The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky review

If you’re one of the many who are frustrated with the stubborn reluctance of Japanese role-playing games to let go of their needlessly convoluted combat systems. If you’re embarrassed by their cheesy, melodramatic stories and disheartened by their clichéd and often creepy character design, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky will take you back to a simpler time of RPGs and remind you that the genre you once loved has not left you behind.

Though the Legend of Heroes franchise has been around for decades, Trails in the Sky is the start of a trilogy unrelated to the other titles. Taking place in a heavily forested nation enjoying the fruits of a technological revolution, the story follows a brother and sister who go from running errands in their local town to unwittingly discovering a treacherous scheme that threatens their entire kingdom. The setting may sound like old territory for some JRPG players, but it’s the story’s graceful flow through this vibrant world that makes your progression through the game feel pleasantly familiar rather than just old or boring.

Our two main characters, Estelle and Joshua, begin their story by becoming members of a guild of freelance warriors organized to protect and serve the cities and villages of the kingdom. As junior members of this guild, all your adventures – whether main story or divergent side quest – are conveniently recorded in a notebook that can be instantly referenced in case you’re ever distracted by a colorful town square and can’t quite remember why you went there in the first place.

As you confront enemies you’ll also encounter another of Trails’ exceptional aspects: its combat system. The combat’s flexibility for accommodating both drawn-out, strategic maneuvers or fast, rushed-through combat keeps it from ever feeling rote and makes the grinding (seldom needed, unless you really want to kick the crap out of your opponents) immensely more tolerable. Speeding through a monster encounter can be as simple as holding down X to perform basic attacks, zipping past the battle results, and quickly proceeding on to your destination. When it is time bust out the big moves a comprehensive skill and magic system can be customized and implemented to deal out huge damage and clobber your enemies.

Monsters appear on roads and trails as you travel about the lands and dungeons. Run into the monster from behind and you can get an advantage in the beginning of combat. Defeating enemies yields small crystals that you can then synthesize in towns and equip to your characters for magic and status upgrades. As you collect hundreds of varying crystals your opportunity for synthesizing new magics to equip and character abilities to unlock expands. You can also collect ingredients from monsters that contribute to a huge library of cooking recipes to discover and exploit.

The player-friendly nature of this JRPG continues with the option to save at any time and its ability to restart any battle you lost without penalty. Admittedly, it does make running from battles when things take a wrong turn somewhat pointless, but it’s hard to argue with getting a retry button than a boot to the start menu and all your unsaved progress lost. Don’t get us wrong though – this game doesn’t rock because it’s a pushover – its battles can be quite challenging.

Trails’ characters, richly populated towns, and interesting back story are expertly expressed through the characters and their journey. The characters may seem more than verbose or overly talkative at times, spending more than a few moments conducting small talk when you just wish they would get to the meat-and-potatoes of the conversation, but it succeeds in portraying them as enjoyable, believable characters with their own distinct behavior. Also, if you decide you just don’t give a damn about the story, holding down the Circle button can turn an eight-minute bout of exposition into a 15-second scene with a handy objective update added to your quest notebook.

If we had to drag out a gripe about Trails, we might mention the minor blurriness of some of the art, the way some inconsequential conversations between characters can feel too long, or the way monsters tend to appear along your path too suddenly. But these are easily negligible issues.

If you’ll pardon the references, Trails possesses the old-anime style and basic battle mechanics of a Grandia or Lunar and mixes in the modern, flexible, hassle-free, yet deep execution of a battle system like Persona 4. Just when we thought the PSP (and, arguably, what we once knew as a JRPG) was slowly walking out the door, Trails provides a pleasant bastion of everything that drew so many to this genre long ago. Amusing characters, a rich setting and great mechanics all smoothly coalesce to create a surprising and thoroughly enjoyable tale, prompting us to speculate that our little PSPs are far from retirement. We’re ready for part 2.

Apr 19, 2011

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