Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

This is a heavily flawed jRPG with an oddly unlikable supporting cast and absolutely abysmal, nonsensical ending that I still somehow got some enjoyment out of. I honestly think anyone who just generally likes the genre will get some forgettable fun out of it if they have nothing else to play because the world is interesting and the battles are fun and require thought without being punishing, but it’s certainly not going to convert anyone.

Anyway, let’s talk about the long list of issues this game had.

Well, first, the game itself. More than anything, this game is a travelogue, and I actually think it manages to make the text-heavy format work. The only time I felt it really dragged was during the school sequence, which was pretty… bad. But overall, I played the game for 57 hours according to Steam, and for the vast majority of them I felt the pace worked. The world was so full of flavor text that there’s always stuff to explore, and there’s tons of sidequests and fun achievements to go after. Why play an RPG if not for the non-story content, but I did think the pacing of the story quests themselves was well-done, and despite being text-heavy was interspersed with enough activity to work.

The game is set in a kind of steampunk fantasyland that wasn’t anything too special, but was designed well and has some nice visuals. The general setting is that the current society is built on the ruins of a hyperadvanced ancient one, and although they have no idea how the old society worked or what brought it to its sudden end, they piggyback on the technology, which runs on special minerals called Quartz. Quartz has energizing properties, and when harnessed correctly different kinds of Quartz can be used to give people access to elemental powers.

So that’s the general setting.

The battle system was interesting, if not a bit difficult to figure out. It was actually pretty similar to Chrono Cross, where the characters didn’t have their own magic attacks, but instead you have Quartz that you can equip in whatever combination you want and the combinations result in elemental attacks. I liked it overall, but it was a bit tough to figure out exactly what attacks you would get with what combinations. There was some weird counter on the screen I never divined the purpose of. I liked the idea, and the battles worked well, but the specifics of it needed to be refined.

Let’s talk about female characters.

This game was first released in 2004, and considering that it does remarkably well. The cast is very well-balanced, though it probably tilts male, but almost all of the important characters are female. The female characters are mechanics, melee fighters, etc., and the costuming is generally really good, fitting the character and the situation.

That’s the protagonist, Estelle, next to the male secondary protagonist, Joshua (Joshua’s design is unremarkable, except that he hits so many bishie-look tropes that coupled with Estelle, I wonder if this game wasn’t originally targeted at women). I like Estelle’s design a lot. I like the bike shorts, which are practical, and the lightness of her outfit doesn’t bother me since none of the characters, male or female, wear armor or anything. I like that she’s drawn muscularly, with almost masculine proportions, and that the focus in the image on her arms — which makes sense for a pole user — and not her boobs or waist. Her shoes are practical flats and I think the pose reflects her fun-loving-yet-battle-ready personality. (Unfortunately, as I was looking for this picture, I found that the sequels fall into a more generic design for her, which is really, really disappointing, and I wonder if it happened on the heels of the game being successful and Big Marketing wanting it to have more “appeal.”)

Estelle was really likable overall, and I think the game really nailed how to do a female character who was still coming of age and finding her footing without making her incapable, reliant on male charcaters, or How Do You Emotions. I also thought she nailed the whole “boisterous girl” stereotype without falling too far into anime cliche, and so much of her plot arc was her learning that she was already strong and capable and finding confidence of her own accord.

I was also a huge fan of Kloe, Maybelle, and Schera, and was really glad to see the game went out of its way to ensure each major plot role had at least one female representative, though as I said they tended to default to male (I wish there had been more female footsoldiers, for instance). The game was also generally really excellent about female friendship. There were some female characters who didn’t like each other, but there were enough who were totally cool that it was able to be about the characters themselves and not about all women being competitors.

