The PSP, in lieu of current competition, has arisen to become the classic RPG fan's platform of choice, particularly if one finds oneself dissatisfied with the smattering of Eastern offerings from the current couple of generations. Japanese RPGs have found a comfortable home on the Playstation Network, with the likes of Atlus, Konami, Square and Compile Heart seeing their finest offerings, previously unavailable outside of Japan, given over to the delight of Western audiences.
It is Ghostlight we have to thank for this latest localised bounty. It's taken over half a decade for Nihon Falcom's The Legend of Heroes to make it over here, but it's been worth the wait. Shiny graphics cannot make up for poor storylines and weak characterisation when it comes to games such as these. With length running times and bundles of content, there's no room for slipshod mechanics.
Thankfully, although not perfect, Trails in the Sky serves up a fine reminder of just how good JRPGs can be when they try something a little different, that you can have an accessible-yet-deep experience, and you need not pay £40 for it.
Not that you'd think that from the basic story. The game centres around the adventures of Estelle and Joshua, who are both members of the Bracer's Guild - an international band of mercenary do-gooders, G-men for hire, monster hunters and peacekeepers. The early parts of the game are spent-trotting around the game's various regions, righting wrongs and indulging in the sights and sounds of the nation of Liberl. Eventually the duo will come upon dark government plots and stirrings of conspiracies and war, but that comes a bit later.
The turn-based nature combat system is a little reminiscent of Final Fantasy X, which is no bad thing, but things take place on a Disgaea-esque grid for added strategic depth. The result is a combat system that straddles the gap between traditional JRPGs and their strategy-focused counterparts - you can still power through combat relatively swiftly, but now movement and positioning counts for a little more, with special, chargeable S-break attacks on hand to the tide of battle when things get dicey. Where SJRPGs tend to be often brutally punishing with their learning curve, Trails in the Sky offers adaptive AI which adjusts the difficulty if you're finding it hard going.
What this creates is actually an incredibly satisfying combat system, one that's perfectly balanced and rarely ever forced upon you. Grinding is not necessary here and the majority of threatening encounters are visible to behold, approaching them from behind giving you an advantage at the start of battle. Victory brings quartz crystals that can be used to customise and enhance your characters' magical abilities, monsters yield cooking ingredients for synthesising in cities and towns. Again, as with the battle system, there's depth to be found here but also accessibility.
Liberl itself is not a terribly distinctive game world, but that's more than made up for by its characters. Nearly every NPC you will encounter - and there are many - has a backstory, a well-written slice of exposition that will keep you interested in pursuing whatever request they make of you. The romantic subplots are charming, the banter with some of the game's more offbeat denizens is often highly chuckle-worthy. Some may find it long-winded, those looking for a zippy, well paced story may well come away sorely disappointed, but to others these little character interactions will be the endearing, engaging reasons to return again and again. And if you don't give a damn, the Circle button will fast become your friend.
If there is a complaint to be made, it's that things are a bit slow going at times. What is delightfully languid for some may prove boring for others. There are a few conversations that can waffle on a bit and sometimes you do find yourself wishing one or two characters would just shut up and get on with it. Whilst the storytelling is generally pretty good overall, there are a couple of bugbears we encountered. One is that the boss fights invariably end is disappointment until you get to the end. Falcom delay and delay the payoff (and there aren't too many in between) until the final stages of the game. The graphics could be better, too, occasionally appearing a little blurry at times.
But if that seems a little bit like nitpicking, it's because it is. As a portable timesink, Trails in the Sky is one of the finest of the year and an excellent example of a classic take on the JRPG genre. Accessible yet deep, familiar yet surprisingly progressive, it's a game that doesn't tread hugely different ground, but some fantastic characterisation and addictive combat made it an absolute Christmas cracker!
- Cracking characters
- Brilliant battles
- Inventive AI and quests
- Pacing could prove problematic for some
- Some conversations descend into waffling
- Occasionally muddled graphics
The Short Version: Trails in the Sky is one of those rare JRPGs that manages to feel both familiar and yet progressive. Detailed, sprawling and stuffed with personality, this will delight JRPG fans and might even surprise newcomers with its easy charm and impressive depth.