The Legend Of Heroes: Trails In The Sky SC is a release that’s been a long time coming for English-speaking gamers. The Trails In The Sky trilogy was originally released in Japan from 2004 to 2008 for both PSP and Microsoft Windows. Due to the series’ large size, the localization process for other territories has been a painfully slow process. The game’s first chapter finally hit North America in 2011, and now, after another four years, the JRPG adventures gets to continue.
I must confess straight away that I have not played the first title in the trilogy, so this was my first experience with the game’s universe and characters. I have to say though, I was amazed at how well the game ingratiated itself with its well fleshed out, complex narrative, and I can completely understand why it has amassed such a dedicated cult following.
The story picks up the morning after the conclusion of its predecessor, with Estelle Bright, a young trainee of the combat-specialist group The Bracer Guild, waking up to find that her adoptive brother, Joshua, is missing. She goes to find her father and veteran of the guild, Cassius, who explains that, unbeknownst to her, Joshua was an assassin belonging to a shady organization called the Ouroboros, who are likely the reason for his prompt departure.
Estelle decides to go out and search for him, travelling far and wide across the Kingdom of Liberl. Along the way, she meets up with some familiar faces who help her fulfil her duties as a Bracer, ridding the cities of monsters and investigating some very mysterious goings-on.
Of course, that quick synopsis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the game’s plot, which is epic in every sense of the word. You could literally fill a novel (or novels) with the vast amount of text present in the game, as it’s packed full with backstory and character development galore.
Both the game’s look and sound are strongly reminiscent of the PS1 era Final Fantasy titles. The top-down camera and simple character models give the game a light, sprightly feel, with a varied soundtrack that shifts genres according to the context. For example, as you are exploring the mystical world, sweeping orchestral music is heard that amplifies the feeling of going on a heroic quest. Other times, when you are struggling in a dangerous battle, the music switches to a frantically fast-tempo Jazz piece. The game’s style is so classic and timeless that it doesn’t make a difference at all that it was originally released nine years ago for a handheld console.
The Legend of Heroes has a vast world to explore, with each chapter opening up a whole new city featuring many different paths and secrets. One complaint that I had while exploring the world is the manual 360° camera, which I found to be more disorientating than helpful. The changing perspective often left me confused as to which direction I was heading and occasionally obscured my view so that I sometimes missed chests and inadvertently ran into some unwanted random encounters. The game is, however, always very clear in telling you where you need to go, supplying you with a handy journal with a list of jobs and objectives as well as having your companions chime in if you are ever going too far off the intended track.
Your enjoyment of what’s presented here will largely be based on your involvement with the story. You will, after all, spend a great percentage of your playthrough wading through copious amounts of text. As someone who had not played the first installment, I was amazed at how quickly the plot whisked me away, which is all thanks to how superbly written the dialogue is. There are a lot of callbacks to the original game, but thankfully (for me, at least), a decent amount of exposition is aptly worked into the dialogue, along with a few sepia tone flashback frames.
My utmost admiration for the game is over its well-developed characters. As the lead protagonist, Estelle is funny and intelligent, sweet but with a deadpan sense of humour, and filled with so much joy and determination that it’s almost impossible not to root for her. Others to eventually join your company are equally dynamic, with my personal favourite being the crossbow-wielding Olivier, whose hilariously vain and conceited personality makes him the perfect target for several witty put-downs from the girls in the group.
I found the likability and well-written camaraderie among the characters to be the main reason I was interested in venturing on, even when I found myself out of my comfort zone with the challenging turn-based combat.
Speaking of which, the combat system has a good amount of depth, with the world’s many different monsters and villains requiring you to constantly rethink your strategy and adjust your abilities. SC allows you a lot of freedom to switch around your characters’ combat styles, creating a battle system that is both fun and tactical. It’s a good thing, too, as the battles make up a huge part of the game. When you’re not sitting through the countless cutscenes, you’ll more than likely be duelling it out with the wide array of beasts.
From what I gather, the combat system is almost identical to the first chapter. Any player of turn-based RPGs will know the drill, as the game is adorned with all the little features and tropes they’ve become accustomed to. The game features all the usual gear and upgrades, enabling you to distribute items, equipment, and skills to each of the characters, so that they can gradually morph into a buffed up, awesome, monster-slaying machine.
