Sadomasochism, is of course, only part of the appeal
NewYork about Demon's Souls
One could be forgiven for assuming, after a cursory glance, that Trails in the Sky is yet another generic and clichéd JRPG. It certainly doesn’t look like much from screenshots, and the characters – initially, at least – seem to fit the spiky-haired anime teen stereotypes that the genre is infamous for. But it's actually part of a popular (in Japan, at least) series of RPG games that have been around since the 80s. Trails, the first in a trilogy, is also around eight years old now, having first been released in 2004 for PCs, with the PSP port of that game coming out a couple of years later. If it weren’t for the fine folks at XSeed Games picking up translation duties, this could have been another of those games that might never have made it to the West.
So why should PSP and Vita owners care about this obscure title, released so late into the handheld console’s lifespan? Because Trails also happens to be a very good game – one that takes a focused, streamlined approach to JRPGs that, a few caveats aside, most genre fans will enjoy. This is an RPG that invites the player to just sit back and enjoy the ride, with very little need to overly fiddle with stats, items or battle tactics. It has no random battles, a detailed quest log that keeps track of almost everything the player has done, and an enjoyably quick-paced battle system – all wrapped up in a lengthy adventure with a memorable cast of characters.
An intriguing opening sets things in motion, after which you control the two main protagonists – Estelle and Joshua Bright. One’s a feisty, peppy tomboy who tends to act before thinking, and the other’s an adopted child, brought home in mysterious circumstances, who often displays wisdom and sensibility beyond his years. Both are in their mid-teens, and are training with the bracer guild – the game’s equivalent of a police force, except these are hired for cash - their aim being to follow in the footsteps of their respected bracer father, Cassius Bright. It’s not long into the game before Cassius is forced to travel abroad for an important assignment, and the Bright kids are left to mop up his odd jobs around town – helping them gain valuable experience, and thus setting them on the road to attaining the certificate required to become fully-fledged bracers.
The opening town area explains and demonstrates the basics – the bracer guild is where you report to for quests, which you can then initiate by talking to the NPC client directly. Upon successful completion you are given a cash reward, as well as a slight advancement in rank, depending on how tough/important the assignment was. It’s a system that works very well, with players free to tackle optional quests for cash and experience rewards before attempting the important, story-advancing missions. Things are suitably low-key at first, with early jobs consisting of accompanying NPCs to dangerous locations, searching for missing items around town, or investigating burglaries. Of course, the story does pick up after that, but one of the refreshing things about Trails is the measured pace of the narrative throughout the whole game. It’s a plot that takes in many twists and turns without rushing into things – allowing the characters and scenarios sufficient time to develop without being disrupted by any sudden revelations.
This does, however, mean that there is a lot of plot to wade through. In fact, Trails is quite possibly the most text-heavy game I’ve ever played - those that consider this a criticism won't appreciate the fact that it's actually a large part of the game's appeal. The script itself has been brilliantly translated by XSeed, packing in plenty of wit, charm, and even a few pop culture references, making lengthy dialogue exchanges much less of a chore than they could have been. But there are large sections of the game that require very little input from the player, save from pressing a button to advance the dialogue - one memorable chapter around halfway through the game, which has Estelle and Joshua helping to prepare and then perform in a university play, illustrating this perfectly. Dialogue can be sped up or even mostly skipped, but again, that would be missing the point somewhat – so for those that have no interest in lengthy exposition, preferring their handheld games to skip to the action as quickly as possible, Trails may ultimately prove to be a frustrating experience.
Fortunately, the opposite is true when the game finally does get to the action, offering a tight battle system that is just as enjoyable for quick scraps with common enemies as it is for long, tactical slugfests during tougher encounters and boss battles. As there are no random battles, enemies can be seen on-screen whilst traversing the game’s environments, with battles automatically initiated by coming into contact with one – sneak up from the back, and you’ll get a pre-emptive strike advantage at the start of battle, allowing you to get a few extra hits in before the enemy has a chance to respond. Wander too close from the front, however, and an enemy will spot and ambush you, giving them the upper hand. Most enemies can easily be avoided though, and providing you haven’t been ambushed, you can also flee from most battles without penalty.
The battle screen itself is presented like an SRPG, each character and enemy assuming their position on a grid-like system. In a slight twist to the standard turn-based battle formula, the turn order is displayed on the left of the screen, showing you not only who will be taking the next few turns, but also which stat bonuses will be handed out to which character during those turns. So you’ll be able to see straight away if an enemy will have double the strength for their next turn, for example, or if one of your characters will have their health partially refilled. The turn order will reflect any changes in real-time, so you can see what effect a particular move will have on the turn order before committing to that move. It looks and works a little like a board game, with any vanquished players/enemies being removed from the turn order and the next character taking their place.
As well as the usual weapon/spell attacks (the latter needing an extra turn to be powered up before they can be used), each character also has their own signature special moves, called Crafts. More powerful versions of those moves - S-Breaks – not only deliver massive damage to enemies, but can also be used to interrupt and break the sequence of the turn order, a key move that proves invaluable during tough battles. All in all, it’s a very simple system that’s incredibly easy to grasp, but the base mechanics offer plenty of scope for strategy when necessary.
The orbment system is about as complicated as the game gets, but even then all it really amounts to is equipping special items to boost certain stats, with some orbments also offering more interesting uses outside of battle – such as one that makes you invisible to on-screen enemies, allowing the player to avoid battle completely. A couple of difficulty spikes aside, it’s also not the hardest of RPGs – any grinding to boost stats is more likely to be done out of enjoyment rather than necessity – but that’s not to say that the game plays itself. Some sections add a dungeon-crawling element by removing the map entirely and tasking the player with navigating labyrinthine caverns filled with tough enemies, with treasure chests also scattered around for the keen explorer.
It’s these action elements that make Trails such an addictive experience, but ultimately they merely serve as a side note to the main focus of the game. With Estelle and Joshua's adventure eventually taking them around the land of Liberl – the game’s setting – in order to hone their Bracer skills, Trails ends up feeling more like an intimate journey with two friends, with a sweet romantic subplot underpinning the main tale. It can all seem a little twee at times – for example, the two will frequently take advantage of any lulls in the action with conversations about life and destiny - but that doesn’t make it any less effective at delivering an engaging, well-rounded world and narrative. There are towns and villages filled with hundreds of minor NPCs to engage in conversation with (with most offering, at the very least, a witty throwaway comment), dungeons and caverns to explore, and plains to traverse. And, naturally, other characters join and leave the party of two throughout the adventure, each well-scripted and offering a distinct personality – with one zany character in particular standing out.
It’s a game that may often veer close to being an interactive novel, and require a fair degree of patience to invest in the characters, but it also delivers a satisfying pay-off in the form of a superb ending, albeit one with a slight cliff-hanger – unfortunately, there are currently no plans to translate the second and third games for release in the west, but hopefully that won’t dissuade anyone from experiencing the mostly self-contained plot within Trails. It’s currently £23.99 on the UK PSN store, and Vita owners starved of decent RPGs could do worse than pick up one of the best recent entries in the genre – and hopefully convince XSeed to release the rest of the trilogy.