (mmm tasty) and one in the pond next to Estelle's home. Reporting all six gets you the best reward; any fewer is still a success, but not one that rewards the maximum bonus Bracer Points. Of course, this extra level of meticulousness might be seen as a detriment, especially considering that the player has no way to tell how well they've done or how much better they could've performed. The game can be a bit on the strict side if you aren't following a guide.

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The Stolen Sign

The mission: In a moment of brazen audacity, someone stole the placard to the Bracer's Guild while no-one was watching. The Bracers are left with a calling card featuring a riddle that hints to the sign's possible location. Riddle Me Piss, Bracers!

The process: Sky SC has a troublesome recurring boss calling himself the Phantom Thief who has a number of quests in the game, usually involving the theft of something of great importance. Each of these missions invariably requires following a series of riddles regarding the local environment, from landmarks around town to more subtle destinations that require a keen eye and wit to figure out. It's never made clear what the intent of these little riddle games are, beyond the Phantom Thief being something of a showboat with too much time on his hands.

What I appreciate most about these missions is how worn down the party becomes after the fourth or fifth one. At one point Estelle's response to seeing a new calling card essentially boils down to "Goddess. Give. Me. Strength." The party is extremely over this guy's shit from the second challenge onwards, though that doesn't necessarily remain true for the player. It's a typical example of the way the game throws out little challenges that don't always involve monster bashing or collecting ingredients. I found them to be a lot of fun (more so than actually fighting the Phantom Thief, who trolls you mercilessly) but then I was that one guy who bothered to hunt down all the Riddler trophies across the Batman: Arkham franchise.

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The Occupation of Jenis Academy

The mission: Enemy troops have seized the prestigious Jenis Academy while the rest of the nation is in a panic over certain major story-related events and the army is stretched too thin to deal with it. Can Estelle and the other Bracers take the school back?

The process: One of the more ambitious missions in the game is also one of the easiest to miss: Chapter 8, when this mission becomes available, is a period of turmoil that has you bouncing around the whole kingdom to assuage a disaster at every turn. You'd be forgiven for walking right past the Jenis Academy on your travels, until you get a hint at the local guild that something might be afoot over there. Once you get there, the whole school's been taken over by the antagonists' footsoldiers and there's not a moment to lose if you're going to resolve the situation without casualties.

The mission is broken up into two main parts: a scouting run by a particularly stealthy member of your team, whose job it is to find out where all the hostages are and the approximate enemy numbers, done so by peeking through windows and keeping out of sight. The second half is the rescue itself, where you tick off your list of hostages as you rescue them and eventually take on the scheme's mastermind. I appreciate this mission not only for, again, giving the Bracers some serious police work to do rather than the usual bounty hunts or fetch quests, but because it relies on your knowledge of this secondary location based on previous visits and there's a certain level of respect for the player's intelligence. Jenis Academy also faced a potential catastrophe in First Chapter, and I guess the designers figured if they were going to bring back this typical Japanese highschool in the middle of a vaguely European steampunk-era kingdom they might as well make use of it again. It also ends on a funny note, defusing the tension of the hostage crisis that preceded it.

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