I really never thought I would see the day that the traditional JRPG formula would begin its slow ride off into the sunset. I've personally defended the genre, and romanticized its utter refusal to change its formula, but even hardcore Japanese gamers are beginning to accept a Western-approach to the RPG market.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the latest breed of JRPGs. There are games that have breathed some life back into the genre like the MegaTen series, but that's not what I’m talking about. In my book, recent titles like Final Fantasy XIII have done more to hurt than help.
The Legend of Heroes:Trails in the Sky (PSP)
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: March 29 2011
MSRP: US$ 29.99
First off, let’s clarify that Trails in the Sky is actually a port of a Windows game released back in 2004. The Legend of Heroes saga actually began in 1989 on the PC Engine, and has since grown into four separate series, which are composed by a number of titles. Trails in the Sky is the third in the series, and is itself composed of three separate adventures.
Needless to say, the Legend of Heroes series has garnered gobs of praise, and is credited with helping define its genre. Let's fast forwarding to the game I have in my grubby hands. The PSP version of Trails in the Sky was originally released in Japan in 2006, and now thanks to X-SEED the English language version has finally made its way over.
We are brought into the lives of the Bright family; free speaking Estelle, her father Cassius, and their adopted brother Joshua. The story is told from the perspective of Estella and Joshua, who are on their way to becoming legendary Bracers like their father Cassius. Bracers are your typical defenders of justice, and protectors of the world. As with most typical JRPGs you will pick up numerous memorable party members along the way, all with their own desires and motivations.
That brings me to the real strengths of the game. The writing and the story are absolutely superb. I have to admit that it does take a few hours to get going, and some of the initial tasks may feel a bit mundane, especially if you have been chugging coffee all day like me. It isn't painful however, and every bit of the dialog in the earlier sequences bring you closer to the characters, allowing you to understand their insecurities, their strengths, and their faults.
In this day and age, I often frown upon the lack of spoken dialog in a game, but in this case, what dialog there is, is written so well I really didn’t notice. A couple times I found my not realizing how loud I was laughing while playing the game as I usually play with headphones on. Trails in the Sky does a fantastic job by quickly endearing its characters to you, and it keeps the pace going once it ramps up.
You roam the world from a top down angle; navigating towns, dungeons, and various landscapes from the same perspective. I appreciate games that don’t just throw you on to a menu-based map between towns, instead really giving you the scale of the world you are dealing with. Sometimes the distances you have to walk may get a bit tiring, but often there is a scene triggered that will get you where you need to be, ultimately shortening your travel.
Battles are collision-based encounters with baddies you encounter while exploring the world. Now, there are some flaws to this mechanic that I’ll talk about in a bit, but overall, I happen to favor it for portable gaming. Once you enter into combat, you are thrown into a turn-based scenario, complete with a grid, and movement-defined attack zone, almost similar to something from a game like Final Fantasy Tactics. Unlike Tactics however, the combat itself is quite simple, only using attacks, spells called "arts," special attacks called "crafts," and a special technique that builds up based on damage dealt and received. Turns are also taken into account.
As I stated, the system works quite well, and is actually ideal for gaming on the go. Your characters are able to activate and install orbs to use various spells and attacks, as well as add attributes, similar to the Final Fantasy VII Materia system. Personally, I didn’t delve all that deep into developing my orbs, but how you choose to set up your characters will greatly influence which attack system you use.
One thing I look for in portable RPGs is being able to move quickly in the game. For whatever reason, the smaller the screen of my handheld, the less patience I tend to have. Likewise, I expect the game to progress quickly enough to keep up with those expectations. Maybe it's because I tend to play shorter sessions with my handhelds than on my consoles, however that's just speculation on my part.
The characters really do run quickly across the screen, which makes me real happy, but creates some graphical flaws that I’ll highlight below. In terms of directional control, it was almost as if your characters was really built for arrows keys on a keyboard and fail to really move at an angle. This especially bothersome since it's using a top-down view. If you aren’t watching your mini-map/radar closely, it's really easy to run in and out of a zone as there's very little in the way of markings as to where the boundary -- more often than not, it's well before the edge of the screen.
This really isn't too big of a deal however, as load times are relatively short. Another weird issue is that you can only rotate the camera in certain instances, and when it does rotate, it's not very graceful. There's some stuttering, and it lacks the precision you'd expect, but again it’s not that important as most of the default angles look fine.
The graphics in general aren't exactly up to snuff either. Its not even so much that the game shows its age, which it definitely does, but there are just so often times that you can tell the game was just not designed with the PSP hardware in mind. I mentioned earlier how much I enjoyed how quickly the characters walked across the towns and maps, but the screen on the PSP has a notoriously slow refresh rate. As a result, some ghosting while you walk becomes evident. Its something you can get used to after a little while, and the hardware's more to blame than the game itself.
Perhaps my biggest gripe would have to be the coloring of some of the enemies on the map. With some of the map terrains it's almost impossible to see the sprites -- to the extent where it may as well be a random encounter. Enemies on the map tend blend in detail and color-wise, turning it into a game of Where’s Waldo when walking.
My gaming habits and life choices tend to dictate that I play handhelds often in bed or in situations that don’t result in me intensely starring one inch away from a PSP screen. That being said. the enemies on the map are generally pretty easy to avoid, so for those who tend not to avoid pointless battles, the game features just enough story-driven combat sequences to get you the XP you'll need to finish it.
The menus, including the inventory and map screens are oddly placed, as if designed for optimal mouse clicking -- a remnant of the original PC title. I found myself avoiding certain menus, and left many settings as default simply because I didn't want to have to deal with an unattractive menu system.
The anime-influenced character designs are well illustrated. The particular style they have chosen is a bit dated, but you'll probably get over that within the first five minutes. The designs and the portrayal of Josh and Estelle really express the intended characterization faithfully. The soundtrack has some nice melodies and the audio contains decent sound effects. There's definitely some tunes you won't be able to get out of your head by the time you're 60-hours in.
In the end, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky gives you a lot of game, and even though the story and the plights of our heroes continue in couple sequels. I have to say I haven't felt like I got such a complete story out of a game in a long time. It sounds a bit silly to say, but it's been awhile since I've played a game with characters where I've actually worried about fate.
The best way I could describe the game is charming. All the things I love about classic JPRGs along with surprisingly modern scenarios. The written dialog is top notch, and the story comes across as believable. In the portable JPRG market, I feel it's important to grab you within the first few minutes. I had low expectations going in, but I honestly can't wait to get my hands on the next in the series. I didn't think the old-school JRPG genre had any surprises for left for me, but I'm glad I was wrong.
Score: 8.0 - The game is initially harder to approach due to it’s vintage and issues stemming from the port, but after a couple hours the story-telling really takes center stage. There is something comforting about playing a game with such familiar mechanics, and a lovable cast.
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