XSEED Games continues its indomitable mission to bring the best of Nihon Falcom’s JRPGs to Western audiences. Last November we got the excellent Xanadu Next and now we have a chance to finish The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky trilogy, first published for the Sony PSP exclusively in Japan. It doesn’t matter that these games date back ten years. What they might lack in technical splendor, they more than make it up in the content and gameplay.
For starters, I have to confess I haven’t played the previous chapters of Trails in the Sky. That didn’t stop me from enjoying The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd though. While veterans to the series get an instant fix seeing their favorite characters receiving lots of care and attention, I for one enjoyed getting to know them. A few hours later I couldn’t stop playing. I had to see more of the cast and their stories laid bare upon my prying eyes.
It’s been six months since the events in Trails in the Sky Second Chapter. Unbeknownst to the people of Liberl who are now enjoying a time of peace, the Gralsritter, a school of Septian church, continue their work of retrieving ancient artifacts from the greedy palms of the selfish and the privileged. Having just completed a successful recovery mission, father Kevin Graham, the fifth dominion of the Gralsritter, is assigned to yet another task. Joining him in retrieving an artifact that rests beneath Grancel cathedral is a rookie Gralsritter, sister Ries Argent. She happens to be Kevin’s childhood friend whose big sister practically raised orphaned Kevin whom they found from the streets years ago.
The quest turns out to be more than a trivial affair though. A few moments later things go awry as the artifact, known as a recluse cube, emits a blinding light and takes the unaware twosome somewhere else entirely. Even though some of the surroundings seem eerily familiar, they soon find out they are actually in Phantasma, a parallel realm of winding labyrinths connecting different planes of existence. As Kevin and Ries investigate and fight through this world with its own set of rules, each defeated boss and finished quest uncovers sealing stones. These mystical gems bring one by one familiar faces from the series to Phantasma. Why are they all whisked there and what does the Lord of Phantasma want with them? Who’s the mysterious Schwarzritter, chiming in his lord’s cocky mockery of our heroes?
Eventually there are sixteen characters to form into a party of four to romp the many planes of Phantasma. Usually Kevin and Ries are the mainstays, leaving a spot for two rotating heroes and one for supporting the team from the sidelines. Those familiar with Trails in the Sky series know the characters’ talents already, but there are lots of new background and persona of them to be revealed. I did my homework and learned that the previous chapters relied more on the world exploration while the 3rd is a linear and narrative-driven dungeon crawler. This shift in the gameplay design serves a greater good. The game is delivered in serviceable portions and you’ll never get exhausted at what you’re doing, even if it all is only isometric dungeon wandering, constant battles and lots and lots of talking heads (no voice acting).
Not that you’d get a chance to get bored anyway. The script is exceptional and XSEED has done a marvelous job with the translation. There are no awkward metaphors, odd wording or any of that downright incomprehensible gibberish plaguing so many Western translations of otherwise great JRPGs. The text is well articulated and reasoned, which helps a great deal in understanding the characters and their world for people like me who jumped late to the series. Even though the story deals with dimensional traveling, otherworldly spirits and nearly omnipotent beings capable of altering the reality, it's told in a grounded, soft way and often the gloomy premises are offset with a humane humor.
The game is long. Very long. You can spend tens of hours in Phantasma, especially if you open the optional moon, star and sun doors which hide the individual character stories and activities. Some of them are only narrated tales but others require familiar game mechanics of exploring and fighting. The game might be fantasy but many of its stories have resonance in everyday life. I’m sure each person can draw some familiarities to their own lives from them. I know I did. It’s all very emotional but not sugary sweet.
I found it remarkable none of the sixteen heroes and heroines annoyed me. Those who might seem somewhat irritating are that because they’re written so, not because of misreading the Japanese concept of cool. My favorites turned out to be none other than the leading pair themselves. Kevin’s seemingly carefree facade hides not only the responsibility he takes for his position but also the painful cracks of his past. The mild-mannered but outspoken Ries can read Kevin like an open book and perhaps knows him better than he himself. Their chemistry - not shy of disputes and wild mood swings, let alone an occasional slap - forms the firm backbone the story is built upon.
I realize I have raved about the excellent script and the intricate characterization (here I go again…) without touching the other core elements of the game. Trails in the Sky the 3rd has a reputation of being the most challenging chapter in the series. The turn-based combat with its grid-based moving, attacking and casting of spells (arts) and special moves (crafts) is reminiscent of a board game. A successful fight requires tactics, careful planning and resource management. With four choices of difficulty levels the game can be made as smooth or demanding as possible. There’s an abyss of depth to dive into beyond easy difficulties, where every art and craft must count in taking down the bosses. Even in the easiest setting you can’t just relax when confronting the numerous demons of the holy writings of the Septian church.
The game can be saved at any time outside battles, a rare treat in the Japanese role-playing games even in these days. Each discovered monolith, door and portal can be used for fast traversal between the planes and other locations. Together with intelligible game mechanics, it all makes for a user-friendly experience which is a somewhat common virtue in Nihon Falcom games. Widescreen resolutions of the PC conversion, alongside improved textures and lighting, give a lot of room for pretty little graphics, perhaps outdated as such but oddly dynamic in their expressiveness. Also, no review of Nihon Falcom game can’t go without mentioning the soundtrack composed by the famous Falcom sound team known as jdk. They have conjured up an aural feast of different styles, played in cohesive arrangements to accompany the tales and trails.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd is absolutely charming and it’s not only due to its cutesy looks. With a dimensional world of multiple planes hovering in the middle of nowhere and tons of text to read through, the game could pass for a foreign cousin to the equally engaging and prosaic-heavy Torment: Tides of Numenera. Both games share a fact the flashy presentation is not always needed to tell immersive stories. It’s the quality of the writing and the riveting dialogue that count towards the long hours lost in front of the computer. When all is said and done, Trails in the Sky the 3rd comes out as a balanced, thoughtful and inspiring JRPG.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.