Video Game

A Retrospective on Sora no Kiseki and Trails series

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Word Count
2.7k approx.
The Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki
The Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki 英雄伝説 空の軌跡 by Falcom
Genre
JRPG
Platform
PC
Publisher
Nihon Falcom
Release Date
2004

Image Credit: Screenshots in this post were captured from Sen No Kiseki IV 閃の軌跡 IV(Sen No Kiseki IV) by Nihon Falcom on Playstation 4.

Intro

This post is an attempt to have a retrospective on a video game—Trails in the Sky 空の軌跡(Sora no Kiseki), a JRPG franchise by Nihon Falcom as well as to discuss my early gaming experience. It’s part of my high-school gaming life and I want to document it before it fades. Mainly focus on the story and gameplay of the “Trails”軌跡(Kiseki) series since 2004.

I played the series a long time ago, I don’t remember most of the story but the characters and some fragments of moments I still have memories. With the latest installment of the game Trails in the Dark 黎の軌跡(Kuro no Kiseki) (TC ver.) just came out, I think I probably should write something about it. This post is to talk about the Trails series in general and alongside my gaming experience over the years.

Early Gaming on PC

The Legend of Heroes 英雄伝説, a franchise with long history dating back to ’90s PC era. When I first played the game — The Legend of Heroes III: “White Witch” 英雄伝説III 白き魔女 it was released on PC DOS. As I recall, you’ll have to press “F8” before booting into Windows system and using command line C:\user\ to locate the game’s directory in order to enter the game. I can still remember a single 3.5 inch Floppy Disk with 1.44MB alone can store a game in it. At the time, trade games with classmates were a thing when I was in primary school.

I also played quite a numbers of SNES games, but I gotta admit I didn’t own the console, instead, I use an emulator to run the game on PC. I fell in love with 16-bit pixel art immediately. Most memorable RPGs are Chrono Trigger, Tales of Phantasia and Secret of Mana, to name a few. SNK Neo Geo was also my favorite, 2D fighting games such as Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Garou: Mark of the Wolves were games that I had played for hours everyday after school during my study in secondary school.

Those were the glory days of Japanese games. When The Legend of Heroes V: Song of the Ocean 英雄伝説V(えいゆうでんせつ V) 海の檻歌(うみのおりうた) came out it was one of the games that impressed me most with its 2D graphics and music. If I’m not mistaken it was on Windows XP.

Sora no Kiseki Trilogy

Trails in the Sky 空の軌跡(Sora no Kiseki) Trilogy. I played it in Japanese version on PC for the first time during the summer holiday in around 2004. There weren’t any official releases of the translated version at first. A few years later then I played it again in Tradition Chinese.

Illustration of Sora no Kiseki Characters
— Image Credit: Nihon Falcom, Illustration of Sora no Kiseki Characters

You role play as Estelle Bright 艾絲蒂爾(エステル) 布萊特(ブライト), a novice Bracer who set out on an adventure with her adopted brother Joshua Bright 約書亞(ヨシュア) 布萊特(プライト). They both travel through the country to train and pursue to become a higher rank Bracer at Bracer’s Guild 遊撃士(ブレイサー)協会(ギルド). When you journey through the game, you’re to accept as many side quests as possible along with the main storyline. You can check on the notice board in town or get information by talking to NPCs. And at the end of each chapter, there’s a ranking system that will reward you depending on how many quests you’ve completed and as you fulfilling side objectives there’ll be bonus. Your rank will then level up. Eventually, you might become a legendary Class S Bracer. In my opinion, this is one of the best classic JRPGs back in the day.

What makes the game special was because of the level of attention to detail. Even for such a small budgets game, the developers had outdone themselves to put in a lot of love. Every NPC’s lines of dialogue were delicately crafted. You can hear a story divided in different parts from NPCs throughout the game and you may completely miss it if you’re not paying attention. That’s the reason that had me hooked in. Also, they created a world with a mix of fantasy and “industrial steampunk” vibe. The graphics is a mixture of 2.5D characters using sprites in a 3D environment. The music and visual also unique in their own way. The remarkable OST can be find it on Spotify. One of the iconic music piece Whereabouts of Light 星の在り処(星之所在) it was played by Joshua 約書亞(ヨシュア) in the game using a harmonica. The melodies yet still linger on after all these years.

The old-school JRPG features a turn-based combat system where you have AT points for your actions at each turn and player can move in a grid like battlefield and perform Arts or Crafts. The game has a Tactical Orbment 戦術(戦術)導力器(オーブメント) System for player to customize it by inserting Quartz 結晶迴路(クオーツ) to different slots. Collecting Sepith 七耀石の欠片(セピス) after defeating enemies to combine different Septium 七耀石(セプチウム) for crafting Quartz. This allows players to create different combinations of Orbal Arts 導力(オーバル)魔法(アーツ) or abilities based on its elements.

