My current gaming “jam”, as I believe the kids are saying nowadays, is Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, just Trails in the Sky or its immensely entertaining acronym TitS for short. It’s a Vita-compatible PSP game from Falcom, published by Xseed in the States and Ghostlight in the UK, and it was originally available for Windows PCs in Japan, though in the West I believe we’ve only seen the PSP release.
It’s good. Real good. And, like recent RPGs that I’ve had a particular blast with — Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, Pandora’s Tower — it is good due to its willingness to dispense with the conventions of the JRPG genre and to incorporate good ideas from both Western RPGs and the more specialist strategy/tactical RPG subgenre. This exhibits itself in two main ways: its battle system and its game structure.
Battles in Trails in the Sky are a slightly more involved affair than your stereotypical “line up in front of each other and take it in turns to slap one another” JRPG combat system. Instead, battles take place on a grid, and characters have to actually move around as well as use their skills. Certain skills can affect areas, too, meaning that positioning is more than just a gimmick. This system is combined with a mechanic similar to the “Conditional Turn-Based Battle” system seen in Final Fantasy X, whereby the turn order for the next few rounds is displayed at the side of the screen and can be affected by various factors.
The game’s “Craft” special ability system also allows player characters to “jump the queue” in the turn order at times if their “Craft Points” bar is full, allowing the player to manipulate the turn order to their advantage. This is an important aspect to gameplay, as certain turns are marked with symbols that denote various bonuses to the active character — a guaranteed critical hit, increased damage, a small amount of healing.
Structurally, the game is somewhere between a traditional JRPG and a more freeform Western title. The game’s main plot is rigidly linear and leads the party through various locales which then become their “base” for a while. But while they are there, they have the opportunity to take on a bunch of optional quests which range from defeating tough monsters to delivering packages or locating ingredients. They’re generally pretty simple stuff, but each is bookended by a short story sequence for context, giving the player a greater feeling of immersion in the game world by allowing them to get to know some of the incidental characters a bit better. It also makes the game feel less linear, as these optional quests can be tackled in any order — though some will expire if too much progress is made on the main plot before completing them.
There’s another reason to do these quests: they’re one of the few ways to make money. Rather than monsters inexplicably dropping fountains of gold when they expire, they instead drop crystals that can be used to synthesise new special abilities at a special location in towns, or sold for a profit. Questing is a much more reliable source of income, however, as it’s better to save up the crystals for upgrading characters.
Mechanically, then, Trails in the Sky is interesting if not quite “revolutionary” — it’s certainly enjoyable to play. But the highlight for me so far has been the excellent localisation. Characters are well-defined and have a strong sense of personality even though there’s no speech or any real animation. Through a simple combination of well-written text and mood portraits, you get a real feel for who these people are and how they relate to one another. Particular praise should be given to the interplay between the two main protagonists Estelle and Joshua, who have clearly been set up to have a ridiculous amount of sexual tension between them for the duration of the game despite being polar opposites in terms of personality. It’s also surprising to see an openly bisexual character making an appearance, though he is treated somewhat less than respectfully by Estelle, as she refers to him as a “pervert” within minutes of finding out about his preferences. (To be fair to her, though, he kind of is a bit of a pervert, though not because of his sexuality. His stalkerish lusting after Joshua seconds after meeting him for the first time is a bit creepy.)
I’m only about 10 hours in to the game so far but it claims to be about 50 hours in total. That’s a decent size for a handheld RPG — hell, it’s a decent size for an RPG generally. Any more than that and it can become a bit of a slog. I hope the excellent characterisation and fun battles continue throughout, as it’s been a blast so far — so if you have a PSP or Vita and are looking for some top-quality questing, give it a shot.