RPG gamers love a great story — arguably more so than fans of any other genre. As a result, role-playing fare often tends to stretch into many dozens of hours as seemingly minor characters take a great deal of time expounding on the virtues of ultimately trivial things. Perhaps that's why writers often tend to be drawn to the genre: We love to hear ourselves talk, and things often sound more profound in our own heads before we blurt them out to anyone within earshot. Regardless, those folks who love to sit around and hear a great tale will likely find a lot to like about The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. The downside, however, is that you have to deal with some well-executed but highly dated gameplay to get to the root of the story.
Legend of Heroes focuses on the lives of Estelle Bright and her adopted brother, Joshua. The two have just become Bracers (think paid Boy/Girl Scouts with swords) and are extremely excited to set off doing good deeds and exploring the world. Before they can even get their feet wet, though, their father is called away on important business and promptly goes missing. The Bright children then decide to set out in search of their dad while also exploring the world and increasing their standing in the Bracer guild.
That's a very short and incomplete summation of the plot, as going into any more detail would require a book. Legend of Heroes tells its tale very slowly, carefully and methodically unwrapping new layers as you travel from town to town and region to region. The supporting cast is ever-changing, and just when you start to get a handle on one traveling companion, it's usually time for him or her to say good-bye, and a new face joins your merry band. Joshua and Estelle remain the anchors that serve as constant amidst multiple story threads, and the game does a great job of keeping things moving and keeping you interested in what will happen next.
Granted, in a game this long, there are bound to be lulls, but thankfully they're few and far between. Perhaps the primary reason for this is terrific writing and localization, which keep the dialogue crackling and manage to hold the player's interest throughout. The folks you meet along the way all have distinct personalities that don't often fit into easily definable RPG archetypes, so it's a lot of fun to interact with the whole cast. Even better, Estelle seems to almost always be ready with an awkward joke or inappropriate response that can often elicit a chuckle. She strikes a nice balance between being helpful, compassionate and just plain naive and brash, so it makes her a very fun character indeed.
Out in the field, Legend of Heroes plays like most other turn-based RPGs, but with a bit of its own flair. Players have basic attack, magic and skill options (here known as attack, arts, and crafts) as well as S-crafts, which work as a sort of overdrive special attacks when a tension gauge fills. It's all very straightforward and simplistic; some might even consider it dated. Then again, Legend of Heroes originally appeared in Japan seven years ago, so the combat system is really just a product of the times.
In spite of the game's simplicity, the battles still manage to be rather enjoyable thanks to a few fun wrinkles. The neatest concept is likely that of the orbments, which are magical crystals that players equip to cast spells. Simply equipping the magical stones isn't enough to give you access to the full range of abilities, as some spells can only be forged by placing certain orbs next to one another in a chain. Mixing and matching orbments is not only highly entertaining, but experimentation also leads to the discovery of some amazing spells that can really turn the tide of battle in your party's favor.
As mentioned above, Legend of Heroes has been around for the better part of a decade, and one area where it shows its age is in the presentation. While the visuals can be charming, they aren't particularly noteworthy, and the musical selection is often bland and lacking. There are a few impressive bits of scenery or swelling musical moments, but most of the time the game just kind of sits there, being simultaneously inoffensive and unimpressive.
There are a couple of poor gameplay mechanics as well, specifically the tiresome backtracking and limited-time-only nature of side quests. While you can wander into the local Bracer guild at any time to pick up extra missions, all the opportunities have hidden time limits that will remove them forever if you don't complete them before hitting specific story points. While the game gives you a very general idea of how much longer you have to complete the quest, it's never completely spelled out, so it's very easy to miss things. Also annoying is the fact that completing most missions in the game requires quite a bit of backtracking through the same parts of a given region over and over again, fighting the same underpowered enemies in order to finish a simple fetch or extermination request.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is the first of a trilogy, and it makes a strong case to bring the rest of the story arc to North America. Though some of the core design feels left behind compared to modern standards, the story line is very impressive and the title manages to be quite fun even as it sticks closely to traditional JRPG mechanics. If you're looking for a lengthy, meaty RPG you can take with you wherever you go, this title will make a fine option.
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