The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is about a group of would-be heroes that are a part of a peacekeeping organization called Bracers who take on various jobs, from exterminating monsters to fetching specific ingredients or items of value and protection of goods or people as they move about in the wilderness. Unlike most role-playing games, which tend to start off with the village idiot/scoundrel/troublemaker/etc. who may, or may not be, an orphan (if they are not, then in the opening scenes some attack on the village will make they an orphan) who most likely has some sort of latent super power that ensures that they are the only ones on the planet that can stop “Evil Mr. Badguy” from conquering the known nations and then destroying the world. While I completely enjoy these underdog-gone-superhero tropes and cliches, when something new pops up, like an Atelier game, then I am almost immediately hooked.
I have long been a JRPG fan, dating back to the original Final Fantasy as it was the first RPG that really hooked me in ( I played Dragon Warrior and it just did not do “it” for me until later years ) which then laid the groundwork for a die-hard love for the genre. Over the early years of the genre there have been very few major ( and minor ) role-playing games that I have not played, but in recent years it has been a lot harder to maintain the habit. With a plethora of role-playing games coming out on more than just two or three consoles (I can think of eight different gaming devices!), in order to get around to all of them I would need to clone myself a few times over just to be able to afford the time. Fortunately role-playing games are quite bountiful in this day and age and gamers have the luxury of choice without being inundated with poorly made and/or sub-par titles due to the vast array of choices. The downside to it all is that there are some excellent titles that are being released and the gamers are simply unaware of it.
Take Alpha Kimori as an example. It is a title that a lot of users may not have heard about which is a shame since it is an extremely solid game whose influences, like Xenogears and Chrono Trigger, really shine through. The same goes for the title that I bring to you today, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky; in all honesty I had known absolutely nothing about this title until my EIC lobbed an email my way a few weeks ago, which is a shame really, because this game is pretty rock solid. Fortunately the Trails games enjoy a bit more publicity as they come from the same studio that brought us Ys (a spectacular series of games that you must play) and not everyone has their head in the clouds the same way I do. Some titles, as you likely know, can sneak up behind you the grab onto you and never let you go; the question is, can The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky hold onto you long enough to make a lasting impression?
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky actually starts off with some
young heroes actually going through the paces of a pseudo-basic military
training course that acts as the final exam before they are accepted
(or not) into the guild of Bracers. The Bracers are essentially heroes
in training and our protagonists are already training for that purpose
which negates the need for some malevolent force dropping down from the
sky to crush this tiny little village that has literally no importance.
As you work your way through the opening hours you will learn a little
more about our two primary heroes, Estelle and Joshua, and in those
first few hours you may find yourself falling for these characters;
Nihon Falcom have really outdone themselves when it comes to character
development in Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Okay; enough with
the rambling, as I was working towards a specific point. The Legend of
Heroes: Trails in the Sky, which primarily follows Estelle and Joshua,
is a tale about rookie members of the worlds’ peacekeeping organization
that will have them uncovering truths about family members and meeting
new friends as they work as Bracers and try to make the world a better
Graphically, The Legend of Heroes fits in comfortably with other tactical JRPG greats; using a style of graphics similar to the Agarest series, Trails in the Sky blends traditional sprite-based characters with rich 3D backgrounds resulting in a new yet nostalgic style. Special attacks (called Arts or Crafts) use fast and flashy particle effects that show no sign of slowdown whatsoever. Even with four party members and just as many enemies on-screen at a time, Trails stays fast, smooth and very attractive. Cutscenes are animated in the same fashion as your favorite anime, with smooth hand-drawn characters in that classic anime look. While sharp, there is a massive problem (with an unforgivable ‘workaround’) with the animated cutscenes; on computers with Nvidia hardware in them, the animated cutscenes double up on screen, essentially splitting your screen in half and it shows you the negative colorspace (white is black, black is white). Though the developers are aware of the issue and have not yet had a patch out, there are two workarounds. The first is silly, you simply minimize the game, go to the install directory … and watch the videos in your media player of choice. The second is to go through and follow an awfully shady tutorial to add some “3rd party code” to the Nvidia configuration to enable it to work; who knows if it would affect the performance of the card with other games; in all honesty I stayed away from that supposed ‘fix’ because it is a bit too shady for me.
I simply skipped the cutscenes and viewed them afterwards. For a game in a genre that lives and breathes the storytelling aspects of a game, having a failure like this is utterly unacceptable; I understand that it is hard to anticipate the behavior of a title when it goes public, but a part of the ‘experience’ is how the development team reacts to these issues when they appear. Right now, Nihon Falcom is not reacting and this makes me sad. Outside of that pretty epic fail, the quality of the sprite animation is superb; motion, such as running or attacking is so fluid and so well pieced together that you would expect this type of attention to be paid in a fighting game (like the Darkstalker series … stupendous animation in that line), not in a role-playing game. If only they could address the issue with the cutscenes, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky could be a top contender for my favorite pseudo-tactical turn-based role-playing games.
