The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

You may have noticed that most of my game reviews start out with a recollection of a conversation with my good friend RockManXZ24. We talk about video games a lot; it was a common point of interest when we met in the sixth grade; it continues to be a common point of interest now that we’re adults.

Our most recent conversation about video games occurred just after I finished Persona 4 (which I’ll review later), and just as I was about to finish The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. He had just finished playing through the demo of Dragon Age 2, and we talked while he plowed his way through twelve-year-old n00bs in Halo 3 multiplayer. Our topic: are Japanese otaku more intrinsically sentimental than American nerds? Our conclusion: possibly, yes.

Few games convey that sentimentality better than The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, with its gentle J-pop theme song and its teenage heroes dancing around their veiled romantic feelings for each other. It is a game cast in the familiar JRPG model, concerned more with telling its story than with introducing the player to complicated game mechanics or micro-managed character progression. This seems, to me, slightly unusual for developer Falcom, as even their recent games, in spite of their cutesy art style, employ fairly sophisticated game mechanics. On the other hand, The Legend of Heroes series began with a fairly rote Dragon Quest clone.

But while the Falcom of old often experimented with their game design – look at their early action-RPG Sorcerian for a wild mixture of side-scrolling action with Wizardry-esque character/party building – the development team now focuses mostly on polishing conventional gameplay to mirror sheen. Ys 7 feels like it could be a remake of a classic Playstation era game, and I mean that as a compliment. Trails in the Sky, while originally released for Japanese PCs in 2004, feels like a classic game that has aged extraordinarily well.
That doesn’t mean that the gameplay is dated – far from it, in fact. The battle system is turn-based, laid out on a grid, much like a tactical RPG. It reminded me a bit of the Korean game, Astonashia Story, or NIS’ Rhapsody (as it was originally released on the PS1), only done properly. The turn system uses random bonuses, and the player can manipulate turn order with carefully timed magic and special attacks to utilize the bonus turns. It makes the battles far more interesting and involved than many turn-based JRPGs.
On top of that is the orbment system. The orbment is part of the character set-up, and it decides which magic attacks the character can use. Equipping a fire or earth element quartz to a character’s orbment will allow them to use a fire or earth spell, and it will also raise their attack or defense, respectively. This allows the player to make a character an attack or support unit as he or she sees fit, and it also helps to mitigate the necessity of buying the sometimes prohibitively expensive equipment available in the game’s shops.
While playing through the game, the player can choose to complete side quests which award money, experience, and items; particularly if the job is well done, as the game grades the player’s performance. But the player can easily forgo the extra quests and focus specifically on the main plot if he or she so wishes. Since fighting enemies awards materials more than experience, it eliminates the incentive to grind, although level-grinding is an option, however tedious.
But, again, the real focus of Trails in the Sky is its story, its characters, and its setting. The very Japanese aesthetic will turn off those who find anime style art and story-telling anathema – it is actually rather trendy to complain about games being “too Japanese” right now – but Falcom has done a great job of evoking that aesthetic without pandering to a certain questionable contingent of Japanese consumers, quite unlike certain other Japanese developers.
 The story follows two teenage kids, Joshua and Estelle Bright, respectively the daughter and adopted son of military legend Cassius Bright, as they become initiated into the paramilitary/mercenary organization known as the Bracer Guild. As they start their careers as junior bracers, Cassius suddenly disappears, and Joshua and Estelle undertake their journey around the continent of Liberl to become full-fledged members of the guild, running into a planned coup against the reigning Queen of Liberl and helping to foil it.
It is actually a very typical plot for this type of game, in which the protagonists start off on a journey of personal interest that eventually folds into a larger conflict with clandestine forces of unmitigated evil. Trails in the Sky does a very good job, it must be said, with not letting the plot get away from itself. The conflict here is local, and stays that way. Too many JRPGs play their cards too quickly and leave the player wondering why a couple of kids are the only ones who could possibly save the world. Here, it is two teenagers with specialized training foiling a plot of national importance with the help of veteran mercenaries and, it is explicitly stated by the protagonists, a lot of good fortune.
And, of course, there are budding feelings of the two main characters. Most of the narrative is played from the perspective of Estelle, a tomboyish type who prefers action to introspection, who is confused by her feelings for her adopted brother. Joshua is cool and level-headed, and more than a bit mysterious. He obviously has feelings for Estelle too, but in typical Japanese fashion, the two can hardly be arsed to actually speak up and tell each other how they feel until the very end of the game. It is to the writer’s credit that the characters do not realize their feelings for each other because Estelle gets kidnapped and Joshua has to save her. In fact, Estelle is never really imperiled; she’s competent and capable, in spite of her hot-headedness. The game treats her and her relationship with Joshua respectably.

That the characters are likable, their banter well written (and excellently translated, thanks to American publisher XSeed), and the pacing well planned help immensely. Fans have often compared playing Trails in the Sky to reading a book, which the game invites not only with heavy amounts of text, but by segmenting its narrative in chapters.
And did I mention sentimentalism, yet? Everything about the game is so sweetly realized that I didn’t want it to end, and since the game finishes on a cliff-hanger it didn’t. I can only hope that XSeed will find an available avenue to publish the next two games (possibly the PS Vita?), as the story here is the main draw, and for once it is actually worth the effort to sit down and read. Trails in the Sky is a great example of the story-telling that made JRPGs so much fun to play when I was younger, an example of the story-telling that the sub-dungeons and dragons western RPGs always lacked. It’s a cheerful journey, rather than a grim clash of good’n’evil.
Trails in the Sky is also a good indication that the JRPG is hardly as stagnant as some have said. It is one of a few recent JRPG releases where I have not tapped through the dialog without paying attention, a high-quality, story-driven game which rewards players for smart playing. I loved it. Falcom is one of the most underrated developers outside of its small, but growing fanbase, and I hope that their development for the PS Vita will garner more attention. Major thanks and good vibes to XSeed for their excellent work in bringing attention to this oft neglected dev team.

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