Title: The Legend Of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Second Chapter
Release Date: October 29, 2015
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform(s): PSP (PS Vita and PS Vita TV Compatible), PC
Original MSRP: $29.99
ESRB Rating: T
Ask most people about The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Second Chapter (henceforth, Trails in the Sky SC or just “SC”—I mean, even half the title is a mouthful) and you’re likely to hear something akin to one of three things: 1) It sure took forever for the sequel to the aptly named Trails in the Sky First Chapter to come out, 2) People are still talking about PSP games in the year 2016? and 3) insert joke about what you get when you abbreviate “Trails in the Sky” here.
As it turns out, there is a lot of history to both this series and the game’s localization as a whole. In fact, I could probably write an entire article on that alone, especially since the “Legend of Heroes” series spans several games on its own and the “Trails” series is simply a sub-series of that. But since this is a review and I don’t want to overwhelm you with background info, let’s just cover the basic context: Trails in the Sky SC was released in Japan for PC back in 2006 and PSP in 2007, but it was a long journey to the West for this massive game with about 3 million Japanese characters.
Since Trails in the Sky FC (henceforth “FC”) didn’t come until 2011, fans had to wait for its sequel, SC, for over 4 years in order to finally see the resolution to FC’s heart-wrenching cliffhanger and subsequent plot. Given the original was known well for its deep characters and engaging, yet glacially-paced story, it would be an understatement to say people were anticipating this game.
Still with me so far? If so, it’s time to move on from the history of the game to the history in the game—to start, SC starts off right where FC left, no major time skip or anything, and puts you in a situation where if you haven’t played the original, you’re probably not only going to be confused, but considerably missing out. Not only is the game full of the lore and backstory kinds of history, but you can import save data from FC in order to change dialog and such in the game—basically, all the named NPCs and such remember who you are and the times you saved them before, which is a really nice touch that makes the world feel much more alive. Unlike many sequels, the game itself has a history that you (hopefully) played through and can remember and it uses that to its advantage.
When it comes to the core of the game, however, there’s no time like the present, and Trails SC ramps things up to the next level from its previous entry. The bad guys are tougher and meaner, the circumstances are more dire, and the main character Estelle, now a senior bracer—experienced guild members separate from the army who work to preserve the peace by defeating monsters and doing other miscellaneous jobs—has also leveled up from the last game, continuing to do so throughout the story in order to challenge an association of enemies that spans not only this game, but future games as well. …Did I forget to mention there’s a third chapter and 4 other “Trails” games all taking place in the same world and all connected to each other?
OK, that might be a bit overwhelming, so let me reel it in. The game’s story is indeed massive and takes the time out to flesh out its large cast of characters, playable and non-playable alike. In fact, since dialog—and even cutscenes—change based on who you keep in your party, I found myself constantly switching out members and regretting only being able to keep four with me at a time, which I can’t even consider a flaw—telling “hey, how dare you guys write so well” to a hypothetical complaints department would probably net me a “hold on, let me redirect you…” kind of response.
However, the story isn’t without its weak-points or flaws. The first few chapters are very formulaic and drag you around quite a bit, making it seem like you’re at the whim of the enemies and are just kind of floundering around, something I’d hope to get away from after the first game. After all, this was supposed to be the exciting sequel to all the build-up we already went through, so the sometimes shaky or inconsistent pacing and large amount of quests could feel like they were dragging out the main story, depending on one’s perspective. It worked out alright for me because I’m pretty patient, but with most of the locales in SC being the exact same places you explored in FC, it’s worth mentioning that SC isn’t all epic plot, and pretty much every place in the original is reused in some way, even if it’s just putting in new chests with funny text when you check them or shoving in a monster for you to exterminate as a quest.
When it comes down to it, however, SC’s story might be long, but that’s also very much what makes it rewarding—and when things do get intense, it’s generally pretty satisfying. The game has the feel of a classic RPG where it does its best to make up for simple or outdated graphics with charm and execution. Of course, the isometric view of the game and its lack of some common quality-of-life features common in RPGs these days (such as detailed maps for all areas, marking people related to sidequests with exclamation points, fast-travel, etc.) aren’t for everyone, but that comes with the territory of a nearly 10 year old game, and I like to think of it as I would going back and playing a classic RPG on a console from the early 2000’s.
The story is also complemented by a fantastic soundtrack, something Falcom is well-known for. However, a lot of the songs are reused from the original, and there are so many variations of the main theme that I did find myself getting sick of it, despite how catchy it was. As a whole, the music is well-used to fit the atmosphere of scenes and the sound work does its job, but I’d say a lot of the best tracks appear not in cutscenes but rather in battles. From the jazzy fight themes to the epic violin in one of the game’s most iconic songs, Silver Will, no matter how long the showdowns got, I found myself still having fun.