I made Trails in the Sky 空の軌跡(Sora no Kiseki) as the post title is because it’s the beginning of where I start playing the Trails series. I considered the game part of my top 10 games of the decade list.

Playstation Gaming

I think I had probably missed the PS and PS2 era completely. I did not have my hands on a PC after I graduated. Then I started to work as a so-called designer. I purchased my first and ever console in 2010—the Playstation 3. The machine still remains intact as of today. I bought it solely for playing Final Fantasy XIII. Because of its top notch graphics, music, UI and super cool looking Summons 召喚獣(Shoukanjuu) and I longed to be able to play. And yes, I’m interested in game’s UI! There were many games I bought, but most of them were too “fast food” and I don’t quite remember.

In PS3 era, I played RPG games mostly. Franchises such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Tales were the best-selling Japanese RPGs. But Dragon Quest was not on PS3. I had only played FFXIII trilogy and Tales of Xilla. On the other hand, western RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Dragon‘s Dogma both were great titles and had me playing for hours too. It’s a shame that I missed Dragon Age and Mass Effect completely. Both games were developed by BioWare while they’re very famous for developing dialogue intensive scenes. For JRPG, I was playing in translated version but games like Skyrim and Dragon Age doesn’t have Chinese translation when it was released. Years later, I was trained and learnt how to read. And finally, I can play games without caring what languages they’re in. I was very late to the party when I bought the PS3 console, and I purchased a PS4 on launch day at the same year in 2013.

Amongst many games in the JRPG genre, Trails of Cold Steel 閃の軌跡(Sen No Kiseki) stands out to me. It’s one of the hidden gems. I dare say it’s JRPG at its best. (Note: the English translation of the game‘s title “Cold Steel” isn’t even close to the original meaning. The word (Sen) means “Flash”, literally “Trails of Flash”, conveys as “a flash of light illuminated and slashed through the darkness”.) The Saga continues on consoles after playing Trails in the Sky 空の軌跡(Sora no Kiseki) Trilogy on PC. I’m sorry to tell you that I missed Zero 零の軌跡(Zero no Kiseki) and Azure 碧の軌跡(Ao no Kiseki) since I do not have a PSP. I might consider buying in on Nintendo Switch.

Sen No Kiseki Saga

The Saga is a four-part series where Part I & II was on PS3 while Part III & IV was on PS4. The time I was playing, it gave me chills and nostalgic feelings. I was very hype when it came out and had me invested emotionally in the series, again. Even triple-A titles like Final Fantasy couldn’t give me that amount of excitement.

In terms of graphics, the game was not on par with any other games on PS3 in 2013. The 3D models / rendering is so primitive and the character movement is so stiff like they’re made out of cardboard. The problem is you can’t see any better graphics in comparison to Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster which was released in the same year. Thing is, even it’s a HD Remastered version but its a game way back from 2001. But it’s not the worst. It already was the end of PS3 generation life cycle in late 2013. My guess is Falcom trying to transit themselves to develop a game with real-life scale characters and their game engine / technology couldn’t catch up and suffers. Despite the outdated graphics, what drew me in wasn’t about how it looks, instead, the world building, memorable characters and gameplay are where it excels.

Story & Characters

Like almost any JPRG, the protagonist is always a high school student. Just so happens, it also has to be using a Katana 日本刀(にほんとう) as well. I think that’s not only cliché but a default setting for all games in the same genre, for instance, Persona 4 Golden share a similar setting. I can see Falcom took inspiration from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Type-0 零式 heavily. But it won’t stop you from playing it, amirite?

Illustration of Sen No Kiseki iv Characters
— Illustration of Sen No Kiseki IV Characters, Screenshot from PS4 Sen No Kiseki IV

The story in a nutshell, Rean Schwarzer 黎恩(リィン) 舒華澤(シュバルツァー) is one of the students at Thors Military Academy 托爾茲(トールズ) 軍官學院(士官学院) who is assigned to Class VII, a special class for students to travel across the empire and experience the everyday life as well as the political conflicts between social class. Their adventures go on alongside with Bracers 遊撃士(ブレイサー). Events revolving Class VII and eventually they involved in against a terrorist group of individuals Ouroboros 噬身之蛇(身喰らう蛇). The story unfolds and focuses on how the members of Class VII struggles in such a turbulent world and having hope to forge a new path of their own.

Note: Notice the Japanese text adds extra spacing between words when the annotation gets too long. Which creates “rivers” to the text block and it breaks readability. Not to mention the Japanese text isn’t going to “word-break“ also creates white space at the right (“ragged right“) when viewing on smaller viewport. This is bad typography. It seems to me I do not have a better solution for such a problem.

