A couple months ago I finished my Master’s Degree, and I had an itch. After a year and a half of books, papers, presentations, and tests, I needed to let off some steam, and I had a feeling only one thing would do: I needed a nice long JRPG that I could sink my teeth into. I needed something with a robust story, lots of party members, a good dose of magic and combat, and of course lots of side quests. Steam must have heard my call, because The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky cropped up in my feed right quick! Thank you, Steam, this game is what I was looking for.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky starts out as a simple story about a brother and sister, but even from the start, you can feel something bigger bubbling under the surface. Estelle and Joshua Bright are two teenagers with the dream of following in their father’s footsteps, becoming renowned Bracers in the Kingdom of Liberl. Bracers are like the kingdom’s law and order, keeping the peace by solving crimes, helping citizens with various tasks, and beating up the bad guys with all the might and flair that righteous justice embodies. What starts as a simple first day on the job begins to become so much more. Estelle and Joshua’s father, Cassius Bright, mysteriously withdraws while on a quest, leaving little information to work off of, other than tasking them to complete the quests that he has left behind. Confused and concerned, our two young heroes decide to travel the kingdom, completing the quests left to them, while also working to become fully acknowledged Senior Bracers by gaining recommendations from each of the five Bracer branch offices around Liberl. With each town visited, the political state of the kingdom begins to present itself with more and more clarity, and the mystery of Cassius begins to unravel and become more confusing all at the same time. What began as a seemingly poor attempt at piracy, by a family of thugs has turned into a conspiracy that reaches to the very top of the kingdom, threatening the royal family and the very future of Librel.
Should you decide to pick up The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, prepare for the long haul. The story, although not being anything mind blowing or overly unique from other classic RPGs of political turmoil, is told through the most long-form dialogues and scenes that I have ever experienced. All of the characters speak their mind and have plenty to say, and lots of action unfolds, even in scenes where you do not control anyone. One portion of story took me about twenty-five minutes to click through, and I read quickly; beware the play in chapter two, for it is truly a story all of its own. Thankfully, this long-form is executed well. The characters really develop their own personalities, and you become invested in the relationships that develop as the tale unfolds. By the later portions of the game, you will have a good feeling of when a portion of story will take the place of portions of combat, and vice versa. Just make sure that you give each their due, because there is a lot going on in this game, between the plethora of characters that come and go from combat and debate. Final side note on story through, I was surprised by the lack of time spent in the sky. For a game with “Trails in the Sky” as a sub-title, one would expect a substantial amount on time to be on airships and focused on the excitement of high altitude combat with villains and monsters. Strap on your hiking boots; this story mostly trudges across the face of very solid land.
The gameplay of Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky worked great on the PC. The game was originally released in Japan for Microsoft Windows, so the release through Steam for ‘Merica, was seamless. You can easily control the entire game with just your mouse. If you want to get the keyboard involved, the two work in perfect conjunction with each other, but you will probably still find yourself favoring the mouse. Combat plays out in turns, but you are presented with a field that you must maneuver and conquer to make the most of each character’s range and abilities. As you play through the game, party members will come and go with each region that you are in, giving you a rotating cast of characters to play with. At first I was thrown off by this, but as I progressed, I came to enjoy the constantly changing team. Each region presented its own style, having to shift characters to different roles in the team, and different characters providing their own strengths and weaknesses, to keep combat fresh and require constant thinking about what strategy is best.
In combat, your party members have basic attacks; items; Arts, which make up the magic system; and Crafts, which are special abilities, to choose from while laying down the hurt. I really liked the magic system in this game. Each character has a small watch like item that you can equip different types of quartz into. Quartz are stones with magical properties imbued in them, and depending on how you equip them, you actually build the spells that each character can cast. The stronger the quartz, the more powerful the spells you can create. The great thing about this is that you can shift the roles of healers, support, and offensive magic from character to character depending on who is in your party; characters are not pigeonholed into certain roles, although some of them do lend better towards particular structures then others. The Crafts, or special abilities, that each party member has also provide for more strategic and enjoyable dictation to each battle. Crafts play off of each character’s unique skills, focused on their combat style, and can easily shift the progress of battle, bringing your team back from the brink of defeat to trounce the last few monsters that stand in-between you and victory. I found some good challenges in playing the Normal setting of the game, so the harder tiers will undoubtedly provide a more exciting strategic dance, particularly in the boss fights.
The visual feel of Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is very satisfying. The world is viewed from a 3rd person perspective with a retro 16 bit feel, making it a great throwback to the RPGs of the 90s. Further, the details and care taken to craft the world takes the aesthetic to the next level, making even the smallest details feel vibrant and relevant to your surroundings. This is a great feat, considering that the game runs natively in a tiny 5 by 6 inch window. There is a way to make the game run on a full screen format, but it looked like more effort than I was interested in accomplishing to enjoy the game, requiring a special utility download. Still, even on such a small presentation, the colors pop, the world is lush, and the game play works great. You will get over the size quickly and feel immersed in the world before you know it. Just deal with it.
Looking at the final nitty gritty mechanics of the game, music and voice acting, I was pleased with what the game has to offer, specifically the music. The voice acting was extremely limited, literally being relegated to a few words by the character who ends each battle, so I will gloss past voice acting. But, the music in the game is quite charming. Although there is not a wide selections of tracks to enjoy, the ones that are embedded in the game are well composed and lend perfectly to what is playing out in the story. I found myself taking time to just sit and enjoy the music, or fighting an extra couple of battles, just so I could continue wandering an area with a track I had come to love. Definitely play this game with the sound on.
Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky will fill the void you might have, looking for a nice long RPG with all of the classic aspects that the genre made a staple in the 90s, on the SNES and PlayStation. You will easily find yourself lost in the multitude of side quests that wonderfully accent the main story, and the story will feel as much like a book or movie as it is a game. The replay value could be low though, due to the length of the game, and the ease with which side quest can be missed. Each side quest has a predetermined window of opportunity, so if you don’t make sure to talk to everyone often you probably won’t become the most distinguished Bracer in the kingdom, but don’t let that anal retentiveness make you miss this great game. The characters are compelling. The story is engrossing. The format is approachable and easy to appreciate. If you like the genre, check this game out. Oh yeah, it also has sequels, so there is plenty of content to keep you busy for weeks and months to come.