The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Review – Look! A Female Protagonist!

Yes, JRPGs on the PC…on Steam (And GOG), no less. It’s an amazing thing, isn’t it? You can’t go to any forum where Trails in the Sky is being discussed without seeing people proudly proclaiming the rise of the JRPG on the home PC platform. Of course, this is ignoring the endless stream of 16 bit throwback indie ones and the RPGmaker virus that has plagued Valve’s digital service over the past year or so…but yes, I see where fans are coming from. It’s a beautiful time to be a Japanese game fan and for now, it seems, your PC is finally joining in on the cutesy, turn-based, anime-inspired fun.

As far as JRPGs go, Xseed couldn’t have possibly picked anything more daunting than Trails. With a tremendous load of dialog and townsfolk that not only remark on your current quest but make note of (and often critique on) your progress, it made for one hell of a difficult task. So challenging, in fact, that Xseed managed to get translation help from Andrew “Space Drake” Dice of “Recettear” fame, who is now toiling away on the script for the planned release of the sequel.

I approached Trails as a bit of a noob, shockingly. It was always sitting there, waiting in my backlog of handheld games that I swore I’d play one day…until eventually the PC release was mentioned in the media and I decided to simply wait for that instead. The RPG’er in me always wanted to take a crack at the game but the PC gamer in me wanted to wait to play the so-called “superior” version of this landmark title.

So with the game installed on my PC and my logitech controller having been dusted off to play it, what did I think of this highly rated and universally beloved JRPG?

Not too bad.

Trails in the Sky is treated within the JRPG fandom in much the same way as Planescape Torment is within the western RPG fandom. That is to say, it is often held up as the greatest example of the fine art of storytelling that the genre has to offer. While I certainly don’t disagree with that assessment, I do wish that some of the excess amazing-ness that Falcom spent on the story could have been scraped off and plopped into the “combat” bucket.

First of all, Trails has an excellent story with vibrant towns, charming NPCs, clever Working-Designs-esque humor (Minus the Clinton jokes) and a fully fleshed out lore that can easily stand next to anything the rest of the genre has to offer. Though the characters do tend to fall into anime stereotypes, such as Estelle being the typical Tsundere and Scherazard doing an excellent “strict mother figure” impersonation, at least their dialog doesn’t revolve solely around the tropes that birthed them. As a matter of fact, the banter between characters is quite sharp and has been adapted quite well into our own language. The turns of phrase and the puns have all been so firmly fitted into English that this is one of the few JRPGs I’ve played where I cannot tell that the game was originally Japanese. Xseed’s team did a tremendous job with the writing and it really shows.

Which is fortunate, since the real meat of the game is found in its dialog boxes, where townspeople strike up detailed conversations with your heroes and do their best to escape the typical JRPG “palette swapped villager” curse. For that alone, I applaud the designers and encourage gamers everywhere to make at least one trip through the story to take in what they’ve so lovingly created here.

Though I wish it wasn’t yet another “Evil Empire” story with political upheaval and an amnesiac boy at the center of it, I was at least happy with how deep they dug into each character’s life and allowed their personalities to fully develop. It reminded me of the 16 bit Final Fantasy titles, back when supporting characters had as much meaning as the ones in your party who were doing the actual work.

Since we’re on the subject of characters, perhaps we should speak about our main hero. Estelle, one of the rare female RPG protagonists in the genre, really shines as the star of the game (Take that, Social Justice Warriors!).

She not only has the best insults and quotes of anyone in the game, but her aggressive nature and tomboyishness really make her stand out amongst her other JRPG females. A large part of the game’s enjoyment simply comes from seeing what she says to the various NPCs you encounter.

Adding to the story are the Phantasy Star 4 style “guild missions” that the game assigns to you. Each town has about a dozen or so of these little side quests, most of which are meant to reveal pieces of knowledge concerning the village’s inhabitants or the strange goings-on within their corrupt government.

