Regular reader Humza did me a solid a little while back when he linked the inestimably awesome Chris Avellone to one of my rants here, which garnered a positive reaction from Mr. Avellone that my self-esteem still feasts upon to this day. Mr. Humza waved away my offers to thank him through (sort of) material means, instead asking me if I would play one RPG in particular, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, which I will henceforth simply refer to as The Legend of Heroes 6-1, and then rant upon it. I think Humza’s idea was that if I were to call attention to this game in a rant, it might generate some extra interest in the series and a few more sales of the game, which would further encourage XSEED Games to translate the next game in the series for a western release. This plan is ridiculous given that, A, XSEED Games had already confirmed they’d be releasing the next game in the series some time this year by the time Humza made me aware that this series even exists, and more importantly, B, the number of people reading this blog is almost as small as the number of people with a clear conscience who work for Fox News, so it’s not likely that anything I say is going to influence anything. All the same, I owed Humza a debt of great gratitude, so I purchased The Legend of Heroes 6-1, played it, and now I’m here to do a broad, unfocused review of the game. I don’t usually do overall reviews of RPGs (unless they’re so unspeakably awful that I have to attack every single facet of them for my own personal peace of mind), so bear with me--this is going to be long, barely structured, and incorporate several parts that would otherwise have been rants of their own.
So what were my impressions of The Legend of Heroes 6-1? Well, this game and I didn’t get off on the right foot, that’s for sure.
See, you may have picked up on this just from my general way of sorting titles of both rants and the games I play, but when it comes to RPGs, I very much like a neat, orderly classification. And The Legend of Heroes series...pretty much has the most annoying taxonomy in the entire RPG world. The franchise started as a spin-off of a wholly separate series (Dragon Slayer), has mini-sagas within itself (the entry we’re speaking of today, TLoH6, is the first of 3 TLoH titles in the Trails in the Sky sub-series), and had title mismatching like the Final Fantasy series did in the days of the SNES (as in, the third TLoH game was released in the west as the second, because the actual second was never translated, as well as some titles just having their numbers removed altogether once translated). To top all of that off, The Legend of Heroes series sometimes, but not always, counts entire mini-sagas as single entries in its history--today’s subject is the sixth game in the overall series, but the next 2 games, as part of the same trilogy-within-the-larger-series, also count as the sixth entry, with the series only moving onto the number 7 after the trilogy is ended, at its ninth title (thus why I’m calling this The Legend of Heroes 6-1). This is in spite of the fact that earlier in the series there was a trilogy (known as the Gagharv trilogy) in which each title was counted as separate, numbered installments of the overall franchise. It’s all madness!
That said, once I actually turned the game on and started playing it, The Legend of Heroes 6-1 drew me in pretty effectively. I haven’t played a good, classic old JRPG for a while now, having mostly played western RPGs and more modern JRPGs in the past couple years. TLoH6-1 was a comfortable return to a style of RPGs that I hadn’t realized how much I missed: the late Playstation 1, early Playstation 2 era. So much of the style, presentation, and atmosphere of this game reminds me of pleasant times spent with Grandia 1 and 2, Breath of Fire 3 and 4, Arc the Lad 3, and Wild Arms 2 and 3, among several other JRPG classics of the age. That’s not to say that I judge this game good because of this nostalgic atmosphere--I do my best to maintain as much objectivity with judging RPG quality as I possibly can. But I can’t lie that the feel of TLoH6-1 did make me more receptive to the possibility that this was a good game.
And it is! In an occurrence so rare that one might almost call it miraculous, XSEED Games actually picked a good RPG to translate. Last time I personally saw that happen was Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. But there’s no denying it: this is a quality title.
First of all, the plot is quite solid. I wouldn’t say it’s incredible, but it does the job from start to finish. The story is both personal, small, and also grand and overarching, and offers several interesting and pleasantly unexpected developments throughout. The story is paced very well, developing its smaller events into the cogs of a grand quest to save a nation, and doing it effectively enough that even though you recognize the plot strings that will eventually coalesce into a greater purpose, when it finally happens you’re still struck by the gravity of what is occurring. The story never gets so slow that you lose interest, and whenever it picks up, you’re interested and excited to know what happens next.
