Five years ago, Cassius Bright brought home a mysterious young boy named Joshua despite knowing nothing of his past. Joshua quickly became close with Estelle, Cassius’s biological daughter. In the present day, the siblings train together to become like their father and join the Bracers, a global organization of good samaritans for hire. Just as the two become Junior Bracers, their father goes missing on a job. The pair resolves to travel across the country of Liberl, killing two birds with one stone: searching for their father and receiving recommendations from each Bracer branch across the nation. Along the way, they’ll meet new friends and become embroiled in a political conspiracy that could change the face of the continent.
I’ve been wanting to get into Falcom’s Trails series for quite some time. While I reviewed Trails of Cold Steel IV, the finale of that particular arc, it was clear that I was missing quite a lot of background about the world, story, characters, and even gameplay. I mean, you basically start the game at level 50 and with a ridiculous amount of playable characters in your party. While I enjoyed the game, I was still hungry for everything I was missing. So what better way to start this journey than with the first proper Trails game, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky? Thanks to Good ol’ Games, I plan on covering as many games in the series as possible, so let’s jump right in.
The Trails series is technically a spinoff of Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes which released for the NEC PC-8801 in 1989, but would only come to the west in 2005 with the PSP remake. Trails in the Sky, meanwhile, originally released for Windows PCs in 2004, with a PSP version coming worldwide in 2011, a Japan only PS3 version in 2012, a JP only Vita version in 2015, and finally, an English version of the Windows original in 2014, which is what we’re covering today. Sadly, this trend of leaving American fans in the dust, not to mention European fans, continues to this day with 2020’s Trails into Reverie only being localized next year.Japan already has two games after that. There were fan translations for those who wanted to keep up with the story without being spoiled or waiting an eternity for the localization process, but sadly those have been shut down. I digress, however, so let’s talk about Trails in the Sky’s first entry.
You play as Estelle Bright, a scatterbrained yet enthusiastic young girl as she works to become a full fledged bracer alongside her adopted brother Joshua. The game does a wonderful job of instantly endearing you to these two, with a pitch perfect sibling dynamic. They bicker and tease each other constantly, with Joshua usually being five steps ahead of Estelle in understanding what’s going on, but it’s clear they have the other’s back. They both want to protect the other, sometimes so much so that they’ll trip over each other in doing so. That ride or die relationship forms the core of the story and allows the political intrigue to be built on top of it. It’s difficult to care about fantasy politics if you don’t know anyone involved, after all.
Estelle is a great protagonist on her own, too. While she may not be the smartest or most tactful person in the room, she possesses a great amount of emotional intelligence; she understands other people’s feelings easily even if she struggles with her own. She grows in a very subtle way throughout the game, while still leaving a lot of room for the rest of the trilogy and series as a whole to tell her story. I don’t want to spoil any of the political side of the plot, but I think even without that excellent through line, the game would still be enjoyable simply because of Estelle.
As you play through the game’s four chapters, with each covering a different city and issue that connects to the larger whole, you’ll explore and engage in combat. The game is fairly old, but the art style is pleasing to the eye with 3D environments, 2D characters spirited similarly to Donkey Kong Country, and some major enhancements to the tech behind the game like its resolution thanks to fans and GoG themselves. It takes some doing to get running (you have to launch the Config file instead of just hitting play) but the game even supports 16:10 resolutions, filling the Steam Deck’s screen nicely. I played the entire game on Steam Deck and it was a fantastic experience, requiring no setup for the controls to work.
When exploring the overworld, you move around with the D-Pad or left analogue stick, interact with objects or people with the A button, and speed up the game by holding the right trigger – an invaluable feature that shaved about 10 hours off of my playtime if HowLongToBeat.com is to be believed. Although Liberl has advanced enough to have civilian airship travel, you instead walk the land on foot, exploring the countryside’s trails and the occasional small village between major cities.
While there are monsters everywhere, the world is designed in such a way that it feels like an actual place people live. It’s a little difficult to describe, but aside from the treasure chests hidden in certain places Liberl doesn’t feel like a video game world made so you can explore it. It feels like it was already there before you started playing the game, and the citizens would go about their days without you, if that makes any sense. It’s a very appealing structure that meshes well with the politics of the story. The maze-like layout of some endgame dungeons does get a bit frustrating, but it feels appropriate and can still be navigated by making your own map or just using the follow the left wall trick (following the wall to your left will eventually lead you to the end).
Before we move on to combat, we need to talk about Orbments. Each character is equipped with one of these devices, which have several slots to fit in Quartz. Quartz come in various different colors and types that can increase your stats, grant you new abilities, and determine what spells, or arts, you can cast. For example, if Estelle equips a red Attack 2 Quartz, her physical attack will go up and she’ll be able to use the first two tiers of fire arts, but her defense will go down slightly. Quartz allow you to build your party how you see fit even if you don’t have control of who’s in your party besides Estelle and Joshua until the final dungeon.
It’s a system that’s a lot of fun to experiment with, either synergizing with a character’s proficiencies or covering their weaknesses. It does take forever for you to unlock the full potential of the system, however. I only unlocked every Orbment’s slots late into chapter 3. I also find the slot restrictions to be more frustrating than fun as well, with some slots only taking certain colors of Quartz. Once you have a setup you like, the restrictions make it difficult to adjust your loadout and discourage further experimentation. I’m not against the idea entirely, it’s just more cumbersome than it should be.
Battles are turn-based, with the turn order listed at the left of the screen, and take place on a grid. Once one of your characters turns comes around, they can perform a standard physical attack, move to another square (attacks will do this automatically if the enemy is in movement range), use an art (which takes time to cast and consumes EP), use an item, or spend CP to use a Craft.
Unlike EP, CP is only gained by attacking enemies or getting hit and goes up to a max of 200. Crafts are character specific moves, which gives each party member something unique to them as they rotate in and out as the story demands. These can be anything from buffs to attacks that stop an enemy from casting an art. Once a character’s CP reaches 100 or above, they can then use their signature S-Craft at any point, even interrupting the turn order. These are basically super moves and are invaluable in battle, in particular Joshua’s S-Craft that deals a ton of damage to all enemies.
It takes some time to get to grips with all of the systems and subsystems combat has to offer, but once you do you have a ton of options at your disposal and you’ll need to use all of them to succeed.
While I loved the story and characters of Trails in the Sky, it is a bit too wordy, so much so that it felt more like I was playing a visual novel than an RPG a lot of the time. I appreciate the game’s clarity on all the plot points, so you can figure out parts of the mystery, but sometimes I just wanna play the game and not read a novel’s worth of dialogue between combat encounters. It could be paced much better than it is.
Finally, my biggest issue with Trails in the Sky is the central romance. Yes, unfortunately the game shoves Estelle and Joshua together so hard it’s impossible to ignore. Even if they’re not related by blood, they were still raised from age 11 as siblings and it’s super creepy. Please stop. I also prefer their sibling relationship because it’s much more unique and interesting. The story would work perfectly fine without this one gross plot point.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a fantastic example of starting a long-running series off right, with lovable characters and an intricate world tied together with an intriguing political narrative. While it takes a while to get going and is very long-winded, it’s incredibly enjoyable and leaves you wanting more.
- Great characters
- Fantastically realized world
- Strategic combat and character building
- Maze-like dungeons can get frustrating
- Dialogue can go on forever
- Stop shipping the siblings