"Trails in the Sky is not a game in which the gameplay shines, but rather the story and characters. "
When RPG Fans think of Falcom, they likely think of the Ys series. It's their most well known series, and the one that gained the most Western exposure. In Japan, however, they have another flagship series called The Legend of Heroes. Does the name sound familiar? Years ago, Namco Bandai of Japan ported a trilogy from PC to the PSP and later released it into the US, but it was met with negative reception. You can say that the series itself might not be so good, but apparently, it turns out that Namco Bandai tampered around with the ports. In Japan, they altered the gameplay, which turned out worse, and in the US, the games got released in the wrong order, not to mention a shoddy translation. Because of this, we never truly experienced the series in its pure form.
The series continued to be strong in Japan, and Falcom released three chapters of the sixth installment known as "Sora no Kiseki" (Trails in the Sky). I had heard about the trilogy for a while back and how it was hailed as the highlight of the whole series. I kept hearing about its rich story and characters, lush soundtrack, and strategic gameplay. I wanted to play it, but no publisher wanted to bring a niche title over that bombed before... until XSEED stepped in that is. Last year, they struck a deal with Falcom to release their PSP games; a deal which successfully brought over the latest Ys titles. Now it's the famed trilogy's turn, and players finally get to see what the games are really like. Trails in the Sky has flaws, but it's also extremely charming, and I had a blast during the 41 hours spent completing the game.
Trails in the Sky stars Estelle Bright, a spunky, tomboy heroine who enjoys collecting bugs, has a sneaker collection, and enjoys a good fight. Alongside Estelle is her adopted brother Joshua, a calm and rational fellow who usually stops Estelle from doing something wreckless. He was brought into the family five years before the opening of the game when Estelle's dad brought him home out of the blue one night. Joshua has been under his care since and, being the same age as Estelle, they've always been together. Over the years, both of them have been training to become Bracers, just like their dad, who is quite famous at that. Bracers are a freelance police force that goes around keeping peace in the land. They take on various jobs ranging from helping people with small tasks to monster slaying. Eventually, Estelle and Joshua become junior Bracers after completing a simple test. In order to become full-fledged ones, however, they need to gain recommendation letters from all the branches of the organization in the Liberl kingdom. Their journeys as Bracers begin, going around the kingdom to maintain peace, one city at a time.
For a while, there isn't much of a plot to speak of. Initially, the story revolves around their Bracer work, structured in an episodic matter through multiple chapters. Each chapter focuses on the two protagonists completing tasks in a particular city and later resolving major incidents within the area. As the story progresses, pieces of the main plot begin to slowly unfold through subtle foreshadowing and key plot events. That's when things start to get more interesting, which kept me interested to know what happens next. The story builds a nice mystery, which starts to pay off when it slowly shifts from an easygoing adventure to a conspiracy plot. Later chapters get more intense, the stakes get higher, and everything gets quite epic during the last couple hours when the heroes go off to go save a whole kingdom.
What impressed me the most is that despite being the first game in a trilogy, Trails in the Sky avoids the many pitfalls of other episodic RPGs. It manages to successfully deliver a complete standalone story while also building things up for later games. After the main conflict gets resolved, the story unveils a very big twist and ends on a major cliffhanger to pave way for the next installment. It already left me wanting a lot more after dropping a major bombshell, but after the credits rolled, a trailer of the next chapter rolls in to bring up the hype. That's just evil.
Though the story turned out well after a while, the characters are where this game really shines. At its core, the game has a very lighthearted tone, displayed mostly through the main cast. They're a very likable and fun bunch, and I love how the game focuses on their interactions. A great deal of time involves interacting with characters, and the dialogue gets comical at times as characters make sly remarks and tease one another. Some jokes can be a bit childish, immature, or a tad risqué, but it all comes off feeling natural and never forced. There is also a fine balance where characters get serious when necessary for the dramatic or tender moments. No matter the tone, dialogue flows well and comes off believable, partially thanks to XSEED's localization. Supporting characters also have a strong presence, and the game spends enough time getting into their mindset, ideals, and manners of speech to give them depth. Unfortunately, outside the main leads, some characters have less development and/or screen time than others, but hopefully, later installments will remedy that. Regardless, the sheer amount of character interactivity is what fleshes out the world and drives the story forward.
This level of care for the playable characters also gets extended to NPCs, and they're the best I've seen in a long time. Each one has a bit of personality in them, and whenever a story event occurs, their dialogue changes to reflect the current situation. NPCs tend to provide their input on a current situation, or get into another kind of discussion. Some NPCs even have their own mini stories where they talk about their lives and appear at different places at different plot points. One of my favorite moments is talking to a maid who works at a mayor's house. In the household, she talks about how the mayor's wife also helps her with the housework, and how she is considered a family member. Hours later, I see the maid in a Church where she prays for the health and happiness of the mayor and wife. It's such a minor thing, but it's beautifully done, and there are many more such moments. I also like how some of the NPCs you can help out later make appearances in other towns, where they reflect on the party's past actions. The dialogue constantly changes, which gives more life to all the places you visit, and even empty treasure chests feature awesomely humorous messages.
