Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky ReviewEdward Cheng
Japanese Role Playing Games are a rarer breed nowadays. I'm not talking about the Final Fantasy's and Dragon Quests' with their massive fan bases and well known franchises, which are few and in-between, but rather the smaller, quirkier, less famous titles. Couple this with publisher's general aversion to releasing these games which take considerable time and money without guaranteed high profits, and you have an equation for one serious problem. But all that being said, that doesn't mean it's going just yet, and if Legend of Heroes is a sign of anything, it's that this genre still has plenty of life in it.
Originally released on the PC, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a JRPG developed by the Nihon Falcom Corporation and published by XSEED in 2011 for North America and is the newest addition to Nihon's long running Legend of Heroes series.
The game follows the protagonist and heroine, Estelle Bright and her adopted brother Joshua Bright in the country of Liberl. Working as in-training Bracers, a cross between a police officer and bounty hunter, they search the country in hopes of becoming senior Bracers and solving the mystery of their father's whereabouts who disappeared shortly after taking a job out of the country. In doing so, they stumble upon a conspiracy and discover that something far more sinister is brewing within Liberl.
Without any further detail, it already sounds as generic and clichd as any JRPG, but upon further exploration, it's clear that this is not the case. The story starts off slow, but picks up pace as you continue; the narrative manages to take a life of its own and provide twists and cliffhangers at every turn, convincing the player of one fact, and then turning it completely on its head and revealing another aspect. It's an addicting experience to say the least, and even if you don't like the game play, the story is more than enough to keep you going.
Trails in the Sky is as much about story as it is game play; this means is that you'll spend about as much time playing as you will watching, with whole sections being only something to observe. To give an example, there was one point where I was just tapping the button as the characters were taking part in a school play that took about 20 minutes from the start to finish. To be fair, these cutscenes are usually never that long, with the 20 minute ones appearing at beginning, middle and end, with the rest being on average about 1-2 minutes. The frequency of these mini-cutscenes however, is what will annoy some, as they appear often and cannot skipped.
With a large and unique cast, no two characters are even remotely similar and display different traits and attributes. To name a few, Estelle is the upbeat go-getter who is strong willed and vocal, while Joshua is her more sensible and analytical brother who serves as her foil and voice of reason. Scherazard is their mentor who is playful yet serious and can drink any person under the table. Some make you laugh, some make you irritated, and some make you just want to cry, but all show some well thought and genuine development in character as the story progresses.
The lack of voice acting outside of battle is a minus as the game could have clearly benefited by adding an extra layer of emotion to the already strong mix. Thankfully, this is more than made up for with its powerful soundtrack. From the sense of serene simplicity to the beat of drums in desperation, to the grand tune of joyous victory and celebration, Trails in the Sky manages to capture them all and more. It's something that must be heard to be believed, and for most, it will surpass expectations.
Graphics-wise, the visuals are similar to past Legend of Heroes games, and in that sense, Trails in the Sky feels dated in appearance. The colors fall more on the dull side and only occasionally give a reason to take more than a glance at it. Character and enemy animation work and are satisfactory, but again, they have a rather antiquated feel to them. It will appeal to long time fans of the series, but may fail to take in a new audience.
Combat focuses entirely on turn based combat and is where the game really shines. Battles are fair and give you plenty of ways to mix and match your attacks. With up to four characters at your control, it's possible to pull of some real interesting combinations. In most encounters where you lose, it was because you didn't strategize or attack correctly in accordance with the enemies' weaknesses. It works surprisingly well and even at the end, it never gets old.
That being said, the difficulty spike does jump about half-way through the game and will frustrate some. The game offers a retry option if you feel it's too hard and weakens enemies after each retry. Despite this later difficulty, grinding is kept to a minimum meaning you will spend more time watching cut scenes than being forced to endlessly attack the weaker enemies to level up.
There's a large degree of customization for arts (magical attacks) which give you the choice between simply having a variety of basic attacks to having one area of a certain type of art that is very powerful. A guidebook of sorts also keeps track of all this information and gives you the tool necessary to arrange and develop these attacks as well. Combined with the regular attack, Craft and S-Craft (a special move of sorts) changing your attack methods and setup is a breeze while still being fun and relatively simple.
In short, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is an amazing experience that feels and plays like a champ. Whether you come for the story or the game play, you'll be hooked and won't let go. And that's good.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.