By Mento 1 Comments
|E3 Day -1: Ys||E3 Day 0: The Legend of Heroes||E3 Day 1: Zwei||E3 Day 2: Xanadu||E3 Day 3: Everything Else|
For 2019's Alternative to E3 series, we're looking at a bunch of Falcom games! I've loved this RPG developer for a while and have been searching for an excuse to talk more about them, so that's what we're doing this year instead of poring over E3 trailers and news. Be sure to check Day -1 for more information via the table of links above.
Day 0: The Legend of Heroes
Falcom's other big franchise is The Legend of Heroes, or Eiyuu Densetsu, which like Ys has gone through several generations of evolution. The Legend of Heroes was originally created as part of the Dragon Slayer anthology franchise - each game in this series was not only independent from the others, but was also mechanically distinct. The first Dragon Slayer was little more than an action game, while its "sequel" Xanadu was more fully-featured and included towns to visit and NPCs to talk to. Other Dragon Slayer sequels include Lord Monarch, a real-time strategy RPG a bit like Ogre Battle, and Legacy of the Wizard, a proto-spacewhipper that had you control various members of the Drasle family, all with distinct abilities and equipment that meant they each had exclusive access to different parts of the massive dungeon underneath their house.
The Legend of Heroes, meanwhile, was meant to be their take on a more "traditional" turn-based RPG, of the sort that has you pick menu commands in battle like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Despite, or maybe because of, the similarity between The Legend of Heroes and the RPGs from Falcom's rivals, it became one of their most popular and enduring properties. The Legend of Heroes is usually typified by its deeper combat system, its lengthier and more nuanced stories, and its attention to characterization and world-building. That isn't to say Ys lacks these things, but it's clearly much more of a consideration for The Legend of Heroes and its many "arcs." It's because these games are so text-heavy that they require a lot of time and energy to properly localize; you're unlikely to find any recent RPGs that are quite so narratively dense, in sharp contrast to the more flighty and action-focused Ys games.
Which brings us to sussing out this franchise and figuring out where to start. Unlike Ys, a lot of The Legend of Heroes games are direct sequels. Usually it's easy to tell which ones - Trails of the Sky: Second Chapter, for instance, has a big hint in its title - but not always. In fact, it's often "so not easy to tell" that one particular trilogy was labelled and released in the incorrect order for its international debut.
The Legend of Heroes began in 1989 as Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes, the sixth game in the Dragon Slayer anthology franchise. This was followed by the eighth (and final) Dragon Slayer game, Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes II, in 1992. Only the first of these two connected titles was released in English at one point - the TurboGrafx-CD port, which was localized by Hudson - and the second is one of the few The Legend of Heroes games yet to see an official localization, though unofficial fan translations abound.
In Japan, this initial duology was soon followed by a trilogy: the Gagharv trilogy, specifically. Released across 1994-99, it originally appeared on NEC PCs like the first two games. However, it wouldn't be until 2005 that the games were localized, this time via their PlayStation Portable ports. The first to be localized was actually the second Gagharv game, The Legend of Heroes IV: Akai Shizuku, released as The Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion. That was followed by The Legend of Heroes III: Shiroki Majo (The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch) and The Legend of Heroes V: Umi no Oriuta (The Legend of Heroes III: Song of the Ocean). Fortunately, the connection between these three games is merely geographical: each takes place on a different part of the same continent of Gagharv. In that respect, they're about as interconnected as the Suikoden games: same landmass, occasionally the same characters pop up in multiple games, but otherwise completely separate. This is why they're entries III, IV, and V respectively, rather than three chapters of the same single The Legend of the Heroes entry like our next set. I've only played A Tear for Vermillion, but it was a largely solid RPG if a little generic and iffily localized.
In 2004, the first game in the Trails in the Sky (Sora no Kiseki) trilogy was released for Windows-based systems. As with the Gagharv trilogy, Trails in the Sky: First Chapter was eventually ported to Sony's portable system and later localized for international audiences. Since then, the Windows versions of the Trails in the Sky games have been released on Steam and GOG in English. Unlike the Gagharv games, Trails in the Sky is a three-part story that is meant to be played in order: Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter follows the first, and Trails in the Sky: Third Chapter closes out the series. The overall protagonist of the series is Estelle Bright: a "bracer" - a combination adventurer/mercenary whose job it is to help people in need - with a short temper but otherwise upbeat personality. Her adoptive brother Joshua is almost the exact opposite, as he has a calm and calculating demeanor and quickly steps in to help Estelle stay out of trouble. The trilogy follows these two and a group of supporting characters from one major catastrophic event to the next as an enormous underworld cult behind all the world's recent woes is discovered and slowly dismantled.
