For people like me, people who delve into well-written stories and drink up their words like so much manna, cliffhangers are exasperating. A four-year-long cliffhanger, though? That’s just downright agonizing. The Trails series fanbase — among whose numbers I count myself a stalwart devotee — has been waiting an awfully long time to turn the page on Estelle Bright’s whirlwind tale of adventure. The localization process for Trails in the Sky Second Chapter has been bumpy, to say the least — a fact that has been well-documented leading up to the game’s launch. It’s finally here, though, and all that waiting is behind us.
Now that I’ve finished the game, some sixty-plus hours later, I’m here to tell you that it was worth the wait.
But the waiting doesn’t stop when you boot the game. Make no mistake; this is a text-heavy, rigidly traditional JRPG that takes its sweet time spinning an intricate web of characters, factions, and places. Trails SC moves at a snail’s pace, particularly in the first half, and while Falcom’s penchant for meticulous world-building has a huge payoff, it takes a few dozen hours for the story to really heat up. That isn’t to say the moments in between aren’t valuable; in fact, the density of Trails SC’s script is precisely why its world is so fulfilling to inhabit, however temporarily. In the richly conceived kingdom of Liberl, even the most innocuous of NPCs have names and stories that have a place in its grand, interconnected narrative: the same factory workers from Trails FC’s fourth chapter show up in Trails SC’s eighth. A cat, whose language Estelle can learn to speak by collecting cat dictionaries in FC, makes recurring appearances throughout SC. The tragic backstory of a certain mayor’s handmaid is revealed in a completely optional sidequest. That I am even able to recognize such minor characters — let alone feel an investment in their stories — is a testament to the strength of the game’s writing. It feels like everything and everyone exists for a purpose. Falcom’s (and by extension, XSEED’s) attention to detail in crafting such a cohesive world is nothing short of staggering.
Subplots aside, the main story arc started in Trails FC does reach its climax, however laborious its pace, and it’s tremendously satisfying. Villains are unmasked, hidden feelings are revealed, and secret plans are laid bare. Even when characters fall into archetypes, they’re well-written and getting to know them remains a pleasure. Estelle is one of my favorite RPG protagonists ever: she’s a headstrong but kindhearted girl capable of cracking a joke one second and whooping ass the next. They just don’t make ’em like her anymore. I have an entire screenshot folder full of her sassy quips, not to mention boatloads of inappropriate comments from fan-favorite “Hunter of Love” Olivier. I started to miss this cast the moment I saw the credits roll.
I have plenty of praise for the game’s story, but its gameplay remains fundamentally unchanged from Trails FC. The only addition to combat is a combo ability that allows several characters to attack at once. It doesn’t vary depending on which characters are involved, and is actually quite inefficient compared to letting each character act independently, so I rarely made use of it. Outside of combat, there’s a slightly more robust fishing sidequest, as well as plenty of cooking recipes and in-game novels to collect. All of this is strictly secondary and easy to ignore if you’re more interested in advancing the plot.
Trails SC’s most egregious offense is its reliance on backtracking. The majority of the game takes place in the same towns and dungeons from Trails FC, and most sidequests explicitly require lengthy trips back through old areas. If you’re the type of player who wants to see every bit of Liberl and find out what every NPC is up to, it’s a good excuse to linger, but otherwise these quests are not in direct service to the main plot. There’s even an entire chapter wherein the group is forced to travel through each region on foot due to a massive, nationwide electronics blackout. Their frustration at not being able to fly or even use Orbment magic is thematically consistent, as it represents the sudden loss of technology as a tangibly inconvenient thing, but it sure isn’t fun to deal with from a player’s perspective. Retreading old areas was okay the second time around when I checked in to see how the world had changed since Estelle’s first journey as a Junior Bracer, but the third time was not fun at all.
The soundtrack, too, has plenty of repeats from Trails FC — a soundtrack I adore, so this is neither a plus or minus for me. But there’s plenty of new music, and on the whole, it’s a step up from FC’s. While the first game’s music was slightly whimsical and representative of Estelle’s timid first steps into the world as a Bracer, SC’s music ramps up the emotional intensity, offering blistering boss themes and a suite of riffs on the game’s main theme, “The Whereabouts of Light.” Every time I heard those familiar notes, I’d find myself whistling along. It’s an infectious little melody that has come to serve as a permanent reminder of my pleasant time in Liberl.
If you’ve played Trails FC, there’s a good chance you’re already waist-deep in SC, and so my review isn’t going to sway you one way or another. For those who haven’t yet taken the plunge, I cannot stress enough that SC is a direct sequel that takes place immediately following the ending of the first game, so I recommend beating FC first. The narrative buildup established in FC is essential to understanding many important plot points in the second game. And what a plot it is! Robustly realized and populated by an endless stream of compelling characters, Trails in the Sky approaches the pinnacle of traditional JRPG design. With Trails of Cold Steel and its sequel on the horizon, now is the perfect time to jump in.
Oh, and pick Agate.