When Nihon Falcom reinvented their long-running Legend of Heroes franchise in 2004 as Trails in the Sky, the JRPG genre as a whole was in quite a different place than it was in 2011, when Xseed Games would localize the PSP version of Trails’ first installment.
The genre was in the twilight of a renaissance that rode the wave of Final Fantasy VII’s frothing popularity to a glut of unforgettable titles that one would be hard pressed to have experienced comprehensively even today. Grandia had just barely jumped the shark with Grandia Xtreme, and although Final Fantasy had at that point taken its first steps into MMORPG waters and otherwise was coming fresh off the poorly received Final Fantasy X-2, was still a couple years away from truly shedding any semblance of its identity. Had things played out differently, it’s entirely possible that Trails in the Sky could have been the last truly great JRPG.
Instead, the series kept going strong, initially just on PC, until PSP ports would open the doors for western localization. In 2011, Xseed Games released Trails in the Sky in English for the first time, into a very different JRPG landscape. Final Fantasy was in the midst of an identity crisis that persists to this day. Classical JRPGs like Trails were largely relegated to handhelds while consoles were all but reserved for overproduced action fare. Trails’ arrival, albeit on handheld itself, did quite a lot to galvanize change and push JRPGs back to prominence.
The series proved an overwhelming success for Nihon Falcom, which for the first time, started to adjust its corporate strategy to account for sales in North America and Europe, and for Xseed, which found for itself a flagship franchise in The Legend of Heroes. What followed was the localization of the PC version, the localization of Trails in the Sky SC to both PC and PSP with the help of fan favorite PC localization duo Carpe Fulgur, and the ahead-of-schedule PS3/Vita localization of Trails of Cold Steel I and II at Falcom’s behest… The belated momentum in the west now continues with the arrival of the awkwardly-titled but brilliant Trails in the Sky the 3rd.
What Is It?
That begs the question: Why “the 3rd” rather than “TC”, or Third Chapter? The simple answer is that Trails in the Sky and Trails SC form a singular story arc, while the 3rd is more of a bridge between that arc and the broader Trails world to follow – Trails of Cold Steel, as well as the yet-unannounced-for-localization Trails to Zero and Trails of Azure. With that having been said, it does rely very heavily on the first two games for context. The 3rd is the exact opposite of a jumping-on point for prospective fans: only veteran Bracers need apply.
The 3rd starts off six months after the events at Liber Ark that concluded SC. Father Kevin Graham, a relic hunter/travelling priest of the Septian Church, returns from a mission to retrieve a powerful artifact from an Erebonian arms dealer only to find himself ordered immediately to Grancel Cathedral in Liberl to secure another. In the process, he is put in charge of a new squire (and his childhood friend), Sister Ries Argent, shortly before events transport him, Ries, and eventually just about everyone involved in the Liber Ark incident six months ago to the extradimensional realm of Phantasma.
Why Should I Care?
While games like Trails in the Sky the 3rd are occasionally attempted, they tend to fall into one pitfall or another on their way through the development process, botching the gameplay, as one example, or coming to the table with a story tantamount to bad fanfiction. (Final Fantasy IV: The After Years comes to mind.) In contrast, the 3rd manages to sustain and even build upon the strengths of its predecessors, putting on display the growth of both the development team at Nihon Falcom and the localization team at Xseed Games. Though the narrative this time is not at all what the first two games may have gotten you accustomed to from Trails in the Sky, the quality hasn’t deteriorated in the slightest.
The battle system has also evolved in kind, adding item drops, the ability to snap an enemy out of battle for a couple of turns, and even deathblows to the CTB display. Trails in the Sky has always used this system to give you an incentive to game the turn order by casting arts or performing order-breaking S-crafts at times you otherwise wouldn’t, but with deathblows in particular on the menu, the stakes are a lot higher to deny the enemy a key turn here and there. Enemy resistances and weaknesses have also been expanded beyond the classical elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and Wind to include what the game calls the “higher elements” of Time, Space, and Mirage. Considering there have been arts under these elements from the beginning, this move is certainly overdue, and like all things in Trails, the change is given purpose in the lore as well.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Yes, Trails in the Sky the 3rd has a very limited audience by assuming knowledge of its predecessors as a starting point, but to hold that as a genuine mark against it is to suggest games of its kind shouldn’t be made, which couldn’t be further from the truth. (Furthermore, if you haven’t played the first two yet, what’s stopping you? They’re amazing.) The 3rd gives its audience credit and delivers a fine reward for longtime fans, reasserting Nihon Falcom’s place as the contemporary masters of the genre. If you’ve played the previous games, don’t hesitate to get in on this adventure. If you haven’t, it’s certainly worth working your way toward.