While they aren’t necessarily mandatory, they open up more dialog, which as I’m pretty sure you have figured out by now is the game’s main selling point. With so much of the plot hidden behind those quests, you really can’t know the whole story unless you attempt to do each one.

It goes without saying then that Trails is one *long* game. If you want to complete each guild quest you might want to take a few vacation days, because your “time played” statistic is sure to hit the triple digits before you see the last boss.

While all of this is admirable, there is one big gripe I have with Trails. One that made me type out a dismissive “Not too bad” after the second paragraph of this review.

The combat.

Granted, the combat gives you a lot of options and seems content to rip-off Grandia’s much-beloved old “Mana egg” system of magic casting, but it also tends to become boring quite rapidly due to the formulaic and limiting nature of its leveling system.

First of all, combat is very long. Since you have to walk to your enemies by way of a giant grid and many of them have skills that throw you back a few squares, your typical non-storyline junk mob fight can last up to 3 minutes. This may not have seemed like much in the 80s or 90s, but after playing through nearly a dozen “Tales of” games and smashing the X button in Final Fantasy 13 for a month, it feels like I’m waiting for my baked ziti at Olive Garden on a Friday night.

As new skills began opening up, I found a way to significantly shorten the long and agonizing combat by simply using my weakest (but still capable of 2-shotting) melee skills and spamming them in every fight I had. This seemed to fix things, but quickly put me in trouble when I found myself three or four screens away from the nearest hotel and out of magic.

Since enemies have a habit of blending into the brown backgrounds, I would invariably get jumped half a dozen times on the way back, resulting in 5 minute slog-fests where I used standard melee attacks against them in much the same way a blind elderly man would bash his walking cane against a tank as it rolled over him.

…and I was grinding that far away from town because I wanted to increase the magic points I needed to get more powerful, which in turn would make future combat go much quicker. An endeavor I would realize was quite fruitless, since the game would begin shutting down experience rewards alarmingly quick, effectively preventing me from leveling beyond what it decided was an acceptable peak. Unless of course I felt that killing monsters which now gave me a single point of experience was fun…which it wasn’t.

You probably won’t see this mentioned in other reviews for the game since people are mostly concerned with storyline depth and lore, but for an oldschool gamer like me who loves min/max’ing and boosting his party to god-like status, it really bothered me that the combat was so stubborn and its rules so unbendable.

Don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t need to level grind to succeed at the game…I only wanted to level up in order to have a larger point pool for special attacks so I could make fights go faster during the more combat heavy portions of the game by doing special moves rather than time-consuming normal attacks. Unfortunately, the game did not approve of that tactic.

It also didn’t help that combat itself moves very slowly and there isn’t (as far as I could tell) any way to speed up the movements or animations of the game’s enemies. Combine that with the fact that the game always seems to curtail your level grinding *right before* the point where a normal attack would be strong enough to one-shot kill a normal enemy in that area and you have a special kind of hell for OCD min/max’ers like myself.

At times I wanted to retreat to a “Tales of” game where your average non-boss battle lasts about 15 seconds and level grinding isn’t such a problem.

Now before you go thinking Trails is somehow not worth your money or your time, realize that unless you are a big RPG statistics and combat nerd like myself, you probably aren’t going to feel the same way about its gameplay as I did. For most of you, Trails will be a memorable experience filled with tender moments that you’ll treasure for the rest of your days. You’ll not walk away disappointed in the slightest.

Unfortunately, if you want the same tight JRPG combat you find in modern titles like “Tales” or Final Fantasy, you’ll probably end up like me; sporting a bruise on your head from banging into your desk every 5 minutes.

Through it all though, Trails is a great example of why the PC needs JRPGs and why the genre doesn’t deserve the negative connotation it often gets stuck with.

Buy it, support the genre, and hope this convinces other Japanese companies to release their games on digital services like Steam and GOG as well.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was reviewed on PC using a code provided by XSEED Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

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Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.

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