So overall things look really good. Something… interesting happens, though. While the game is totally willing to put women in any role, it simultaneously engages in negative stereotypes… which doesn’t make sense. For instance, despite the fact that we meet a ton of female bracers (bracers being the equivalent of like police, I guess? Somewhere between mercenaries and cops), and one of the most famous bracers is a woman, Estelle constantly gets the, “A woman, a bracer? LOL!” thing, even though it makes no sense in the setting. This happens over and over, with sex-based stereotyping showing up despite the fact that the world, as far as I can tell, is incredibly egalitarian. It’s like the creators could imagine women being capable, but didn’t understand how the rest of a society would change if women weren’t marginalized. Sure, women can be excellent fighters, but the idea of the “women are weak” stereotype not existing in a world where it’s empirically wrong doesn’t seem to occur to them. The weird recurring thing of making fun of Joshua for wearing dress costumes is another thing. In a world where, seemingly, there’s no stigma on being female, why would there still be one on a male playing a female role in a play?

The whole effect is very bizarre, as though the NPCs you meet are completely unaware of how their own world functions. For me more than anything else it was immersion-breaking, in addition to incredibly frustrating.

While we’re talking about characters, the game had some… just really, really weird characters. I wouldn’t call it an ensemble cast, but I was happy to see that even side characters got a lot of development. However… a lot of the characters are really, really unlikable. To the point that a recurring gag for multiple characters was how much everyone hated them.

The game seemed to think this was highly amusing, and I can’t understand why. If every time a character come onscreen the protagonists groan, why would they not realize that is going to translate to the player? And so many of the characters were unlikable, not just to me but to Estelle and Joshua. Olivier, Dorothy, that Duke guy… the game seems to have been purposefully stocked with assholes and obnoxious idiots, and I have no idea why. It’s easier to list characters I liked than those I didn’t (for the record: Schera, Tita, Kloe, Maybelle, Estelle… that’s it).

Joshua was particularly annoying, not because anything was wrong with him, but he was so damn bland. His two modes were “inoffensive with no personality” and “purposefully mysterious just to try to fake out the player,” and neither of those things are endearing (I’ll get to his ending in a little).

There was enough time spent with the few good characters that overall it wasn’t as big a deal as it would have been with a smaller cast, but the whole thing was weird and there were times you had to be around really awful characters for long stretches.

And the shitty, shoehorned-in romance! So the story is that Estelle’s father brings Joshua home when the two of them are about ten years old. The game takes place six or seven years later. The two of them spend the entire game insisting to people that they are just siblings, but worse, they spend the game acting like siblings. Aside from the fact that they call the same man “Dad,” which is so damn creepy in a romance, dev, jsyk, they have absolutely no romantic chemistry and come off as really well-done siblings. The whole romance suddenly shows up at the very end, is integrated terribly, and makes no sense, which kind of makes me wonder if it wasn’t added in after the fact because Everything Must Have Romance. It wasn’t even bad enough to be annoying, it just was completely nonsensical.

You know who the real couple of this story was? Kloe and Estelle! The two of them had so much chemistry, and the constant hugs and handholding and how excited they always were to see each other was so cute. I ship them. I dare you not to ship them. They were wonderful.

The plot, overall, was interesting and kept me pretty engaged, though it wasn’t hugely shocking or original or anything. It was a little villain-of-the-week and the events, though connected, were a tad more discrete than they probably could have been, but that wasn’t a massive issue. Like the rest of the game, I suppose, it was just good enough to be interesting without really ever being more than mediocre.

The real problem was the game’s ending, which was batfuck insane.

The game was divided into chapters, and as the one called “last chapter” or whatever was winding down, I started to wonder how the game was going to tidy things up. The last dungeon was pretty good, though, and I thought after the final boss went down I was in the clear and things would wrap up.

Instead… the boss gets up somehow, and then a character who was literally been absent the entire game shows up and killsteals you, everyone acts like this is great, it turns out the guy you just killed wasn’t the real final boss, but we don’t find out who the real final boss was, but everyone acts like you won something anyway even though the person behind everything is clearly still at large, and then you find out that apparently Joshue McBoringbland is secretly a trained assassin — oh, also, this society has trained assassins and an infamous group of them that has literally never come up before — who murdered tons of people and then he drugs Estelle and leaves and somehow this means she has to leave to find him and all of this happens within literally the last half-hour of gameplay and it is just completely so beyond anything we’ve been led to expect at all.

