I have tendency to lament the present state of JRPGs as a genre. They have mostly escaped to handhelds because of budget issues and new, promising titles are few and far between. There's a definite silver lining though. I actually have time to dig into some less known titles and (remakes of) classics. Trails in the Sky is one such game. It is actually part of a franchise I have absolutely never ever heard of but one that I am willing to look into some more. I only heard about this game through blind luck - it was bundled together with Persona 2: Innocent Sin. We already know how that part of the purchase turned out, but what about this half? I finally ran out of more urgent games and downloaded Trails from the Sky. After about 40 hours of playing the game, I am ready to give my judgement.
1. Low-key story? In my JRPG? Unpossible!
Game writers often seem to think that their story lines need to be larger than life. This is especially true of the JRPG genre where almost every single title has you facing down a god or something with equivalent level of power (usually they are capable - or even about - to destroy the world). After rummaging my brain for a good few minutes I came up with one JRPG where the story is not ultimately about saving the world from some superhuman beast. One (that's Resonance of Fate by the way, and I might remember wrong)! Not that I mind too much, I am all for epic narratives and some of the best ones are indeed massive (think Xenogears). I just find it a wee bit odd that no one's ever considered how to make do with less. Almost no one anyway, because the writers of Trails in the Sky apparently have.
There's a clear upside to not having a cosmic plot. When a game story deals with human issues, it opens up all sorts of possibilities to handle, well, humans, in much richer detail. It also somewhat remedies the usual JRPG credibility problem of sixteen year olds saving the world because they in fact don't. What I mean by handling humans is essentially fleshing out the characters. Trails in the Sky has a ton of dialogue and - pay attention - most of it is just banter. From the perspective of fleshing out characters, the most important dialogue is usually that which doesn't advance the plot. And no, it doesn't mean that characters should be talking about themselves either (I am looking at you, Mass Effect); it means they should be talking about whatever is going on around them or in their minds.
Oh and for the record, Trails in the Sky spends a lot of time doing just that. There are segments in the game where you can go on for more than an hour without having to explore or fight anything at all. You just read, and then read some more. I would not be surprised if I actually spent more than half of those 40 hours reading dialogue. Most importantly, there was not a single moment I felt bored with it. The overarching narrative is also quite thin. The game is divided into a few chapters, and each has a clear story line of its own. It is much like watching a series of connected movies. It is a growth story in a sense, with the protagonists on a quest to complete their training.
The game also handles its pace very well. Here's another thing to take note of: a suitable duration for a dungeon (or equivalent) is not counted in hours. One hour is still fine, but any plural form is most often too much. It's not a hard rule and some dungeons can easily entertain for longer times. It is however highly applicable to maybe 99% of JRPG dungeons. Because most of the game takes place in human establishments, Trails in the Sky features very few dungeons altogether and those few are short enough. Only the final dungeon breaks this rule and does feel rather lengthy. It is also the only part of the game where the story fails to remain in check and goes on the side of cosmic a bit.
Granted, Trails in the Sky is just the first part of a trilogy and its ending does hint at more of an epic scale in the making. Still about 35 hours of it is a very refreshing experience. It is an important lesson too: yes, it is possible to write a captivating JRPG story without destroyers of worlds and insane gods.
2. TRPG? JRPG?
The game mechanics in Trails in the Sky are a hybrid of more traditional JRPG mechanics and tactical RPG mechanics. In combat all characters move on a grid which opens some tactical considerations. Being out of attack range is of course an important factor, but when overall strategy is considered, it is area of effect that matters the most. One curious attribute of this system is that when attacking enemies, the player does not get the option to choose where their character will move to perform the attack. Instead the character will always move the shortest possible distance. This means that movement (without attacking) does come with a price: nothing else can be done on the turn.