The development of the game’s world is handled well, too. I’ll grant you that the world of TLoH6-1 is definitely standard RPG fare, but its magical, political, technological, and social details are all explained and utilized frequently as the game goes along, from its start to its finish, in a way that feels natural. There’s no huge lore dump exposition dropped on you at the beginning of the game, or at just 1 or 2 important plot points, like many other RPGs unfortunately do. You learn about the world as you go, its details surfacing when knowing them is relevant, fitting the feel of the story. For example, your first understanding of the emotional weight of the Hundred Days War, which is an integral piece of backstory to the game, is not just hastily told to you in the intro to the game--it’s instead communicated later as Estelle recalls the day her mother died during a battle in their hometown. And it’s not just thrown out there solely so you’ll know about it, though that’s part of the reason. Estelle is reminiscing about it because she’s using that memory as an emotional springboard to make her own point about something, to contextualize a current, relevant situation, feeling, and decision of hers. This piece of lore isn’t brought up just so the player can study it for later--there’s a reason in-game that Estelle is speaking of it; it’s a piece of the past that frames where the future is headed. TLoH6-1 certainly isn’t the only RPG to be able to skillfully handle world development in its narrative like this, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make this any less a quality worthy of praise.
Speaking of storytelling quality, it’s worth noting that the translation XSEED Games has done is very good. Dialogue feels natural, and the phrasing and vocabulary feels very western overall--yet at the same time, there’s plenty about what characters say and how they say it that feels strongly tied to the communication patterns of the game’s country of origins, so it always still feels like the JRPG that it is and should be. Hard to explain, but hopefully you get the basic idea.
Also, I have to give XSEED a thumbs up for the treasure box messages. This is actually a treat that we western gamers get which Japanese players didn’t: basically, the game was programmed with all kinds of different lines of text for when you examine a treasure chest you’ve already emptied, but in the original version, all the text just said the same thing. XSEED, however, decided to make use of this strangely unused text differentiation, and put in a couple dozen different amusing messages that make examining treasure chests you’ve plundered just as fun as actually getting the treasure was, sometimes more so. It’s quite amusing to walk up to a recently looted treasure chest and have it indignantly declare, “YOU again!” or ask me when I plan to return the stuff I borrowed from it. Fun little touches like this, and a photographer during the game’s ending telling his subjects to say “Fuzzy Pickles!”, tell me that the folks at XSEED Games have a genuine enjoyment of RPGs (even if they can’t seem to find many good ones to translate), and enthusiasm for your art counts for a lot with me.
I’ll also note that all the little stuff adds up well in the game, even though none of this junk matters in the slightest as far as how good an RPG TLoH6-1 is. The music is always serviceable, and there are several themes that are pretty darned good. As RPGs go, the gameplay is fine--nothing to write home about, but certainly functional and well designed. I mean, I think it’s boring as hell, but I don’t actually remember the last time I played an RPG where that wasn’t the case, so, y’know, I’m not the best example to go by on that count. The PC port, which I played, works fine and doesn’t seem to have any bugs that I could find, which is always nice--as is the fact that GOG.com offers a PC port of a game developed for a console to begin with. I definitely hope to see that happen more in the future. And lastly, as far as graphics go, they’re...fine, I guess? You can tell what you’re looking at, and that’s all that matters, as far as I’m concerned.
Next, the characters. Overall, TLoH6-1 has a strong showing here, with a memorable, colorful cast that interact well. The important NPCs are reasonably distinctive, and the game never discards any of them, giving the impression that everyone that you meet and everything they’re involved with truly was significant, which is nice. Most of the party members are likable with good personalities and an acceptable level of depth to them. I appreciate that the game actually puts a bisexual man into the main cast, but at the same time, the guy’s kind of a circus act, and his sexuality is laughed off as part of his comic relief weirdness, so it’s a wash.
