A fitting followup to Nihon Falcom’s exceptional adventure
I’ve always held a deep-seated respect for Nihon Falcom. In an age of games with budgets regularly exceeding hundreds of millions of dollars and more often than not crammed with micro-transactions and DLC, Nihon Falcom is a game studio that remains exceedingly “pure”. Their games don’t rely on high-end graphic engines or big Hollywood names backing their games via expensive advertisements to sell their releases. As a matter of fact, you’ll hardly see any of Falcom’s titles advertised in the west almost anywhere. Their games almost always seem to rely purely on word-of-mouth to spread their popularity, and as of late it seems to be working very well for the company as far as western audiences are concerned. The studio’s president, Toshihiro Kondo, has been quoted as saying “Our primary focus is making our games fun first”. This holds true in all their games, and is the primary reason I respect this company so much. This philosophy holds especially true in the Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky series.
The series debut of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was originally released on PC in Japan in 2004, and was later ported to the PSP in 2006, which was subsequently released stateside for PSP by publisher XSEED Games in 2011. In this title, players assume the role of Estelle Bright, a 16 year old girl aiming to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a fully-fledged “Bracer”, a sort of cross between a Knight and a Peace Officer charged with protecting and assisting the citizens of the various nations within the country of Liberl. Joining Estelle in her quest is her adopted brother, Joshua Bright, who is also aiming to become a Bracer. Throughout this journey, Estelle and Joshua slay monsters, meet many colorful characters and help them out, do some fishing, get involved in government conspiracies, and come to terms with their feelings for each other. All this culminates in a (attempting to keep things as spoiler free as possible here) cliffhanger ending that comes completely and unexpectedly out of left field and leaves you yearning for more.
The Second Chapter, originally released in Japan for PC in 2006 and PSP in 2007, begins right where the First Chapter leaves off, which may be a bit of a problem for players who haven’t experienced the First Chapter yet. The Second Chapter starts assuming you’ve already experienced the First, so newcomers may find themselves somewhat lost and not as engrossed as those that are already vested in this story from the beginning. For those players, it may be a better idea to play the First Chapter before delving into this title, it’s a very worthy title on its own and definitely worth a purchase.
After the events at the end of the First Chapter (again, trying to keep things as spoiler free as possible), Estelle and Joshua become separated. After coming to terms with their separation, Estelle resolves to get stronger and find him. She is also tasked with finding out what the motivations of the newly-revealed secret society “Ouroboros” are. Many familiar faces and locations make their return in the Second Chapter, making the continuation of the story feel seamless. There are also some new faces to see to keep things fresh and interesting.
Gameplay remains largely unchanged from the first title. Wandering around towns and the game’s various fields plays out like a traditional RPG from the same mid-2000’s era. The characters and (most) monsters are pre-rendered 2D sprites while the environments are 3D. The camera can be rotated via the L/R triggers on the PSP and Vita to get a different view on your surroundings, which can be very handy if you’re treasure hunting in dungeons or tackling the games myriad sidequests as part of your Bracer duties. The scope of this game is massive, and players will find themselves sinking a lot of hours into this title, easily over 60 hours.
As for combat, it plays out like a small-scale Strategy RPG, pretty much the same as in the First Chapter. You and up to three other active party members and the enemies you fight are placed on a field and each of you move via a grid. Each turn you move a certain amount of spaces depending on your level/capability and can attack the enemy when in range. Different characters have weapons with differing ranges, so there is a fair amount of strategy involved when it comes to combat. It can be tricky at times, but combat is fast and fluid, and the controls are simple and streamlined.
One feature that returns, but has been slightly revamped, is the Orbal Arts system. Your party members have “Orbments” which are accessories they wear and place “Quartz” into. Quartz of various colors and abilities can be placed in slots on the Orbment, which give your party members enhanced stats as well as access to magical skills. This time the Orbments have been augmented with extra slots which can be further upgraded, giving you access to even more skills than in the First Chapter. Another neat addition to combat is chain attacks, in which two party members can attack at the same time. It’s not a very innovative addition, but it is a nice touch to keep combat from feeling stale and repetitive.
A nice bonus for players who have completed the First Chapter is an option to carry over your character’s levels and stats. Money, Quartz, and equipment are unfortunately not carried over, but if you did well on your Bracer duties in the First Chapter and use this New Game Plus-esque feature, Estelle will start with a special bonus item or two. Surprisingly, this almost feels like it makes the game more difficult. Even during the prologue’s first few fights I felt as though I had to carefully plan my moves or else my party would be quickly wiped out, especially during boss fights.
Music is traditional Falcom-style fare. While it’s not exactly as memorable or as energy-building as the Ys series’ pounding rock melodies, the music does a great job of setting the mood. Towns have peaceful, laid-back tunes, dungeons have a mysterious air to them, and battles have a peppy, jazzy step to keep them more upbeat. The battle tunes do feel a bit odd at first, but you quickly get used to them, and I found myself paying more attention to the combat itself anyways.
The game’s strongest asset, and perhaps my favorite as well, is the writing. I’ve played quite a few RPG’s in my time, but Trails in the Sky is perhaps the best written RPG I have ever had the opportunity to play. Estelle is a strong female lead, is likable, and has character flaws that don’t detract from said likability. Reading the conversations between characters almost feels like you’re listening in to a group of friends talking with one another, and that is due in part to the masterful translation and localization work done by the very talented members of XSEED. Every character you come across has their own quirks and hangups, and the bad guys do a good job of making you angry. It all serves to make the game that much more enjoyable and immersive.
While the Second Chapter of Trails in the Sky is an excellent game, it is not without its faults. As mentioned earlier, these games are from the mid-2000’s, so the graphics are certainly dated compared to other recent games, especially when making comparisons on PC. Additionally, while navigation around towns is mostly painless, some dungeons can be labyrinthine. This can be a little frustrating on its own, but you don’t have access to any sort of a map while dungeon crawling, so you either have to memorize where you’ve been, look up a guide, or bust out a pen and some paper. Some sort of map system in these areas would have really helped to alleviate this problem.
While it does show its age and has some minor flaws, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC is an amazing follow up to the already exceptional debut episode. Whether you purchase the game on the Playstation Network to play on the go via your PSP or PS Vita or via Steam to have a more traditional experience on your PC, you should most certainly check out this series. Especially so if you’re feeling the itch for a traditional RPG experience.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PSP, Vita, PC (Reviewed); Publisher: XSEED Games ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1; Released: October 28, 2015 ; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review code provided by The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC‘s publisher, XSEED Games.