Of course, no matter how good the music is, if the battle system isn’t up to par, the battle can only be so epic. Trails in the Sky SC takes FC’s turn-based battle system and tweaks it just a bit, keeping what works without really doing anything dramatic.
In many ways, this turns out great. Battles take place on a grid that allows you to position yourself in order to launch attacks, avoid attacks, or work with teammates as needed. For instance, keeping your characters together makes it easier to heal or buff everyone at once, but this also makes you more susceptible to enemy area of effect attacks, not to mention some characters aren’t as adept at attacking from afar, so they need to go off on their own.
Furthermore, the wide range of characters gives a lot of options as to how you want to attack: not only do you have the usual “high physical damage, weak magic damage” and vice-versa types of characters, but thanks to the “orbment” system, pretty much anyone can use low-level attack, healing, or support arts—arts essentially being this game’s version of magic. Along with a fairly large recipe book allowing you to make items that heal, give buffs, and even attack enemies for significant damage, no one has to stick purely to one role, even if they have a certain inclination.
The only real issue I had with the battle system was that while it kept exciting elements like the turn-bonus system (shown below), it failed to introduce many new elements to keep battles snazzy. You’ve got crafts, or special abilities with various effects, but they’re mostly just enhanced versions of the last game’s crafts. What new crafts and S-Crafts (ultimate attacks that can interrupt the turn order in order to monopolize damage-increasing or other bonuses) you get are great, but between the lack of freshness and the fact that you have to rebuild your stack of arts from scratch, unlike how you keep your level from the previous game, it was hard to stay excited—I’d already seen the animations dozens or hundreds of times, after all. This goes double for characters you had seen a lot of in the previous game like Estelle and Kloe, and the introduction of “chain attacks”, the main new feature to the battle system, did little to remedy this in my experience.
Notice the turn order to the left and the icons to the right of them—enemies, allies, and NPCs alike will get a bonus based on those, such as increased damage or auto-HP recovery. You can nab them at any time with S-Crafts, which require at least 100 CP to activate.
Overall though, the battle system does feel like an improvement over Trails in the Sky FC, but only slightly. For the most part, you can be prepared to do more of the same, with the occasional new character or new craft to spice things up. Admittedly, there’s also a lot of depth to the battle system I haven’t mentioned, such as purposely tanking hits to gain CP, abusing Agate’s various useful crafts, setting up your stats for certain strategies, and predicting enemy moves to maximize the usefulness of offensive arts. For example, some arts are set on a specific location, so you need to anticipate where enemies will be or hit them into said area if you don’t want to miss when the art finishes casting. But ultimately, this layer of depth is nothing new if you’ve played FC, so it’s really just more time to practice and master what you’ve already gone through once.
That just leaves me with the rest of the game’s mechanics, and on that note, it’s mostly standard RPG fare. You’ve got equipment, shops, quests, etc., and Trails’ orbment system is back once again. For those unfamiliar with it, you set stones called “quartz” of various elements (water, fire, earth, space, time, etc.), and having enough of an element or combination of elements nets you an art. This means you can have all sorts of combinations of arts if you plan out your quartz distribution appropriately, with characters having various limitations on their setups. So not everyone can get all the highest-tier spells, but if nothing else, equipping quartz for that one time your character has nothing better to do but cast an art, or for the bonuses they give to stats and the like, is something you’ll likely want to do for every character in your party.
In the end, Trails in the Sky SC might be a bit of an old game whose biggest attraction is its story and cast, but that and a solid foundation in everything else made it worth the long wait. It’s clear that XSEED put a tremendous amount of work into the localization and that’s why I overlooked some slight issues I had with the PSP version. For one, the PC version is shinier and can actually be patched, so there’s always that as a solution, but in the first place, it was a work of love that let a game like this get released on the PSP in the year 2015, so it’d be a bit much to expect it to be perfect.
If you liked the original or are looking for a charming, story-rich JRPG and don’t mind a bit of that “classic feel” to it, the Trails in the Sky duology might be for you. Just get ready for the long haul, because this is a journey where you get out about as much as you put in, really. For me, that was a satisfying conclusion to a long story and a feeling of “it wasn’t perfect, but it was worth it”.
Note: All screenshots of the PC version. The reviewed copy was purchased digitally from the PlayStation Network and played on the PlayStation Vita console.