Trails In The Sky: Second Chapter

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Falcom’s Trails In The Sky: Second Chapter is about as good as a sprite-based role-playing can get. Sure, in the future there’ll likely be similar games with a more ambitious story, or a more innovative battle system, but each of these theoretical successors would have be pretty damn great to out-excel Trails In The Sky: Second Chapter.

For those of you haven’t been keeping up with your niche gaming, Trails in the Sky: SC is the sequel to Trails in the Sky. It continues the story begun in that game, that of the step-siblings Josh and Estelle successfully foiling a palace coup and uncovering hints of more a sinister conspiracy in their first year as Rangers, essentially members of an informal policy force in a fantasy word. At the end of Trails In The Sky we learn Josh was a sleeper agent and former member of this conspiracy, so he leaves his step-sister, and the awkward feelings growing between them, to pursue his own path. Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter sees Estelle gather her new friends to investigate and hopefully defeat the secret conspiracy that promises to cause international chaos. While the story ultimately does boil down to the standard ‘group of friends saves world’ plot that virtually defines the genre, the believable and deep characterization of even the most irrelevant characters more than compensates for the lack of narrative twists. It even passes the Bechdal Test.

The thing you need to understand about Trails in the Sky games is that they are wordy, with probably more words than three bibles in each one. Every NPC has their own unique reaction to plot events and some even their own story-line. There are optional quests that blossom into their own expansive narratives, giving you further detail about Estelle’s world. You can read newspapers, magazines, even two novels! This game took years and years for Xseed Games to translate, and you can read on their tumblr  just how epic that task was. This game’s prequel had a running gag where every time you checked an already opened treasure chest there’d be an amusing message. In Trails In The Sky: SC there were only two chest messages. I can’t remember what the first one was, but the second was along the lines of Help, we’re the localization team and we’ve been stuck here since 2011. That should tell you something about how much prose this game’s packing!

Talking about the gameplay of a RPG in a review like this is almost completely redundant… usually if the reviewer is trying to be funny they’ll bitch and moan about clichés that were old in 1996. (The best variation on this theme I’ve seen was on this review for Tales Of Eternia). Trails in the Sky takes these traditional gameplay standards and breathes new life into them. Battles are not randomly activated, but begin only if you make physical contact with a monster while walking, like in Earthbound. The battles themselves are small scale bouts ala Final Fantasy Tactics, with foes taking turns to move across chess-like tiles to whack their opponents. You can also enhance your stats and battle techniques with quartz, reminiscent of the djinni in Golden Sun. A battle mechanic new to this installment is that allies can combine their attacks, just like they could in Chrono Trigger. You can also choose side quests from the Ranger’s Union, similar to what happened in Final Fantasy Four. The only genuinely original facet of Trails in the Sky’s gameplay is that you can instantly restart battles after you’ve lost them, saving you the agony and re-enacting all the things you did since you last saved. It’s hard to think of an innovation longer in the coming. While most of the Trail In The Sky: SC’s gameplay should be familiar to any RPG fan, how it’s implemented is as close to perfection as I’ve seen.

I don’t usually focus on graphics, usually because they lose whatever novelty they factor within an hour of playing, but I like what Falcolm’s done here. Trails in the Sky: SC uses really detailed sprites. If there was a parallel universe where they never invented 3D polygon graphics and instead tried to make sprites as swish as possible, they’d look like the sprites in Trails in the Sky: SC. They also reminded me of the graphics on Golden Sun, but look, I think it’ll be easier for all of us if I embedded a video under this paragraph:

Trails In The Sky: SC is a long game. From memory, it took me about eighty hours to beat it. The prequel was seventy hours long. If it’s possible for a video game to be too long, these games would be the example. That said, I definitely got value for money for that forty dollars I spent on Trails in the Sky: SC.

If you’re an RPG tragic with a PSP or a Steam account, then you’ve probably already brought this game. I think that the Trails In The Sky games, with their heavy emphasis on compelling stories and easy modes, would hold an especial appeal for book lovers trying to find a way to get into video games. (But they should probably try visual novels like Phoenix Wright first…) I don’t give stars, but if I did, this game would get five.

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