The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky review

A legendary start

2 July 2020
Played on Windows

The Legend of Heroes franchise is Nihon Falcon's magnum opus, first released in Japan way back in 1992 and, at the time of writing, is on its third story arc within the third sub-series of a franchise, which, at the time of writing, has 14 games in its mainline as well as a number of spin-offs.

Trails in the Sky (which later became known as Trails in the Sky FC, or "First Chapter"), is the starting point for the Trails sub-series, and it goes to show that good writing, dialogue and plot can keep a game from seeming dated, even decades later.

TL;DR

A fantastic story woven into the mid-2000s JRPG genre. A lengthy outing at an average of around 40 hours, much of which is non-interactive dialogue, and there is no voice acting, which can be off-putting if reading isn't your thing.

Solid gameplay mechanics are overshadowed by a lacking tutorial in a time before gameplay elements were carefully explained along the way.

There's a meaty main quest and substantial amounts of side quests, but very little hand-holding, and it's easy to get lost unless you're paying careful attention to the quest notes.

The Good

  • Great plot and characterisation
  • Plethora of playable characters
  • Lengthy detailed campaign
  • Solid tactical combat

The Bad

  • Requires a lot of reading
  • Game mechanics can be confusing at first
  • Confusing and clunky menu interface
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Cassius, Estelle, and Joshua at home

First things first

Trails in the Sky is very much a classic turn-based JRPG in almost the strictest sense. As a Westerner, and particularly one whose only experience of JRPGs in my youth was Final Fantasy VII, the experience was a bit of a culture shock. We're just not used to these kinds of games, but rather than allow that to be a barrier, I was able to treat it as a learning experience.

It's a 3D environment, presented in an isometric, rotatable camera perspective, with sprites for characters, but the art is charming. It's cutesy, but still relatable, and set in a steampunk version of a society that went industrial almost overnight, with a lot of relics of the pre-industrial days still present.

Combat is played out on a grid in a turn-based fashion, with a "magic" system, although the game has its own lore regarding this, and there's the usual healing, elemental, and area-of-effect "spells" against a wide variety of enemy types. There are no random battles, although monsters do appear on the world map, so it's the player's choice whether to engage most of the time, although their placement makes it a necessity at other times.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - The Rolent tower

The Premise

You play as two protagonists, Estelle and Joshua Bright, children of famed war hero Cassius Bright. The game opens with your introduction to these characters, as Cassius saves Joshua as a young boy, during the war, and brings him home. As the boy has no living relatives that he knows about, Cassius decides to adopt him, and he becomes brother to Estelle, whose mother, Cassius's wife, was already out of their lives.

This arc of Trails is set in the nation of Liberl, which has an organisation called the Bracers. They're a bit like an unofficial police force crossed with the boy scouts. People will report their problems to the Bracers, which might be anything from a kidnapping to "I've lost my ring", and with a Bracer "guild" in each major city, its members are tasked with solving these issues.

The game introduces us to Estelle and Joshua at age 16, which tends to be a trope within JRPGs: teens saving the world, which itself is a reflection upon Japanese values and society. They are setting out to take their first steps in the Bracers, at the same time as their old man is taking a trip abroad for some time, and that's where the player is thrown into the action.

As a premise, it's pretty original. Not the teens-save-the-world part, although this isn't presented as a series of world-shaking events by any means, but the adoption of Joshua into the family, at the same age as Estelle, and their relative youth, gives the player a way to see both the female and male perspectives on events and discover much of this world for the first time along with the protagonists.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Estelle Bright's character sheet

Two Protagonists, Two Perspectives

Much like other interesting character pairs such as Mulder and Scully, Estelle and Joshua show two very different personalities for much of the game, giving the player a broader perspective on various events.

Estelle is the hot-headed, act-first-think-later type, who isn't particularly studious or... er... "bright" (despite her name), whereas Joshua is the lonesome silent and thoughtful type. Dialogue-based confrontations are mostly led by Estelle, while sleuthing and other enquiry-based conversations are Joshua's domain.

In spite of their obvious differences, both of the main characters are well fleshed out and a strong bond is portrayed between them. The narrative definitely plays up the sibling rivalry, sometimes to comedic effect, and sometimes maybe even goes over the top with it, but you're left with a definite sense they are on the same page when it comes to survival instincts and work ethic. 

