What comes to mind when you think of a good RPG series? Often times people will say Final Fantasy, Dark Souls, Skyrim, and Witcher 3. Others will say Pokemon, Fire Emblem, Xenoblade, or Tales. But very few will mention the Trails series, otherwise known as the Kiseki series in Japan.
The Trails series is actually a larger part of The Legend of Heroes franchise, which has been around for a long time. There are 5 other Legend of Heroes series just like Trails, but we will be focusing on just the Trails series, which is the 6th installment.
It is by far the best RPG series pound for pound in existence; very few games can rival the quality of this series such as Witcher 3 and the Xenoblade series. So why doesn’t anyone know about it outside of Japan? The biggest problem that stands in the way of the Trails series is localization.
Trails games have the largest script size of any video game series, which means they come over that much later when localized. For frame of reference, Trails in the Sky came out on PC in 2004 and PSP in 2006, but it was localized in 2011. Its sequel was localized 3 years later. The script size isn’t the sole reason for the discreprancy between Japanese and Western release dates, but it makes quality testing, debugging, and programming much more time consuming.
Long localization times mean that the game will feel dated to Western players by the time it reaches them. Couple that being in the unpopular JRPG genre, and it’s no wonder why Trails is under the radar in the West. Even in Japan, Falcom’s decisions to make most of their games on PC backfired. At the time, console gaming was more popular than PC gaming, the reverse of today’s trend.
As a result, console RPGs received more attention which was further amplified by the heated console wars between Nintendo, Sony, and Sega. What’s more unfortunate for Falcom was the decline of the JRPG genre, which earned a stigma in the West, therefore striking the global market off their list of considerations. So even by the time Trails in the Sky came out, it was already too late for them to capture a widespread audience.
If you go back in time and change a few things like platform choice, localization, and maybe going 3D, then Trails would have the popularity it deserves today. If Trails was as well known as Final Fantasy or Witcher 3, it would have dramatically changed the landscape of the JRPG genre.
But enough about that… So what makes the Trails series so worthy of praise? When you pick up an RPG, you’re probably doing it for its story and characters. The battle system is secondary to you but of course you still want that to be fun. The Trails series does all of the above and more, to the greatest extent.
The best way I can describe the Trails series is that it’s an RPG made for RPG fans. You have some of the best worldbuilding of any fictional work, profound story and characters, massive amounts of content, and an ingenius battle system. It does everything you want an RPG to do, and more.
It’s easy to create a fictional world but difficult to create one that has a coherent geography, ecology, history, and politics. It is essential to telling a story because it’s the setting, the driving force of the plot, and the groundwork for character motives. But worldbuilding can also destroy the storyline if it’s bad.
Let’s take a look at Final Fantasy XIII and its world of Cocoon, a floating planetoid-shaped continent floating above Gran Pulse, a wilderness of monsters. While on Cocoon, your fugitive characters are constantly on the run from the entire human race. You never have time to take in the sights and in fact, you barely get to explore any of the wondrous cities in the game. Outside of deities and the military, you know nothing about its citizens, cities, politics, economy, or what life is like for the average person. You have no reason to care about its world.
Which I guess is the point because your characters are fugitives who plan on destroying it. Except that halfway through, your characters don’t want to do that anymore but Cocoon almost gets destroyed anyway. In the end, Cocoon is saved but to what end? The players have no way to care about Cocoon even if they wanted to, so why does it matter? Its safety has no emotional impact on the player.
By the way, you can read much about XIII’s lore and background in the game’s database. But that’s not the same as storytelling or worldbuilding. Reading about something is not the same as experiencing it. The game can have amazing characters and look as pretty as it wants, but with such awful worldbuilding its story becomes the least memorable thing about it.
Now let’s talk about Trails, which takes place on the continent of Zemuria. The Trails in the Sky trilogy takes place in the Kingdom of Liberl. Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki take place in Crossbell State, and are thus known as the Crossbell duology. Trails of Cold Steel 1 & 2 takes place in the Erebonian Empire. All of these regions are within the Zemurian continent, each with their own culture, people, ideas, economy, and politics. And there are many more countries on this continent that play a role in the Trails series, we just don’t travel there- yet.
