Welcome back, minions! Glad to see you once again. Tonight I am going to start out with a review of one of the absolute gems of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs). Years ago, Falcom released the first in horrifically generically named series The Legend of Heroes. The early titles in this series were…OK. I mean, if you are like me and you can forgive A LOT of missteps in the name of getting to play a turn-based, character and story driven game, they scratched the itch between major releases. But unsurprisingly, the games failed to draw much of an audience in the West, and localisations became few and far between. Then a surprise came – the PSP entry in the series known as Trails in the Sky would see an English release. And it is a damn good thing for anyone that loves gaming.
Trails in the Sky, first and foremost, is not really one game. It is two (kinda three). The First Chapter and Second Chapter are complete RPGs that tell one continuous story, with First Chapter ending on a cliffhanger that leads directly into Second Chapter. This review will cover First Chapter only, but it should come as no surprise that if you like FC (and you should, or you’re just wrong) then you will like and should plan to play SC. This means you have a substantial time investment in front of you, but it is worth it. Both games are available on PSP/Vita through PSN, or on PC via Steam. The third game is more of a side-story to the other two, and is currently not released outside of Japan.
Trails in the Sky combines some of the best elements of Eastern and Western RPG design. At first glance, these images would indicate a fairly standard, sprite-based JRPG from the Playstation era – but it is so much more. The combat is turn-based, with some light strategy elements in the form of character positioning and attack ranges on a grid-based combat field. Enemies are pallet-swaps of one another to a degree – while this is somewhat of a shame, the designs are well done and humorously tongue-in-cheek at times – an element that extends through most of the game in its entirety.
Once engaged in battle, the depth and breadth of the combat system becomes quickly apparent. Each party member has certain strengths and weaknesses, but can also be customized to some extent through the Orbment system. Orbments are similar in nature and function to the then-groundbreaking Materia system found in Final Fantasy VII. Elemental stones corresponding to a spell, skill, or passive are slotted into each character’s unique layout. The number and placement of elements can also unlock further spells and tiers of spells when equipped. While some characters are more proficient with magical or physical attacks, any character utilizing an elemental spell against an enemy weak to that element is going to be extremely effective. Beyond Orbments, each character also has a selection of character-specific skills and abilities that function off of either the games version of mana or skill points. What’s more, once skill points have been accrued to a certain threshold, characters can jump the turn order and attack immediately with a powerful skill – at the cost of all accrued skill points. The more points are accrued before unleashing this attack, the more devastating it is, but the less frequently one may jump the turn order. All in all, the combat system is nearly-flawless in its execution of classic turn-based mechanics layered with strategy and enough unique elements to make the entire engine feel fresh.
But believe it or not, there is something greater – something that Trails in the Sky does so well, it may be the epitome of its kind for some time to come. Trails in the Sky features a narrative built around some of, if not the, best and most fully-realized characters I’ve ever seen in any game, ever. Period. The story has its JRPG requirements – there is a wide-spanning threat that results in our protagonists journeying with an every growing and changing cast of companions to investigate and combat it. But that actually takes a backseat to the moment to moment characterization of the players. Everyone in this game has a story. Absolutely everyone. Standard NPC shopkeepers have small micronarratives that give them flavor and make them a part of the world, not just a vehicle to expand your arsenal. Temporary party members are real characters, with believable motivations and relationships that connect them to the player. But the absolute stars are Estelle and Joshua Bright.
Estelle and Joshua Bright are adoptive siblings and the protagonists of the story. And the story is their adventures as Junior Bracers (a combination of adventurers’ guild and mercenaries with hearts of gold) as they search for their father Cassius, a famous veteran bracer who has disappeared. This isn’t just a framework for the world-saving – the bulk of the adventure is Estelle and Joshua going town to town, piecing together information on Cassius’ last known whereabouts, and undertaking duties for the Bracer Guild from the local townsfolk. And through these small, individual tasks, they build real relationships with the people, and slowly grow in their own relationship between one another.
It cannot be overstated just how phenomenally well-written these characters are. This game has no voice acting and few cutscenes – nearly all of the characterization is done through the text boxes and dialogue in the game, as well as short in-game books and documents. Every last bit of it is warm, engaging, and evocative of emotion – just a masterpiece of writing in the form of a game. Estelle, in particular, is one of the most likable, easy to relate to protagonists that I have ever encountered in any medium. Her earnestness and kindness to others, her stubbornness and perseverance, and her own inner doubts and self-consciousness about her feelings are expressed in the most genuine manner possible. If you somehow play this game and don’t feel anything by the cliffhanger ending, then congratulations – you may be the only form of life that is even more bereft of a soul than I am.
If it hasn’t become clear yet, I loved this game. If you are in any way a fan of JRPGs, you will love this game. If you love well-written, fully realized characters, you will love this game. The only caution I can give is that even if you purchase both FC and SC and continue on into SC immediately, at some point, the tale will end, and you will reach the end of the Trails in the Sky. But what a journey you’ll have had along the way. – EWE