Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review - Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

In the current state of gaming, there's not a whole lot of Classic RPG action to be had unless you look towards the portable systems and even then the pickings are fairly slim.  In many ways, I imagine we can all blame this on how RPGs became the 'cool' thing to make for a while there after the successes of Squeenix (then Squaresoft) and other such well-known RPG makers which ended, as it always does, with an entire cadre of games that not only miss the point of being an RPG in some fashion (poor story, poor gameplay, etc), but sour entire chunks of gamers to the genre itself.  Combine that with the fact that some of the fore-front of RPG Makers lost sight of how to make a good one (debatable of course, but the idea that Squeenix is not the Square of old is a popular one, likely with good reason) and it's easy to see why it's a rather neglected caste of gaming.

It's not until a game comes around that is so undeniably good at defining what the genre is and what it can be that you get people reinvigorated, people that are now hungry for this, as they have tasted of the fine cuisine and look towards the rest of the banquet for more.  For some, the game that did that was the punishing but lovable Persona 3, whose care for not only its own story, but for its characters, soundtrack and gameplay elevated it from something standard to something great.  For others it was a game that likely started this hunger rather than reignited it like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII, whose mastery of the essential RPG make-up served as the best intro to RPGs that one could hope for.  And I guarantee to you with full weight and understanding of what this means to say that, for some people out there, one of these such games was Legend of Heroes:  Trails in the Sky.

When Trails in the Sky was heavily recommended by fellow Vita owners over at Penny Arcade for people looking to delve into the PSP back-library, I took a look at the $20 pricetag and said "Well, there's other stuff that I should buy first, but this game will actually be new to me.  It's been a while since I've really played a -new- RPG" and promptly slapped down my purchase of it alongside Persona 3 Portable and Final Fantasy Tactics:  War of the Lions.  (At least, I think I bought them all at the same time, but downloaded them at different intervals, it doesn't matter much though.)  As faithful readers of the blog know, I crawled, ran, jumped and powered my way through Persona 3 Portable, clawing and scraping at its precipice before pulling myself up and over it, having finally conquered the challenge that was playing and beating the game.  Satisfied with this victory, I decided that it was finally time, in this interim before Resistance:  Burning Skies is released, to play Trails in the Sky as I was still rather in an RPG-playing mood.

I was greeted by a game that simply oozed charm with its engaging characters of Estelle and Joshua Bright (related by semi-adoption) as well as their father, Cassius, who was what they aspired to be:  A Bracer.  In the world of Trails in the Sky, a Bracer is, essentially, a person who mediates problems, whether they be big or small, who is then compensated fairly for the task.  In simpler terms, they are Adventurers who are tasked by the citizens (through the Bracers Guild) to do whatever they desire for them.  From looking for a specific mushroom in a monster-infested forest to exterminating rather large and unique monsters near cities to investigating the disappearance of an heirloom, Bracers do it all, meaning their skills cannot simply be focused in combat.  To that end, Cassius is a full-fledged Bracer and, from what the intro makes it out as, a rather important one as well, where Estelle and Joshua are only now able to begin to qualify as Junior Bracers or, put simply, Apprentices.

Without getting into it too much, the distinction between Junior Bracers and regular Bracers is not only in the type of jobs they're able to take, but just -where- they can take said jobs.  To qualify as a Full Bracer, one has to work in every main branch of the Bracers Guild long and hard enough to receive a Recommendation of Full-Fledged Status.  Five of those later, and you're qualified to then take on jobs from any branch, which said jobs will also entail more and more danger, relying on your heightened level of skill to surmount.  Being that a main plot element of the game is that Estelle and Joshua are Junior Bracers on their path to be Full Bracers, I felt it was important enough to detail a little.  Aside from that, I just think it's a really neat little idea that, while not ground-breaking, manages to push the story along in a way that isn't contrived as well as have an impact on actual elements of the story.

Like the rest of the game, the Bracers Guild is alive, is vibrant and detailed enough that it feels like something that is very natural, something that frames the game well, and, most importantly, the Guild is not loved by one and all.  I find that if you have something that the main character is a part of that the rest of the game world either A.) Doesn't know anything about it or B.) Unconditionally adores and/or relies on, it starts to lose some of its luster as it just doesn't seem like a reality.  Regardless of how petty the reason is, you're likely to have some detractors no matter what you do, or even something of a rival organization that shows up.  And, indeed, a rival to the Bracers Guild is mentioned, but the full impact of it, I'm not about to even begin to spoil because that's something you just have to play the game for.