They sign treaties, trade with each other, and go to war just like real world nations. The relationship between these regions affects the overarching events of what happens within their borders, and thus become the driving forces of their respective games.
In Sky, you have an extremist who doesn’t believe the current seat of authority has what it takes to protect Liberl. In Erebonia, you have a country built on the annexation of many other states in an expansion for power so that it can compete against its long-standing rival, the Calvard Republic. With the way Trails does its worldbuilding, you can see that everyone has a motivation behind their actions. You can see why the story unfolds the way it does. And you can also see how they intersect and affect each other.
But Trails is not simply a bunch of countries vying for resources or superiority. There are so many forces and organizations in play that make the story even more interesting. You have the Bracer Guild, a politically neutral organization whose purpose is to maintain peace and protect people. They don’t alway get along with the military, but they are loved by the people for solving their everyday problems.
On the other hand, you have the Jaeger Corps, mercenaries for hire. They are often employed by corrupt officials and evil organizations to carry out their dirty work. They operate outside the boundaries of laws and do whatever it takes to get the job done. There are different Jaeger Corps in the Trails Series, such as the Zephyr and Red Constellation, who have a bad history together. The Jaeger Corps and Bracer Guild are not necessarily rivals, but their line of work and ideals are often in opposition.
You also have Septian Churches established all over the continent in dedication of the Sky Goddess Aidios, otherwise known as “She who dwells above.” Ordinarily, these churches are insignificant to the main storyline. But in Arteria, the High Seat of the Septian Church, there is an operation of Holy Knights known as the Gralsritter. They operate with the utmost secrecy and are therefore unknown to the public. Their goal is to recover artifacts and ensure they are kept away from human hands. They have other important missions but they are a central focus of the Trails series, so there is not much we know about their Holy Knight operations.
Also operating in secrecy is an evil society known as Ouroboros. They are the ultimate masterminds in each of the Trails games. Their intentions, members, and powers are all shrouded in mystery. Often times, their plans revolve around obtaining artifacts and manipulating influential figures to carry out their grand schemes.
The amount of detail that goes into their worldbuilding goes down to even the microscopic levels. Each city and town has its own economy, culture, and people. The main reason for Trails’ large text is because almost every NPC in the game is a named character with their own story. You have a couple traveling the world together, a hopeless romantic and his best friend, and family members living in different cities wondering about each other.
These aren’t your average generic NPCs that exist to fill up a town and make it feel alive. These are actual characters with their own stories with different dialogue lines throughout the entire game. What you get in the end is a living, breathing, organic world. It’s something you can appreciate while traveling, something you can fall in love with, and ultimately something you want to protect.
Even with amazing world building, the writers can still drop the ball on the story and characters. In Sword Art Online, the worldwide hit MMORPG anime, you have a wonderful fantasy land and an intriguing UI for players to use. Couple that with top notch animation and attractive character designs and you have a great-looking anime. Unfortunately, that’s all it is.
The show is basically being run by a Gary and Mary Stu, two leading protagonists who are perfect in every way and get what they want in the end. It’s painful and annoying to watch. The show does a great job of catching your interest but an equally good job on ruining it. SAO’s worldbuilding has great potential but it’s ultimately wasted on poor writing and terrible characters.
On the other hand, Trails does an exceptional job with their story and characters. Their storylines have actually good plot twists and their games know how to wrap up and ending better than a Chipotle burrito. Their characters have deep histories and well-written development.
Writing a good plot twist can be difficult, because it needs to have the element of surprise, impact the storyline, and make sense all at the same time. The story has to lead up to that point without giving it away. In other words, the foreshadowing needs to be just enough so that players guess something will happen but not too much so that they don’t know exactly what WILL happen. This is something Trails has done every single time.
