It has been a very long journey, but I’ve finally managed to catch up to The Legend of Heroes’ current western releases! Today’s title is certainly a doozy too, as despite its ten year delay between its Japanese release and western localization, it has been highly regarded by those in the know as one of the best titles in the series, so fans have certainly built up a lot of expectation. For my part, I simply did my best to view things from a neutral standpoint, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t curious to see if what Trails fans consider to be one of the series’ shining achievements turned out to be as such. The tale ultimately that unfolded over these 35 hours certainly bears discussing.
Developed by Nihon Falcom, published by NIS America, and released in September of 2022, Trails from Zero is a JRPG crime thriller game available on Steam, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch. Its premise involves a group of rookie police officers handling odd-job cases which bring them to face the realities of their city. Players interact with the game through turn-based combat, exploration, character loadout maintenance, and a whole lotta reading. For this review I once again played the Steam version, and you should be aware of version differences between consoles. Be wary that I will not refrain from spoiling stuff from the first trilogy, although there isn’t really much I anticipate spoiling.
Regarding the game’s place in the wider series, it is the fourth entry of the Trails saga and fills the gap between Sky and Cold Steel along with its sister game coming out in early 2023. There is definitely one portion of the plot dedicated to following up on Estelle and Joshua’s narrative thread from the Sky games about trying to find Renne, but on the whole the game’s narrative is relatively self-contained and makes for a good starting point if you reeeeally want to just play the game most recently released.
Before we get into my usual overview of the game though, I feel compelled to address the circumstances behind this game’s localization. Due to Trails’ VERY turbulent history when it came to bringing the Liberl games to the west, the two Crossbell games had been passed over in favor of the Cold Steel games for over a decade since the companies involved thought they would sell better. That isn’t to say nobody was working on them though, as a group of fans known as Geofront developed full english patches for the two games over the years, and it is these patches that NIS America essentially bought the rights to use in making the official western release. Lots of critical discussion has surrounded this arrangement and I don’t want to dwell on it forever, but I did want to make it clear how I felt about all this. To the Geofront team, I recognise that if it weren’t for their tireless efforts to make the translation patch, NIS America may have never bothered to officially release this critical part of the Trails story, and if you should be thanking anybody for the game being in our hands it’s these people. However, I am not blind to the fact that this patch was most commonly used by the fanbase through emulation, and for the vast majority of said fans this subsequently meant piracy. While I know it’s not up to Geofront how each individual player obtained their ROMs of Trails from Zero, I don’t think they were ignorant of how the patch’s very existence implicitly encouraged this crime either.
Likewise to NIS America, I think it was a bold and ultimately laudable move to right the wrongs of the series localization history instead of just mindlessly plowing ahead leaving Crossbell behind, and recognizing the hard work of the Geofront fans by bringing them on the project was an extremely cool thing of them to do. However, it’s hard not to ignore that the higher ups at the company likely went for this localization because most of the work was done for them, and even then they pretty much refused to work on things that they did have the power to implement and improve the game but just didn’t. Case and point, the lack of an english dub is absolutely criminal and reeks of laziness when every other game in the series included one. All of this section is to say, to both NIS America and Geofront: shame on you… and thank you.
The story of Trails from Zero takes place more or less directly after Trails in the Sky the 3rd and actually overlaps on the timeline with Trails of Cold Steel, albeit with no overt connections to the latter outside of one character’s appearance. The game opens with Lloyd Bannings, a rookie police officer with a coveted detective’s license, returning to his home and the setting of the adventure, the city-state of Crossbell. Instead of being assigned to any normal detective unit though, Lloyd instead finds himself selected to participate in an experimental division called the Special Support Section, whose job it is to more or less steal the thunder of the Bracer Guild through requests that the ordinary police are either too busy to handle, or simply not trusted to do thanks to rampant corruption in Crossbell’s government. Together with his teammates Ellie MacDowell, Tio Plato, and Randy Orlando, the budding investigator thus begins his work as a young ally of truth in the city, facing the ire of the civilians who disdain them, the police force who looks down on them, and the mafia they waste no time getting on the bad side of, all in hopes of making their home a better place.
Right away I think we can all agree that the rivalry with the Bracers is definitely something written into the story in order to maintain the classic side-quest structure, and it is unfortunate that they couldn’t have picked a slightly tighter reason like they did in Cold Steel. But other than that, the only real criticisms I can think of off the top of my head for the story is the pace-breaking intermission chapter after chapter 3 and the fact that Randy can be a bit of a playboy to the detriment of the game’s script ala Cold Steel III’s Musse (though obviously to a much lesser extent than her). In all other respects, Trails from Zero’s narrative is objectively the best one yet. If I had to narrow things down to why this is the case, it would definitely have to be the smaller scale of the parties involved. Sky the 3rd had already shown me that the series could tell intimately personal character stories well but was held back just a bit too much by its need to be an epilogue to a grander epic, and Zero takes those strengths and fully realizes them in its execution.
