Let’s not mince words: we here at SmashPad absolutely love the Trails series, and we evangelize to just about every single individual we come in contact with about these games. No other series of JRPGs has the quality of characters, world-building and story-telling as Falcom’s decades-long saga, and the fact that they’ve been able to keep up that level of quality for this long is truly a testament to their work.
But for the longest time, the biggest issue for Western fans of the series was that a crucial part of it – those belonging to the Crossbell Arc – were unavailable except through bootlegs. Fortunately, NIS America is now rectifying that issue, with the first official Western release of that particular story arc’s first installment.
What Is It?
The Legend of Heroes: Trails From Zero is the fourth game in the Trails series, originally released for the PSP by Falcom back in 2010 and now given a legitimate Western release in 2022, thanks to NIS America. It is the inaugural installment in the ‘Crossbell Arc’, taking place in the modern-tech city state of Crossbell. In the Trails universe, Crossbell is a city in a precarious position: it is located in between the two major superpowers of the Erebonian Empire – a Prussian-style autocracy – to its west, and the Calvard Republic – a cosmopolitan democracy – to its east, with both nations claiming sovereignty over it. Because of this, the political and socioeconomic situation in the city is precarious, and governmental corruption and organized crime are rampant.
That’s where our protagonist, Lloyd Bannings, comes in. Lloyd is an idealistic young man and recent graduate of the Police Academy, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his deceased older brother. His first post is an odd one; He is immediately assigned to the newly-formed Special Support Section (or SSS) of the Crossbell PD. This newly formed branch is meant to serve two purposes: to have more wiggle room in dealing with the on-the-ground situation than the largely disliked police proper, and to win back support citizens for the PD instead of their main rivals, the Bracer Guild (because as it turns out, when you have Bracers the police are basically useless). His coworkers include Ellie (a rich girl and a damn good shot), Tio (a child prodigy), and Randy (a womanizing former member of Crossbell’s Guardian Force). What starts out as a fairly mundane police procedural quickly spirals into something far more complicated…
Why Should I Care?
Let’s be frank: If you’ve played the Cold Steel games – and believe me, you really should – then you’re probably going to already know how some of this already ends, as a good chunk of the events in both this and the follow-up game Trails to Azure take place con-currently with the events of the first two Cold Steel games. But what these games also do is fill in a lot of very crucial plot points and story arcs that were only referenced (if that) in the former. Things like Crossbell’s political situation, the issue with the organized crimes syndicates, and the widespread corruption are directly addressed in Trails From Zero, as well as introducing characters (such as KeA) that would become major plot points in the Cold Steel games.
That said, when it comes to gameplay, this is very much an old-school Trails experience. Though you are not a Bracer this time around, you still follow the major quest with minor sub-quests formula as they do. Combat is tile based, with movement and attacks limited by character stats. The hero’s party is largely static this time, based around the core four SSS agents, though some guest characters (including a certain bracer and her boyfriend) can be subbed in every so often. Fishing and cooking are also returning past-times. Some of the features many first experienced in Cold Steel, such as being able to attack enemies on the over world to gain an advantage in battle, make their very first appearances in the series here.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Obviously, I could just say “It’s a Trails game, go play it”, and for many that would be enough. But if you were largely introduced to this series through the more recent Cold Steel tetralogy, this might be a bit of a mild shock. This was originally a PSP game, and it looks like one, for better or worse (and if you play on an HD TV like I did, it’s even more obvious). That’s not to say it looks bad…it’s just retro.
There’s also another issue, and that’s the pacing: Again, this was originally a PSP game, and the text and character speed can be a bit of a drag. Fortunately, the game has a ‘speed up’ feature that can make the pacing much faster (especially when you’re grinding for EXP). The only issue is that if you’re not careful, you can accidentally skip over entire dialogues if you rely too much on this feature, so use your discretion.
And speaking of pacing: unlike other games in the series, this one is actually on the shorter side (roughtly 30 to 40 hours). It’s mostly centered around Crossbell (with occasional trips to close villages and ruins). The trade-off with the shorter run time is a tightly written (and mostly self-contained) plot that doesn’t end on an infuriating cliffhanger (still bitter about that one).
But like I said: It’s a Trails game. That’s all the reason in the world to play this (especially with Trails to Azure coming out early next year, so get to playing).