Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

 Loh6 The Legend of Heroes Trails in the Sky.jpg

The Whereabouts of Light

Nihon Falcom’s Legend of Heroes franchise first began as a series of two spinoffs from their larger Dragon Slayer series, before eventually becoming its own thing with a trio of titles termed the Gagharv trilogy, although the trilogy received different numbering in North America when translated by Bandai. Localization duties would eventually fall to XSEED Games, who took a while in their translation process before releasing the first installment of the following trilogy, unrelated to its predecessors, entitled The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, released on PC and the PlayStation Portable, the latter version this review covers.

The first Trails game focuses on Estelle Bright and her adopted brother Joshua, who travel the laughably-named Liberl Kingdom whilst performing jobs to become full-fledged “bracers,” occasionally finding new companions and finding themselves involved in political upheaval. The worldbuilding is easily one of the game’s strongest suits, with a well-developed and likeable cast, as well as the aforementioned political overtones, although the protagonists’ search for their vanished father rarely seems urgent, and there is occasional deus ex machina. The translation is good, although given the time necessary to translate the game, there are aspects that could have been better, particularly regarding the asinine names for people and places at times and rare text overflow.

Trails sports a turn-based tactical battle system, with the player’s party of up to four characters, their formation adjustable in the game menus, squaring off against a number of enemies, which are visible in dungeons and transport the player to separate grid-based battlefields once contacted on fields in between towns or dungeons. A step down from the Gagharv trilogy is that no matter how high the player’s characters’ levels are, enemies, upon noticing their visible party, will still charge them, although fortunately, contacting them from behind to get a surprise attack against them isn’t terribly difficult.

In combat, characters and the enemy take their turns depending upon agility, with a turn order meter luckily showing who goes when. Upon reaching their turns, the player’s characters can move and execute a physical attack, simply move to another square, use a consumable item, use EP-consuming Arts, execute CP-consuming Crafts, or attempt to escape. Craft Points gradually accumulate up to a maximum of two hundred, with special limit breaks executable at a hundred, although using them at two hundred will maximize effectiveness and even grant bonuses depending on the skill.

EP basically dictates magical abilities in battle, with each character having an orbment grid into whose slots, unlockable by crystals obtained from winning battle, the player can place shards of differing elements (although for some characters, a few slots the game reserves only for specific types), with the strength of the shards allowing characters use of certain spells, an in-game guide fortunately cluing players in as to how they can access certain Arts. If the player plays their cards right, they can access some powerful abilities early on in the game that can make standard battles go by quicker.

One issue players may have with Arts, however, is that they may take a few turns to execute (with this period oftentimes varying), with some enemies, particularly some bosses, able to cancel their execution, and thus, foresight is sometimes necessary, although luckily, the player can conveniently view which elements foes are strong or weak against without the need for scan magic. Higher-level Arts may affect a certain area of the battlefield, although sometimes the player needs to center spells on specific foes to execute them, with other magic allowing free-range area selection. A few defensive spells can actually be handy, such as one allowing nullification of damage from one enemy attack.

Winning battles nets all characters who are still alive experience proportional to their level for occasional level-ups (which fully restores HP and EP), although these tend to rise fairly slowly. The player also acquires crystals of different elements they can exchange at shops for money, in addition to the occasional item. Another feature is the food system, with the player able to cook meals for the entire party to restore HP and maybe grant supplemental effects such as additional Craft Points, new recipes acquired from consuming food items, and raw materials necessary to concoct them.

All in all, the battle system has some good ideas, but the execution leaves something to desire, since especially during the endgame against the final bosses, fights can drag on, given unskippable animations, and there are plenty of annoying foes and ailments. Fortunately, if all the player’s characters die, they can restart the fight with all adversaries supposedly weaker, giving a fairer chance in the fight. However, a character’s death causes them to lose all acquired Craft Points, with these moves often critical in the toughest battles. In the end, the game mechanics could have used more polish.

So could have the control, although there are occasional bright spots such as the ability to record progress anywhere and anytime outside battles and cutscenes, and the general game interface is easy to handle and navigate, with players further able to see how equipment increases or decreases stats before purchase. However, there are some issues such as the oftentimes-poor direction on how to complete the game’s optional bracer missions, not to mention advance the central storyline a few times, and many dungeons except late-game sewers lack maps, making exploration troublesome. All in all, Trails could have interfaced with players better.

Falcom’s sound department did a nice job with the soundtrack, with some standout tracks such as the central theme, “The Whereabouts of Light,” which has a nice harmonica version Joshua plays at points throughout the game. All the town themes are nice as well, as is the music played in dungeons and the main battle theme, although more diversity with regards to battle music would have been welcome. One twist is that if the player’s party is close to death, the combat music changes, and while one can find annoying characters whining and crying when dying (with voices only present in battles), the players can mercifully mute voicework in battle. Overall, the game’s aural presentation is another high point.

Trails’ visuals feature three-dimensional and character sprites, with nice art direction in the form of the character portraits that accompany cutscenes, and the battles contain nice animation and ability effects. However, the scenery is often full of jaggies and blurry, pixilated texturing, and the sprites don’t show much emotion, with plentiful palette swaps of encountered enemies as well. All in all, the graphics are middling at best, but aren’t wholly an eyesore.

Finally, the game is of modest length, somewhere from one to two days’ worth of playtime, with sidequests in the form of additional guild missions and even a replay mode to start from the beginning with some things carried over, although Trails isn’t quite enjoyable enough to warrant additional playtime, and most players will want to move on to the second game if they liked the first.

In the end, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a competent but generic RPG, with many of its aspects having an equal number of good and bad aspects like combat, control, and the visuals. It does contain clear positives such as the worldbuilding and musical presentation, and while it has a replay mode, it isn’t fun enough to warrant more playtime, and those who did like it will likely want to move onto the sequel. Frankly, however, I’m definitely hesitate to go back through the second game again, and Trails and its successors definitely aren’t bucket-list RPGs.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally purchased and downloaded to the reviewer’s PlayStation Vita.

The Good:
+Game mechanics have some good ideas.
+Save-anywhere feature.
+Great worldbuilding.
+Nice soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Annoying endgame with potentially-long battles.
-Completing jobs can be difficult without a guide.
-Not engaging enough to replay.
-Weak visuals.

The Bottom Line:
A competent but generic RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 6.5/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 3.5/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 5.5/10

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