Welcome everyone to another Falcom game review! You may already know my opinion of Nihon Falcom, so you may have a general idea of what I think of their products. However, compared to Falcom’s Ys series, this game is a different sort of breed. Where Ys was about very tight, awesome action, Trails in the Sky is more concerned with story, characters, and world-building. Ys is a highly competent series, and shows Falcom is perfectly capable of developing very challenging, rewarding action RPGs. At the same time, Trails in the Sky shows off Falcom’s more literary prowess.
The Legend of Heroes series is a very long running series from back when Nihon Falcom was still developing titles for those old Japanese PCs that I could never really wrap my head around (that is to say, before I was even born). Basically, it’s been around almost as long as the Final Fantasy series. They were rather comparable (thought the earlier Legend of Heroes titles certainly felt more like Dragon Quest than Final Fantasy). I suppose there are a few remarkable differences in how the two series operated and grew.
Many of the titles in the series share thematic (and even actual) connections deeper than titles in the Final Fantasy series. Many titles are directly related, are direct sequels/prequels to one another, or at least coexist in the same world. In fact, I can’t think of a single Legend of Heroes title that doesn’t share a setting with another Legend of Heroes title.
Another difference are how battle systems are handled. I don’t have to explain how Final Fantasy handles battles, but the Legend of Heroes takes a more tactical approach than most. For instance, the fourth, fifth, and sixth titles (for PC) turned battles into semi-RTS affairs, where battles take place on the map you explore (like Chrono Trigger), characters can position themselves anywhere the environment allows them, and spells are cast in real time. Seeing these titles in action reminded me of some of the Western cRPGs, actually.
I guess the third major difference is that this series (and Falcom games, in general) have never gained much of a foothold in the west. You could say Trails in the Sky probably had the most celebrated release in the Legend of Heroes series! A major result of this is that this series has solely catered to the Japanese audience for pretty much the longest time. It’d be very interesting to see the differences in design decisions between Final Fantasy and Legend of Heroes (though certainly not something very hard to do).
On to Trails in the Sky’s alleged main strengths, the presentation. Trails places a very strong emphasis not only on story, but on characterization and the world, as well. Character interactions feel pretty real, and the world actually feels decently thought out (you can thank XSEED for the very charming translation). Interacting with NPCs is usually pretty engaging, as they have interesting things to say more often than not.
The main characters are written quite well, too. Admittedly, the characters aren’t psychologically or philosophically deep. However, the characters are pretty well-rounded. I can’t really think of any main character defined solely by one or two traits, but instead by a plethora of traits that support one another. Ironically, the characters in this game were more memorable than most. Characters also go through some development (noticeably the two protagonists, Estelle and Joshua Bright), though not so much development.
This is justified, however, as the sequel to Trails in the Sky (which currently hasn’t been translated yet, sadly) picks up almost immediately after Trails ends, continuing the story. Still, in the context of Trails alone, the characters kind of do suffer from lack of development. Additionally, the development the two protagonists go through may be very off-putting to some people, so I guess your mileage may vary in this case.
As mentioned, Trails in the Sky does have a story. While it takes quite a while for it to build up, it’s very rewarding. Once the story kicks into high gear (which is about halfway through), it doesn’t stop being interesting. The plot during the last fourth of the game was so compelling, that I found it extremely hard to put it down. Though the events of the first game are wrapped up quite nicely, the events going on behind the scenes aren’t in the slightest. These events, which effectively form the main plot of the second game, and some stuff beyond, are very subtly hinted throughout (foreshadowing is also another strong aspect of this game’s writing), but come to the foreground near the end. Not exactly addressing what happens next, the game just ends, making you want for more. If you’re not a fan of cliffhangers, however, this may thoroughly piss you off.