My point with talking about the Guild was to say that it feels well-established, and nicely thought-out, much like the characters of the game.  I credit it to any game that manages to make their characters feel like people since, well, so many games don't accomplish this, falling either to making them stereotypes or tropes or, in the case of several RPGs, simple plot points or exposition machines.  It should be a basic requirement for anyone wanting to make a game, especially an RPG, that they can make real, tangible people cast as the characters, but it's such a rarity that it's a little unfortunate, yet telling of the situation RPGs are in, as explained above.  Still, the degree to which Trails in the Sky manages would be lauded even in better conditions, as I find myself feeling genuine things for the characters, despite only being in contact with some of them for short stints.

Particularly wonderful in this is our main character Estelle who I think is a prime example of a properly done RPG main character, in all honesty.  What makes Estelle a great Main Character is the fact that she doesn't know everything, but she's not so clueless that everyone has to rather clumsily explain every little thing that a denizen of the world would likely know even if they lived under a rock.  It's played off by her ditziness, her inability to pay attention to most things that aren't fights and simply her personality, but she offers a way for the player to be informed of things in a very natural and well-reasoned way.  She's not about to pull out some random fact about this town or that statue, because you don't know about it, because she doesn't know about it, which is mostly because of her naps during school and lectures and the like.  For random trivia and a wellspring of knowledge, we have Joshua who is presented as a character that just knows something about everything, making it, again, natural and well-reasoned.

Something I have been, and will continue to try to hammer in, is the amount of charm, care and detail that's been put into the game, which is something that you pretty much have to experience first hand.  I mean, I can tell you about how the dialogue is engaging and entertaining, sometimes outright funny, making every conversation enjoyable.  Or I can tell you that the amount of "This chest is empty" lines that are in the game is staggering, to the point where I honestly thought that every single chest had its own unique empty message until about the halfway point where I finally found a repeat.  I could go on about how the sprite work and animation is rather lovely to watch and seeing the details incorporated in certain moments is almost amazing, but really, you just need to play the game to understand.

Something that I can apparently go on and on about, however, is the mechanics of the game which are not entirely divorced of the charm that permeates the rest of the game pleasantly.  I don't think I need to elaborate on the Cooking System anymore, of course, except to say that of course right after I figured out that trick about the Apple Ice Cream, money no longer became an issue.  Of course.  Regardless, that little exploit about the system isn't wholly unrealistic, at least not too egregiously, so it's not even like it's poorly thought out or anything, it's just supply, demand, and markets.  I would like to reiterate that it was a pretty fantastic idea for making sure you could keep your team well-supplied and in good health without relying on just buying the equivalent of potions here and there.  If you want to be purely technical or, well, just a purist, there's really no reason -to- touch Cooking, provided you can get the cash for regular healing items, but the option is good enough that it doesn't feel tacked on or anything, nor does it overshadow regular items.

Another nice little mechanical facet of the game is the Quartz system which is what is in place for all your Magic needs.  It works in a way that is not wholly different from the Materia system in Final Fantasy 7 in that you equip a piece of Quartz (that may or may not be an orb ala materia) to your Orbment to be able to cast spells of its elemental type.  Red/Ruby Quartz will allow Fire-based magic and Strength buffs, Green/Emerald Quartz is for Wind-based magic and Agility buffs, etc. etc.  The types are Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Black, Gold and Silver, where the former four are the elements, Black is time, Gold is mostly support (Move bonuses, Cuts EP needed to cast Arts, etc.) and Silver is a different kind of support, mainly covering how visible you are to enemies on the map and such things.  They all have their own elemental values so you won't lose out on potential spells if you throw down a couple Silvers or Golds, either.  The Quartz themselves also offer buffs for simply equipping them, meaning that the system can be as deep as you desire.

One of the mechanics that I am unfortunately not in love with is, and this is kind of a big deal, the battle system.  Of course, it's not at all that I dislike the battle system, as I like it, but it definitely has a few things in it that just make me want to poke it because it feels like they're sticking out unnaturally.  The main thing being the Tactics-lite movement system that is incorporated into the battle system as a base mechanic.  I say Tactics-lite because when you go to move somewhere (whether it be to attack or just use the 'move' command), your available range shows up as a grid, showing the furthest points available, ala tactics game.  Unfortunately, it's a bit superfluous for attacking as, unless you've really messed about with your battle formation and such, you're pretty much -always- going to be within walking range of an enemy and vice versa, meaning that moving outside of range is something that doesn't always work.

