Today marks the release of the English PC version of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, a fantastic JRPG from Japanese developer Falcom and localisation specialists Xseed Games. You should probably grab a copy.
Tempting as it is to leave this article as nothing more than that introductory paragraph — existing Trails in the Sky fans will know what I mean — I’m well aware that there are plenty of you out there who probably need a little more convincing than this, so let’s take a little while to ponder the game, why it’s so noteworthy, and why you should definitely support it. And also what on earth it is, for those who are unfamiliar with either Trails in the Sky specifically, or the Legend of Heroes series as a whole, which is entirely possible.
Grab yourself a drink, arm yourself with a suitably hefty-looking quarterstaff and prepare yourself, then; we’re going in.
I must confess that I was largely unaware of the rather generically named Legend of Heroes series prior to the first time I played Trails in the Sky, but it’s not really a problem if you’re in the same boat: much like many other Japanese role-playing game series, the individual games in the Legend of Heroes series stand by themselves, or in numerous cases are linked together into smaller subseries.
Beginning with a Dragon Slayer spinoff in 1989 (1992 in the West), the series has seen eleven installments to date, with the twelfth arriving in September of this year. Not all of these have made it out of Japan, however, and when they have done it has been a number of years after their Japanese counterparts: Trails in the Sky itself is only the sixth game in the series, for example, originally releasing in 2004 but not appearing in English for the first time until 2011, when its PSP incarnation was localised and released.
Can an RPG originally released in 2004 really be relevant, enjoyable and worth playing ten years later? The answer is, as you’ve probably already surmised, a resounding “yes”.
Why have these games taken so long to break out of Japan and make it West? Well, in the case of more recent installments, the sheer volume of text in the game has made them very difficult or impractical to localise. Trails in the Sky itself is a particularly substantial, dialogue-heavy RPG even by the normal standards of the genre, and its two follow-up chapters are even more sprawling. The Second Chapter that follows today’s release is already being worked on by a collaborative effort between Xseed and Carpe Fulgur (of Recettear fame) but is still a while off; meanwhile it is, at present, questionable whether we’ll see Trails in the Sky the 3rd in English at all due to the sheer amount of manpower that would be involved in localising it — if it does cross the ocean to English speaking territories, it may not be Xseed’s relatively modest operation that handles it, if the company’s executive vice president Ken Berry is to be believed.
But we’re here to talk about Trails in the Sky rather than its subsequent installments. Can an RPG originally released in 2004 really be relevant, enjoyable and worth playing ten years after its Japanese players first got their hands on it? The answer is, as you’ve probably already surmised, a resounding yes.
Trails in the Sky follows the adventures of two main characters: Estelle is a spunky, tomboyish girl, while her adoptive brother Joshua is a rather more cool, calm and collected individual. The pair of them complement one another magnificently as the constant core of the ensemble cast, and although their adventure across the land sees them encountering numerous other characters, many of whom will join their party, it’s the relationship between these two characters that provides a firm foundation for everything else that goes on over the course of the story.
The relationship between Estelle and Joshua provides a firm foundation for everything else that goes on over the course of the story.
Their teenage nature is depicted unusually convincingly; rather than being the stereotypical truism-spouting JRPG heroes, both Estelle and Joshua are endearingly awkward and “human” at times in their own ways — Estelle’s somewhat tsundere nature often shines through, while Joshua has a tendency to retreat into his own little private world — particularly when it comes to contemplating how they feel about each other.
The impetus for adventure in the land of Trails in the Sky is initially provided by Estelle and Joshua’s desire to follow in their father’s footsteps and become “bracers” — officially licensed freelance adventurers who are often called in to deal with problems that local authorities don’t have the time, resources or capabilities to handle. As the game begins, both Estelle and Joshua are completing the final steps of their training, but the disappearance of their father Cassius just as they earn their licenses causes their journey proper to begin.
And what a journey; the land of Trails in the Sky is a lovingly realised one which, despite its technological limitations, is a pleasure to explore. Each new locale is very distinct from one another, and towns feel like far more than simple places to buy equipment and items. An extensive (and optional) sidequest system encourages you to explore the world in more detail, and often introduces you to minor characters that help to flesh out the context for the wider story as well as giving you a feel for the overall character of the different areas you’ll be visiting.
The game provides a nice balance between stereotypically “Eastern” and “Western” approaches to role-playing games, and it ultimately makes Trails into a strong, consistent, coherent-feeling game.
The overall plot may be relatively linear, but within the various beats of the story you’re free to tackle smaller tasks in whatever order you like, helping maintain a strong narrative without railroading the player too much, and giving an enjoyable amount of freedom without being overwhelming or compromising the coherence of the story as a whole. It’s a nice balance between stereotypically “Eastern” and “Western” approaches to creating role-playing games, and it ultimately makes Trails into a strong, consistent, coherent-feeling game.
Further adding to the game’s rather unconventional way of doing things is its excellent combat system. Rather than adopting the usual JRPG standard “two sides line up and hit each other in turn” approach, Trails in the Sky’s battle system takes the form of a lightweight strategy RPG, allowing combatants to move around on a grid and attack enemies with area-effect skills where appropriate; it’s rare you’ll simply be mashing the “attack” option to grind through enemies.
It’s rare you’ll simply be mashing the “attack” button to grind through enemies.
There’s also a Final Fantasy X-style turn order system, whereby you can plan your moves according to who or what is going to act next, and certain skills can even manipulate the turn order — hopefully to your advantage. Casting time is an issue for certain skills, requiring you to plan ahead, while other skills may be triggered outside of the normal turn order if you’ve built up sufficient resources to be able to do so.
Most notably, the game is enjoyable and well-balanced, offering a decent challenge to even experienced RPG fans without being overwhelming for newcomers. Combat always feels like something enjoyable and worth doing, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of the game, either; just as important to the overall experience as a whole is the ongoing plot and character development of the two leads in particular, and the rest of the ensemble cast alongside them.
All in all, then, despite being ten years old, Trails in the Sky remains a remarkably solid example of how to put together an excellent role-playing game, and is well worth your time, money and attention. Plus in terms of the magic “money per hour of enjoyment” ratio that is so important to some people, Trails in the Sky’s modest price on both Steam and GOG.com is hard to beat.
So what are you waiting for? You know what to do; support quality Western JRPG releases, and with any luck we’ll see a lot more of them in the future.