[Warning: this is a review of a Japanese game that has no current English release planned. Also, in the name of consistency, all preceding titles in the Kiseki series will be referred to via their Japanese name.]
In the world of Japanese RPGs, there are few series quite as impenetrable as Falcom's Sora no Kiseki (Trails in the Sky out west). Currently five entries long with no end in sight, each Kiseki game builds upon the last in a way that fleshes out the old characters while introducing new ones and expanding the world. This complexity shouldn't be confused for incoherency however. It's not rare for a character's arc to stretch across three games and two different sets of main characters. While it's certainly not impossible to jump into the series at Zero no Kiseki, the fourth game, I could never really recommend that approach. Like diving into a novel series with the middle book, skipping previous entries in the series would mean missing out on hours of character development and story.
Fans aren't the only ones who have realized this either; Falcom themselves caught on to the problem and set out to create a Kiseki that could serve as an introduction to the series. The end result?
A damn fine game.
Nayuta no Kiseki (PlayStation Portable)
Released July 26, 2012
Nayuta Herschel is a young man whose fascination with astronomy eventually led him to leave his home on Remnant Island to study at a school on the mainland. During the summer vacation of his first year at school, he decides to head back home and catch up on things with his older sister and friends. A strange phenomenon has been occurring in the oceans around Remnant Island for a long time now; shooting stars and large chunks of ruins fall from the sky at random, piling up in the surrounding area. Through various investigations and digs, stones called Star Fragments have been unearthed, offering a rare glimpse into a beautiful world that researchers refer to as Lost Heaven.
One day, a massive ruin smashes into the ocean just off the coast of Remnant Island. Nayuta and his best friend Signa receive permission from their master to investigate, and head into the large tower-like structure. Inside, they find a tiny fairy-like girl named Noi laying unconscious on the ground. Unbeknownst to them, this fateful meeting marks the beginning of the greatest adventure of their lives.
Despite its smaller cast of characters, Nayuta no Kiseki feels like it belongs in Falcom's crown RPG series. NPCs feel alive and have their own stories to tell, as their dialogue changes after nearly every in-game event. While the game world is significantly smaller than the mainline series, a great deal of effort is put into fleshing out the world as a whole. NPCs inform us that the world is currently at war and things aren't looking so hot. While we as the player never get to see that for ourselves, it's felt in other ways. A good example of this is the way in which new NPCs will visit the island, seeking a reprieve from the chaos.
The story is grand in scope but kept personal, with nearly every major story beat directly related to the main characters and their individual arcs. It took me approximately 25 hours to complete Nayuta no Kiseki on my first play through, and I'm happy to say that there is very little in the way filler. The end result is a fleshed out cast of main characters in a short period of time. While what Nayuta and Noi are trying to accomplish is massive in scale, the spotlight is almost constantly focused on them, rather than the act of trying to save the world. For those of you wondering, Nayuta no Kiseki is in fact completely unrelated to the mainline Kiseki series. Longtime fans will spot some easter eggs here and there, but this is a game that anybody can dive right into.
While it's not unreasonable to expect it to play like an Ys title, Nayuta no Kiseki distinguishes itself from Falcom's premiere action series in some important ways. It never abandons its Kiseki heritage, tying everything together in a wholly unique package.
The first way in which Nayuta quickly separates itself from Ys Seven and even Ys Celceta is via the inclusion jumping. This changes level design in dramatic ways, creating tons of areas with which platforming becomes necessary. Additionally, Nayuta can dodge roll around the battlefield as well, leading to all sorts of acrobatics across the different environments. More skills can be acquired by completing side quests or getting a higher rank on a given stage. These additional abilities include techniques like guarding, which comes in handy on the higher difficulty levels.
Magic attacks are called artes, and Nayuta is incapable of using them on his own. Instead, his fairy partner Noi is always onscreen and ready to attack. You can equip her with various artes earned through out the game via the status menu. As you make progress in the main story, slots open up that allow you to equip her with a wide variety of magical attacks. Leveling up each arte is simple; just by using an equipped move, it'll gain experience. There are dozens of moves in the game and I can see completionists maxing out all of them. Nayuta no Kiseki actually has its own in-game achievement system, making it a blessing for folks who dig that kind of thing.
As you progress further into the game, you unlock new abilities for Noi called gear crafts, which allow her to perform various useful functions when on the field. These skills are primarily movement related, letting you get past certain specific obstacles that block your way. One particularly useful craft turns Nayuta and Noi into a giant wheel capable of plowing through enemies and rolling up certain walls. By the final chunk of the game, it eventually became my primary way of getting around a stage in a hurry.
Progression through the game is broken up into zones that initially represent one of the four seasons. Each zone has a handful of stages that lead up to a final boss fight. The length of each area varies from place to place, but more often than not the last few stages of a zone will be significantly longer than the first few. By collecting certain items and fulfilling other requirements designated before starting a level, you're rank will go up, granting you new equipment or skills. This provides great incentive to go back to cleared stages when you're in between story events.
Further mixing things up is a new system that allows players to change the seasons in each gameplay area. Each new season brings about a fresh set of monsters, environments to explore, and even level objectives. These seemingly small changes add up to make each level feel completely fresh again. I spent hours playing around in these alternate stages, completing objectives and side quests.
There are over 20 different side quests to choose from over the course of the game. While the number seems low at first glance, especially when compared to the mainline Kiseki series, they're all much meatier and tie into the story much more tightly in my opinion. If you want to experience everything that Nayuta no Kiseki has to offer, I strongly suggest completing all of the side quests.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the boss battles, of which there are many. Most boss monsters have multiple forms, and as the president of Falcom had once said in an interview, any one of them could double as a final boss with some minor changes. The first few encounters were stupidly easy, but as you progress further in the game the difficulty ramps up and I found myself having to use items to keep Nayuta alive and kicking.
Falcom has never been known for making visually stunning games, which is why Nayuta no Kiseki is such a pleasant surprise. Stages are bright and colorful, littered with unique moving pieces in the background. The character models are detailed and expressive despite being rendered in a semi-deformed style. I completed the game on my Vita and while the text was a bit blurrier than I would have liked, Nayuta still looked fantastic. Musically, the famous JDK sound team found an interesting midway point between Ys' blood pumping rock and Kiseki's jazzier style. Fortunately it works hand in hand with the tone of the game, subdued when necessary and exhilarating when the action hits hard. The final boss battle theme is radically different from anything JDK has ever produced, but it's a beautiful track that might be one of my favorite pieces of music from a Falcom title.
It's hard to describe just how fantastic Nayuta no Kiseki actually is, but perhaps the best compliment that I can give it is that it feels like a long lost PSX era action game. Brimming with charm and telling a fun, character driven story, Nayuta no Kiseki is a fantastic action RPG that no fan of the genre should miss. For those of you who've been on the fence about diving into the Kiseki series, this is the perfect opportunity to test the waters and see if Falcom's unique brand of storytelling is up your alley or not.
Falcom knocks it out of the park once again.
9.5 -- Superb (A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)