January 5th, 2018: Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
Posted by Gravecat at 7:29 am.

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Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Until a few months ago, I’d actually never heard of the Legend of Heroes series before, let alone any particular LoH game, and yet the internet seems to be all abuzz lately regarding Trails in the Sky: the first part of a trilogy of RPG games by Nihon Falcom, also known for making the Ys series. Originally released in Japan in 2004 (though the Legend of Heroes series as a whole dates back to 1989!), Trails in the Sky was more recently released to Western markets, and seems to have been a pretty big hit.

It’s now 6am and I’ve been up all night trekking through the last few morsels of the game, exploring dungeons and battling foes, and finding myself rather taken aback by some suddenly unexpected plot twists at the very end of the story. It’s time to see what all the fuss is about.

 

Essential Information

This Review: PC/Windows (2014)
Near-Identical Versions: PlayStation Portable (2011), PlayStation 3 (2012, Japan-only), PlayStation Vita (2015, Japan only)
Game Length: 42-50 hours
Critic Rating: 85% aggregateThe aggregate critic rating is based on independent review scores from several other websites.

 

Grave’s Thoughts

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky — the first part of the Trails in the Sky trilogy — is a charming, colourful, exciting, and only somewhat flawed coming-of-age story. It follows the adventures of Estelle Bright — a spunky tomboyish type always looking for a fight, the daughter of a renowned and well-respected member of the Bracer Guild — and her adopted brother, Joshua, a more serious and thoughtful boy with a mysterious past. The story starts fairly slow and simple, with the brother-sister duo finishing their training and joining as junior Bracers, performing odd jobs around town and helping the citizens with missing pets and lost property. Think of the Bracers as a combination civilian police force and lawful-good mercenaries, and as the most junior members, Estelle and Joshua set off on charming yet low-key adventures as they try to get their bearings.

Right off the bat, you can tell this game is very strongly anime-inspired, even moreso than your average JRPG. Not that I mean that as a bad thing, mind — the world is absolutely charming and quite attractive to behold, with memorable and likeable characters and sinister villains alike. The game seems to lull early on, with little sense of urgency or depth to the plot as our heroes travel from town to town across the kingdom, but I’d implore anyone willing to try the game to give it a fair try — “play until the play” is a phrase I’ve heard a number of times regarding Trails in the Sky, and it’s an apt suggestion. While the story may seem fairly low-key and simple early on, it unfolds into something more interesting and sinister as time passes, with some truly unexpected twists near the end, leaving the story open for the sequel to pick up where it left off.

Let’s talk game mechanics: Nihon Falcom are no strangers to experimenting with existing formulas, and the Trails series is no exception. Combat takes place on a two-dimensional grid similar to something one might see in a Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem game, albeit with a great deal less complexity. Positioning and turn order are both important aspects of the gameplay — particularly the latter, something which can be manipulated to take advantage of randomly-occurring buffs which can apply to either the player’s or enemy’s turn — though this system can honestly be overlooked in the majority of battles, with only a few boss fights where proper positioning is an absolute must.

As well as learning various abilities through levelling up, the majority of special abilities your characters use are in the form of Quartz (think Materia from Final Fantasy VII) mounted in a device known as an Orbment. The system is a little difficult to understand at first and would take far too long to explain in this review, but in a nutshell, you can customize the spells and adjust the stats of your party pretty much at will, though certain limitations nudge some characters in different directions. It’s a system which feels clunky and confusing at first, yet will become second-nature by the time you’ve spent a few hours battling.

Speaking of battling, a couple of extremely welcome features — first of all, the lack of the much-maligned ‘random encounters’. Instead, you’ll actually see every enemy in the game world as you run around, and you must make physical contact to initiate battle. That’s not to say the enemies won’t try to chase you down, but it’s still a breath of fresh air compared to random encounters out of thin air every few steps. Secondly, if you fail any battle — boss or otherwise — the game will allow you to retry from the beginning as many times as you like, with an optional feature to make the encounter slightly easier each time you fail.

Aside from this, a rudimentary fishing system which is barely touched upon (and yet expanded further in the later games), and an extremely simple cooking system, the game is a little bare-bones as far as extras go — it’s heavily focused on telling a story and ushering the player through said story, and while the storytelling itself is excellent, it feels a little hand-holdy, offering little freedom beyond limited-time side-quests (the vast majority of which are issued from the regional Bracer Guilds) to explore beyond the scope of where the story wants to go. This shouldn’t be seen as too much of a negative point, however, as it means the important focus of the game — the story and character development — are almost constantly front-and-center.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the story focuses largely on the journey of Estelle and Joshua — and friends they make along the way — throughout a sort of post-magic-industrial-revolution kingdom, doing odd jobs and good deeds along the way while uncovering an ever-deepening political conspiracy, along with trying to get to the bottom of their father’s mysterious disappearance. The story is competent, propped up largely by the extremely good writing and well-rounded characters, and does a good job setting the stage for the future games in the trilogy, while still being able to stand fairly firmly on its own two feet.

Overall, Trails in the Sky is a solid and enjoyable game which should appeal to both veteran and new players alike, though aside from its rather unique battle system, it feels as though the game tries far too much to paint inside the lines, and can feel a little bland in parts as a result. Just about every aspect of the game can fairly be described as being very good, though no particular area really stands out enough to truly excel.

 

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