The Legend of Heroes Trails Retrospective Pt 1

Avatar image for yyninja
Posted by yyninja (108 posts) -

Originally I wanted to write a review for each of the Trails games, but thought a retrospective blog was more appropriate. The thing about the Trails series is that each game builds upon the last one. Some of the games in the series feel incomplete and end with unsatisfying cliffhangers. For me, it doesn’t make sense to talk about each game individually when the whole series as a collective is more meaningful. The best analogy I can think of for the Trails games, would be the Game of Thrones or Harry Potter novels. Similar to those franchises, reading one book will not complete the whole narrative nor does it make any sense to read the books out of order.

There are nine Trails games in all and here are them in chronological order:

  1. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

  2. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC

  3. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd

  4. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Zero (translated title, not released outside Japan)*

  5. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Azure (translated title, not released outside Japan)*

  6. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

  7. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

  8. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (releasing this year on Sept 28th)

  9. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV (not released in the US yet)

* Technically Trails of Zero and Trails of Azure take place roughly the same time as Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II, but the two games were released earlier.

It’s a huge ask and it takes an incredible amount of commitment to even complete one game, but I’ve never been so invested in a single JRPG franchise until I encountered the Trails games.

I already made the first mistake by playing Trails of Cold Steel and its’ sequel before playing the earlier Trails games. It was a terrible decision. My initial impression of TCS and TCS II was that they were generic JRPGs with typical anime tropes.

I’ve come back wiser having played all of the officially released Trails games in the US, so now I have a better perspective and hopefully can lend my more accurate two cents on the Trails series thus far. Due to the nature of how these games are narratively linked together, there will be spoilers!

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Trails in the Sky or TitS (no sexual pun intended) is the starting point for the Trails series. My first two thoughts when I played this game is… “Man this game is OLD” and “Wow, this writing is on another level”. TitS was originally released in Japan back in 2004 and it took a whopping seven years to reach western audiences in 2011.

The dedication to lore is impressive, this is an optional book you can choose to read
The dedication to lore is impressive, this is an optional book you can choose to read

Even for its’ time TitS is not technically impressive. The game looks like it came straight out of the PS1 era with better lighting, particle effects and anti-aliasing. Fortunately the artwork is clean and detailed. The sprite work animations are nice to look at. And the music in the game is catchy and pleasant to listen to.

While TitS isn’t exactly the best showcase for a video game trailer highlight reel, it makes up for these deficits in spades with its’ writing. The game boasts an impressive amount of depth in its’ text and localization. Characters are well written and mature, considering the JRPG genre is often filled with writing meant for adolescent teenagers. Estelle Bright the main protagonist is filled with charm, wit and sarcasm, while Joshua Bright serves as the straight laced and calculating mind of the pair. NPCs are not only characters that help you on your journey, but have their own motivations, hobbies and relationships. The story is not about collecting or defeating X MacGuffins to destroy the “ultimate evil”, instead your protagonists: Estelle and Joshua are traveling across the land of Liberl helping its’ citizens to become Senior Bracers. The game takes awhile to unveil it’s true plot but does eventually raise the stakes by unveiling a mysterious organization intent on overthrowing the royalty of the Kingdom of Liberl.

The moment to moment gameplay is relatively difficult compared to its peers. Once you get the hang of what arts (magic) and crafts (skills) to use, the game becomes manageable. TitS does get unfair at times with enemies using one hit kill moves or inflicting annoying status ailments. Fortunately the game provides you the tools necessary to prepare for these curveballs such as equipping specific accessories or using a different formation. TitS also allows you to retry battles on a lower difficulty if you find yourself struggling against a specific boss.

The battle system is not amazing, it's OKAY at best
The battle system is not amazing, it's OKAY at best

As much as I laud the quality of writing in TitS, it can sometimes be overbearing. Characters often mention people, places and names and assumes the player is fully enraptured into the game’s lore. Cut scenes are laden with text after text and last for several minutes. Going around and talking to every NPC each time a chapter progresses is extremely time consuming and I eventually gave up on this venture and only talked to the NPCs that were on my way to the next quest/side-quest. There are also optional books you can find that feature their own unique stories and characters. You can even talk to chests that already have been opened to read some more interesting text. I enjoy reading and appreciated the game’s breadth of writing but there were times where I just wanted to progress the main story and wish Falcom had hired an editor to condense the text.