The four main cast members of the Special Support Section are in your party right from the beginning of the game, and all of them benefit from the screen time that this entails. Lloyd, Randy, Ellie, and Tio are all fleshed out wonderfully and have driving motivations and emotional cores worth cheering for. The tighter party also leaves room for all of the various side characters like the Bracers to get proper development time as well, making this just an all-around well written cast. You know something was done right when the game won me over on Renne, one of the Sky trilogy’s most cringey characters. Beyond the characters, Crossbell State is also a great setting which uses its small size and repetition of locations to build history and intrigue in a way most country-spanning stories rarely replicate. And of course, the plot is by far the most consistently paced and interesting out of all eight currently localized games, with every single chapter paying off even the slowest of starts with thrilling set pieces and dramatic confrontations that had me dying to see just where things would go next. Overall, it’s rare for me to find a story in games that lacks any particularly noticeable flaws, but the story of the SSS is a very difficult one to find any serious fault in.
Moving along to gameplay and beginning with the combat, Trails from Zero maintains a very consistent gameplay style from the Sky games, with the same grid based timeline battles which we’ve come to know and appreciate. Really the only major new mechanic is that Combo Crafts have been reworked from their massively disappointing implementation in the Sky games to powerful and dramatic super attacks which unlock as the story progresses. Overall the combat is still as fun as before, however there’s one major structural issue that does take away much of the game’s challenge. In every single Trails game you are capable of running into the enemy from behind while in the overworld to get a bunch of preemptive turns, and depending on the game there are methods of making this turn advantage even greater, but these methods were usually kept in check by either RNG or resource management. Zero has a simple system where if you hit the enemy from behind then engage them while stunned, you get four turns of critical damage (one of which is almost certainly a powerful Team Attack event) and an additional four turns after that. The problem being that if an enemy spots you while you’re sneaking up on it, landing an attack from the front will usually hold it in place long enough for you to easily run around it and spank its behind, meaning that with trivial practice you can completely ignore all challenge from the normal enemies and grind yourself up to a high level with minimum effort. The boss encounters can definitely require thinking at least, but on the whole they never really threatened a game over until near the end of the game either. While I do recognise that my perspective is that of a series veteran and that the game is still relatively fun to play, I can’t help but feel things were far too easy for most of the run time.
The quartz customization system is also relatively unchanged from Sky the 3rd, however in this game you now both unlock the slots and upgrade them instead of one or the other. This struck a nice balance of opening up the player to the fun of fine tuning your various quartz lines, while still being a big sepith sink that’s a challenge to fully upgrade. The lower number of characters to upgrade overtime also really helps in making party customization more palatable, and I feel more inclined to crunch numbers knowing that I won’t have to do the same for nearly a dozen different characters.
Exploration in Trails from Zero is once again largely conforming to series norms, but what it does do is make sidequesting incredibly convenient. Fast traveling around Crossbell is incredibly easy thanks to a bus stop system which allows you to skip a ton of long roads, and sidequests are usually never so lengthy that I couldn’t comfortably play through them whilst making progress on the main scenario. The explored locations themselves aren’t quite as varied as Erebonia, but I did consider them a step above Liberl’s locations, and despite passing through the same areas many times it’s very satisfying to return to said places only to be ushered through a previously blocked off path and see wild new sites, especially later in the game when you get to visit lots of super cool ruins environments.
Graphics wise, it is not an understatement to say that Trails from Zero is the perfected form of the art style from the series’ classic games. Again and again did I chide the Sky games for their flat, unflattering isometric camera which limited my enjoyment of the otherwise competent sprites and environment, and along comes Crossbell to rip camera control straight from my gamepad and force me to look at every scene of the city-state from the angle that the directors thought best. I am so thankful that this game finally reached its artistic potential, and it has only gotten better since this release of Zero includes further improved visuals and widescreen support. While I think the attack animations are better in the Cold Steel arc for their greater detail, the overall presentation here is just so consistently high-quality that I have to call it my favorite. Even the character portraits are really clean and pleasant this time around, though I confess their high saturation makes me a bit wanting for the Sky trilogy’s more classical, earthen tones. These are the kind of comments that really only apply to somebody who has stuck with the series for as many hours as I have and understandably most players would spend more time feeling ambivalent towards the game’s graphics due them being PSP visuals fundamentally, but I am “somebody” and it’s a big deal to me dang it!
