Third attempt at getting out of the Prologue was successful. The first two tries ended because I got distracted by other games, not because I didn't think the game wasn't good.
Quite the opposite, actually. A long-running RPG series with deep world building and an increasingly convoluted, yet gripping narrative sounds awesome, so it was only a matter of time before I really got into this series. It only took me ...
nearly 6 years after acquiring it in a January 2017 Humble Bundle to beat it.
And I'm glad I did.
STORYTELLING/CHARACTERS | 8/10
The main characters in this game (and the whole 3-game arc) are Estelle and Joshua Bright. At the start of the game, Joshua is brought home by Estelle's father, Cassius Bright, under unknown circumstances, at least as far as Estelle's perspective goes.
The game fast forwards 5 years, where both kids reach 16 years of age and ready themselves for their final exams to join the Bracer Guild, a combat and investigative specialist group that aids civilians in whatever they may need help with. Sometimes that's retrieving a lost item and sometimes it's killing a strong monster that blocks the road to the next city.
Estelle and Joshua's father is one of the strongest and revered members of the Bracer Guild and at the start of the game, receives a concerning message via letter that leads him to leave their home town, Rolent. Estelle and Joshua are left under the guide of their mentor, Sherazard Harvey, and are tasked with completing requests by civilians that are regularly left on the Guild Blackboard. As new bracers, they only receive "Junior Bracer" status until they can collect "recommendations" by all 5 major cities in the kingdom of Liberl, for which they will have to finish tasks of extraordinary difficulty.
As Estelle and Joshua work on these tasks, they slowly start to uncover that something a bit bigger is going on on a national scale that they might not quite be ready for, but eager to prove themselves, they go on a quest to solve these mysteries anyway.
Thus, you embark on a 35-70 hour journey, depending on how much you can engage in side activities, to take on those mentioned large-scale challenges but to also achieve Senior Bracer status. Along the way, they meet dozens of side characters with different, interesting personalities and their own, regional problems that require assistance. Every stop in a major city also leads Estelle and Joshua one step closer to solving the mystery, which turns out to bigger than they thought.
The game, and essentially the entire series, is well-known for taking its time with storytelling. That doesn't mean that the story is riddled with "filler content". Instead, the aim of the developers is to immerse you into this deep world that they've created, 10 years after a major war had occurred in these lands and at a time where tensions between the Kingdom of Liberl and the Erebonian Empire are still pretty high.
So the game takes the approach of really introducing you to all these cities and countries, to all the characters you meet and to technological advancements in this world, like the Orbal technology, on a very deep level, pretty much unlike almost any video games series you've seen.
I can happily say that this is worth it if you stick around, at least as it pertains to the first iteration in this long-lasting series. I'm not gonna lie, there are times where I started to get impatient, and I think this would apply to many players. I'd say this has rather to do with the fact that the game teases you on 46 occasions throughout your time playing time and opens up more and more questions as you go along whilst answering very few, and it does not mean that the dialogue and little stories in this game are not excellent, because they are.
But this game in particular often focuses on small-scale problems and stories, and reduces the big guns to teasing most of the time, which I'm told changes in future games. Heck, I can tell you right now, the ending to this game is fantastic and absolutely worth the pay-off. But just keep in mind that if you can't find joy in the smaller aspects of story telling that this game is filled with, then you might have a hard time sticking with this.
One final note I want to make here is about the characters. Many of them were unique and quirky in their own way and whilst every stereotype is filled here, it helps that the game gives each of these characters plenty of time and lines to really turn into their own. They all do a great job interacting with the two main characters, both of whom are excellently written as well.
One character that is especially intriguing is Olivier. He has had one of the worst introductions I've had the displeasure of experiencing (making constant sexual remarks at two strangers, who, let me remind you, are just 16!) but has redeemed himself on each separate occasion that he appeared. There is a certain mystery and especially unpredictability to him that allows each of his appearances to go in any which direction, and I think that's a good thing to have for a game/series like this.
But if we wanted to talk about the game's sometimes weird sexual outbursts, I think it's also worth mentioning that Sherazard's special attack is called "Sadist Whip", and the game zooms into her chest before she stars whipping the enemy endlessly.
GAMEPLAY | 14/20
This is a turn-based JRPG with combat that takes place on a grid. One thing worth mentioning right off the bat is that the game does not require grinding, I'd say it almost actively discourages it even. This, I think, is extremely important if you create an RPG that is this long and asks you to stay very patient for a long time to get some big main story payoffs. There is also a Turbo Mode you can activate by holding ALT, which I think should be a feature in every turn-based RPG because it allows you to skip some of those Magic Attacks with long animations. You will shave hours and hours off your playtime by using this feature.
The combat overall is OK to solid. Each character icon is displayed on the top left to show you the attack order, and sometimes, certain rows have bonuses to them, for example a critical attack or health regeneration. There are certain things you can do to knock enemy's off their row if you want the Critical Bonus yourself, but this is one of the areas where the combat unfortunately is reliant on RNG a bit. Same goes with what attacks the enemy does, whether the harder enemies spawn a foe or heal themselves are all factors that play out differently if you battle them again and again.