The character’s skill trees are handled in the form of small devices called orbments, which allow you to combine many different skill and stat boosts to create a whole range of new magical abilities known by the game as Arts. The Arts are all the elemental spells of the game, predominantly channelling wind, fire, earth, and water. Again, the game isn’t exactly treading any new ground with its use of elements, as it has select enemies that are particularly vulnerable to some of the Arts while resistant to others, and vice versa.
It’s in the upgrading and manipulating of the skills where the game displays impressive potential for character customization. During the adventure, you will able to synthesize small crystals named quartz. The quartz all represent a combat stat, such as ‘defense’ or ‘evade,’ as well as an element, which can be placed in certain positions on the character’s orbments to issue them with Arts based on that element.
How you choose to allocate your quartz and which character you give them to turns out to be paramount to succeeding in battles. You will need to craft both a strong healer as well as a strong brawler to triumph. While it is true that the characters are naturally set a skill type—the princess Kloe, for instance, is already highly skilled in recovery Arts—the game still allows for a lot of control over their technique and power. Much time can be spent deliberating over which mixture of quartz to use with your four party members so that you’ll be at the best advantage for an especially tricky fight.
Yet another level of depth added to the combat system is the use of the craft system. Crafts are character specific actions that, just like the Arts, can either attack, support, or recover. In order to execute these unique moves, craft point must be gained through both receiving and dealing out damage. Once you get over 100 points, you can unleash a fierce attack known as a special break. It’s a helpful mechanic, as it means that if a character is getting beaten down pretty bad by enemies, they’ll be able to strike back with a powerful blow. They can also be used to impede opponents that are using Arts against you and supply additional support.
To my surprise, I found that the game forced me to utilize all of the Arts, crafts, and standard attacking, unlike most of the time in RPGs where I am normally able to relentlessly unleash a single destructive move. Sure, I always had to focus heavily on healing abilities, but I also had to apply a varied set of actions for every major battle. The combat screen also features the turn order down the left-hand side of the screen, which is very useful for calculating strategies and predicting your opponent’s next move.
The main boss battles in the game can take a lot out of you. I found myself having to stock up on items and make sure my orbments were maxed out as much as they could be before entering every single one of them. The battles tend to go on for a very long time since you’re often only able to gradually wear down the bosses HP a little bit at a time. Some of them do have weaknesses to certain elements, although none of the bosses really have an Achilles heel where you can deal any considerable damage. Instead, you are required to be persistent and persevere through the mighty foes and just hope that you don’t run out of health or EP restoring items.
The sheer length of SC is astonishing, almost overwhelming. The adventure’s longevity brings both strengths and weaknesses to the overall experience. On the plus side, it makes the game feel very engrossing, as the player can get lost for hours upon hours within its world, exploring every corner of every map and interacting with every NPC. After spending this much time with the characters, it’s extremely difficult not to feel like you have gotten to know them.
The negatives that come part and parcel with the colossal length are all to do with the story’s pacing. With over 60 hours to tell its tale, the writing certainly takes its time to kick into gear, strolling along at a leisurely place for a good 25-30 hours. This may well be too long for some players who simply don’t have the patience for such a slow-burner such as this. The game has nine chapters and a prologue, all of which will take up a solid 6-7 hours sitting (or even more for later chapters) to complete if you aim to do the side quests as well. I’ll admit that I still haven’t finished my quest, but I can see it easily surpassing the 70-hour mark.
Where some games can feel like you are playing through a movie, SC felt like playing through a whole season of an anime series, complete with separate character arcs and multiple villains to keep track of. Now, that might sound like heaven to you, and if it does—great! I highly recommend the game. For others who are just looking for a more easy-going trip around a fantasy land, however, the game may be asking too much dedication before it provides any payoff.
With Trails in the Sky, you’re either along for the journey, or you aren’t. The amount of time and attention the story demands will mean the game may only reach out to those already converted JRPG fans of the first outing, who, if they really are itching to continue Estelle’s saga, probably won’t need convincing to buy the game in the first place. As for me, I started enjoying the game once I got over the slightly humdrum prologue, getting caught up in its charming presentation. There is a lot to do in Trails In The Sky SC, and the game’s brilliant storytelling and solid combat make most of it a delightfully challenging ride.
This review is based on the PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.
If you're a fan of the series (or just of JRPGs in general), then The Legend Of Heroes: Trails In The Sky SC will offer you an engaging narrative as well as enough complex and challenging battles to tide you over till Christmas.