One thing that was very interesting about the plot was the scale of the plot. Most RPGs involve the fate of the world/galaxy/universe/existence, but Trails’ plot only really concerns itself with the game’s small setting. The game’s setting, by the way, is a small country. I’d like to say it’s about the size of Luxembourg (compared to what I imagine the surrounding countries are like). So imagine that scale.
Ultimately, I’d like to think this smaller scale is more realistic, and makes the events of the game all the more believable. This brings me to the world bringing. The smaller scale seems to actually help world building more than a larger scale would, and make it more plausible, too. Here’s an example. The setting of the game is the small country of Liberl. Now, in many RPGs, you’d be lucky to find a few cities per continent, let alone a few countries. Liberl has about four or five cities. The surrounding countries are much bigger, and as a result of scaling, probably have larger cities, and more of them, too. This is more like our world than the standard RPG I just described.
At the same time, you can learn a lot about the history of Liberl (though it helps to know your basic European history, as it seems Falcom likes European parallels), and get some snippets of the surrounding countries, as well. I feel like I can understand how the world came to be better in this game than in other RPGs, and believe it, too.
Ultimately though, I have next to nothing bad to say about the presentation. It reminds me of the RPGs of old, and though that might be nostalgia talking, Trails in the Sky is damned convincing at making me feel like I’m on an honest to goodness adventure.
I’ve mentioned the gameplay earlier, but Trails in the Sky uses a different sort of system than the one I described earlier. Rather than being real time, Trails uses a turn based system (though it handles turn order the way FFX does, and adds in random special characteristics on select turns). Battles don’t take place in the environments you traverse, but instead are on a separate screen. However, battles are grid-based like your favorite SRPG (though attacks and spells use a radial system). I’ll be honest though, in the beginning, the grid adds almost nothing to the game, and even makes battles take longer than necessary.
As more and more options open up, the game becomes increasingly more tactical. The game’s spell system stems from “Orbments”. During your travels, you come across (or can buy) various quartz. These quartz can be placed in Orbments, which are basically pieces of equipment that contain varying configurations. Quartz bestow properties to their users, such as stats, but when placed in correct setups, will also grant you different spells. As I mentioned, you get more tactical options as the game progresses, and it’s largely due to this system.
Spells vary greatly, not only by effects, but by properties as well. You have standard damage spells and heal spells, but you also have unique buffs that do pretty interesting things. One such buff increases your speed, which makes your turn come much faster. Another will place a shield on affected characters, which allows them to completely nullify the damage from the next attack. Additionally, certain spells have areas of effect (instead of targeting only one combatant). These properties can all be used to your advantage.
Here’s a common example to help me illustrate this. Say you get into a battle with some enemies. Rather than charge at all the enemies (and keep them spread out), you can attempt to keep your characters bunched closely together, and start casting a number of spells to damage enemies in the area surrounding you. With this, once all the enemies come into range, you can mop them all up with a number of spells. Combine this with skills and specials which are also just as varied, and you have some very great ways of dealing with battles.
Though you do have a good number of ways of dealing with enemy encounters, I still have some problems with this system. Later on (read: the final dungeon), it seems as if enemies became massive damage sinks. I can’t begin to tell you how annoying this can be, as enemies with lots of HP just delay progress, rather than test you. Additionally, I feel as if you’re practically forced to use certain spells to even survive some battles. The combination of these two made battles take way too long, really. Despite these complaints, I still had quite a bit of fun with the gameplay.
The graphics happen to be probably the worst part of the game. The sprites look terrible, backgrounds look uninspired, and effects are uninspiring. Fortunately, character portraits are rather nice to look at. Still, you won’t hear my singing praises for Trails’ graphics. On the other hand, Trails’ sound is quite good. The soundtrack is pretty good, on average, and has a number of great tracks. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s Falcom’s best effort, as the Ys games I’ve played have better soundtracks on the whole, and are generally much more memorable. Trails has voices for characters in battle, but they’re really rather unremarkable. Still, I found myself enjoying the sound.
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games
Available on: PSP
Release date: March 29th, 2011