The members of Class VII are from different social classes. Some of them are from nobility and some are commoners. What intrigues me was they’re having varied background but being in the same class yet their actions and dialogue makes the characters feels real. You get to know each one of them through their day to day training, Bonding Events and “Field Studies”. Falcom told stories in a way that almost like a Anime series, you couldn’t see anything like that in other games. It’s where Cold Steel shines.

Illustration of Sen No Kiseki IV Class VII Members
—Illustration of Sen No Kiseki IV Class VII Members, Screenshot from PS4 Sen No Kiseki IV

As story continues In Part III & IV, Rean 黎恩(リィン) became an instructor and a new Class VII was formed which introduces us to new members. My favorite characters is Juna Crawford 悠娜(ユウナ) 克勞弗德(クロフォード) and Laura S Arseid 勞拉 S(ラウラ S) 亞爾賽德(アルゼイド) who is a former member. Juna 悠娜(ユウナ) is a charming and cheerful character but what I like most is her straightforward attitude. The game also brings a lot of characters from its predecessors: like Sky, Zero and Azure. They’re all assembled to fight the final battle. Which gives fans an exceptional amount of nostalgia feelings.

Falcom is well known for telling a very long-ass story throughout the entire Trails series. To be honest, I don’t think most people who played the games can even have the ability to retell the whole story from start to finish. Apart from our main protagonists, there’re more than a few dozens of supporting characters or NPCs and you keep forgetting who is who. Not to mention they introduces us to a very large amount of terminology: Kiseki Wiki. It’s an RPG and you might have to talk to NPCs and read newspapers or books you can find in the game. That probably could takes hours to digest even for a hard-core player. In my opinion, Falcom wasn’t doing a great job at that for getting those information across to players.

The overall pacing was very slow while the dialogue scene are quite wordy. As you play on, it gets somewhat repetitive in Part III. You’ll have to go through everyday school life just as you already did in Part I. And former members of Class VII will always come to your rescue on time. That’s pretty bad. But I changed my mind immediately after playing Part IV because the character build up and reached the climax at the very end. Interestingly, the gameplay is so engaging that keeps me willing to look for more. As a whole, I think Falcom successfully managed to deliver us a great game experience despite its flaws.

Gameplay & System

The gameplay is following the days of a calendar as you proceed on. This is kind of similar to Persona series but a bit different.

The combat system evolves across the entire four-part Saga. But at its core, all build upon the signature Tactical Orbment 戦術導力器(オーブメント) System of Trails series. I found myself organizing Quartz 結晶迴路(クオーツ) for each character before battle for like 10 minutes. However, I did’t felt it was a chore because that’s part of the fun! They introduce Combat Linking, Break and Brave Order to the combat. Those were very nice addition and makes each battle feels more dynamic.

Player can have control on almost every character and they’re all playable as the story proceeds. You can team up your favorite characters to your liking. But of course, in some scenario you’ll have to make use of everyone of them to beat bosses, and that’s inevitable. The game allows player to customize your character with many options. The freedom that the game offers is like a dream JRPG to me. You can have fun without worrying your favorite characters leaving your party.

Sen No Kiseki IV Character Selection
— Sen No Kiseki IV Character Selection, Screenshot from PS4 Sen No Kiseki IV

The game features a Bonding Points 羈絆(絆ポイント) System for player to “romance” female characters for which you can decide who to spend time with during different events. Aside from that, you also be able to “romance” your Sensei. That’s fan service for being a Otaku if you know what I mean.

Final Thoughts on the Series

Overall, this was a fun and entertaining game series. I bought every Trails game at launch without any hesitation and I enjoyed every moment of it from the beginning till the end. What a journey! I was more than satisfied with the game’s ending after so many hours that I’ve invested in. I highly recommend it to people who likes classic JRPG, especially Persona fans. To newcomers, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the lengthy dialogue and terminology that throws at you. But fear not, you can have so much fun and enjoy the game with no pressure. I don’t think the game is getting the praise or fame that it deserves.

Illustration of Sen No Kiseki IV Characters
— Ending Scene, Illustration of Sen No Kiseki IV Characters, Screenshot from PS4 Sen No Kiseki IV

In short, I love the game. It’ll always have a special place in my heart. This post is to express what this game meant to me. It’s also actually part of my memories when I was a young adult.

All that writing, I’m a bit tired for writing this up. In spite of my limited vocabulary choice, I admit that I am a little bit proud to be able to finish this post. “See you Oneday, Somewhere”. So long.

P.S. I’m now going to enjoy Trails in the Dark 黎の軌跡(Kuro no Kiseki). A few hours in and they’ve revamped the combat a lot. Let’s dig in!