As for the music, I certainly found it to be a great addition to the series’ reservoir of musical delights, though my feelings on the soundtrack are a little bit more complex than just “funky music go brr”. The soundtrack in Trails from Zero generally takes on a more nuanced soundscape than its sister titles, opting to incorporate elements of jazz and other noir-themed instrumentation in order to better evoke our cultural archetypes surrounding detective fiction to ground its battles in said genre. Musically speaking I think the sound team did an excellent job and most of the music is really great when listened to on its own. Within the game itself however it is more difficult to appreciate the composition of most tracks when your brain is so focused on gameplay, subsequently leading me to feel like most of the music was less impressive than it actually is for most of the run time. The game certainly has its tracks that stick out even during gameplay, such as Mainz the Mining Town hooking me instantly with its gentle and bittersweet guitar, but on the whole I feel like the music could have been composed with more of an understanding of its place as a background element.
Finally, as regards what we can learn from this title as Catholics, the game features some surprisingly striking symbolism which sheds light on our duty and relationship to society as a whole. Crossbell State is a complex entity within the world of Zemuria’s politics, but the one thing that can be said about it for certain is that its very existence is one born of exploitation, with every major entity operating there having foreign ties and ulterior motives that view the city as a bargaining chip first and a community second. This selfishness breeds corruption throughout the city, but where it gets interesting is near the game’s end, where it is revealed that Crossbell’s sorry political existence proved fertile ground for an evil much more existential and spiritual in nature. Likewise in our own world we see countless examples of ways in which the societal systems around us fail the people they are meant to serve, but said failings also point strongly towards a spiritual sickness at the heart of the matter. I certainly think it is no coincidence that as society moves further and further away from God into secular delusions of grandeur, we also see depravity run rampant among the people and worse and worse sins become normalized, even tolerance of the worst of idolitries. Unlike with the Special Support Section, there is no one bad guy we can beat up in order to make significant progress to remedying this problem, but the SSS and Catholics are similar in that we strive to let nothing stop us from doing what we can to face these harsh ills through the power of truth. Ours is a much slower task, fought more with words and compassion than with tonfas and deductions, but it is a battle we can win if we earnestly try. Look to God, who is Truth Itself, and pray that through obedience and study you may come to understand the Truth that will lead people everywhere to a holier life by your witness. The barriers in our way are tall, but there’s no limit to how high Faith and Reason together can take us!
In conclusion, Trails from Zero is a wonderful roleplaying game with an excellent story, awesome setting, and entertaining gameplay. While there are certainly elements which hold it back from coming with the highest recommendations due to its lack of difficulty and a few other minor complaints, it nonetheless proves itself to be objectively the best game in the Trails series yet. Sky the 3rd is probably still my personal favorite, but I cannot deny the complete package when I see it and Zero is that package. Whether you’re looking to dip your toes into the series for the first time or are a veteran diving in boldly to see what the west has been missing out on, Crossbell is certain to impress!
Art and Graphics: 5/5
Trails from Zero is an rpg with a variety of supernatural elements present. Characters use a kind of technology-magic called Orbal Arts when fighting, allowing them to wield elemental powers. The world features a fictitious faith called the Septian Church which most of the characters follow, though it’s very Christian-inspired. Monsters range from standard rpg enemies to demonic entities. Later in the game the main antagonistic force is a cult of demon worshippers, who are also stated to have experimented on children and run illegal drug rings. Battles involve a variety of melee weapons and guns along with Orbal Arts, but I can’t actually recall there being any blood this time around.
Randy Orlando’s brand of comedic relief boils down to hitting on anything with two X chromosomes, and his room has sexy magazines in them. Additionally, choosing to take actions which increase your bond with him will sometimes draw unearned remarks about romantic tension between him and Lloyd Bannings. One of Lloyd’s running jokes is that women constantly fawn over him. The receptionist at the Bracer Guild is noticeably effeminate for a man. Estelle and Joshua appear in the story and are still an item despite being adopted siblings. One of Crossbell’s major areas is an entertainment district and nearby alley which feature a casino, a bar, and escorts. Generally speaking female character design isn’t normally too bad, helped by the game’s art direction limiting the amount of sensuality a character showing skin elicits, but there are some exceptions. Tio Plato for example wears a really short skirt and odd leggings, which don’t feel terribly in character for a 14 year-old. The worst offenders in this regard are the dance troupe Arc en Ciel, whose casual wear and stage costumes alike are quite risque. Arc en Ciel’s main star Illya gropes her junior Rixia more than once, and it’s played for laughs. Foul language is present in plenty of dialogue, particularly wherever ruffians and Randy are involved.
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