Game Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Way back when the PSP was still amassing a library of games, I stumbled upon the three installments of The Legend of Heroes series (Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, A Tear of Vermilion, and Song of the Ocean) but didn’t end up giving them a try because, let’s face it, first impressions matter and my first impression of this series was that it was as generic as JRPGs come. This impression solidified when I looked up some reviews and saw that they were mostly average to negative.

Fast forward to a point where JRPGs were starting to trickle onto Steam and I noticed The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was in the upcoming section. I also started seeing a great deal of positive comments about the game, from its great female characters to the staggering amount of text and content.

headerMany JRPGs are about a protagonist who goes from humble beginnings in a small town to saving the world from some kind of Evil Overlord or Ancient Evil or both. Trails in the Sky is about a girl, Estelle, and her adopted brother, Joshua, trekking across the country in order to gain membership into the Bracer Guild, a guild of politically neutral mercenaries slash peacekeepers slash volunteer police force. They are also looking for Estelle’s father, Cassius Bright, a former high-ranking officer in the military and currently a respected Bracer.

You know how the protagonist in many RPGs is part of a band of mercenaries/in the military, and usually the tutorial level is dedicated to testing them to see if they make it in? Trails in the Sky turns that single test into a game-long excursion. The majority of Trails in the Sky is not spent tracking down an Ancient Evil, but wandering around helping people, slaying monsters, the usual things you’d expect a volunteer police force like the Bracers to do. It’s a far more personal quest, for the most part, and because of that, it can be a little slow at times. The characters also adhere to JRPG stereotypes for the most part: Estelle is an energetic tomboy with a habit of rushing headlong into danger, Joshua is her calm and collected counterpart, Schera is the sexy mentor, Olivier is the flirt (and a bit of a narcissist) who is constantly getting into trouble, Agate is the jerkass, Kloe is the polite young lady who only reluctantly joins the fray, the list goes on, and it’s only until very late in the game that character development happens which appears to subvert some of these tropes, and in spite of the fact that they neatly fit into their assigned roles, I found them unexpectedly endearing. It’s hard to hate Estelle when her enthusiasm is so infectious, or smile at the way Olivier tends to constantly land himself in hot water and need rescue by Mueller, his beleaguered childhood friend.

I should back up a bit and explain that Trails in the Sky was originally intended to be a single (huuuuuuuuuuuge!) game but had to be split into two games, likely due to technical limitations. Considering that this game along took me about fifty hours to beat, and Second Chapter apparently clocks in at around 70 – 90 hours, that’s more time than I spent playing Skyrim (currently at 99 hours).  This also explains why the game is a bit of a slow burn in terms of plot.

Trails in the Sky feels less like an epic quest to save humanity and more like a job that requires constant travel. Each town and city you stop in has its own flavour, from the mercantile city of Bose to the port city of Ruan, and every NPC (and I do mean every NPC) has something to say, before AND after every story event. The music can get a little repetitive, but is still pretty great, with tracks that reminded me of Chrono Cross (although I was a bit underwhelmed by the jazzy battle theme) and it fits the slow, nearly carefree nature of the game.

In addition to the main story, there are also a ton of sidequests that you can complete at the Bracer Guild. Completing these quests nets you Bracer Points, money (mira), and rare Quartz to give you an edge in battle. Although many quests are the sort of “go here and kill X number of things” many quests are also accompanied by plenty of flavour text that flesh out the characters and the world, and there are definitely some memorable quests, like the one where you pursue a thief by following the riddles they’ve left behind. There are also a number of hidden quests that you get by talking to certain people at certain points in the game. I decided to randomly speak to the priest in the first town and he gave me a letter to deliver to the priest in the next one. I didn’t manage to find and complete all of these quests, but found most of them in my fifty hour playthrough.

Combat in this game is turn-based. Using arts (magic) requires two turns: one to ready the spell and one to cast it. You can use this to your advantage by electing to sacrifice your turn to move characters out of the way of incoming magic attacks. Characters can also use skills, called Crafts, if they have enough CP (obviously, Craft Points) for it, you gain CP when attacking an enemy or being hit by one. When the CP bar is full, you can use special S-Crafts, similar to the way limits work in Final Fantasy VII. Honestly, the system is not bad, but it’s nothing earth-shattering, if anything, it’s serviceable. The process of learning arts is similar to the Materia system in FFVII as well. Enemies drop material known as Sepith that corresponds to various elements. Sepith can then be used to unlock slots (giving that character a wider range of abilities) or refined into quartz that can be placed into the slots. Quartz usually grants both passive and active abilities. For instance, a single quartz might let you use a basic fire spell in addition to raising your max HP. Some slots can only be fitted with a certain type of quartz. This may sound complicated on paper, but in practice it’s just a matter of fighting a ton of battles, unlocking slots, and using quartz to customize the characters.

If I had anything negative to say about the game, it would be that I wished they’d included a “Defend” button, because there were times when I didn’t want to do anything with my characters (including move them). Cutscenes are also unskippable, and since the characters can talk for quite some time before jumping into a fight, it would have been nice to have a skip button that didn’t require holding down the spacebar. Another annoyance is there doesn’t seem to be a way to back out of using S-Crafts, so if you clicked the red button by accident, be prepared to follow through. The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, but they have a certain charm to them and remind me of PS1 era 2D RPGs, and they aren’t awful by any means. The game could have really benefited from a fast travel system as well, although there is flimsy justification for it in story (Bracers should see as much of the land as they can), even the characters start complaining after awhile, and even though it never takes very long to walk from point A to point B, a fast travel system would have easily cut down on the tedium in a game that is already a slow burn.

As for potential triggers, there are a couple of scenes that involve Joshua cross-dressing (once for a play and once to infiltrate a heavily guarded area) that are played for laughs. Olivier frequently attempts to flirt with Joshua, making the latter very uncomfortable, and the only dark-skinned character in the game (Schera) is not only the most sexualized, in fact, pretty much the only sexualized character in the game, but appears to be a walking Romani stereotype (background involves being in a circus, fortune-telling, etc.). It’s disappointing, especially when the game has no other fanservice-y content to speak of, although there is a hot springs scene (usually a prime opportunity for fanservice), it’s used in a way to flesh out the relationship between Estelle and Joshua. Speaking of which, some might be a bit put off by the way their relationship develops. Although they are definitely not blood siblings, I did find myself kind of side-eyeing how Estelle kept referring to Joshua as her brother (and Cassius referring to him as his son) when she was obviously developing feelings for him.

Overall, , when compared to recent JRPG offerings, which seem to be focused more and more on fanservice for straight men, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a breath of fresh air. I am stoked for Second Chapter, which is coming out next week, and Trails of Cold Steel, which is coming out in December. If you’re willing to put up with the slow pace of its story and cliche (but endearing) characters, Trails in the Sky is one of the best, if not the best, JRPGs on PC right now and definitely one of the better JRPGs I’ve played in recent months.

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