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Scherazard joins the party

Other playable characters

Did I mention this game is long? It's split into a number of main chapters, and in each, the two main protagonists are joined by a number of other playable characters, some of whom return from previous chapters, while others are present only for a one-off.

This is a great way to keep things fresh, and I feel it's a big pay-off. While many role-playing games, JRPGs included, start with a single protagonist or a small party, and the party grows as the game progresses, it's not common to find a game where other characters leave the party, ostensibly for good, when a chapter ends, so it's a refreshing change in Trails versus games where your party fills up and stays that way.

The party is made up of four characters at most, but in Trails you won't be picking from a roster where some party members must be left behind. It's not always four either. Sometimes it's just Estelle and Joshua.

Although I came across a few characters I didn't particularly like, I never found one I thought was written badly. My attitude towards them was largely shaped by their character traits, and somewhat by Estelle and Joshua's thoughts on them. Even though some characters are only with the party for a short amount of time, they're largely not one-note, with a decent amount of depth and their own perspective on the world.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - An S-Craft in action

Combat and Levelling

Combat encounters can start when running into a monster on the world map, or at certain other times when the game requires a fight to take place. I particularly hate random battles in JRPGs, for a lot of reasons, so I found it great that there are none here, but those players looking for a more combat-heavy playthrough can still find plenty of action just by running into more monsters on purpose.

Combat is turn-based, and apart from a basic attack, there's two systems: arts and crafts. To a Westerner, this sounds like going home to do a bit of cross stitch and have a nice cup of tea, but this terminology is in so many JRPGs that it's probably more to do with the words not having a decent English translation.

Crafts are a range of skills that are (more or less) unique to each character, and more are gained by levelling up, whereas arts are the "magic spells" in the game, and the list of available arts for each character depends on their quartz loadout (more on quartz later).

There's also a particularly satisfying "S-Craft" (like, super craft, I guess), which is like a limit break, or ultimate ability. When this becomes ready to fire off, it can be done at any time, interrupting the turn order, which adds a really nice extra tactical element.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Casting an art in the midst of combat

The battles play out on a grid, where each character is allowed to move towards an enemy if attacking, or explicitly use their turn to move. This adds the strategy of positioning, because some friendly and enemy abilities have an area of effect. Some attacks can also cause knockback, so it's possible to carefully push enemies closer together, in order to follow up with an area of effect attack straight afterwards.

There's also abilities that can affect the turn order, making enemies wait longer for their turn, or making your characters take their turn sooner.

The "magic" system is elemental, so there are fire, water, air, and earth spells, as well as a few other categories like time and mirage, with various buffs and items that can protect against or completely resist certain types of attack.

I found the combat system to be extremely fun even over the course of dozens of hours. The main "on the map" enemies are generally a pushover, and the challenge is in being able to survive enough of these in a row to make it to the next town, rather than worrying about dying on the first one you encounter.

Conversely, the boss battles and other various "scripted" combat events are much tougher. Sometimes it's possible to know what you're going up against, such as one "tower" area where most of the enemies use fire attacks and are weak against water, but other times you just don't know, so you're forced to strategize there and then.

This did cost me a few game overs throughout my playthrough when there were new or unexpected types of damage, but the game allows you to instantly start any battle over from the start, so it doesn't punish you for failing due to coming across something you've never seen before, because you get to try again without a delay.

In general, early encounters are pretty boring because your characters don't have many options at the start, so it's mostly just pressing the standard attack until the enemy is dead, and I would have liked to see more variety in the early game, but it's definitely worth enduring until the fights become more interesting.

Due to the way experience works, fighting weaker enemies will yield very few experience points, but it can still be worth it to collect the items they sometimes drop. This did get a bit frustrating when an entire area is littered with unavoidable single very easy enemies, and I was wishing there was an "auto-resolve" for those situations where the enemies basically can't even hurt you, but these situations were really rare.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Mysterious characters in a boat at night

Performance

It's rare I can say this but the performance of this game is outstanding on Windows. I played my Steam copy entirely through Steam Link, using a controller, and I had no crashes or performance drops of any kind.

