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Other than Last Dream, I haven't played a JRPG in years. Not since I lived in Japan and finally played through the DS version of Final Fantasy IV, I think. Last Dream was fun, but it didn't entirely scratch my JRPG itch, maybe because it was so focused on recreating the experience of Final Fantasy I, before the idea of "JRPG" really took hold. The characters were only their classes and the story barely focused on them at all.

And then I started to notice articles about some RPG I'd never heard of called "Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky," like this one on US Gamer. And just recently, this one. And I heard friends mention it and how much they liked it. I put it on my wishlist about a week before Steam's summer sale hit and then it went on sale, and I bought it and booted it up to check it out. And then kept playing. And playing. And now, I have beaten it, and it was just as good as those articles led me to believe.

Let the troping begin.

Trails in the Sky stars Estelle and Joshua Bright, children--adopted, in Joshua's case--of famed bracer Cassius Bright. The bracers are basically the Adventurers' Guild, who are different from the various mercenary groups because mumble mumble waves hands and who provide the excuse for most of the plot. Cassius leaves early on a mission of great secrecy, and Estelle and Joshua decided to travel around the Kingdom of Liberl to the various bracer branches, doing odd jobs, proving themselves as junior bracers, and living up to the legacy set by their father.

The characters are pretty stock, with Estelle and Joshua being red oni blue oni and various other bracers being the hot-blooded young man, the whip-wielding dominatrix, the jovial huge guy, the genki girl, and so on. But while they all fall into well-worn JRPG tropes, they're well-written enough that I care about them as characters rather than as representations of those archetypes. It manages to walk a fine line, bringing up all those JRPG tropes I remember while not getting so tropey that I stop caring what happens.

I mean, one non-spoiler subplot is Estelle having to deal with her growing feelings for Joshua, and everyone else but Joshua figuring it out even though he's usually the more perceptive of the two. Adopted sibling as love interest is JRPG as hell, but here I thought it was cute. It's the deredere finally peeking out from behind Estelle's usual tsuntsun.

Lady, protest, etc.

The worldbuilding is also very well done even if the names are stupid.

I already mentioned the Kingdom of Liberl, which does at one point lead to a joke about "Liberlism." Liberl is a small kingdom without much military power and is threatened to the north by the Erebonian Empire, which led to a war ten years prior to the start of the game. Liberl only won because they're the center for magitech development on the continent. This "orbal" technology--in Japanese it's 導力 (douryoku, "guiding power")--and the septium crystals it uses powered airships that allowed the Liberlian army to rapidly respond to the attack, defeating the numerically superior Erebonian army and leading to an uneasy peace.

Backstory, woo. What's neat is that you see the way this plays out through the game. Liberl is industrializing, with orbal lights near roads to keep away monsters, airship travel between provinces, firearms common among the troops, and one city with electric streetlights, heating, and elevators. There are a couple Erebonian characters and the Liberlians are kind of cautious around them, since the war wasn't that long ago. Liberal relatively recently became a constitutional monarchy as well, so there's tension between the old nobility who no longer have their titles and the rising merchant and engineering class making all their money in the brisk orbal technology trade.

Ninjas never play fair.

And that brings me to the plot, which fortunately does not involve the most egregious JRPG stereotypes. It's somewhat justified and somewhat unfair, but JRPGs are often associated with massively ramping up stakes until the very fate of the world is at stake or a few orphans and farmer's children are storming Heaven to kill G-d.

Not here. In Trails in the Sky, the plot is fundamentally political. In the early game, Estelle and Joshua are mostly focused on traveling and learning about the other areas of Liberl, but they get hints here and there about the situation in the kingdom. The queen is old, her son died in the war, and not everyone agrees on the succession. The various factions in the kingdom have opinions about who should be in charge for the greater benefit of Liberl, and there's none of the usual villain speechifying about how death is better than life because nihilism.

I mean, this is a JRPG, so there's also ancient technology from lost civilizations and melodrama, but the stakes remain with characters you've met throughout the game. You meet everyone in the line of succession, so the dispute between them is personal. You interact with the antagonists throughout the game understand their motivations, even if you don't agree with them. Real evil never thinks it's evil, after all, and politics gets murky very quickly, which is why I said antagonists rather than villains. You can see why they think their course of action is the best. I mean, the Erebonian Empire is right there, and the last war was a close thing. Liberl could easily lose a second war.

It is creepy. Look at that tail.

Being a JRPG, the main draw other than the plot is the battle system. Trails in the Sky's is grid-based, so it already avoids the "two-lines, macro Fight to win" problem that I'm use to. It actually ranges into overcomplex at times, at least for my difficulty setting. In addition to moving and basic attacks, each character has their own set of special skills and "S-Break" super attacks that come from CP, which is gained by dealing or taking damage; and spells that are determined by the crystals they have installed in their gear, determined from a list of seven elements, the four classical ones as well as Time, Space, and Mirage. Some characters can only equip certain elements in certain slots, and mixing elements allows higher-level spells, and the crystals themselves provide bonuses like a bonus to defense or movement or mana ("EP") or attack or the ability to inflict status ailments with normal attacks, so there's a lot of strategy in picking exactly what crystals to equip in each character's orbments.

