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:
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Zero (translated title, not released outside Japan)*
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Azure (translated title, not released outside Japan)*
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (releasing this year on Sept 28th)
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.
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.
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.
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.