Also, just as an extra kick in the ass, the ending notes that the first boss escaped and is once again at large, which is how the game started, so you end the game having accomplished like a sum total of nothing.

I mean, it was explicitly a sequel hook, but 1) the first game in a trilogy still has to have its own plot that comes to a conclusion in addition to an overarching one that carries into the other games and 2) IT WAS BATFUCK INSANE. The plot of the second game has to come naturally out of the first, you can’t just shove random shit into the ending on the first game to try to get people to want to play the second, it has to make sense! Nothing about this made sense. It was so out there.

It was so bad it completely overshadowed everything else about the game for me. For most of the time I was like, “Okay, this is super generic and flawed but I’m enjoying it,” but all I can associate the game with now is that insane ending.

At first I was going to check out the other games in the series, especially the later ones, because one would think that 11 years later the dev probably streamlined things a bit, but… nope. Not after the clusterfuck that was the ending here. There’s no saving a trilogy where the first game is plotted this badly, and going back in the continuity is not likely to improve things.

So… yeah. If you’re got literally nothing better to do and really love jRPGs, you probably will get mild enjoyment out of this? But it’s got such an awful ending. Such an awful, awful ending.

22 Comments

  1. Doortothe says:
    My favorite aspect of this game is how when you talk to NPCs, your characters have actual conversations with them. Considering how long this game is, that’s a huge attention to detail that kind of explains why it took so long for the game to come to the West in the first place.

    That and every time you check a chest you already opened, the game will tell a joke about it like “Gee I wonder who opened this” or something about how the chest has fulfilled its purpose in life. I opened a lot of chests and I can’t recall a single instance where a joke was repeated.

    I unfortunately couldn’t finish the game because I’m a completionist kind of person and doing all of the side quests will make you severely overpowered and drag the pacing to a freaking crawl. The pacing issue wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that sidequests arbitrarily become unable to be finished if you make too much story progress without finishing the quest (and the game doesn’t tell you about any of this).

    Overall the game is like you said, a really good time waster but with tons of charm and attention to detail that’s almost unheard of in RPGs as big as this.

    Edit: Also for some reason the link for Estelle’s sequel designs doesn’t work for me. Something about not having permission to see the image

    1. actonthat says:
      Yeah, the detail was great, but it really came at the expense of the main plot, and that you had to complete sidequests before moving on was supremely annoying. I think this game really needed to be open-world, where you could go back and forth at whim, and a lot of the slower plot sequences (the fucking school play) should have been cut. It’s an incredibly ambitious game, but it didn’t seem to quite know what it wanted to be from a gameplay perspective. There’s a reason that games don’t normally put so many details in while also having a Real Plot, and it’s because those things inherently just screw over each other. This game did not find any kind of balance.
    2. Val says:
      Well, the game does tell you what side quests are about to be inaccessible if you progress the main plot in some very explicit form if you check the bulletin board containing said side quests. Still doesn’t fix the pacing problems, though.
  2. Val says:
    It’s worth noting that the game and its direct sequel were actually supposed to be one game that got separated into two because it was getting too big. Also worth noting that the second game is twice as long as this one.
    1. actonthat says:
      That’s batshit insane. You’re not legally obligated to include every thought you have during the creative process in the story.

      That makes the pacing problems in this even more egregious.

      1. Childish says:
        Is there a good way to get all the little extra bits out there? Admittedly, it’s important to make the story interesting first, but I absolutely love finding out the extra info of a world I’ve grown attached to. I guess you could publish a book or something for that explicit purpose. Personally I like the idea of just stashing it throughout the story where the audience can skip it if they want. Examples would be game flavor text or maybe a series of letters scattered throughout a book, clearly separated from the main story.

        As for the game, would have to play it for a better understanding, but sounds like it might have been more interesting if all the insanity at the end was spread throughout the story? For instance, I like reading about betrayal, but not if it’s from a character who for half the series is a part of the group and then at the very end of the series suddenly flips for no apparent reason. (Actually… now I think about it, I’ve read a lot of betrayals where the logic simply sucked. People need to read about Benedict Arnold or something.)