Secondly, plot twists will change the tone or pace of the game, for better or for worse. Often times, writers just have this amazing twist in their mind but they don’t know what to do afterwards. So what you get is a sloppy ending that makes no sense.
This is a problem Trails does not suffer because you can tell that they meticulously plan out their writing from beginning to end. Their plot twists properly accomodate for everything affected so there are no plot holes or inconsistencies. And because their storylines occur over several games, their endings wrap up the current arc but end with a cliffhanger to start the next arc.
Trails does an equally amazing job with their characters. Good characters are always memorable and it just so happens that nearly all of the Trails characters are memorable. They go beyond your typical archetype because of good writing, original histories, and meaningful development.
When delving into a character’s past, Trails goes deep. You see their upbringing, what happened to each of the characters, and how those events shaped the person you see today. These flashbacks are brief and happen at the crux of a character’s development. What you get in the end is a development that flows nicely, ties in with the story, and helps you appreciate the character more.
Speaking of development, Trails has some of the most meaningful character development in the genre. Each of these characters feel very human because they have relateable flaws, flaws that they know they have difficulty coping with. And by adventuring with companions, they are able to own up to their mistakes and make amends, which pushes their characters towards completion.
For example, there are a pair of characters who dislike each other because of their personalities and social standing. They are unable to work in a team and as a result, a mutual friend of theirs gets hurt. They are forced to realize that they are the problem and begin working together. They still get on each other’s nerves, but now they are more like squabbling rivals rather than two people who hate each other’s guts.
Moreover, each of them have their own realizations as individuals. The noble realizes that he shouldn’t try to do everything alone. There are times when it is okay to rely on other’s strengths. The commoner realizes he’s too hotheaded and that he needs to be more open-minded. It’s endearing, it’s charming, and it’s entertaining. This is the kind of character writing you will come across in the Trails series.
At the end of the day, video games are video games. It can have a great story but if the gameplay doesn’t attract the player, then they might drop the game before finishing the story. So sometimes, players are forced to play a bad game to finish a story or go through a bad story that has good gameplay. With Trails, the quality of their story and characters can also be seen in the gameplay so you get the best of both worlds.
The Trails series is one of the most satisfying strategic turn-based RPGs in the genre. It’s simple enough for newcomers to understand without referring to a guide but complex enough for hardcore players to have fun with. Basically, your characters battle on a field and perform regular attacks, special attacks, or cast spells. And naturally, there are other commands such as defending, using items, or running away. But there is much more to this.
First of all, positioning. Each character has a movement stat which determines how far they can travel on the field. This is important for weapon users who need to be close to the enemy to attack. During battles, you and your enemies will be all over the battlefield attacking each other, and this is where position comes to play. In this game, spells and special attacks have an area of effect that allows them to hit more than one target. For example, a linear AoE or a circular AoE. This also applies to buffs so if your characters aren’t close enough together, some of them may miss out on beneficial effects.
Secondly, Trails’ turn-based combat has an additional factor called Delay. In most turn-based RPGs, turns are determined solely by the speed stat. In Trails, it’s based on both speed and delay. Delay is the amount of “lag” of each action, and this “lag” determines when the character’s next turn will be. For example, when unleashing a powerful spell or attack, the delay may allow the enemy to take an extra turn before your character can act again. This kind of balancing allows different levels of attacks and spells to become relevant throughout the entire game.
Third, we have spells which are known as Arts in the Trails series. These spells can be offensive or supportive. Supportive spells can buff your characters or debuff the enemy, depending on their immunities. Offensive spells are separated into different tiers of spells. Stronger spells have higher costs and more delay, but they deal more damage and often have an area of effect. Certain offensive spells also have a chance to inflict a status ailment such as freeze or burn.
Fourth, we have Crafts which are the special attacks of the Trails series. These are character-specific skills that can have any number of effects. They can deal extra damage, have an area of effect, provide a buff, inflict debuffs on enemies, heal HP, and more. They consume a resource called CP, which can only be accumulated during battles (with some exceptions).
