The heroes of this particular Legend of Heroes game want to be “bracers” when they grow up. And no, that isn’t a widget your character wears on his arm, like in World of Warcraft. Bracing is a job, a wholesome mix of body guarding, treasure hunting, monster bashing, espionage, well-intended thuggery, and blue-collar maintenance. Sometimes bracers save the world. Sometimes they’re more like roving freelance janitors with swords.
Bracers have a scattered career, and those working conditions lend themselves to explaining why Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is itself a scattered RPG. It wants to tell the sweeping epic story common to RPGs, but it also wants to invigorate it with lots of fiddly little side quests: whacking this monster or gathering that item or fixing some lamp post, somewhere.
How big a problem is this split approach? It depends on what you want from a fantasy adventure game. Trails in the Sky leans well toward the gameplay end of the spectrum. It doesn’t fall quite in the realm of a rogue-like dungeon hack or hardcore strategy-RPG, but it’s not a breezy, cinematic sort of game, either. It expects the player to do a lot of extra combat and a lot of active character development, rather than having him put the cruise control on full power.
To give Falcom’s designers their due, the game is made well in those respects. Combat is built on an old-fashioned turn-based system, but immediately, every character can choose from a bevy of skills and tactics during battle. Characters can move freely in any direction around the field, too, rather than having to scoot at right angles around a grid of squares. Even in the routine practice of random battles, challenges are reasonable and will usually make you think rather than whack the same “attack” button over again.
Leveling each character calls for more thought. Aside from the usual experience points and gold, the spoils in this game include a series of different magic crystals. Combining them together in new ways unlocks skills for each character, and deciding which to keep is crucial. Skills can’t be unlearned, and they make a major difference as far as what damage a party member can deal during combat and what assistance they can provide for the team between fights.
In gearhead terms, this isn’t a bad design for a console RPG. But Trails in the Sky starts to come apart once the story rolls in.
Each major town in the game has a “bracer guild,” a hub for all kinds of side quests that our heroes have to complete to advance themselves. All of these minor tasks, which have little relevance to the central plot, give the game an awkward rhythm. Whenever it starts building momentum, the forward sweep of the story is held back. That’s fine if you like the amount of combat and want to gain extra loot, but not if you’d rather be immersed in more important events. The beginning of the game is especially rough because it takes an overly long time to reveal a shred of storyline.
More games like Legend of Heroes need to make their stories start full-speed. And no, that doesn’t mean the drama should unfold first in sewers that happen to have an overdeveloped rat problem. (Yes, the first quest in our young bracers’ adventure involves wandering through yet another fantasy village’s septic system.) Final Fantasy VII showed one good example of how to do a story right: the plot kicked off right in the middle of something exciting. Trails in the Sky dials down that excitement until seven, eight, nine hours into the game.
A slow build does give players a good, solid introduction to a world and a cast of characters. But there’s slow builds, and then there’s glacial ones. As far as plot, Trails in the Sky will put some heavy demands on the average player’s patience. A person can stand only so much exposition before they itch to go out and save the world already.
This isn’t an adventure that will please everyone. Trails in the Sky has a couple of very strong points, and for some RPG fans, those will be more than enough to amend the dragging gaps in story. Just be warned that the fantasy heroics come with a fair bit of janitorial duty in the bargain.