        1. actonthat says:
          [Personally I like the idea of just stashing it throughout the story where the audience can skip it if they want. Examples would be game flavor text or maybe a series of letters scattered throughout a book, clearly separated from the main story.]

          I agree. I also think this game would have benefitted from bucking jRPG convention and being open-world, where you could follow the plot or sidequests as you saw fit. Granted, that wouldn’t fix that the plot was complete nonsense, but it would have at least not punished you for progressing.

          [sounds like it might have been more interesting if all the insanity at the end was spread throughout the story?]

          It’s not even that, it’s that it needed to be set up somehow, anyhow, in any way. The plot we got was never resovled, and the weirdness at the ending was never set up by anything and had nothing to do with the charcaters we knew. The whole thing needs to be completely reworked; it’s too big a mess.

  3. Nerem says:
    To see the link you need to manually paste it into the bar, since it disallows direct linking.

    And yeah everything you mentioned is why I couldn’t enjoy the game. Especially Joshua being the most boring person in existence, even with his mysterious mysteriousness act.

    As for the obnoxious people, I for one have to give a Fire Emblem character credit for having a character the cast hates but is oddly charming and fun to watch. Oliver from the Radiance series, who is introduced in the first game as an evil nobleman sorceror bent on enslaving the Herons (supernaturally beautiful birdpeople) and dies summarily in the first game… and then pops up again in the second, and will force himself into your party if you have one of them in your fighting party because it turns out his obsessive desire to ‘enslave’ them (it’s noted in the first game that he treated the one he had with kid gloves and almost seemed to worship the guy) came from guilt of not protecting their race as they were nearly wiped out in a fire that burned down their home nation and has led him obsessed with protecting them and beauty. So he forces his way into the party even though everyone objects “Can you please not join us?” is an actual line…

    But he’s just hammishly over the top and his reasons good at heart enough to be forgivable and totally likable, that even the guy he had

    locked up comes to actually like him, even if he finds him deeply strange.

    And yeah, Oliver kept around a beautiful man as basically a cherished pet and no one said a word beyond “slavery is bad!”, so that’s pretty interesting.

    1. actonthat says:
      [To see the link you need to manually paste it into the bar, since it disallows direct linking.]

      That’s… odd.

      And yeah, it’s definitely possible to have a character the protags don’t like work, but (it sounds like) that’s for plot reasons and not just because the character is an obnoxious ass, which I think is the difference. It’s definitely possible to like a villainous character — it’s much more difficult to like a villainous character the game seems to think is a hero.

  4. Daniel says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking for a while, You’ve put yourself through the boring slog that was FC, you might as well get some payoff with SC. I’ve gotten a smidge (blatant lie) obsessed with the Trails series in the last few months. So I can say with confidence that, of the games I’ve played, they don’t pull anything like the ending to FC again. They don’t really fix the problem of sudden 180 reveals, but they get a little better at foreshadowing.

    Let’s look at the positives for SC: Estelle’s loss is brilliantly handled; Joshua isn’t around for 80% of the game; you can make party members you don’t like, *cough* Olivier *cough*, on a bench for the entire game; Dad Sue is all but on the sidelines for the entire adventure; and there are only two scenes in the entire, script as huge as a bible, game where the shitty romance is present. Even then, the romance is inoffensive at worst.

    Also the gameplay starts interesting, since you begin with everyone’s crafts from the last game at the start, and only gets better from there. Also just about every asshole character gets a redemption. What few assholes that don’t, get one in 3rd.

    And just to clarify, Trails in the Sky is a duology. Which is why 3rd is called 3rd and not Third Chapter. More details when the game comes out Spring 2017.

    1. Act says:

      I actually have SC on my Steam wishlisht rn, and when the price drops suitably low enough I’ll likely pick it up. I tried played Cold Steel and found it mind-numbingly boring, and it actually made me miss the fun travelogue atmosphere of Sky.

      I’ve found that I was really irritated about the dumb ending right after it happened, but looking back I have more fond memories of the game than bad ones.