Fifth, we have Status Ailments. Yes they exist in every RPG but Trails’ status ailments play a larger role in the outcome of battles than any other RPGs. Defensive buffs are significant enough to prevent character deaths and save you from wasting a turn on healing HP. And ailments such as Petrify or Freeze can completely turn the tide.
On top of that, Trails has a plethora of unique ailments unseen in other RPGs. AT Delay pushes back a character’s turn. Faint prevents a character from taking a turn, and any attacks that land on them will result in a Critical. Vanish temporarily removes a character from the field. The complexity of ailments adds more layers of strategy that must be considered when battling in a Trails game.
And finally, we have Orbments, yet another defining part of the Trails system. Every character has an Orbment with several slots. Players choose what elemental Quartz goes in each slot. Quartz will affect both the character’s stats and what spells they can use. For example, an Attack Quartz (Red) will increase a character’s physical damage and give them access to Fire Bolt.
Orbments work differently depending on which Trails game you play, but universally you get to choose what Quartz goes into each slot. Because of this freedom, there is a high degree of customization in outfitting your party members. You can shape characters into different roles to suit your needs.
These are the defining components that make up the Trails system. Each of these adds a layer of depth and strategy to the battle system. In most turn-based games, you’re essentially managing damage and healing. But in Trails, you’re doing so much more than that. Its sophistication allows the satisfying experience of finding multiple solutions to the same problem and playing however you want.
A battle system can have the most interesting concepts and mechanics but it’s useless without an array of enemies that take full advantage of it. In Trails, you have many different kinds of enemies that require different strategies to take down. You have enemies with high evasion or high defense, so you need to use spells to take them down. Then there are enemies who are immune or even reflect spells, so they need to be handled physically. There are enemies who explode upon KO, so you have to take them out from a distance. These are just few of the many types of enemies that you will run into in the Trails series.
You can get by on brute force, but you’ll be using more healing items and spells along the way. If you play with strategy, your battles will be more efficient and satisfying. That’s the beauty of the Trails’ battle systems. There is no single way to win a battle. There are no useless characters that get outshined by the rest of the cast (okay… I can think of one poor girl). The battle system is your playground.
When people talk about amazing video game music they often refer to Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, and Mega Man. But the Trails series is a real contender and personally, I enjoy their music more than any other video game series (except Zelda). You have really catchy battle tunes, perfect ambient music for dungeons, and the music for cutscenes are spot-on. Most soundtracks are 50% recognizable, but Trails music is so good, I remember 80-90% of their tracks.
Like I said before, Trails is an RPG for RPG fans. RPG fans love a game they can sit down and play for endless amounts of hours. They love having a ton of sidequests to do as long as they are fun and interesting. They enjoy exploring every nook and cranny of fields and dungeons for hidden treasure chests. Trails caters to all of this and more.
This holds especially true for their storylines. As mentioned before, the Trails series span several games to tell the complete story. Their story isn’t dragged on or inflated for the sake of having multiple games. The scale of the stories are so grand and epic, that each arc needs to be told on its own. When playing the sequel, I want to find out badly how the story ends and what happens to the characters I’ve grown attached to. I don’t feel like the series is being milked or that they are just reusing assets to cut costs of making a new game.
I’ve always found it difficult to explain to someone else why Trails is so good. It’s easy to say “This RPG has good stories and characters and it’s fun to play” but that’s not enough to convince someone to pick it up and play it. This is a series that cannot be summed up with a few tag lines in a 30 second commercial. I wish I could hold a lecture at a campus to describe the Trails series to RPG fans.
Also, the Trails series comes in so many different flavors but they’re universally amazing. So it’s not just one game or a duology I am trying to sell to people, it’s the entire series. I find myself saying to people “Just give it a try, you won’t regret it” and then typing in all caps to emphasize my desperate excitement. But I think in writing this essay, I’ve done a good job making it stand out from other RPGs.