The player will usually want to avoid spending turns moving. However, AoE abilities and spells change this tendency. Against enemies with strong AoE attacks, it makes sense to quickly disperse - especially in the early game when there is no AoE heal available. In the later game with AoE heals and buffs available it can be more beneficial to stick together. This is however pretty hard to do against enemies that won't come to you because even ranged physical attacks are quite short-reaching. Of course the player can choose to only cast spells but as a strategy it is quite costly. There's no cheap mana regeneration available. Spells also have casting times which makes them slower to use than physical attacks.
The most important implication of this system is that positioning matters. The player needs to plan ahead a bit in order to get the most out of their buffs or to avoid insane AoE damage. It becomes a meaningful decision because the battle fields are quite small, and movement has a steep cost - it is one action where you don't heal, buff or attack. For major part of the game enemies actually are able to dish out some serious damage, so using time effectively is often desirable. On top of this, the game also introduces some timing considerations through bonus turns. Some turns in the turn track have a bonus attached to them - whoever acts on that turn gets the bonus.
This might sound a bit random. However, turn order can be manipulated to some degree. Most importantly, there's a CP meter which is consumed to execute techniques. If there's enough CP in the meter however, the player can also choose to expend all of it to jump to the front of the turn order and perform an s-break. This is the rough equivalent of Final Fantasy limits or similar systems seen in approximately one JRPG out of two. This is the easiest way to steal a bonus turn. Casting spells with short casting times can also be used to manipulate the turn order to get more bonus turns for the player. Enemy turns can also be delayed by certain abilities.
All in all the system works remarkably well. It doesn't get slow at any point because much of the movement is built into attacks and abilities. At the same time it offers a good deal of the core experience of tactical RPGs in the form of positioning. On top of it, there's the turn order manipulation that is inherent to active time battle systems from the Final Fantasy series (particularly FFX which has a very similar turn order system - just without the bonus turns). The game also reminds us how small things matter. One such thing is the ability to see where AoE spells will hit while they are being cast. This allows the player to react, and also perform some interesting plays like centering a heal on a character and then moving that character into the middle of their own formation.
3. Lines in an orbment
One last thing I would like to mention about Trails in the Sky is its ability system. It features something called battle orbments, which contain slots to put quartz in. This system serves dual purpose: each quartz grants bonus effects like increased attributes but they also grant "spellpoints" (no real name was given for them) of different colors. The latter determine what spells the character is able to cast - each spell in the game requires the character to have a certain combination in their orbment. However the shape of the orbment also matters because spellpoints are only combined per line. Therefore characters who have been profiled as spell-casters have orbments with long lines - the most potent casters have every slot of their orbment in one line. Fighter types on the other hand have really short lines which denies their access to the more potent spells.
The dual nature of this system is what I consider worthy of applause. There are two dimensions to consider when making decisions about which quartz to equip. I also think it is interesting that characters never learn spells permanently - spells are just "equipped", alhtough not directly. Trails in the Sky is not a unique game in either of these aspects. Dual-natured systems have been witnessed in other games, and spell-equipping systems are relatively common. In most systems though spells are equipped direclty, whereas in Trails the player equips enhancements that define which spells become available. Fortunately the game has a built-in list of spells that shows their requirements so the player does not have to try out different combinations blindly.
Trails in the Sky is an interesting game. Much of its appeal comes from its story or, perhaps more accurately, its storytelling. The way the game handles characters is what brings it to life. All in all, the story is surprisingly relatable for a fantasy RPG. Although charming, it is not a game to obsess over. A few hours at a time was the most I could play it. While the combat system is interesting by design, random encounters do get quite old quite fast because there is not that much to gain from battles. All resource gain happens kind of in the background, so the player does not at any point really feel they are gaining anything special out of the battles. They are just gaining resources of many variaties but that is all. It's just point points points. Likewise equipment in the game largely suffers from the stat boost syndrome (i.e., a better sword is just that - more stats).
Recommended for anyone who plays JRPGs for their stories. I just hope we will one day see parts two and three of this trilogy in English.