Developer: Nihon Falcom
Release Date: June 24th 2004
Platforms: PC, PSP, PSVITA, PS3 (Japan)
Written by Zachary Sevcik
When faced with an enemy, do you call for peace, do you take peace through war, or do you defend what peace you have left. Is there a clearly defined good and evil? Are both sides justified in their relative convictions, or is there a single truth that one has that leaves the other wanting? These are foundation questions many leaders have had to ask throughout history, and, interestingly enough, this is akin to the leaders throughout the world in Nihon Falcom’s, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. With this hidden gem, Nihon has been able to engross me into this world and characters more so than any other game I’ve played. Among others, this is a paramount reason why this game stands above most within the jrpg landscape that could also be said with most AAA games. Now, how can a small team at Nihon Falcom develop a top-down RPG that rivals AAA games, you may ask? A competent story, a cast of amazing characters, and an obsession with building a realistic living world.
Trails in the Sky follows two main characters -- Estelle and Joshua -- through a bristling new world forever changed by the 100 Days War and the technological revolution that followed. Due to mysterious circumstances, Estelle’s father -- Cassius -- has gone missing, and, since becoming apart of the world’s Malitia (Bracers), they set out on an adventure to solve this mystery. Cassius serves as this overweening character that sets the bar for all bracers. The further the adventure progresses, the more the player understands just who he is and why everyone knows of him. One of the problems with this come from Estelle constant shock when a stranger know who her father is. The story seems like a huge fetch-quest (similar to the Witcher 3), but it quickly forces you to plunge into the world and its characters (also similar to The Witcher 3). By no means am I comparing these two games in their entirety. Rather, I am drawing a small sequestered similarity between them. While some of Estelle and Joshua’s story in languished and tedious (due to Japanese tropes), it also excels and keeps the player in their toes. The story cannot stand on its own, though, but the storyline is not where Trails in the Sky shines. The world building and characters prove this game to be very impressive.
Nihon Falcom seems to be obsessed with world building more so than anything else. In the world of The Legend of Heroes, that is Zumeria, there are 4 major powers. The militaristic Erebonian Empire, the highly technological Liberl Kingom, and the radical hotbed of the tolerant Calvard Republic. The haven for trade and Sepith is the Crossbell State who won its independence from the Erebonian Empire and the Calvard Republic 7 years prior to the events of the game. Zumeria is going through what is called the Orbal Revolution, and each nation has adapted differently. The Erebonian Empire is rooted in tradition, spanning from the Dark Ages, that leads them on a conquest to use technology to conquer Zumeria. Liberl is the beacon of this technology, researching and innovating it to hopefully spread a common peace among the lands. Calvard is a nation with open borders accepting many people from far out lands that have created a kind of cornucopia of cultures. This has created a ripe environment for radical and terroristic groups such as the Heiyue to gain power. Crossbell was the byproduct of the 100 days war where wealthy people emigrated in fear of being a statistic. It later became the citadel for the trading of Sipeth used in all the technology in Zumeria. The landscape of Zumeria has left the leaders defending their own cause and implementing their own justice, thus creating a sense of constant tension between the nations. It always seems like Zumeria is on the brink of war similar to a Cold War like political environment. Because of this, it is left to the neutral Bracer Guild to keep the peace. This fascination Nihon Falcom has with world building clearly shows in this game. One could write an entire history book about Zumeria; a fake world that a small team passionately pieced together for your entertainment. Not only does Trails in the Sky benefit from a vast and complicated world, but its characters enamor the player into caring about that world.
The reason for this exposition about the world of The Legend of Heroes is because this hyperbolic attention to detail Nihon Falcom has put into their game is, in my opinion, the reason why you need to play it. Zumeria feels like a living breathing world that you are a part of. Every character has a purpose in their own way. They all seem very real and meaningful and have dialog that supports this claim. For example, there are two NPCs that you can meet in the very beginning of the game who are in love and have been dating for some time. The boyfriend has been trying to find the right time and place to pop the all important question. Most games will leave their story arcs there, unresolved and void of any further inclusion in your story, but not in Trails in the Sky! You find out that the events your characters are involved in ruins the man’s plans to ask her hand in marriage. This happens in every area you happen to be throughout the game, all the way till the end of the story. I won’t spoil the lovebirds’ story, but it ends beautifully. Characters like these are scattered throughout the world. They each have personal ambitions whether it be a crush, a passion to their career, or a worried mother trying to find a mate for her son. This kind of unnecessary interaction between the gamer and the world makes this game great. Like I said, every NPC has meaning. This also means there is a voluminous amount of dialog to come through. So much so that the localization of the game in America took 9 straight months! You never know who you’re going to meet in the world of Zumeria, but it is safe to say that you will care about each and every person living in it.
If you don’t care about the story and setting as much as me, I think you will enjoy the unique action-turn based battle system. Respecting the lore, your characters have Battle Orbments through which techno-magical attacks are possible. Each character has unique weapons that serve as catalysts for specific abilities. The system is complex and challenging at first, but the game does a good job of easing you in. Once in battle, an order of attacks is created. From here, you can attack mindlessly, but with time, you’ll see that doesn’t work all the time. Eventual battles will force you to implement strategies using different arts and abilities causing changes in the battle order. Other arts/abilities give buffs and nerfs to you or the enemy respectively. Some enemies are immune to certain status effects such as paralysis or poison. Arts all have environmental characteristics, such as Fire and water. Abilities are specific to each character with a wide variety of effects. As you can see, the battle system is simple on the surface until you peel out the deeper layers which allow for some serious situations. There are many different styles you can adopt fitting to your own style. The further you engross yourself with the combat system, the more complex it is. The depth of gameplay in Trails in the Sky surprised me since there was so much time put into the story and setting. They didn’t need to go into such detail, but I feel that they couldn’t help it. I think their obsession with making this game great got the better of them.
Music is incredibly important to me especially when it comes to video games. Nothing can evoke a sense of atmosphere quite like a well placed song. Trails in the Sky’s Hayato Sonoda, Wataru Ishibashi, and Takahide Murayama have done a great job. A repetitive song can make or break a game for some people, and I am glad to say that, in this case, the music only enhances the player experience. Every town has music that seems to fit the environment. The battle music promotes a sense of urgency that doesn’t get annoying, rather you will find yourself humming to it on impulse. The battle music even goes a step forward to make you panic when you’re about to die. The music also starts to change with the storyline. The Major keys begin to move to Minor as the characters start to see the overarching plot of the mysteries behind their father’s disappearance. Nihon Falcom seemed to create a different song for every occasion thus never reusing assets. This creates a sort of two dimensional feeling when going through different environment. The music seems to have it’s own personality. Soundtracks need to do this because far too many games use its music to just sound pleasing. This one dimensional approach to composition may tickle the ears of unsuspecting gamers, but, once you experience a soundtrack that delves deeper, the wool is pulled away from your eyes. Now, I am by no means saying it is perfect, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons in this case. The soundtrack of Trails in the Sky only makes your experience better.
I am listening to the soundtrack as I write this review!
It saddens me that this series has to be considered a “hidden gem,” because it should be more successful. If it wasn’t for the ham-fisted tropes commonly found in Anime, this game would be in my top 10 of all time. Nihon Falcom has provided a game that makes you care about the world, the characters, and the story that binds it all together. Their passion for the series is obvious to anyone who plays this game. If you enjoy JRPGs, this is a game you absolutely cannot let pass by.
FINAL SCORE: 8.75