What's worse is that the "Move" command is, in all but the slimmest of scenarios, absolutely worthless since Moving takes your entire turn while not offering extended movement range or anything.  Its only use is for moving out of the way of Arts that are charging up and can be move out of range for, which is half of them at most.  Arts that set area limits (without targeting a character) or use a straight line as a guide, these are the only Arts that can simply be sidestepped rather than the ones that just need to be stopped through the use of Impede, be it from an innate Quartz or a Craft (special attack) that specifically says it has Impede as a side-effect.  Or you could just kill the enemy before it fires off, of course, since the action list on the left side gives you a good gauge of what happens when, being its only job and all.

Well, not its -only- job and I have to applaud this part of the battle system at the very least.  As you might notice in the above picture, there are little icons next to the portraits in the List, and these represent different bonuses that the person or monster in that slot will receive at the start of their turn.  Much like Final Fantasy X, the list order can be played around with through the use of speeding up and slowing down fighters (friend or foe) to ensure that your team gets the bonuses whenever possible, adding a nice layer of strategy to the battles.  Also useful in this venture is the S-Break system which, as you might imagine, sort of mimics the Limit Break system and other variants on that.  After attacking and being hit, your Craft Points accumulate and you can use these for Crafts (attacks and support things, mostly) or, if it hits 100, you can use an S-Break that can be activated at anytime, effectively 'stealing' a place in the action list.  Particularly useful utilization of this is activating one when it will coincide with a Critical or Strength Up bonus.

Regardless of my gripes, limited as they may be, about the Battle System, they're pretty much the only real cons I can attach to the game.  The rest of it is solid and then some, taking something that's good and elevating it to something great just as simply.  I think, if anything, that's the real strength of Trails in the Sky:  It doesn't do anything really outlandish, deciding on sticking to the basics and ensuring they're used to their fullest extent for quality.  It's not going to blow you away until you realize that it's simplicity, its willingness to not try to 'innovate' everything and instead work on what works to its fullest potential, is what should blow you away.  I could harken it to Chrono Trigger in this aspect, which is a tall comparison, simply because its simplicity allows it to truly shine as something truly great.  It's for that reason that I opened this review by stating that it is likely someone's "This game made RPGs good for me [again]" game.  And it's for that reason that I'm basically frothing at the mouth for the next game in the series, because I want it now.

The Good
  • The characters are well-defined and crafted with care, definitely filling their own roles without being tropes
  • The story is elegant and simple, yet offers enough mystery and intrigue to keep you interested until the end
  • The Cooking System is a welcome addition to "Ways your characters can heal", as it provides something cheap and non-standard (as well as a cashflow that won't stop)
  • The Quartz System for Arts allows for simplicity or depth, depending on whether you balance "Who has what Spells" versus "What buffs/bonuses can I give to these characters"
  • The world feels alive, and has its own nicely established lore that isn't clunkily handed to you in lectures
  • It's honestly just so charming and old-school that it'll harken back to the "Good Days" of RPGs
  • That Ending
  • Estelle is a fantastic main character
 The Bad
  • The Music in the game is nothing to write home about
  • Monsters don't drop Mira (money), so you can't effectively farm cash (outside of abusing the cooking system)
  • The Difficulty curve gets a -little- off-kilter at parts, but not dramatically so
  • The Movement part of the Battle system is useless and drags the whole thing down some
  • By design, it's actually sort of linear in that, once you leave a city (in the main story), you generally can't go back for some time
  • I don't have the next friggin' game in the series
Mogs Says
Look, I'm going to lay it on you really simply here.  Look on the Playstation Store on your PSP or Vita.  Find out how much the game is.  ($20 for North America)  Procure that amount in Playstation Cash and buy it.  That is, of course, if you have -any- interest in RPGs whatsoever, and aren't put off by a "Simplicity is best" system, since it's not going to introduce Squeenix levels of complexity at any point in the game.  This is a heavy recommendation from me because the game has more than wormed its way into my heart which is rapidly growing by the years to have more and more spots for "My Favorite Games", which honestly sort of surprises me.  I enjoyed the game that much.

No comments:

Post a Comment