Review by thinkingofwar

"Visual novel or role-playing game? There's no need to decide!"

Truth be told, I didn't know what to expect from Trails in the Sky, first in the Sora no Kiseki trilogy. Beyond learning that Namco had done a piss-poor job publishing a previous trilogy in the Legend of Heroes series, the only thing evident going in was the humorous acronym. That alone wouldn't have been enough to pique my interest, as I've moved on from snickering about anatomy references for over a decade now. A few screenshots of the game didn't help matters either; the original came out in Japan back in 2004, with its debut on the PSP in 2006.

The praise for Trails was practically unanimous; how great the “old school” charm was; that this was a traditional JRPG in the purest sense, with a light hearted tale about friendship and adventure. Unfortunately, that more often than not translates into someone wearing nostalgia glasses with a serious resistance to change. I don't mind revisiting old plot devices, yet I still couldn't shake the feeling the game was given additional praise than it deserved due to its connection to Falcom, maker of the Ys series.

Thankfully, I soon learned all that doubt was needless worry. This is a worthwhile experience one can and will revisit. Now my only worry is how long I have to wait for the next wonderfully localized title in the series, and on what platform and format.

The sheer amount of text that was translated for this title is staggering, and is a real testament to the commitment of both the developer and publisher. I cannot stress enough how impressed I was by the end of my game. It's not just the amount that's present; it's the quality in nearly every conversation. After horrid memories of the first Grandia, I was anticipating a nosedive into aggravating monologues, borderline offensive stereotypes, and last minute declarations of peace and love. Luckily, I was not only spared from the above, I found myself reaching out to the various NPCs, as they frequently had something new to say as an event in the storyline had passed.

Indeed, the motivation to continue progressing through the game owes much to the dialogue, as it is what breathes most of the life into the Liberl kingdom. I don't expect entirely new story concepts in every RPG that I come across, but there are very few new or exciting ideas in this part of the trilogy. A small kingdom bordered by a powerful empire and a populous republic. Ruins of an ancient, technologically advanced civilization scattered about. An organization that protects the citizenry by accepting requests for errands and monster extermination; we've been there and done all of these, and not just once or twice.

Our protagonists are Estelle and Joshua Bright, children of Cassius Bright, one of Liberl's most respected Bracers. The Bracer Guild is an international organization that helps the common man, and assists in international incidents through its position of neutrality. Estelle and Joshua have followed in their father's footsteps, and have been training to become full-fledged Bracers themselves, which will require visits and work experience at each of the five branches in Liberl before advancement from junior rank.

That's the story, in a nutshell. Development occurs over the course of the five chapters of the game, which present a serious challenge to our young siblings that will test them well beyond basic fetch quests. Without giving away any critical plot details, there is a subtle build up to a fairly satisfying ending, with revelations and new questions that lead into the next game nicely. That behind the scenes approach does affect the pacing somewhat; until about the last third of the game, even the major events in each chapter feel isolated from each other regardless of their similar circumstances. Since each town has its own Bracer Guild branch acting as a quest hub, there's very little overlap between areas, and resolutions feel anticlimactic and tacked on for the sake of keeping things uniform until the finale.

The pacing is kept from being a burden thanks not only to the dialogue between different characters, but the characters themselves. Estelle, the flesh and blood daughter of Cassius, has picked up her dad's physical prowess with a bo staff, but she fails to consistently put his mannerisms or etiquette into practice. Joshua, who was actually adopted into the Bright household on a night 5 years ago, excels physically, mentally, and in social situations with strangers and clients alike. His only real flaw is emotionally; asking for help and displaying his weaknesses.

It's a nice contrast between the two, and the siblings work effectively together to overcome both business-related and personal problems that develop. The other characters that will join you throughout your game all have distinct personalities, and once more, the dialogue shines through any semblance of cliche they may possess. They each have a story to tell, without forcing you to hear it in a committee or public announcement, and learning about these individuals is as interesting as any other part of the game. I'm looking forward to picking up with all of them in the next game. The constant teasing and banter between Estelle and Joshua was probably my only complaint for the playable characters, as their shtick had a tendency to become a bit tiresome in certain scenes.

I wish I could say the antagonists were as engaging or deep as the heroes. I'm hoping Falcom held back to empower the events and characters in the next part of the trilogy, but these adversaries didn't inspire any of the strong feelings usually associated with a well-executed villain; I felt irritated and indifferent than anything else. I suppose it was in keeping with the light hearted nature of the tale, and reactions may be different, but here's hoping we get something more substantial next time. It doesn't help that the majority of major encounters and marks from the bracer guild aren't relevant to the overall story, and just happen to be blocking your path, with your allies chiming in along the lines of “We'll have to beat that first!” That might work in some action games, even in a few isolated SRPG battles, but it feels out of place in an RPG this reliant on its narrative and exploration.