It's an older game, first released in 2004, and released in English on Steam in 2014. The original Windows version in Japan ran on DirectX 8, which is positively ancient. There's now a DirectX 9 option, thankfully.

Hey, it's not going to win any graphical awards in 2020, but the graphics stand up just fine, conveying the necessary information while retaining a bunch of charm.

The benefit to modern gamers is that everything is fast. The game starts up in seconds, loads a saved game in seconds, transitions between areas in the blink of an eye, and seems to be super stable. The Xbox controller "just works" with no setup required, and there's enough buttons on the controller to perform any action in the game.

Since latency isn't an issue with this style of game, I was able to play the entire game through Steam Link over WiFi, with the only small issues being a bit of blockiness when the signal was poor, but that's not an issue with the game itself.

I can't stress this enough, especially if you're like me and you're reluctant to pick up PS2-era games because of compatibility issues on modern systems: this worked flawlessly, better even than some new releases.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - An airship at the dock

Orbments, Quartz, and Steampunk

As mentioned a bit earlier in the review, the world of Trails has a steampunk vibe. According to the lore, it's been about fifty years since "orbments" were discovered. These are basically a handwave to explain powered devices and machines. You need lights? Use an orbment! Need motors or gears to turn? Orbments! Need special magic effects in com... you get the idea.

The interesting part of the world-building is the relatively recent discovery of this technology, as rural areas don't have much of this steampunkiness, and look more stone-and-wood in their construction, while cities are full of lights and have airship docks for regular public transport.

This also allows the game to play with the idea that society doesn't yet understand this "orbment" stuff in much detail, introducing various in-universe conspiracy theories and legends about "special" types of orbments and their effects.

From a gameplay perspective, you collect these little shards from defeated enemies, in various colours, such as red for fire, blue for water, and so on. If you have enough, you can craft a "quartz", which can be placed in a slot on one of your characters, and grants special arts.

For example, crafting and equipping the "Attack 1" quartz grants the ability to cast a simple fire spell for that character. Yeah, either the writers got lazy with names for things, or they didn't translate well, because mostly they're just attack 1, attack 2, and so on, indicating more powerful and costly alternatives.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Estelle and Joshua admire the view from a hotel balcony

Obscured by jank

The game isn't great at explaining the details of these mechanics. I'm sure it might well be somewhere in the fine print of the many in-game "manual" pages, but I certainly didn't find it, and only discovered the true potential of the quartz system about 15 hours into my playthrough.

Initially, I thought that the "spell" was contained "inside" the quartz, so if you equip "HP 1" it would give you the simple healing spell, and "HP 2" would give you a better one, and so on. It became clear this wasn't the case, because the game freely lets you customise and equip almost any quartz on any character, and I just wasn't getting the results I expected.

There's actually a more complicated system in place that I'd totally missed, but, once I understood this, the customisation became a lot more fun. By equipping a red quartz, your character gets what I'm going to call "red points". A low-level one might give 1 point, and a high-level one maybe 5 points. It's the number of points in each category that determines what arts (spells) you have available, and when you realise this (hopefully from the outset, unlike me), the strategic options start to shine.

You could give a character access to powerful healing spells early on, but only by equipping a large number of blue quartz (quartzes?), and when you have a single more powerful blue one, you can free up a few slots for something else, or just go even higher with the amount of healing arts you can use.

Most of the characters in the game can have pretty much any quartz setup, which is such a great feature. The "girl character" doesn't always have to be healer. In fact, you might want to turn Estelle into a combat beast in your playthrough and have Joshua doing the healing. Or just swap their roles, or have a bit of healing for each.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Chapter 1 introduction screen

Story and Progression

The game splits the story into a number of discrete chapters. Since there's a Bracer guild in every major city on the game's world map, it's up to Estelle and Joshua to do some tasks at each one, and gain a recommendation. Each chapter involves gaining the recommendation before progressing to the next city to progress the story.

Simple, on the face of it. It's the way the story develops that makes this such a compelling game. Every time you arrive somewhere new, there's something going on. But not in a Bethesdy-Skyrim shit way. You know, go to the mage guild, cast a spell, you're suddenly granted access to it, then go kill a few things or collect some random crap, and suddenly you're the leader of the guild.