Yes, even the chests talk!
Yes, even the chests talk!

TitS likes to take its’ time with everything. The first third of the game is spent on character and world building. The story is a slow burn easily taking 10-12 hours until the actual plot to gets going. Battles feel sluggish due to slow animations and transitions. Dungeons are not fun to navigate. They are almost all a series of mazes with chests at dead ends and this issue is exacerbated by the lack of a mini-map in dungeons. There is a lot of backtracking especially for the side-quests. If it were not for Turbo Mode (available on the PC edition), I would have given up on completing TitS.

The worst part about TitS is it ends abruptly in a very unsatisfying cliffhanger. The perpetrators are caught and defeated but the main villains escape. Estelle gets knocked out and Joshua goes missing. The game even has the gall to tell you to play the sequel in the credits sequence. Personally I find it insulting for a game developer to release what is essentially an unfinished game and on top of that, to tell me to purchase another game to complete the story. Fortunately, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC delivers on its promises and is easily the best game in the Trails series.

Avatar image for buttle826
#1 Posted by buttle826 (282 posts) -

I started playing the first Trails in the Sky on my Vita a few weeks ago, and this write-up makes me want to jump back into it. I didn't realize the PC version had a turbo mode, maybe I should just restart it there.

Online
Avatar image for savage
#2 Posted by Savage (786 posts) -

I've never played a Trails game before, but I developed a mild curiosity after seeing the very positive response to the US release of the Cold Steel games in recent years. I had been thinking of doing what you did and starting with Cold Steel, but after reading your thoughts, I'm interested in how you came to regard doing exactly that as a "terrible decision." My impression was that Cold Steel was the best entry point for a newcomer, since although the series' world is shared, the story arcs were essentially fully independent. But perhaps there's more interconnectedness than I realized, and that interconnectedness is crucial to the appeal of the series.

Anyway, thanks for your write up. I'll be looking forward to your next installment.

Avatar image for thewildcard
#3 Posted by TheWildCard (698 posts) -

I'm actually playing through Zero right now in prep for the CS3. Been holding off for that Geofront-edited fan patch to be completed but as it's not looking like that's happening anytime soon (and I'm not going to be able to put off playing CS3 for that long) I took the plunge with the current translation, and while it's rough in spots it isn't as bad as I'd feared. The story beats and character moments still come through pretty well. I've heard the transation for Azure is noticeably better than Zero's for some reason, so really looking forward to that.

Avatar image for yyninja
#4 Edited by yyninja (108 posts) -

@buttle826 said:

I started playing the first Trails in the Sky on my Vita a few weeks ago, and this write-up makes me want to jump back into it. I didn't realize the PC version had a turbo mode, maybe I should just restart it there.

PC port is great, but I found some weird jankiness when getting the game started. Make sure to open the configuration tool first and click "Save to Folder" otherwise the game doesn't start sometimes.

@savage said:

I've never played a Trails game before, but I developed a mild curiosity after seeing the very positive response to the US release of the Cold Steel games in recent years. I had been thinking of doing what you did and starting with Cold Steel, but after reading your thoughts, I'm interested in how you came to regard doing exactly that as a "terrible decision." My impression was that Cold Steel was the best entry point for a newcomer, since although the series' world is shared, the story arcs were essentially fully independent. But perhaps there's more interconnectedness than I realized, and that interconnectedness is crucial to the appeal of the series.

Anyway, thanks for your write up. I'll be looking forward to your next installment.

Thanks! I was basically in your position about six months ago. I only learned about Cold Steel after reading that Durante did the PC port and that there were Persona-like social link hooks.

I would generally agree that as a newcomer, Cold Steel is more approachable than the Sky arc. Cold Steel has much better gameplay and relatively better graphics. You're kind of right that the story arcs are independent but only up to a certain extent. Specific characters and events from the other games show up and/or mentioned in Cold Steel. I'll mention about the interconnectedness when I write about TCS and TCS II. I wouldn't say the experience is completely ruined, but you lose a lot of the context otherwise. An analogy I can think of is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. it would be like watching the Avengers without watching Iron Man.

