The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Review
Tread Softly and Carry a Big Stick
In the grand history of unlikely events, the surprising localization announcement by XSEED Games of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky probably doesn’t rank very high, but for the gaming community it was a pretty huge shock. Released in Japan in 2004, Trails in the Sky gained a reputation for being one of the largest and wordiest RPGs ever made, and it was just part one of a trilogy. The amount of text in the game was staggering, seemingly insurmountable for any localization studio to feasibly take the project on. It took seven years for anyone to take the risk, but in 2011, Trails in the Sky was finally translated and released to English-speaking audiences. Although it’s not quite as impressive as importers would have you believe, it’s definitely a game that was worth the wait.
Trails in the Sky follows the journey of two young bracers, a sort of mercenary/police corps, as they journey across the kingdom of Liberl in their training. Estelle Bright and her adopted brother Joshua headline the constantly growing cast of characters, and through their journey begin to uncover a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy. Trails in the Sky is equal parts a tale of political intrigue and a coming-of-age story, focused primarily on Estelle and Joshua and their changing relationship.
While the narrative ultimately evolves into a fast-paced page-turner, it stumbles frequently. The opening “prologue” chapter is slow and drab, and it takes nearly eight hours to reach Chapter One, where the plot begins to take shape and the pace quickens. It’s not difficult to imagine many people turning it off after a few hours when no solid plotline seems to be emerging. The dialogue also feels awkward at times, particularly early on. Once the story gets moving, however, it’s hard to put down. The politically-charged plotline is terrific and easy to follow, and Estelle and Joshua’s growth over the course of the game is impressive, despite a lot of ham-fisted dialogue forcing that point home.
Although Trails in the Sky is a primarily story-driven game, the gameplay manages to hold its own, even against modern RPG juggernauts. The combat is intrinsically simple, but holds enough tactical depth to make for enjoyable and sometimes even challenging battles. This is bolstered by a terrific customization system that bears a resemblance to the Djinn system from Golden Sun.
Unlike most turn-based RPGs, combat in Trails in the Sky takes place on a condensed tactical-style grid. Different skills and arts have different ranges and areas of effect, and characters will automatically move into range when an attack is selected, assuming that they’re able to move close enough that turn. Characters can also be moved manually, but forfeit their attack. Each character also has access to two types of special attacks: arts and crafts. Crafts are character-specific and draw from the CP bar, which caps at two hundred and increases whenever that character takes or deals damage. Each character also has access to one or more S-Break crafts, which use up all remaining CP to perform a devastatingly powerful attack. Arts, on the other hand, can be customized for each character, and draw from the EP bar. These are the typical spells one would find in most RPGs, and in a twist, take a fair bit of time to cast. Once an art has begun casting, several turns may pass by for other characters before the art is actually launched.
Character customization is one of the more interesting and addictive aspects of Trails in the Sky. Each character has an “orbment”, a device that can be augmented with quartz crystals to improve combat abilities. Orbments have six slots each, and quartz crystals come in a variety of different elements. To start with, each crystal has a passive bonus that gets applied to the character’s stat. This alone allows for a lot of customization, but on top of that, each crystal also has a certain elemental value applied to it. For example, the EP Cut 1 quartz reduces EP consumption by ten percent and is worth one time element, two space elements, and one mirage element. Correspondingly, every art in the game has a certain elemental threshold that needs to be reached in order to use it. By combining quartz with the correct values, new and more powerful arts can be learned.
Outside of combat, Trails in the Sky unfortunately doesn’t hold up as well. Level design is not its strongest suit, and the various areas that the player will explore usually involve similar-looking corridors and are rarely very interesting to look at. The exceptions to this are the many major towns in the game, which are much more detailed and exciting, but they too have their own share of problems. Although the towns are large and extravagant, they’re also frustratingly empty. There are a lot of talkative NPCs roaming around to converse with, but there’s also a lot of empty space. Most buildings have at least one, and sometimes several, empty rooms that never serve any purpose. That said, the environments are all meticulously detailed, particularly the interiors of buildings, and the sprite artistry is excellent, though not really any better or worse than other games of similar design.
On the plus side, Trails in the Sky does offer up an extremely large selection of sidequests that can be completed throughout the journey. These requests can be picked up from the bracer guild headquarters, and are much more frequent and involved than sidequests in most other RPGs. The goals of the quests can vary from simple monster-slaying missions that require seeking out and destroying special mini-boss foes, to more extravagant excursions which have their own stories to accompany them. Completing requests yields decent amounts of additional money as well as valuable Bracer Points, which are used to improve Estelle and Joshua’s rank at the bracer guild. Every time their rank goes up, they’re gifted with a special quartz or accessory, so completing requests is well worth the effort.
One area that Trails in the Sky manages to shine in is its soundtrack. Sticking with traditional videogame composition styles, Trails in the Sky features melodic, memorable songs that maintain a light-hearted sense of adventure and whimsy. Although they don’t do anything special to stand out from other game soundtracks, each song is well composed and a diverse songlist ensures that the music doesn’t get old. No voice acting is present aside from a handful of battle cries, but thankfully the characters have enough personality to get by without it.
Trails in the Sky is definitely a good game, but it’s certainly a far cry from incredible. It has its share of problems, particularly its exceptionally slow start. However, it is also an impressive and lengthy RPG adventure, one that’s not even finished yet, and it heralds back to more traditional and classic Japanese RPGs in a way that’s become quite rare in recent days. When the story starts picking up speed, it grips you tightly and refuses to let go, and for that reason alone it comes highly recommended. With the second chapter of the trilogy (hopefully) on its way, Trails in the Sky is definitely a game that JRPG enthusiasts won’t want to miss.
Lengthy, complex, and engaging story
Great battle system
Terrific character customization
Slow to start
Weak level design