The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure Review: Improved In Nearly Every Way
I enjoyed The Legend of Heroes: Trails From Zero a great deal when I played it last fall, but it had a few pacing issues that put me off, and I couldn’t help but feel like the main cast was being overshadowed by the series’ legacy. It ended up being a good game, but those issues stopped it from achieving greatness.
The good news is that we only had to wait around six months for its direct follow-up, The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure, to make its way west after more than a decade and fix just about every issue I had with Trails From Zero. It even fixes things I didn’t realize needed fixing. Trails to Azure is not only one of the best games in The Legend of Heroes series, it stands with some of the greatest RPGs ever made.
A Direct Follow-Up
Picking up only a few months after Trails From Zero, Trails to Azure opens with the Special Support Section having gone their separate ways, at least temporarily. The four main cast members from the original game created an unshakeable bond, but they each have responsibilities of their own, and they’ve at least temporarily split up. Lloyd is chasing after a few loose ends from the first game’s conclusion, Elie is touring around with her grandfather, Tio has returned to help the company she works for test some technology, and Randy is helping the local military with training exercises.
Don’t think they’ll stay apart, though. The opening chapters of Trails to Azure may split the group up, but it’s only to give a few new characters, or at least new to the Special Support Section, a chance to shine. Unlike in the first game, your party in Trails to Azure will grow far beyond that core group. Eventually, you’ll have a full party of eight characters fighting beside you. While the cast of the first game remains the true main protagonists, growing the team allows for all sorts of new opportunities from both a gameplay and storytelling perspective.
You’ll need the extra help because the story of Trails to Azure goes to some wild places. Those who completed Trails From Zero will know a lot of what’s coming, which does feel a bit odd as, for a significant chunk of the game, you’ll know things your characters don’t, but even that knowledge won’t prepare you for many of the twists that happen in the second half of the game. This is a story of politics and war in a way that far surpasses the original game. Beloved returning characters and tons of interesting new ones help make it incredibly memorable. Even better, while there are plenty of references to the series’ wider history and lore and some very fun cameos, the core cast here never feel like they’re losing focus or not at the center of their own story. Bringing the same core group back allows for additional development that really allows them to shine.
Teaching An Old Wolf New Tricks
From a gameplay perspective Trails to Azure is far stronger as well. While the start may be a tad slow for some players once again, it’s nowhere near as slow as the prior game, and those who played Trails From Zero will see early on how things are developing and why what they’re doing is important. It makes for a far better-paced start, whether you explore the tons of great support requests you receive or just move ahead with the main story. That said, there’s a reason I keep bringing up Trails From Zero. This is not an RPG you should jump into without playing what came before. Everything here is far too connected to the previous game, and doing so would really hurt its impact. You don’t necessarily have to have played every Legend of Heroes game that came before it, but Trails From Zero should be looked at as a requirement.
Once you enter into combat, you’ll find the series’ familiar action. This is still a turn-based RPG with grid-based combat that places importance on positioning in a way that feels a bit like a strategy RPG. You can see a turn order for attacks that will feel familiar to fans of Final Fantasy X and Grandia, allowing you to plan out which enemies to take out before they can strike you and manipulate that turn order to take advantage of bonuses. I still think it feels excellent, but a few new twists greatly improve the experience. On top of your main party of four characters, you can keep up to two more characters with you in a support role. Not only can you swap them out between battles if needed, but they’ll also pop up in battle at random, getting in some extra attacks and providing additional support to your team. The help is welcome, especially against some of the game’s more difficult bosses. The back end of this game can be brutal. There’s also a new burst system which can power your characters up during critical sections of the game, which is useful, though the fact that it is only there for select dungeons and areas makes it easy to forget about at times.
As Trails to Azure still takes place in Crossbell, you’ll be revisiting a lot of familiar locales. There are definitely new areas to explore, but you’ll fight your way through a lot of places you’ve visited before. Trails to Azure does an excellent job of giving good reasons to return to all of these locations, though, and they’ve generally been given slight updates, so it doesn’t just feel like you’re retreading old ground. A new vehicle allows you to fast travel outside of Crossbell City this time as well, meaning you won’t have to spend too much time wandering through long paths you’ve traveled repeatedly. It’s impressive that despite this, Trails to Azure still ends up longer than its predecessor.
Worth The Wait
It is worth noting that this is still fundamentally the same game that was released in Japan for the PSP all the way back in 2011. You might think that would make it feel quite old at this point, but it frankly doesn’t most of the time. RPGs tend to stay pretty static in many ways, and Trails to Azure doesn’t feel particularly out of step with those released in 2023, though the graphics, while cleaned up a bit from their original release and featuring excellent art, aren’t particularly modern. I prefer this look to the 3D style the series has gone with in recent years, however, and one of the series’ best soundtracks really sets the tone. All of the quality-of-life features added in Trails From Zero, such as a fast-forward option, UI customization, and a conversation log, are back as well and are welcome, though they’re again reportedly more limited in the PS4 version of the game, which I didn’t have access to.
If I have any real complaint with Trails to Azure, it stems from one bizarre fixation that was present in Trails From Zero and is again present in Trails to Azure. That’s the development team’s love of having female characters harass and even assault each other. There were two characters in Trails From Zero who regularly did this, and they’re both back again. While their behavior has been toned down a bit, it’s still present. One new character, meanwhile, is introduced by sexually assaulting a member of your party, with the encounter mostly played for a joke despite the character’s clear discomfort. Trails to Azure seems to think because these are women doing this, it’s okay, but it really isn’t, and this is one of those situations where I really miss the slightly more creative localizations we used to see more frequently. The overall translation job in Trails to Azure is excellent, but while I know many players would cry censorship if moments like this were removed or altered, it would be a stronger game without them. Thankfully, there are only a couple of moments that are egregious, and they mostly take place early in the game.
Despite my one big issue with it, I couldn’t have asked for much more from Trails to Azure. It fixes almost every issue I had with Trails From Zero and improves itself in nearly every way. The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure stands comfortably alongside some of the greatest RPGs I’ve ever played and is an early Game of the Year contender. Fans of the genre definitely shouldn’t miss it.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PS4, PC; Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Nihon Falcom; Players: 1; Released: March 14th, 2023; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure provided by the publisher.