With such heavy emphasis placed on story and characters, the gameplay portions are very secondary, but still solid. Combat uses a standard turn-based system that implements a range mechanic. Battles take place in an arena, and everyone has a certain movement and attack range. If either party is unable to make contact with their opponent, they just move closer to them instead. There is a magic system called arts which takes an entire turn to use, but allows a character to attack from anywhere. For those familiar with the Lunar games, the combat mechanics here work the same way, minus the charging.
Turn order also plays an important role due to a passive bonus system. Depending on whose turn it is, a party member or enemy can receive a bonus such as attack boost, minor healing, 100% critical, and so on. The turn order display shows what bonuses will be played at what turn, which comes in handy for strategic play.
There are eight party members total, and up to four can be in battle at once. Each has their own set of unique abilities called Crafts, which cost craft points (CP). Characters gain CP when attacking and receiving damage. When the CP count exceeds 100 or higher, characters can unleash an ultimate ability called S-Craft. It's also the only ability that can be triggered at any time, which ignores turn order. Customization is also present for everyone through the use of a little device called orbments. Each orbment has six slots for the placement of quartz gems, which provide stat boosts, passive traits, and magic. The magic a character receives depends upon the placement of the quartz and element types. Every party member has a different orbment layout, with some slots confined to one element. Even with this flexibility, there is no way to grant all party members access to the same, best magic.
The battles themselves can be quite challenging, even against some regular enemies. This is mainly due to incorporating anti-grinding measures to maintain the steady challenge. EXP gain is relatively low, and level requirements are typically high. EXP also sharply decreases to near 0 when a party member's level is higher than an enemy's. With no random encounters at all, players are bound to avoid many fights after a short while. This makes the fights tough, but also fair, and encourages strategic play. This leads to some exciting battles later on, but they can occasionally drag. Some enemies and bosses have massive HP pools, spam healing, or use other abilities to prolong fights. If defeated in battle, there is a retry option that immediately takes you back to the fight, and weakens the enemy to make it easier. From my experience, this certainly helps, but some fights are tough either way.
Since the nature of Bracers is to go around helping those in need, there are lots and lots of sidequests. Each Bracer Guild branch has a bulletin board listing the quests. These quests are the standard kind such as killing a monster, fetching an item, or meeting certain people. The quests present themselves in various ways, however, to keep things more interesting, and they occasionally contain some great dialogue. Upon completing a quest, players get rewarded with cash and Bracer Points (BP), which are needed to rank up. With each rank up, players get rewarded with a special quartz or accessory. The quests all have to be completed by certain times and fail automatically if the player progresses too far in the story. Bulletin boards are not the places to get sidequests though. At points of a chapter, a random NPC can make a direct request, and it works out the same way. Most of the quests are easy enough to do, but some can get a bit overly complicated and vague later on. They're mostly fun to do, but it does heavily tie in to the game's biggest annoyance: the backtracking.
Sometimes, there's a fair bit of backtracking during the story, which becomes heavily amplified if players want to complete every quest. While each quest is confined within the region it's received from, it usually requires going to remote areas, or frequently bouncing back and forth between multiple places. These areas can be quite long, and there are no shortcuts nor any kind of quick traveling service or ability. Everything is done by foot, and while it makes sense in context, it's an inconvenience for players. At least load times are nearly instant.
For the music, the Falcom sound Team took a radically different approach from their other works. Whereas most Ys songs are progressive rock Trails in the Sky is largely the opposite, with airy and lighthearted tracks. These songs fit well with the tone of the game, and showcase versatility, but in the beginning, they aren't too impressive. Most of the songs are just okay and lack the magical effect of the Ys songs. Fortunately, the soundtrack slowly picks up during the game, but it isn't until the last few hours of the game that the best songs come into play. The soundtrack managed to redeem itself at the last minute, and some songs warrants listening to outside the game. As a whole, however, I've heard a lot better from the sound team, but this one's respectable in its own right.
As for the visuals, they're the weakest part of the game. Granted, the original game came out on PC in 2004 and got ported to PSP in 2006. They still hold up pretty well, but certainly look dated by 2011 standards. The 2D artwork and sprites are nice, but the 3D portion is a bit low in quality. In comparison to the PC version, the sprites were scaled down to a much smaller size and lost some of their detail. Some can also be hard to see on the PSP as well.
Trails in the Sky is not a game in which the gameplay shines, but rather the story and characters. It isn't deep nor compelling by any stretch of the imagination, but it is fun and extremely charming. It's been quite a long time when such a likable cast won me over this much, not to mention the thoughtful NPC conversations. The story takes a little while to get going, but once it got rolling, I wanted to keep playing. Thank you XSEED for bringing a fine game over and doing a proper localization. The wait for the sequel is going to be a long one...