      1. Daniel says:

        Not sure how I managed to miss that I got a reply to this comment, sorry for taking so long. 

        I have completed 3rd, thus I can definitely say that it is more of an extended story than a third in a trilogy. 3rd has a lot of world building; adds depth to characters we already know; and connects to the next arc in the series directly: Zero/Ao no Kiseki. 

        3rd is the black sheep in the series in many ways. It may be worth checking it out to evaluate the effectiveness of it’s unique structure. 

        You found Cold Steel boring? That’s the game that got me hooked on the series. Granted I came into it after putting two hundred hours into Tokyo Mirage Sessions (which has a bland, generic af story but amazing gameplay). Cold Steel’s characters, and it’s effective use of a flash forward, felt brilliantly inspired in comparison. Combat in Cold Steel is much more engaging than Sky’s ever was for me. Plus, there was the immediate introduction of an overarching conflict, the class division, through Machias and Jusis’s fighting. 

        Granted, I still had problems adjusting to Trail’s glacial pacing. Yet, once I did, everything else feels skinny in comparison, even Persona. 

        Fun fact: Cold Steel takes place chronologically at the same time as Zero and Ao. The calendar system was introduced to help players keep track of events happening in the other game. 

        I look forward to reading a review of Sky Second Chapter, if you get it. 

  5. Draconic says:
    This world has its own system of measurement, you didn’t mention the fact that minor characters all have names, backstories, and full character arcs, there are full novels written within the game, as well as newspapers.

     

    overall, your tone sounds inflammatory for the sake of exaggerating its flaws. The first games all are slow, focusing mostly on showing you who all the characters are, in astonishing detail, and then the story’s pick up dramatically in their sequels. That’s an odd quirk I found within the series, that I actually kind of find charming, though I can see how some might find it annoying, but I don’t overlook the spectacular worldbuilding and character development that Falcom so masterfully conducted. And the political situation; that is just brilliant.

    I think you may actually hate this game for the same reasons I liked it, to be honest.

    Also, you seem to have failed to notice how all the games are intricately connected and subtly cross reference each other (or in some cases, not-so-subtly.

    Incidentally, how can you not mention the music? The first Cold Steel game in particular has a positively glorious OST. It may be the most consistently fantastic game soundtrack I’ve heard.

    Anyway, try not to be so brutal. You seem to have very low tolerance for mildly annoying characters. You clearly didn’t bother paying attention to Olivier, because there’s a very good reason he behaves the way he does, and he’s a diabolically clever schemer.

    And for the record, you didn’t mention Bleublanc, but you can’t possibly say you didn’t love to hate him. Because he is so terrible that it’s actually fantastic.

    Yes, I am clearly a big fan of the series, so I’m clearly biased, but so were you. So basically, I’m just pushing in the opposite direction, and not even with the same amount of detail. You put a lot of effort into your critique of this game, and I respect your opinions for that. I just feel like you missed a lot of what the series had to offer because you were impatient.

    1. CrazyEd says:
      I believe one of the copypastes Mini-Farla uses to review pokemon fanfics is relevant here. It goes something like “it doesn’t matter if you have the world’s most interesting second chapter, if you have the world’s most uninteresting first chapter”. Not having played these games, I can’t say if that’s true, but if that’s how Act felt about it, that’s how Act felt about it.

      I totally get why Act would be bothered by the presence of a “women are weak” stereotype not only without even any weak women to explain its presence but a multitude of strong women to prevent its presence, and why the world having its own system of measurement would not redeem it for that. It would merely bother me but it might be a total deal breaker for someone who writes for a blog looking at fiction through the lens of feminism.

      I’m honestly not sure how much I would agree with what Act has to say about this game if I played it myself. I’d, well… I’d have to play it to know. Maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much as it bothers her. The design of the heroine in the sequel doesn’t really bother me (though part of that might be because, while her costume design here is well-done, I really dislike the era of anime art this game’s style comes from in general, and I see her point about the pose entirely). I like the top of the sequel design better, but I don’t like the weird brown corset thing so much, and even in the sequel design the character seems more like a bike shorts than a thighhighs kind of character.