I'm actually playing through Zero right now in prep for the CS3. Been holding off for that Geofront-edited fan patch to be completed but as it's not looking like that's happening anytime soon (and I'm not going to be able to put off playing CS3 for that long) I took the plunge with the current translation, and while it's rough in spots it isn't as bad as I'd feared. The story beats and character moments still come through pretty well. I've heard the transation for Azure is noticeably better than Zero's for some reason, so really looking forward to that.

Oh sweet. I'm going to wait for the Geofront fan patch to be completed. It looks like it might be done by end of year or next year. Or maybe Nihom will surprise us with a translated version of Zero and Azure (one can hope!).

Avatar image for genericbrotagonist
#5 Edited by GenericBrotagonist (454 posts) -

I originally played TiTS 1&2 on PC release, but hit a brick wall around the end of 2 as one of the final bosses is notoriously difficult. I've gone back to it several times since then but never managed to beat them. My plan for a while now has been to just watch the rest of the cutscenes and then move to the next game, I just need to make the time. That being said, what I have played is some of my favorite jrpgs of all time. Naruto and Kingdom Hearts are what I would compare it to. They all have lots of world building, plot twists, and lore; but what I really come for is the characters. Plus a few spoiler-y extreme similarities that I won't get into here.

Avatar image for zeik
#6 Edited by Zeik (5206 posts) -

@savage said:

I've never played a Trails game before, but I developed a mild curiosity after seeing the very positive response to the US release of the Cold Steel games in recent years. I had been thinking of doing what you did and starting with Cold Steel, but after reading your thoughts, I'm interested in how you came to regard doing exactly that as a "terrible decision." My impression was that Cold Steel was the best entry point for a newcomer, since although the series' world is shared, the story arcs were essentially fully independent. But perhaps there's more interconnectedness than I realized, and that interconnectedness is crucial to the appeal of the series.

Anyway, thanks for your write up. I'll be looking forward to your next installment.

I think fans tend to overstate how important or necessary it is to play the arcs in order. There's definitely crossover references and cameos, some even being pretty major, but they aren't integral to enjoying or understanding the story or game as a whole.

I say this as someone who played like half of Sky 1, didn't really get into it, and then played CS1 and really liked it and didn't go back to Sky until after CS2. If anything playing CS first made Sky a better experience for me, as I was already invested in the world and was more willing to put up with some of the archaic elements of that game that originally turned me off. And I still got to fill in that context I missed before, just in a different order.

I would still generally recommend to people to start with Sky, but if CS looks much more appealing to you, or you try Sky and doesn't do it for you, then you should absolutely just play CS.

Avatar image for arbitrarywater
#7 Posted by ArbitraryWater (15732 posts) -

I'm definitely due for a Kiseki hole at some point in the near future. I've put around 5-6 hours into Trails in the Sky 1 and intend to play more. Really, the only thing that's hampered me from going further is the anxiety that comes with any RPG that has a lot of missable content that requires a guide to see, and the combat generally being... sort of boring?

The presence of a turbo button helps a lot, and man is the writing immediately very good, but I'm seriously considering dropping the combat difficulty down to easy (or cheating) when I get back to it.

Avatar image for genessee
#8 Edited by Genessee (470 posts) -

"The worst part about TitS is it ends abruptly in a very unsatisfying cliffhanger. The perpetrators are caught and defeated but the main villains escape. Estelle gets knocked out and Joshua goes missing. The game even has the gall to tell you to play the sequel in the credits sequence. Personally I find it insulting for a game developer to release what is essentially an unfinished game and on top of that, to tell me to purchase another game to complete the story."

Oh, you have NO idea what's in store for you.

This is Falcom's gift to us: an actual multi-game narrative more than worth the price of admission...and they have only just begun to reward and punish you with this. lol

This edit will also create new pages on Giant Bomb for:

Beware, you are proposing to add brand new pages to the wiki along with your edits. Make sure this is what you intended. This will likely increase the time it takes for your changes to go live.

Comment and Save

Until you earn 1000 points all your submissions need to be vetted by other Giant Bomb users. This process takes no more than a few hours and we'll send you an email once approved.