I do have to say that Agate is a jackass. Yeah, yeah, he’s supposed to be filling that role as the emotionally stunted tough guy whose hostility covers up his concern for others’ welfare, and we’re supposed to look past his thorny exterior to appreciate the good man within. You’ve seen the type before, I’m sure, unless you found this blog by mistake while looking up Rocket-Propelled Grenades. Yeah, well, too fucking bad, Agate’s still an asshole. Fuck that manly-tsundere crap, Agate’s too heavy on the hostility with barely a shred of the decency that’s supposed to balance it out. I don’t care how well he may mean--when a little girl’s grandfather and sole guardian gets kidnapped before her eyes by dangerous armed men, that is NOT THE TIME to slap her, say it’s her fault for trying to help at all, and tell her to man up about it! Hey, Agate, here’s an idea: maybe if you’d let Tita (the kid in question) come along from the start, like she wanted to, her presence wouldn’t have been the unknown factor that threw your strategy off! It ain’t like she can’t pull her own weight--in fact, at that stage in the game, her AoE attack and skills make her much more useful in general combat than Agate! A child has to watch the person she loves most in the world get taken away, never knowing if she’ll see him again, and then Agate hits her, tells her she’s useless, and blames her for the whole thing. To hell with social awkwardness and gruff exteriors as excuses--Agate’s a fucking asswipe.
Sorry, I get a little carried away when it comes to ragging on jerks. Anyway. By and large, the cast is strong and memorable. The protagonist Estelle and her companion Joshua are good, too, though only to a certain extent. I like Joshua just fine, but very little about him is developed, nor is much about him known until the game’s final moments. He’s mostly a foil to Estelle. Which is fine, he fills the role well enough, but it does mean that he doesn’t stand out or compel the audience as much as I think he was supposed to. Estelle’s better, growing a bit over the course of the adventure, and possessing a distinctive and enjoyable personality. I wish we’d gotten a chance to see a few more of the smaller peripheral details of that personality--elaboration of her little quirks, like the interest in sneakers and her fishing hobby*--but overall, Estelle is a decent heroine and an enjoyable character to watch for the 50 hours or so that you spend with her.
The villain’s decent, too. I wish we had seen more of him, given him a little more chance to develop himself, but his overall motivations are strong, and supported very well by the well-developed lore and the constant hero-worship by the game’s characters and nation of Cassius Bright--more on that in a later rant. You can definitely understand where he’s coming from and sympathize to a good extent. He kinda reminds me of Dragon Age 1’s Loghain, actually, though definitely an inferior version. A good cast isn’t complete without an appropriately decent villain, and the antagonist of TLoH6-1 fits the role quite adequately.
I will say, though, that the characters department does suffer in 1 very noticeable way: the love interest angle for Estelle and Joshua is terrible. I don’t want to get into it here in any great detail, though--their romance thing is going to have to be its own rant. Let’s just say for now that this is the worst case of Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome** that I’ve ever seen. I sure hope the next installment of this trilogy can do a better job of selling their romantic love, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.
Speaking of the next installment, let’s finally get to the ending of The Legend of Heroes 6-1. The finale is fast and exciting, and the ending to the game is a perfect stopping point. This first major adventure is concluded, yes, but questions remain, and it’s clear that the heroes have uncovered a far greater threat and mystery which must be investigated. With Joshua’s revelation, which is not unexpected but nonetheless makes an impact on the player, and the foreboding of darker, grander schemes to uncover and thwart, the player is left ready and raring to see the next part of the story. It’s a transition point almost as well-constructed as the ending of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1, combining the satisfaction and closure of a great adventure concluded and a job well done, with the thrill of knowing that it was all only a step toward the true conflict.
And so I am very glad that XSEED Games will soon release the next installment of this story, because with a good plot, a memorable cast, strong storytelling and writing skills, and a conclusion that leaves me hankering for more, I find that I may be on my way to being an avid fan of the Legend of Heroes series. My interest is piqued, at the very least. So thank you, Humza, for having me give The Legend of Heroes 6-1 a try. And as you hoped I would, I now make my recommendation. To anyone looking to play a classic, quality JRPG with a lot of heart, you could do a lot worse than The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Head over to Steam or GOG, or find a hard copy for your PSP, and check it out.
* Actually, on second thought, maybe not exploring Estelle’s interest in fishing was a blessing after all. The last thing I want is ANOTHER major fishing minigame to deal with.
** This is a term that I will detail in a later rant. Basically, it’s going to stand for the disturbingly frequent occasions when RPG characters who are not biologically related but have been raised in the same household for a significant period of their lives and thus are, in mind and spirit, siblings, decide they have the hots for each other.