The presentation of this game is Trail's weakest aspect. I'm not overly critical of a game's graphics and visuals, especially from a ported game, but it looks extremely dated when comparing it to titles that debuted in 2004, and even earlier than that. I've seen greater detail in both characters and environments from the Playstation RPGs of yesteryear. Basic actions such as bowing, clapping, and an embrace are few and far between, looking stiff, awkward and unconvincing. The various settings are not large at all; your typical JRPG towns with half a dozen buildings in them. There's a lot of recycled character models populating the landscapes, almost all of them bland, lacking any noteworthy features. Monsters are equally uninspired, including the several tied to the extermination missions from the Bracer guild; it's not just that there are plenty of re-skins, but that many of them feel out of place and are unusual designs. You might end up skipping battles simply because fighting these cuddly beasts offers little excitement.

Generally speaking, those who are open to a sizeable amount of dialogue don't require or desire anything mind-blowing, so if it came down to a choice between story and graphics, then Falcom made the right one. Finding the happy balance between appearance and depth is a challenge most RPGs miss anyways; the majority of gamers will either accept the graphics or move on to a different game entirely. On a positive note, spell effects look considerably better and impressive compared to the individuals actually fighting. Menus are clean, and the interface is simple and easy to use. While the lack of animation on the field was disappointing, there's more than enough variety in the character portraits accompanying the text, and they're all well drawn and expressive. The art for Trails really is beautiful, and searching online one can find hundreds of fantastic official and unofficial images; it's a shame there's very little evidence of it besides the opening and ending movies.

Falcom is known for its soundtracks. They've released some of the most exhilarating music ever to grace video games alongside equally heart-pumping battles over the years. With Trails, they've taken a different approach, with more subtle arrangements. Listening to the game's OST, it's in no way a bad soundtrack; musical selections fit the environments fine, and there are a handful of standout tracks that should remain with the player well after they've turned the PSP off for the evening. It's just a little disappointing based on the standards already set by Falcom itself; perhaps it goes hand in hand with the pacing of the story and its light take on adventuring. I couldn't help but reminisce of the joy I'd take in obliterating trash mobs in Ys Seven's desert just to get a few more minutes of its theme, and wish I had had more of that experience here.

There's little in the way of character voices in this game; what we have been given is limited to a few battle quotes. What's ironic is the voices in the battles seem quite tolerable and unique; I certainly wouldn't have minded a few fully voiced cut scenes, possibly only the required events as a minimum. As this isn't an SMT, Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest title, along with that substantial amount of dialogue already present, one shouldn't hold it against the game at all. I definitely would have appreciated voices to help immerse me into the world, but I was already in love with the cast to begin with.

There are some notable things to be said about Trails' gameplay beyond buying weapons and getting into fights. There are a number of optional missions to take at each Bracer Guild, from standard hunts, escorting NPCs, to some rather interesting searches, and none are particularly time consuming or take you considerably out of the way. For the comprehensive Bracer, you can initiate missions ahead of time and activate hidden ones as well, which add to your Bracer Point total, rewarding you with unique, ridiculously good items over time. Estelle will be faced with several choices that will not only directly impact events, but if you make the correct choice you will earn even more Bracer Points when you report to your guild branch. Keep an eye on the time left available to complete a mission; while there's no actual clock timing the availability, if an (S) is displayed next to an optional mission, any further story progress will render that mission expired and unavailable.

Some of the most fulfilling missions didn't involve any fighting at all; instead, they had Joshua and Estelle playing detective, using clues to solve various mysteries in town, complete with entertaining conversations and a few twists that weren't all that surprising. Other missions will ask you to find an item at a dungeon or cave outside of town, but you'll have little information to go on, so you'll either have to search blindly or use your head to determine the most logical place to start. An exclamation mark showing notable places to examine ensures you'll rarely miss what you're looking for, even if you don't know exactly what it is you're looking for. Most environments outside of cities and the roads that connect them don't have a map available, but that's rarely an issue, as the various forests, caves and trails aren't that deep or confusing anyways. Remembering a few left or right turns should be enough to not only keep your bearings, but to sufficiently loot the hell out of wherever you happen to be. Treasure chests are out in the open and easily found, and there's dozens of humorous messages to be discovered by re-examining a chest you've already pilfered.

For those who dislike grinding, you'll be happy to know that the amount of experience you receive is directly related to your current level. A single difference in level between party members can cause one to receive double the experience; it works well to discourage power leveling and to help those who might potentially rush catch up. For those who detest random encounters, you'll be just as happy to know that you can see your enemies on the field; contact with a monster (or consent to exterminate a mark) will initiate a battle. You can utilize line of sight for a pre-emptive attack, allowing you two normal attacks or a technique per character before the opposition can even react, often winning the fight before it begins. On the other hand, since enemies are ordinarily invisible until you are close to them, if one gets the jump on you the same benefit will be bestowed on them.

Since a single enemy on the field can represent anywhere from one to ten monsters, an enemy advantage would appear problematic. Unfortunately, a few additional attacks against you rarely results in a game over; the first play through is rather easy. Things are tighter when you're limited to only Estelle and Joshua, but it's never overwhelming, made easier with the ability to avoid, run from, and even negate encounters completely at later stages of the game. You can run from any monsters hiding in treasure chests as well, and it's a shame, as these are usually either a stronger monster, or a new formation containing many monsters at once. The game also has a built-in feature (which may be turned off for the “hard-core” gamers out there) that upon defeat, retrying will lower the difficulty of the enemies. You can rest assured nothing will stand in your way of experiencing this story if that is your sole prerogative.