In practice, on normal difficulty this is mostly unnecessary complexity, though normal attacks never do enough damage that you can rely entirely on them except against enemies far below your level. Normal attacks' main utility came through positioning--an attack knocks its target back one space, which can be vital when trying to catch enemies in area attack spells or set them up for techniques that hit everyone in a line. Of course, the enemy will be doing this to you, which can throw off your aim. It's usually just an annoyance, but in some boss battles it can be a serious problem.

There's also a system of bonuses, from getting extra sepith which you can use to make crystals from enemies, to critical attacks, to regaining a bit of health or EP or CP. Enemies can get these too, so in harder battles there's value in taking sub-optimal actions in the moment in order to set up a better turn bonus, especially since S-Breaks can interrupt the turn order.

The bats are a nice touch.

But as I mentioned, on normal difficulty I didn't need to use a lot of this. Combat techniques saw a lot of use as normal attacks power slowly eroded over the course of the game, but for the first half I didn't use many spells at all, and what spells I did use were mostly just damage. I rarely needed to use any of the utility spells like Clock Up (haste) or Earth Guard (+defense), even in boss battles, though boss battles required tactical considerations throughout the entire game. Even though there were some boss battles I smashed through in one round by having everyone use their S-Breaks as soon as the battle started, fighting random monsters to build up CP so I could do that was a tactical choice.

Yes, there are random monsters, but they're visible on the map and there are crystals that let you avoid them if you want. What's more, there's an Earthbound-like system where approaching monsters from the rear gains you a surprise round, and monsters jumping you from behind means they go first and you start the battle surrounded, so there's an incentive to pay attention as you go through the map so you can catch monsters off guard.

Also, I appreciate that you sometimes see NPCs menaced by monsters. The game doesn't explain where they come from, but at least they aren't exclusively a problem for the PCs.

If only real learning were so tasty.

My major problem with the game is that I'm a completionist and this is definitely built around a strategy guide if you want to find everything. There are chests that disappear after certain events. All quest that aren't major story quests have an expiration timer, so if you want to get maximum possible rank in the bracer guild, you need to drop whatever you're doing and head off to find whoever made the request regardless of what it is. Sometimes this makes sense, like with powerful monsters on the roads disrupting travel, and sometimes it doesn't, like with finding someone's cat.

This is most egregious with the optional sidequest to find the Carnelia volumes. Collecting all the books gets you the best weapon in the game for either Estelle or Joshua--you have to pick one and do New Game+ if you want both--but it requires talking to the most out-of-the-way people under extremely specific time constraints to get some of the volumes. There's one where you're supposed to hurry and talk to someone who was mugged but instead go somewhere completely different to get a book, and another where you have to evade patrolling guards to talk to the guy with the book. Without a guide, your best bet is to just talk to everyone after everything you do and see if they have a quest or a book or something else.

I used a guide, but I ended up talking to everyone anyway.

Yes. Embrace the sadness.

That does lead into one of my favorite parts of Trails in the Sky--the dialogue. I already mentioned the characterization above, but this game has probably the most reactive NPC dialogue in any game I've ever played. After every major quest and nearly every sidquest, just about every NPC has changed dialogue. This includes NPCs in other areas--there were times I'd go far afield after a Carnelia volume and the NPCs there would talk about rumors they heard or what was happening in the places I had left behind in previous chapters.

Some of this dialogue was among my favorite in the game. There was one story I was telling [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd about with a man who wants to join the Fisherman's Guild and his wife. He's spending a ton of time practicing and coming home at all hours and his wife is getting annoyed. Then one day you talk to him and he's there, but his wife isn't, and wondering where his wife is. The people at the Fisherman's Guild talk about a new applicant who's very promising, and after another quest or two, it turns out that the man doesn't pass the qualification test but the new applicant does, and people a the Fisherman's Guild brag about how talented she is. Meanwhile, the man wonders where his wife is and whether he should go to the Bracers' Guild and see if they could find her.

The game is full of small stories like this if you go looking for them. It's the furthest thing from the "Welcome to Corneria!" trope possible, and I'm a bit amazed that the developers put this much effort into it when only a fraction of players will see even half of it.

A model employee.

I'm not really sure there's a part of the game that I didn't like, other than a few points of running around that seemed put in to artificially extend the gameplay. I even stayed involved in the combat all the way until the last dungeon, where I started spamming Fight on some battles just to build up CP to use in the battles that actually mattered, and even then I had a couple deaths due to my lack of attention. The battles aren't hard enough that they get frustrating--and when they are hard, you can retry the battle with no penalties--but they're not so easy that you can macro sleepwalk through them either.

If you had told me at the beginning of this year that my favorite new game I was going to play so far would be a Japanese PC game from 2004, I would not have believed you and I would also have been wrong. Trails in the Sky is an excellent game that's actually tempting me to pay full price for the sequel. I haven't bought a game at full price since Skyrim, but if it doesn't go on sale between now and the new year, I'll probably cave and pay the $30 so I can keep going and don't get left on a cliffhanger.

And that cliffhanger!

If you've gotten off the JRPG train like I have, Trails in the Sky is a great place to get back on. It really is fantastic.


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