Instead, Trails leads with mysteries throughout. In one of these, a package arrives addressed to Estelle and Joshua's father, but he's away on business or something. They debate whether to open it (spoiler, they're 16, so they have no restraint), and they don't really understand what's inside.

The game doesn't immediately focus on this part of the story, and you move on, only to have this mysterious package come back up in the story later at various points when you have more information. This kind of storytelling is far more natural and makes you want to find out what's going to happen next. When you consider there's a large number of interwoven narrative threads like this, the compelling gameplay starts to emerge.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Tita and Estelle share a hot spa

Cutesy

There's a few moments where the game goes full on "awww", especially when one character is introduced, who turns out to be younger than Estelle and Joshua, but highly intelligent and a very skilled mechanical engineer... and female.

Bucking the trend of a typically male-dominated career is quite typical in Trails and it's honestly great to see, but it's the way that the protagonists are written here that is especially well crafted. Estelle and Joshua are able to convey both their respect for this character's unusual skill, and their awareness of her vulnerability and inexperience, and dial in just the right responses to help her get where she needs to go.

This isn't really ever spoon-fed to the player, and nor should it be: it's just how I imagine this situation might play out in real life. The two protagonists themselves are quite young and lacking life experience, and have to deal with someone even younger, but in a way that isn't patronising, and what results is a beautiful piece of storytelling.

Pacing and Side Quests

Overall, thanks to the chapter-based gameplay, I found the pacing was excellent. The story kept moving at a reasonable pace, despite there being so many things going on, but there are always a number of side quests to take on in the nearest Bracer guild.

I think it's excellent that all of these are entirely optional, with enticing rewards. They vary in quality, with some being a simple fetch quest, especially early on, and some being almost like a fully fleshed out story of their own. I did try to take on all of these in my playthrough, with varying degrees of success.

I mentioned earlier that the game really doesn't hold your hand. If you wait too long, side quests will expire and you'll automatically fail. There's no punishment for this; it just means you don't get the reward, but there's no notification: you just turn up one day and the quest is failed.

The quests are often simply attributed to a particular character's name in a city somewhere. Given the cities are fairly large, it's really only possible to find some of these characters if you have explored and talked to them before. There's absolutely no quest markers on anything in this game. Sometimes, you'll get the name of a bar or hotel in which you need to meet, and other times not.

For example, when a dock worker left a message at the Bracer guild to say he had lost his ring, he was fairly easy to find. There's only so many characters at the docks and it's straightforward to talk to him, but when you do, you discover he has no idea where he last saw it except he knows he dropped it somewhere while in the docks.

This quest was simply carefully exploring all of the docks area to find the missing item, almost like a pixel hunt. It's one of the less compelling side quests in my opinion, but it's a good demonstration of what you're up against.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - A restaurant in Bose

Attention to Detail

You know the score when you're playing certain games: you come across a doorway, there's no prompt, you can't enter. This happens again and again until you find the right door, and you think, "a-HA! There must be something plot-related in here, or the designers wouldn't have fleshed out this area!"

In Trails in the Sky, every building interior and every room is accessible and fleshed out, whether there's a point in going in there or not. Alarmingly, but not uncommon in the JRPG genre, you can just burst into random people's houses, and when you talk to them, they'll greet you with whatever they were doing yesterday, or joke about their husband, instead of instantly calling the cops on you. Well I guess you kind of are the cops in a way.

I so very rarely see this level of detail in video games that I felt unusually satisfied whenever I encountered a new area. Sure, each "city" in the game is a small collection of buildings, truncated to save time, and nothing like the size of a real city, but when I got there, I knew I could pretty much go anywhere and talk to anyone, instead of running into random pointless doorways that lead nowhere.

Each city and village has its own unique flavour, from coastal towns with stunning (for the PS2-era) views, to the industrial feel of Zeiss. A huge amount of world-building has gone into this place. You can tell how many people live in a place by carefully looking at how many beds there are. There's always some kind of kitchen area for preparing food, and very few layouts and decorative themes are repeated.