The battles themselves take you to a separate screen, where you'll have a few choices available. All of these choices affect the turn order, which is displayed in a column on the left side of the screen. This AT Bar also has a separate column that has a random set of bonuses that will be given to whoever's turn it is, friend or foe. The better bonuses won't show up on normal fights, with the exception of the Critical Attack, which can really make an incredible difference on an outcome of any fight. When an enemy dies or a spell is waiting to be executed, the character AT bar will move accordingly, while the bonus bar will not; you can anxiously kill off a minion or try to give a party member an agility buff, unknowingly giving a boss 50% of its health back. These bonuses don't make or break the game, but it's worth paying attention to, and offers a bit of depth to traditional skirmishes.

There's actual movement in battles, and consequently, the necessity to actually move your characters within range of the enemy to be able to physically hit them, with different weapon types possessing greater attack ranges. If you can't reach them for a regular attack, the game will offer to move you as close as you can, but you can choose somewhere else to move; the better choice if you're expecting tougher resistance. To give yourself an edge beyond regular attacks, you're able to employ Arts (magic) and Crafts (skills), or use your items. There aren't that many items available for use comparative to other games, and you'll need to physically move to an ally if you want to toss them a potion. However, there are enough situations that warrant a quick instant healing item as opposed to waiting for a healing Arts to be cast.

Using Energy Points, Arts provide the greatest range of attacks, with the higher levels coming with a longer charge time. There's a nice spread of buffs, healing spells and elemental attacks, both single target and area of effect. The selection of Arts available to any character is tied to how they've customized their Orbment (combat device) prior to battle, with characters having different arrangements of six slots, some limited to specific elements. Utilizing crystals harvested mainly from monsters, you synthesize a variety of quartz possessing different passive bonuses and elemental values. Each Art has its own requirement for use, and many require different elements (e.g. 3 Fire, 1 Wind). There's a bit of fun and challenge in deciding if the passive abilities that come with each quartz are more valuable than obtaining specific arts.

Crafts are character specific skills that have their own pool of points to draw from, rising through damage given and taken. Every playable character has at least one useful craft, some available at later levels than others, and crafts often bring a variety of effects along with damage. You can also store points to unleash S-Crafts, your most potent skills. Similar to desperation attacks/overdrives, these are available once your Craft Points have exceeded 100, and become stronger at the maximum of 200. You can also assign your favourite S-Craft to a hotkey and use it at any time to give yourself an extra turn. Better yet, you can jump ahead and steal that juicy 50% Attack power bonus the opponent was about to gain, applying it to your special attack in the process. Deciding who should conserve their CP for S-Breaks and whose most efficient utilizing crafts as needed is another tactics to consider.

Trail's has its own take on a New Game+ feature, where you can select exactly what things you want to bring: Want to keep all your recipes and bestiary information without an abundance of cash and gear? You can do that. Want your recovery items but not the level you finished the game at? You can do that too. In addition to five choices available regarding your previous game, there's a setting titled Enemy Strength, which you can modify from Normal, to Hard or Nightmare.

From my experience testing nightmare with none of the carryover options enabled, the only thing it changed is what it says in the name; an enemy's attack strength. But that made a considerable difference; pre-emptive attacks, battle turn order, S-breaks, and a healthy supply of consumables all became exponentially more important, and before the first hour was up, too! Monsters I had considered mere nuisances became very real threats in battle, and that's exactly what's missing in a lot of RPGs these days. I only question why the enemy strength option wasn't a choice to begin with.

Summary:

I'm reminded that it's easy to judge a book by its cover. Presentation is the weakest aspect of Sora no Kiseki, and will no doubt deter a few individuals through all future releases in the series. Even I had trouble taking all of the praise seriously after watching a couple game play videos.

But after a string of big budget games pushing the capabilities of our modern consoles without offering anything beyond a face-lift, this Legend of Heroes title is just what the doctor ordered. My personal distaste for a few melodies and campy villains was positively buried under all of the content in this titanic role-playing game. The game play is surprisingly interesting, with plenty of optional missions and battles that are actually engaging once you access the Nightmare setting post-game.

As good as the combat gets with its variety of mechanics, it pales in comparison to the dialogue. This title shines where it matters most; in the roles of not only Estelle and Joshua, but nearly every single character, playable or otherwise. Falcom deserves every accolade it gets, and the Legend of Heroes series deserves every chance to expand and bring new things to the table. Hopefully the partnership with XSEED will continue to raise the bar with more fantastic translations.

It takes something very special to warrant a return visit in a game that asks this much of your time, and Trails in the Sky has a cast that rivals any novel or movie in the fantasy genre, and will bring you back again and again.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/25/11

Game Release: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (US, 03/29/11)


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