      So as someone who has played the game, I have to ask you… has anything she said about from between the picture of the protagonists to the part where she talks about the ending… actually been incorrect, in your opinion? Does the game not spend a lot of time trying to shoehorn in a quasi-incestuous romance between two people who really work better as siblings?

      1. Act says:

        TBH it seems like they didn’t actually read the post — they spend time talking about a completely different game, are indignant about me not mentioning things I specifically mentioned I liked, and don’t actually engage any of the reasons I said I didn’t like it. I suspect they read the intro blurb, got Righteously Indignant, briefly skimmed the rest, and then wrote a comment ~putting me in my place. It’s not really worth responding to.

        1. CrazyEd says:
          Honestly, I didn’t even really reread the whole thing myself. I pretty much just skimmed through it to refresh myself and see what he was talking about. I didn’t even read the part about the ending, because he didn’t say anything about it.

          But I responded mostly because the points you mentioned in the part I specified, the part between the picture and the part about the ending, are points that always bother me when I look at it through my usual lens of analysing fiction.

          Which is a shame, because that heroine sure does seem like my kind of spunky heroine. Even the more moe sequel design seems pretty boisterous and outgoing.

          You’re right; it’s probably not worth responding. I’ve never been good about knowing when to pick a fight. But I’ve got nothing better to do and I’m curious how he’ll respond. I’ll stop if you want me to, though. Do you want me to?

          1. Draconic says:
            No, I read the whole post. I just feel that you glossed over everything the game deserved credit for in favor of dwelling on things that bugged you about it. I’ll admit, I did go off on a tangent though. The fact of the matter is however, that all these games are all part of the same thing. And I don’t mean the same series. They’re literally just different facets of the same story… Uh… Bleublanc doesn’t get any less aggravating in any of the other games though, sadly he’s always an irritating scumbag. But it’s still kinda fun to hate the guy.

            There are plenty more things to like in this game than there are to dislike, you got extremely hung up on a couple of negatives that seemed to kill the entire game for you. I’m honestly quite surprised that the depth of the world Falcom created barely registered as something worth going into detail over. I mean, system of measurement and in-game literature! It’s positively stunning!

            I can’t deny that you made a lot of excellent points. You really weren’t wrong about many of them, but I felt that you didn’t spend nearly enough time going into the positive aspects of the game, while using hyperbole to accentuate a lot of negative details. It was a very unbalanced review dampened by what seemed like an obvious bias.

            As for the spending a lot of time trying to shoehorn in the quasi-incestuous relationship, I’ll admit, the end of the game was both very shoehorned and abrupt, though it definitely worked as a cliffhanger. It becomes a lot less incestuous after you learn more about Joshua’s life from before he met Estelle. It’s not pretty though.

            1. Act says:

              It was a very unbalanced review dampened by what seemed like an obvious bias.

              Oh man it’s almost like a review I write is my opinion of the game, you got me there.

              Reply
            2. Nerem says:
              Who gives a shit if there’s all this ‘good stuff’ if other things were deal-breaker enough to make her not like the game? Really, who. Gives. A. Shit.
              Reply
          2. Act says:

            Eh, I don’t care if you want to engage them, but I probably won’t, is all. It’s a way of approaching someone else’s opinion that screams “I don’t actually want to discuss this, I want you to admit how wrong you are,” and I’d rather use my energy talking to the people who actually make thoughtful comments, which I do too little of anyway.

  6. Draconic says:
    And I really must object to calling it forgettable, and I didn’t need to be ‘converted’ either. I went in with high expectations, and it exceeded them. I started with Cold Steel and due to music, a full cast of (mostly) charming characters, and the factors I’ve already mentioned, I saw a great game and I stuck with the series. The Legend of Geroes is a worldbuilding triumph that’s trying to reach Tolkien levels of detail.youve gotta give it a lot more credit for the things it does well rather than footnoting them in favor of ranting about the game’s flaws, which are not as dramatic as you make them sound.

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