There's no toilets in this game though. That's just... weird. People in Trails have no assholes, apparently.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Inside a hotel lobby

I Hope You Like Reading

While modern games are mostly 100% voice-acted, this just wasn't common back in 2004. This is a text-heavy game with no voice acting beyond a few combat sound effects. Good thing, then, the writing stands up to this challenge.

I think roughly half my playtime was spent in dialogue. There's a lot of it, and very little is interactive. There's a scant few choices to make, but this is not the type of game where you're able to make a weighty choice to affect the outcome of the story. I found it much more rewarding when I sat back and "played" it like a visual novel, sometimes for up to an hour of dialogue at a time with no player interaction other than pressing a button to advance the text boxes.

The localisation team have done an incredible job with Trails in the Sky. I found two typos in my entire playthrough, very minor, and although I don't speak Japanese, it's obvious through the use of English colloquialisms that the team behind the English version knew what they were doing.

I think it's noteworthy that with this amount of dialogue, if the storytelling wasn't quality, I would have lost interest. The dialogue is natural, furthers the character's own personality, and is genuinely heartwarming in places.

Estelle and Joshua have to act in a play in one particular part of the game. This isn't a new concept; we've seen it before in other games, and there aren't even any choices for the player here, but it's the interaction between the characters, portrayed in the writing, that makes this section shine.

Estelle gets to stay in a kind of dorm shared by two other girls, while Joshua has to stay elsewhere. Given that Joshua's adoption means these two were siblings in the story, it means Estelle would have shared a house with Joshua her entire life, and up to this point in the story, they've been travelling together and sharing a room.

The writers know how to play this up, and Estelle is excited she gets to "stay over" with two friends, both girls, so she can experience a bit of time without her brother. It's played really well, and it drew me into this world very convincingly.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - A typical quest journal entry

Japan, Sexism, and Gender Equality

Times have changed a bit since 2004, so there's a few places in the game that made me wince slightly. Perhaps they were a bit outdated even back when this game was first released. These were few and far between, and generally written from the perspective of a "bad" character, so we're supposed to object to these anyway.

In particular, the "young girl" trope was a bit troubling for me, with various characters along the way expressing quite graphically the things they might like to do to Estelle, who is quite clearly portrayed as sixteen in this game.

On the flipside, due to the way Estelle is written, she generally doesn't take shit from anyone. Where I felt most uncomfortable was due to the frequent lack of player agency in this game, there's sometimes no way to avoid the creepiness, or overcome it by having Estelle beat the crap out of people.

I know this can be a trigger for some people so it's worth mentioning that this does come up a lot in the game and sometimes it doesn't get resolved in a way I'd find acceptable, although there's no portrayal or suggestion of physical sexual abuse present.

Additionally, gender roles are definitely not stereotypical in this game, with various characters in positions of authority or responsibility shown to be competent and female, such as town mayors or military commanders. The player isn't forced into any specific character setups either, and is free to make certain characters powerful in battle, and others powerful at healing, independent of gender.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Sieg says goodbye

The Start of Something Special

The average time for a regular playthrough of this game is around 40 hours. That's a big investment. I tend to read non-voiced dialogue pretty quickly so I spent closer to 30 hours with the game, still a significant chunk of time, and it took me several months of real time.

When being first introduced to the Trails series, and its nine mainline games and counting, I think some people can be overwhelmed. Unlike the Final Fantasy franchise, which are mostly entirely standalone games with a few common elements between them, Trails is a complete series from start to finish, leaving many players to wonder whether they "won't get it" if they start part way through, and others concerned that the first entry is so old that it puts them off even starting.

What I can say is that it's definitely no issue to play Trails in the Sky in 2020 on Windows. It works perfectly well, and the writing and art style hold up remarkably well given they're almost two decades old.

I think the only important consideration is that you start with the first game in an arc, so Trails in the Sky FC (first chapter, as in, this game), or Trails of Cold Steel (the first one), rather than worrying about starting at the very beginning.

If you do decide to start here, with Trails in the Sky, and you don't mind doing a lot of reading, playing a game that doesn't have a huge amount of player agency, or fast-paced gameplay, but you're looking for a rich, detailed world to explore, with deep characters and a genuinely compelling narrative, you could do a lot worse than spending 40 hours with this game.