Coming late to a long running gaming series can mean many things; refined mechanics, additional gameplay modes, a robust multiplayer community maybe. There can also be downsides, an outdated engine or the absence of any idea whatsoever in how the main themes of the plot are actually working. Apart from luminaries such as the Ultima and Might & Magic series (and intentionally ignoring sports franchises) the Western industry doesn’t really ever give gamers the option to jump in at game number twelve. The East, however, excels at producing such series with many names such as Final Fantasy and Resident Evil (Biohazard!) familiar to the Western market. One that you probably haven’t heard of however (unless you lived in the States around ’92 and owned a TurboGrafx-16, or imported some of their incorrectly numbered LoH PSP ports) is the Legend of Heroes saga, now up to number ten counting a couple of spinoffs. Coming to Europe for the first time, Ghostlight are giving you the opportunity to boot up your PSP and jump in with Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, the sixth game in the series. Grab a cuppa and a few biscuits, because with at least fifty hours of ‘core’ play and compelling mechanics you are going to be there a while...
Anime sideboob - the best kind
Don’t be put off by Trails in the Sky being the sixth in the overall series; the Legend of Heroes saga is split into three separate series, each of which have their own storylines and continuing characters. Trails in the Sky is part one of the third series, with a second and third chapter (as well as a direct sequel) to come after it. A typical JRPG, the game was initially released for the PC in Japan during 2004. Trails in the Sky was quickly ported over to PSP for our Japanese chums, whereas we have had to wait a fair while. The action takes place in the Liberl Kingdom, a seemingly serene land that has spent the previous ten years recovering from an invasion attempt from the neighbouring Erebonian Empire. The game contains a whole host of playable characters, but the main leads are introduced at the start of the game. Estelle Bright is the sixteen year old daughter of Cassius Bright, one of the foremost members of the Bracer guild. The Bracer guild is a pan-nation organisation that exists to complete anything from domestic odd jobs up to full scale secret government requests – feel free to picture them as a nice version of your usual mercenary guild. The game follows Estelle and her adopted brother Joshua as they join the Bracer guild and rank up within the organisation while also investigating the disappearance of their father.
Technologically speaking the Liberl Kingdom is an interesting place; research into ancient artefacts fifty years before the game takes place allowed an ‘Orbal Revolution’ to take place. Orbments are technological devices powered by septium fragments known as quartz. These quartz power almost everything mechanical within the Legend of Heroes world, from giant airships down to cameras. Orbments are also what your characters use to gain access to essentially magic powers (known as ‘Arts’) and the arrangements of orbments you select for your characters determines which ‘Crafts’ they are able to use. The concept of the setting is fundamentally steampunk but without any of the associated Victoriana, instead preferring to present a fluffy Japanese take on the whole ‘technology in past times!!!!’ idea. It works wonderfully well, and you won’t even question why people are still using melee weapons instead of orbal guns. Well, you won’t question that much. Maybe.
Graphically the game is reminiscent of the 16bit era, the cute sprites belying the complex system found underneath. The action takes place on two planes, the main navigation/talking with people/doing stuff world and the turn-based combat screen. Both halves of the game work magnificently well on the PSP screen, the experience clearly optimised for widescreen play on a smaller scale. An added bonus for those used to some of the more groan-worthy aspects of your typical JRPG is that while in the main game world you have the ability to save anywhere, ensuring the game is easy for you to play in a portable fashion rather hoping your battery lasts four hours on standby when you get caught short of a save point. Outside of safer areas the monster encounters are never ‘random’ in that you aren’t suddenly surprised by an invisible giant insect every few steps you take forward, although there are certain spawns that you may need to refresh the map section to see.
The characterisation within Trails in the Sky is superb, with Estelle’s journey from a headstrong teenager into a more mature member of the Bracer guild believable and engaging. The dialogue within the game presents and reinforces each of the characters you meet, a testament both to the initial writers and to those who have translated into English. A few Americanisms remain in the text, but they are few and far between and can be almost easily forgiven. There is a lot of text in the game, and your time in towns will be mainly taken up with reading what all of the various personalities have to say. This text is never dull, and while some of the characters may be young in the game the dialogue is still risqué and approaches the fourth wall in its attempts to entertain you. Full of small rewards (all treasure chests have a unique line of text when you examine them after looting them) and in-depth surprises the dialogue is one of the two main pillars for Trails in the Sky.
The dialogue and characterisation are a real plus point
It is a shame then that at one point the dialogue falls and lets the game down; upon meeting the character Olivier there is a sequence that should prove uncomfortable for any mature gamer. Olivier is a character who lives for joie de vivre, uncaring of what others believe and seeking only to slake his own desires. Among other expressions he admits an attraction to Joshua and makes vaguely suggestive comments. The way that Estelle, Joshua and Scherazard (another player character) respond is arguably within character and tone of the game, but the reaction can essentially be summarised as ‘Urgh!’, the insinuation being that ‘men who like men’ are not normal. It is a case where regardless of the original Japanese the integrity of the game would not have been affected had the translation been modified to better suit a Western audience.
The other main pillar of the game, combat, is an accomplished offering with a deep set of supporting mechanics sitting behind the apparently simple screen. Combat takes place on a small tiled map in a turn based fashion, with characters able to attack with weapons, Arts (magic derived from equipped quartz) Crafts (special attacked derived from the combinations of equipped quartz) and items. Alongside the turn list (that is, the order in which yourself and the present monsters act) are various random combat bonuses which are handed out. Ranging from extra resources to increased strength or guaranteed critical attacks these bonuses can be real game changers. Instead of having to sit back and accept when a bonus falls to the wrong side however, Trails in the Sky features dynamic re-arrangement of the turn list depending on the actions you take. For instance, it can often be more beneficial for you to simply move a character instead of attack with them, then allowing them to take their next action sooner, and maybe deny an enemy a bonus along the way. Once one of your characters has built up a hundred craft points they are able to spend them on an S-Craft move – which, wonderfully, you can start at any time thus stealing an important bonus from a monster and dealing huge damage to them at the same time. Arguably not relevant during most of the grinding combat you will engage in, playing the turn list forms an important part of any difficult fight within Trails in the Sky.
One of a few Towers the game will have you explore
A final interesting point to Trails in the Sky is the relative importance given to items and item construction. Throughout the game there are very few item drops, the game directing you instead to weapon shops. The upgrades you can purchase there for both offensive and defensive upgrades are significant, and unless you complete the majority of optional side quests you will find lag behind in the item race in later parts of the game. Item construction in the game takes the forms of recipes; every time you eat food in the game you automatically learn how to cook that food (obviously). There are a huge number of recipes to learn, with the majority of them offering additional benefits over and above restoring health (curing status ailments or giving temporary combat benefits). It is a clever system and one that encourages you to compulsively grind ingredients so that you can cover all of your food bases and makes a welcome replacement for the generic potion system used in many other offerings.
Trail in the Sky is a colourful take on the JRPG genre, and it has aged well since its 2004 PC release. It brings in several interesting concepts and as an experience works wonderfully on the PSP. With huge numbers of recipes to collect and side missions to explore the game offers serious value for money over and above the main story; while you wait out the Vita make sure you check out this gem of a classic instead of falling for whatever wheezing franchise offering the West is still trying to pump out.