I first dipped my toes in Falcom’s Legend of Heroes series when I played through Trails in the Sky FC back in 2015. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was getting into. Not only was this 40-hour RPG just the first episode in the Trails in the Sky (Sora no Kiseki) trilogy, but also the first chapter in a larger story that has stretched on to include the Trails of Zero/Blue duology and the Trails of Cold Steel tetralogy. All told, the Trails series may be one of the most ambitious projects in RPG history. The series contains nine games now, with more on the way, all of which contribute to a grand interconnected storyline set in a well-developed fantasy world. While the individual entries that make up the Trails in the Sky trilogy were originally released in 2004, 2006, and 2007 in Japan, the Playstation Vita received updated “EVOLUTION” ports in 2015 and 2016 with updated graphics, improved features, and completely rearranged soundtracks. Sadly, the updated versions of these games were only released in Japan, but Falcom has generously made the new soundtracks available to American audiences. Having reviewed the new soundtracks for The Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki FC EVOLUTION and Sora no Kiseki SC EVOLUTION, I am pleased to finally cap off the trilogy with The Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki the 3rd EVOLUTION.
Yes, that’s Sora no Kiseki “the 3rd.” I don’t know why they changed the numbering convention for this one either. Also, since these releases use the Japanese title, I will do the same for the remainder of this review.
Convoluted titles aside, I thought the original soundtrack for Sora no Kiseki the 3rd was right on par with the absolutely stellar soundtrack to Sora no Kiseki SC, even though they tread some very different thematic territory. Unfortunately, the EVOLUTION version of SC left me pretty cold in spite of (or perhaps because of) my love for the original version. I came into the soundtrack for Sora no Kiseki the 3rd EVOLUTION expecting to be similarly disappointed, but instead it was a refreshing surprise. Not only does this soundtrack address some of the issues in previous EVOLUTION releases, but it might be Falcom’s best effort yet at balancing experimentation and fidelity to the original soundtrack.
The vocal tracks on this album — “Cry for Me, Cry for You” and “Sora O Miagete” — may be Falcom’s best efforts yet for the EVOLUTION series, and that’s saying something, since the reworked vocal tracks were consistently polished on the previous two releases. Kanako Kotera’s vocal work on “Cry for Me, Cry for You” is strong, clean, and occasionally gritty. Konomi Yoshida’s voice is more ethereal, but it blends beautifully with the backing strings on “Sora O Miagete.” Neither of these tracks deviate from the original versions in a significant way, but the new arrangements are tighter, richer, and more satisfying.
As with the previous EVOLUTION releases, the orchestral tracks are almost universally improved, benefiting from higher-quality samples and richer orchestration. Boss themes “Genuine Devil” and “Banquet of Frenzy” feel fully realized in their new arrangements. While I felt the original versions were good enough if not particularly noteworthy, the new tracks are rich and palpably dramatic. I particularly love how the vocalists in “Banquet of Frenzy” seem to lurk at the edges of the track when they are not carrying the melody. The other orchestral tracks are not quite so transformed, but they are still elevated by the refined sound quality and more sophisticated orchestration.
As much as I enjoyed the orchestral tracks on this album, they are not the main course here. This is a Falcom soundtrack, after all! Well, if you were hoping to rock out JRPG-style, then I am happy to say that Sora no Kiseki the 3rd EVOLUTION absolutely does not disappoint. The sound balance issues that plagued previous EVOLUTION releases are mostly absent here, and the tracks featuring guitar and synths benefit the most from this improvement. We get a few immensely satisfying guitar-heavy battle themes with “Fighting Right On,” “The Crimson Stigma,” “Overdosing Heavenly Bliss,” and “Till the Night of Glory.” Still, it takes more than electric guitar to make a solid rock n’ roll battle theme, and all of these tracks back the lead with hard-hitting and impressively technical percussion. However, my favorite guitar moment on the soundtrack is easily the final boss theme, “Dreamy and Boisterous Holy Land.” The original version of this track was already an excessive, energetic, sprawling mess (or masterpiece, depending on the day), so I nearly yelped for joy when I heard a real electric guitar triumphantly take the lead. It’s joyously excessive.
In fact, I would say that spirit of joyous excess runs throughout the entire album. “Determination of Fight” is energetic and almost schizophrenic in the way it constantly switches up its instrumentation. “Close to the Brink” takes a mildly jazzy original and blows it out of the water with horns, electric guitar, and organ. It’s possibly the most in-your-face track on the album. “Uninvited Guests” layers vocals (possibly vocaloids) on top of the melody for extra spookiness. And I would be remiss if I did not mention “Phantom Castle ‘Phantasmagoria.'” The Sora no Kiseki trilogy has already given us a few outstanding final dungeon themes, but this might be the best one yet. The original version was already a home run, but this new arrangement is almost a miniature rock opera.
Unfortunately, this tendency toward excess does not always work out in the album’s favor. Sora no Kiseki the 3rd is basically a mystery set in another dimension, and some of the original compositions used restraint and muted tones to convey the strangeness of the main characters’ surroundings. The new arrangements of “The Garden of the Recluse,” “A Still World,” and “Labyrinth of Light” are more dynamic and complex, but they also feel busy and less evocative than the originals. Sora no Kiseki the 3rd also features some of the trilogy’s most tender compositions, including “Cradle Where Feelings Rest,” “Something Precious,” and “To Meet Again Someday.” While the new arrangement does a respectable job with these tracks, which they wisely chose not to gussy up too much, I think the originals are still more potent because of their simplicity.
By and large, the EVOLUTION arrangements have delivered more uneven experiences than the original soundtracks, despite the many excellent reinterpretations they offer. I was thrilled to see Sora no Kiseki the 3rd EVOLUTION address the previous releases’ issues and deliver the most polished EVOLUTION release to date. The original soundtrack offered some of the trilogy’s most striking compositions, and many of them are meaningfully improved here. However, if you are looking to purchase only one version of this soundtrack, I would still recommend the original. Despite the many improvements to individual tracks here, I still think the original version holds up better as a whole. If you enjoyed the original soundtrack, however, then you will certainly enjoy revisiting it with this new arrangement.
And whether you start with the original soundtracks or the EVOLUTION arrangements, you really should check out the music of Sora no Kiseki. This is traditional JRPG music par excellence, and it absolutely lives up to the vaunted Falcom pedigree.