I've only played the first game in this trilogy a long time ago, but it's written so well that I can still tell you everything about its cast and most of the major turning points of the game. I've been looking for a reason to get back into it with the second chapter, but the size and scope of the series is such that its second and third chapters rarely dip in price. The localizers spent a lot of money making those sequels happen, so I can appreciate them being a little cautious about massive Steam discounts, especially as the Third Chapter localization was only released as recently as 2017. These games are also distinct from others in the Trails canon by how much of them are focused around the Bracers Guild, to which Estelle, Joshua, and most of their travelling companions belong. Bracers Guild assignments make up the bulk of both the story-critical quests and side-quests, with payouts contingent on the player's success in getting to the bottom of each case and finding an ideal solution. These can range from simple fetch and monster hunting requests to solving crimes through investigative work and other more elaborate assignments. It makes the series feel a little more "open-world" than other RPGs in the series, as a lot of the content is purely optional.
The next games are Trails of Zero (Zero no Kiseki) and Trails of Azure (Ao no Kiseki): two games that remain, presently, exclusive to Japanese speakers. They followed a reverse release path to Trails in the Sky and the Gagharv trilogy, releasing first on PSP and then on PCs (and later Vita). These two are also connected by their plot, though while they take place in the same world as Trails in the Sky they're separated geographically and have little relevance with the earlier series. It's not quite certain if these two games will ever be localized, but it's possible XSEED et al will get around to them once the next set of games are complete.
The (presently) final The Legend of Heroes series is Trails of Cold Steel (Sen no Kiseki), based on a class of students at a military academy who are soon dragged into an enormous civil war in their home empire, which has long been tackling the wealth and class disparity between its aristocrats and proletariat. Class VII, to which the protagonist Rean Schwarzer belongs, is distinct within the academy as it doesn't segregate by social status, throwing in nobles with the working class: this gives the students of this classroom more perspective into how the other half lives, though also creates divisions when the civil war begins. Trails of Cold Steel is a four-part series, of which so far the first two - Trails of Cold Steel I and Trails of Cold Steel II - have been localized for PS3, PS Vita, PS4, and Steam/GOG. The localization of the third chapter, Trails of Cold Steel III, is due out later this year on September exclusively for PS4 (though I imagine a Steam/GOG port won't be far behind). There are concerns about the third game's localization - it's being handled by NISA, which caught some flak with the poor initial localization of Ys VIII, though that was eventually fixed to an extent - but there's a few ex-XSEED folk attached to it that have been with the Trails games for a while, so I'm hopeful. Meanwhile, the final chapter - Trails of Cold Steel IV - has only just been released in Japan and will probably be another year before we hear anything. But hey, I type this in the middle of E3, so who even knows.
I've yet to start Trails of Cold Steel, but reviews for it have been glowing so far. The one thing I do know about this series is that it starts getting heavily into mecha at one point, becoming a bit more sci-fi focused than other The Legend of Heroes arcs, so if you're big into Gundam with its anime robot suits and pointed jeremiads about the futility and abject cruelty of war, it might be worth starting there for your first taste of Trails.
Either way, I'd happily recommend anyone start with either Trails in the Sky: First Chapter or Trails of Cold Steel I, as they've both been praised to the stars and back and finds Falcom at their yarn-spinning best. If you're so inclined, you could then track down the Gagharv trilogy on PSP (or wait for remasters/rereleases, since those localizations are done if still a bit spotty) or hold on for Zero/Azure to make their international debut. Honestly, the amount of time it would take to complete either the Sky trilogy or Cold Steel quadrilogy is in the hundreds of hours, so there's no rush.
Next Time On "Mento's Alternative to E3 2019: My Passing Interest in Falcom-ry"
It's finally time for me to start exploring the unknown, starting with Falcom's more jokey action-RPG series Zwei!!.