"Trails in the Sky is the archetypal JRPG done to perfection."
I'm going to make a Captain Planet analogy, and I want you to bear with me. Remember how we all laughed at the fifth Planeteer and the power of Heart? "What a useless ability," I used to think to myself. "How can he possibly compete with stuff like blazing fire and razor-sharp winds?" Sure, I was correct that Ma-ti's power had less of a tangible effect than those of his allies, but he posssesed his own gentle strength — one that saw the team through delicate situations necessitating patience and empathy. He proved himself as worthy of a Planeteer as any, capable of standing alongside the others on equal footing.
Now, if I equated some of the most well-known JRPG series with Planeteer powers, it'd go something like this:
Fire is Final Fantasy, a dazzling audiovisual spectacle with passionate themes.
Wind is Wild Arms, featuring protagonists that drift across a dying planet.
Water is Pokémon, awash with life to encounter and islands to explore.
Earth is Shin Megami Tensei, replete with dark secrets hidden in cracks and shadows.
Heart, then, is The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. This underdog series doesn't have the most high-budget visuals, the most unusual setting, the most innovative battle mechanics, or the grittiest atmosphere. What is does have is heart — so much heart that I've fallen in love with this series and can't stop recommending it to everyone. Trails in the Sky (or the Kiseki series, as it's known in Japan) is an unassuming RPG that starts small and turns into one of the most massive, well-realized, deeply-characterized game series ever created. To date, six Kiseki games (plus a seventh, coming later this month, as well as an unrelated spin-off) have been released in Japan, all of which take place in the same world and continue expanding upon the existing narrative. Recurring elements abound, from continuing subplots to repeated musical motifs, as well as the ongoing development of an intricately detailed world.
"That's all well and good," you might think to yourself, "But what about this particular entry? Is the beginning of the series worth getting so worked up about, even though we're a full six entries behind in English-speaking territories?" I would argue that it is, but it completely depends on what you value in an RPG. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a slow burn; it's the kind of game that takes its time getting started, introducing characters and locations at a markedly slow place, but it builds into an exciting crescendo that had me desperately hungering for more by the time I reached the credits. The story of Estelle Bright and her adopted brother Joshua, a pair of novice Bracers (mercenaries, basically) begins innocuously enough: the two embark on a search for their missing father, world-famous Bracer Cassius Bright, but are soon sucked into a far-reaching political conspiracy. The tale itself is not mind-blowingly unique, but it is punctuated by an incredible amount of character development that brings the cast to life on a level beyond the majority of games I've played. The entire cast is charismatic enough that the plot is elevated above a mere political mystery; it is an intimate, believable story of friends, family, and life's defining moments, both big and small.
The narrative is by far the most important aspect of Trails in the Sky, although it would mean nothing if the game wasn't entertaining on a mechanical level. Luckily, Trails succeeds in both areas. It's a traditional, top-down/isometric RPG with all of the requisite exploring, battling, and questing the genre is known for. Combat is tactical and grid-based, but happens on a smaller scale and faster pace than most tactical RPGs — think Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, only not a complete cakewalk (pun absolutely intended, and I'm proud of it too). Each character has a set of unique attacks at his or her disposal, as well as a customizable arsenal of spells via the use of Materia-like Quartz crystals. Battles are enjoyable and just nuanced enough without being overwhelming. A bevy of side quests exist to undertake, too, and while they don't break the mold in any significant way, they remain entertaining thanks to well-written dialogue and worthwhile rewards.
Trails' visual presentation is admittedly dated; character models, environments, and effects are all clearly from a previous generation, and while nothing is unpleasant to look at, the game certainly shows its age. The artwork and UI are sharp and vibrant, at the very least. Dialogue boxes have a wide variety of expressive character portraits, and their overall designs are stylish without verging too far into "how many colorful accessories can we throw on one person" territory. Audiophiles have more to look forward to, as Trails boasts a pleasant musical score with a few seriously catchy tunes. The main battle theme, "Sophisticated Fight," is a jazzy piece that lends itself well to idle whistling, and the game's title track, "Dancing With the Wind," has a way of lodging itself inside my brain. It's not the world's greatest RPG score, but from my own experience, I can say that this game is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the series has to offer musically — something to look forward to in future releases.
This version of the game marks its PC debut in North America, and it comes with a host of welcome behind-the-scenes tweaks. All modern screen resolutions and USB gamepads are supported, HD text has been implemented, and previously PSP-exclusive features like voice acting in battle have been added. No new content exists over the game's original 2011 release, but if you've yet to experience the game, this is the definitive version, unless you absolutely must play on a handheld. Keep in mind that save data will carry over from this game to the next, whenever that ends up being — soon, I hope — so plan to play both games on the same system.
Trails in the Sky is the archetypal JRPG done to perfection. It doesn't set out to light the world on fire (at least not with this first entry), but it succeeds remarkably well at everything it tries to do. Diving into the series is an investment, to be sure, and the game moves at a slow pace, but the payoff is so worth it that I cannot help but recommend this game to all but the most disillusioned of RPG fans.