But I'd say that overall, a good strategy is rewarded and you get enough battle-mates throughout the game that you pretty much have to mix things up in that regard as well, which I think is always a plus.
Some characters have Ranged attacks, some are better used for healing, some for tanking damage, so pretty much the usual assortment of fighters. What the game allows you to do however is to add and subtract certain abilities from all characters through a unique feature called "Orbments". These are placed into Orbment slots, devices that basically allow you to cast Magic (Arts). They also can improve basic stats of the character, and you open more and more slots as you go. There are Healing, Attack, Defense, Earth, Experience Gain and pretty much any other orbments that you can think of. You can add and remove them as you like and as I said, customize your battles this way. Pretty good stuff.
MUSIC/SOUND/VOICE | 8/10
The English version released 7 years after the game originally came out and only has voice acting during battles. There are mods out there however that allow you to add in the Japanese voice acting, which is very good.
The soundtrack of this game has a few highlights, like the final dungeon music, and overall fits the mostly light tones of the game very well. There are also your typical sad song, suspense song and confession song that you will hear constantly throughout your playthrough. I'd say it's a good but not great soundtrack.
GRAPHICS/ART DESIGN | 8/10
The game looks solid graphically but really shines in attention to detail. The cities all look unique and interesting, have their own themes and definitely had me excited to go visit them as a Chapter was nearing its end.
Roads outside of cities and dungeons on the other hand almost all looked the same, and not that detailed, but that's not entirely out of the ordinary for mid-2000s JRPGs.
ATMOSPHERE | 9/10
Each city has its own musical and visual theme, each city has its own dozens of own characters with their own stories and problems, their own homes, their own jobs and ambitions and the game constantly connects places to people, people to places and people to other people that you really feel like you're in a world with a proper history.
CONTENT | 8/10
There is a lot of content here, up to 70-80 hours depending on how often you use Turbo Mode, how many optional dialogue options you pursue with random NPCs, how many of the optional tasks you complete and which difficulty you play. It took me about 42 hours after I did all side activities in the first 3 cities and talked to many NPCs over that time. For the final 2 chapters, I mostly mainlined the story. I figured out Turbo Mode about 1/3 of the way through and it definitely sped up my time through the combat which obviously got a bit repetitive against the easier enemies that would run into you on roads. I'd say the majority of the game was of high quality, and whether you enjoy the content will depend on how OK you are with a 50/50 story/gameplay split.
LEVEL/MISSION DESIGN | 8/10
The game is pretty formulaic in that you visit a place, work there until you gain the recommendation you're after and move on to the next. This is not to its detriment but takes away some of the surprise factor of "holy shit, where am I?", especially when many dungeons do look pretty similar.
That said, the game gets a big plus in my book for not requiring you to grind at all and it always offers you enough items and material to face the challenges each Chapter has in store, whichever difficulty you end up playing. The 50/50 story/gameplay split also meshes well here.
CONCEPT/INNOVATION | 6/10
The game does not try to innovate a whole lot. On a surface level, this is run-of-the-mill JRPG design, and that's more than fine for an introduction to the series. It will make it harder for some to get into the series however.
What the game does specialize in is world building and dialogue. It does a great job of having its dialogue actually feel "realistic", at least as far as a video game story goes. Especially Estelle is written in this ditzy, clumsy way that is more endearing than being a typical video-game "comical relief dumby" (looking at you here Dorothy). There are also orbments that allow you to customize your characters and a constant mix of which characters travel with you, which necessitates change in strategy, especially on higher difficulties.
REPLAYABILITY | 3/5
There aren't really many secrets to uncover here apart from somewhat hidden chests, but these do include some great items that allow you to mix up your battle strategies. The secrets are usually in form of "hidden dialogue" by going to an Inn for example, and finding one of your friends having a drink on their own. You can then engage them and have a pretty lengthy, optional conversation with them. This is the kind of stuff that lets me know that the devs really care about building deep characters and worlds.
But the story plays out the same every time and the game is pretty long without enough variety to present replay value if you've already been pretty thorough on your first playthrough.
PLAYABILITY | 5/5
It works well from start to finish.
OVERALL | 78/100
As I reached the final hours of this game, I thought this was a good introductory game that doesn't surprise you much in terms of its narrative than it does with its depth. And I was fine with that. So I thought I'd beat this and return to the series some time before Summer 2023, so about half a year after this review is posted. But those final hours were so intense and exciting way beyond what I was expecting, that I definitely want to get back to this series sooner than later.
20 or so hours of dialogue only and 1.5 million total characters (dialogue) does take its toll though, so I do think it's worth it to keep a few week/month break in between these games. But if you really want to feel engrossed in a world and are a fan of turn-based JRPGs, Trails in the Sky is absolutely worth the recommendation.