On the topic of development teams reacting to major issues when a title is released, where Nihon Falcom failed in addressing the cutscenes issue, they were incredibly fast to release a few patches related to controls. When Trails in the Sky first launched the gamepad support was iffy at best, sometimes assigning all actions to a singular button (like the A button on a 360 gamepad) which cause the controls to simply not work. A few helpful forum-goers had an easy workaround to get it sort of working within a few hours of the launch, however, Nihon Falcom responded with a patch within a day or two which fixed the problems. This was a godsend as playing an RPG game with that 3/4 top-down perspective with a keyboard and mouse is about as fun as getting a paper cut on your eyeball (think about that a moment …).
Once the patch was live and applied, controls were just as heavenly as could be, especially because of the scope of customizable options is out of this world. You can literally customize every option imaginable to work with your particular setup; you do not normally find that sort of customization in a role-playing game, generally you are given only a handful control options that can be customized. Not in The Legend of Heroes though, you can remap every key on the gamepad. Quite nice, actually, and I never realized how wonderful it is to reassign keybindings for a controller. Overall the controls are excellent, though I noticed that while running in the overview map it became a bit problematic when the response was so touchy that I would fly right by my intended turn or point of focus; not a bad thing, but something to definitely get used to.
The level of customization of the control scheme is a good segue into the overall gameplay mechanics for Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Customization, or on a more broad scale, “choice” is one of the major draws of the role-playing genre. The ability to choose your loadout, the ability to choose your responses, to shape your world, to tailor your game to your tastes and experiences, has been a feature that has been a staple of role-playing games since the very beginning. If you wanted to play the original Final Fantasy with 4 White Mages or Two White Mages, a Red Mage, and a Black Mage, you could, as you had the choice. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky continues this time-honored tradition to some degree, allowing you to build and play the game in your own manner, however there is one thing that you will essentially be forced to do; grind.
Now, I am a fan of these types of games; in most cases it takes me a few hours to get out of the starting zone as I am way too busy grinding to move on with the story. A part of the JRPG genre is the grind; building a character that is as powerful as can be and is using the best weapons / armor that can be had are a big part of what JRPG games are about. I personally find myself much more attached to the game’s characters when grinding is necessary. Another big selling point for the grind in The Legend of Heroes is that the combat is just plain fun. Using a grid-based system that is reminiscent of turn-based games like Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics, but using a style of movement / action that is slightly more action-RPG oriented while still having the ability to choose to Attack, Move, Arts, Crafts, Items and Run. Using this blend of very successful combat mechanics, Trails in the Sky manages to stay at the forefront of my mind when I think of the genre as a whole. Not because it brings something new to the table, but because it respectfully recycles some of the best tidbits from other games.
By way of “best tidbits from other games,” The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky takes a cue from greats like Final Fantasy for the soundtrack and the Tales of … series for voice acting. While some of you that are in the know may scoff when you hear Johnny Yong Bocsh, one of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, as Joshua Bright (one of the protagonists). I say nay, do not scoff, since Johnny gave us the absolutely superb Vasch the Stampede ( Trigun anime), a handful of characters in the Dissidia Final Fantasy games, and better yet (like that’s not awesome enough), he is the voice of about a bazillion English-dubbed anime ( Trigun, Tengen Toppa Guren Lagann, Durarara!, Bleach, Code Geass, I could go on). Simply put, the guy is my hero and the minute I hear him I was sitting up straighter and listening harder; he is excellent. So, if you could not tell, I am a fan, but Estelle Bright, the other main protagonist, is voiced by the utterly amazing and spectacular Stephanie Sheh. For all of you squares out there who are not sure who that is, shame on you and you should really sit down and reevaluate your priorities, as they are in the wrong place. Stephanie Sheh gave life to Rio from Durarara!, Orihime from Bleach, Chiyuri from Accel World, Shizuka from Knights of Sidonia, Hinata (and Pain, and Tin) from Naruto: Shippoden, amongst many others. Needless to say she is solely responsible for young men and women falling in love with some of the richest characters in anime. That is just a few of her anime roles; as a voice actor for video games she is all over the place, from Final Fantasy XIII (massively underrated game; I loved it), the Hyperdimension Neptunia games, Grand Theft Auto V, and Bioshock 2. Stephanie is popular because she is excellent, and she is excellent because I say so. Simple as that.
In all seriousness, though, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a wonderful title. While it has a number of fairly big bugs, the gameplay and story as rock solid and bring out the best in a genre that needs more attention. I may be the target audience that Nihon Falcom had in mind, with their use of well-known voice actors to fans of anime / certain types of video games, and the emphasis on grinding, captivating combat, a wonderful crafting (cooking) system, and an engaging story, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, with a little work will be one of the better JRPG releases of 2014. The problem is the bugs are just too prevalent in the game and the workarounds (not fixes) are simply not acceptable in this day in age. For all of its faults, though, I am deeply attached to The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky.
Review by Robert