For fans of Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes series, Trails from Zero and Trails to Azure have had an almost mythic reputation. Collectively referred to as the Crossbell games, this duology has long been seen as perhaps the peak of the series, and the difficulty in obtaining and playing the games in English up until now has undoubtedly only increased players’ expectations. Last September, we finally got an official localization of Trails from Zero thanks to a collaboration between NIS America and fan translation group Geofront, and I was quite pleased to report that the wait had been worth it. Now, Trails to Azure is finally available as well, and this is the Crossbell game I was most excited about playing. Though not without its faults, Trails to Azure is one of the strongest entries in the series, and experiencing the highs of this game with a proper English localization has been incredibly enjoyable.
Trails to Azure is set a few months after the events of Trails from Zero and sees a newly expanded Special Support Section getting back into the swing of things after a short hiatus. The SSS is a household name now, beloved by the people and generally respected by both the Crossbell Police Department and the local Bracer guild, but that doesn’t mean they have it easy. Almost immediately, there are suspicious characters, mysterious monsters, and political machinations to deal with — and that’s just the first half of the game. In true Trails fashion, things start relatively slow and build to a fever pitch, with lots of huge twists in the second half of the game, some of which are hands down my favorite moments in the series. Having said that, Trails to Azure does hit the ground running a bit faster than its predecessor and has more mini-climaxes strewn throughout the story to keep the tension up.
That’s not to say that the pacing is perfect. An intermission chapter, for instance, serves almost no purpose other than to squeeze in the bathhouse — or in this case, beachfront — hijinks that Falcom just can’t help repeating over and over. And the final chapter is an absolute slog: it’s entirely too long and sends you all over Crossbell and through a ton of bosses. And that’s before the final dungeon, which is quite long and boss-filled in its own right. However, the finale has so many great moments that it’s easy to forgive the game overstaying its welcome a bit.
Characters have always been one of the Trails series’ biggest strengths, and Trails from Zero was quite exceptional in that its playable cast was so small — just four characters for most of the game. Trails to Azure increases that number to six with the addition of two familiar faces: Noel Seeker, a Crossbell Guardian Force sergeant, and Wazy Hemisphere, the mysterious leader of a downtown gang of miscreants. Even with the larger core cast, the game still does a great job of keeping things balanced, giving every character plenty of development without making the script feel bloated.
Trails to Azure also ups the ante when it comes to the antagonists. Not only are there more of them, but they’re considerably more interesting this time around and include several characters longtime players will recognize. Without spoiling things, I’ll just say that this game has a few of the most hype boss battles I’ve ever experienced in the series, or any RPG, really. The final boss is incredibly cheap and annoying, though, so be prepared for a tough final fight.
While the writing and the localization are generally strong and consistent throughout the game, some annoying tropes crop up here and there, such as inappropriate groping, Lloyd being a clueless babe magnet, and the aforementioned beach sequence. It’s not quite as ridiculous as some of the nonsense in the Trails of Cold Steel arc, but it seems Trails to Azure is where Falcom started to double down on this particular brand of “humor.” I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker by any means, but it is something to be aware of if this bothers you.
Moving on to combat, the battle system in Trails to Azure is mostly unchanged from Trails from Zero. The isometric grid, turn order manipulation, and basic flow of using arts (magic) and crafts (special attacks) to damage and debilitate enemies are exactly the same. New to this game is the Burst system. During critical moments (usually the last dungeon of a chapter), players can access a special gauge that builds up with every blow they land on an enemy. When this gauge is full, you can activate Burst mode, which confers several powerful bonuses upon the party. Crafts are more powerful, arts can be cast immediately, and party members will keep getting turns before the enemy until the gauge is depleted. The Burst system is a potent tool that can make quick work of regular enemies and turn the tide of boss battles.
The other new addition to combat is the introduction of master quartz. Players may already be familiar with these special quartz from the Trails of Cold Steel games, but Trails to Azure is actually the first game in the series to use them. It’s also the last game in the series to use the element system that determines what arts you can access, so master quartz function a little differently than you might remember. They still confer stat bonuses and beneficial effects that improve as they level up, but instead of giving characters access to specific arts, these master quartz come with a built-in amount of at least two elements (that also increases with each level). I’m not the biggest fan of the element system (too much memorization and using quartz I don’t care about to get specific arts), but for what it’s worth, I think this is my favorite implementation of said system. The addition of master quartz makes it easier to get the element totals required for higher-level arts. And considering the direction the series goes in the Trails of Cold Steel arc, it turns Trails to Azure into a nice bridge that blends elements of both its predecessors and successors.
Visuals in Trails to Azure are also mostly the same as in Trails from Zero, which is hardly surprising given that both games were originally released on the PSP. Trails to Azure is the last game in the series to blend isometric 3D environments and 2D character sprites, which is adorably retro, if a little dated, due to the game’s age and original platform. To be clear, I like both the original graphics of the older Trails games and the fully 3D style of the newer entries. They each have strengths and weaknesses, and I would say that what the former lacks in visual fidelity, it more than makes up for with charm.
Unfortunately, the noticeable difference in quality between the PS4 version and the PC and Switch versions is still present here. That disparity also extends to several quality-of-life features that Durante and his studio PH3 Games added to the PC and Switch ports. The PS4 version is still perfectly playable, of course, but it’s sadly the least optimal way to experience the game, so players may want to keep this in mind when deciding what platform to play on. To that end, please note that we’ve used screenshots from the PS4 version throughout this review.
Finally, let’s talk about the audio in Trails to Azure. Like Trails from Zero, all spoken dialogue is in Japanese, taken from the Evolution version of the game. Though none of the other Evolution features are present — such as the exclusive quests, animated character portraits, or updated music — having the voice acting is a nice bonus, seeing as the Trails in the Sky trilogy was never updated to include it. And while you might think that not getting the Evolution version of the soundtrack is a loss, trust me, it’s not. Trails to Azure has quite possibly the best overall soundtrack in the entire series, and it’s best experienced in its original form. Tracks like “Unfathomed Force” and “Mystic Core” are excellent, and the game also uses a few selections from the Super Arrange album, such as the hype-as-all-hell “Inevitable Struggle” and somber “Firm Strength.” There’s also a particular piece from Trails from Zero’s soundtrack featured during a key boss fight, and while I won’t spoil it, I’ll say that very rarely have I ever heard such a perfect music choice in a video game. Even the track’s name is incredibly relevant given the context in which it plays, so the whole thing is just one giant chef’s kiss in musical form.
It’s been a long time coming, but with the release of Trails to Azure, we’re no longer missing out on a vital part of the Trails universe. I know some fans are frustrated that the localization of the Crossbell games delayed Western releases of Trails into Reverie and Kuro no Kiseki, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bannings, this is a barrier that we simply had to overcome. Not only are these games relevant to what happens in the Trails of Cold Steel arc and beyond, but they’re also just good RPGs. Trails to Azure in particular is one of the best games in the series, and it’s probably my personal favorite. Fans should absolutely consider adding it to their library, particularly if they plan to play Trails into Reverie this summer. As for me, let’s just say that I can’t wait to see the SSS in action again!