You really have to hand it to XSEED—more than any other publisher I can think of, they sure like to take risks.
During the PSP's final years, XSEED stood as one of the few companies willing to produce content for a hungry audience of dwindling PSP fans—the few that weren't pirating the hell out of everything, anyway. 2011 brought us the unlikely release of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, a game that rivals Stephen King's It in terms of pure verbosity. If you have any familiarity with localization, you'd know transforming this much text into English is tremendous undertaking, one that most publishers washed their hands of towards the end of the aughts—even with RPGs that weren't so wordy. And with the PSP's RPG-dense library, a relatively obscure series like The Legend of Heroes—despite kicking around since 1989—could easily get lost amid all of the similar-looking games.
Not to be presumptuous, but let's face reality: I didn't play Trails in the Sky on the PSP, and I'm guessing it's very likely you didn't, either. (Though kudos if you did.) But now that XSEED has done the even unlikelier and released this cult RPG on Steam, your excuses are now null and void—if you've grown up with RPGs over the years, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a must-play.
To be honest, I had my doubts. The game came highly recommended from a friend who I mainly associate with Western CRPGs, so I naturally assumed Trails had shaken itself free from the tropes we most expect to see in a Japanese-developed RPG. That, unfortunately, isn't true. Trails contains the same tedious, meandering intro you've seen in countless other RPGs, which slowly introduces you to concepts that could be understood just as easily if you were dropped into the thick of them. (Why more RPGs don't borrow liberally from Final Fantasy VII's in medias res opening is beyond me.) And, typical of XSEED's recent Falcom releases, Trails indulges in its excesses, much like those 32-bit RPGs that came shortly after the limitations of cartridges no longer constrained developers. If something can be said in one line, Trails usually shoots for five or six, and NPCs almost always have something new to tell you after the most minor of events. It's not that this dialogue is badly written; it just feels unnecessary, in that the resources used to craft the dozenth instance of small talk with Shopkeeper D could have been better used elsewhere.
It's a shame this initial dose of mundanity may serve as a roadblock to many players, because when it finally opens up, Trails in the Sky presents a wealth of character customization options, and a fantastic battle system to use them in. While I appreciate the streamlined nature of the enemy encounters featured in RPGs like Persona 4 and Final Fantasy XIII, there's still something to be said about battles that require a lot more decision-making. On the surface, Trails' battle system looks like it could have been the centerpiece of a hypothetical Chrono Trigger 2; it places an emphasis on character location, but, in this case, you're allowed to use a valuable turn to simply move around the battlefield. And since enemies can interrupt your charged spells and abilities with a single attack, keeping your distance can be the key to pulling off powerful moves.
To assist players with their strategizing, every battle in Trails contains a helpful turn meter, which shows the order of actions, and also indicates on which turn a spell or special attack will fall, once initiated. So, if you see an enemy on the verge of unleashing a powerful attack, you'll immediately know how many turns remain before you lose any opportunity to interrupt this action. And there's another wrinkle that adds an extra level of complication to battles: next to the turn meter, random bonuses—ranging from an increase in HP to an increase in post-battle goodies—begin scrolling up from the bottom, and these rewards fall upon any character (including enemies) whose turn aligns with them. Because so many of these rewards can prove vital, battles are as much about working the turn bonuses in your favor as they are about wiping out the enemies in your presence.
Trails' battle system also contains an active element that adds a bit more life to its turn-based flow: After filling up a character's "CP" meter—through taking and giving damage—they can pull off a powerful limit break-style maneuver. But they don't necessarily have to wait until their turn, because as long as this meter remains full, they can perform this action at any time, interrupting enemy turns in the process. If you want to swoop in and grab that critical hit bonus before it's granted to an enemy, you can—at the cost of all your CP. And, if you're ready to deal the final blows to a powerful boss, you can wait for all of your characters to fill their CP meters and unleash these attacks in a powerful chain. Trails' battle system contains a surprising amount of versatility, and a lot of factors to consider, including self-destructing enemies and defenseless NPCs in need of protection. Should the same encounters bore you, Trails also offers an easy way to escape from any battle in order to prevent the mindless button-mashing many RPG battle systems make the player resort to.
Trails' skill system assists in helping you fine-tune these complicated battles, as your characters' abilities, strengths, and weaknesses are entirely up to you. The world of Trails contains a valuable ore called Sepith, which comes in one of seven varieties, and is found as an end-of-battle reward. This resource can be spent to create Quartz, which grants your characters stat boosts and abilities in line with their respective elements. You can also use it to unlock more slots for Quartz placement, or simply trade it in for gold. Whatever your decision, Trails offers many opportunities for experimentation: Swap out that fire Quartz for the water elemental one, and you'll gain a powerful spell, but lose your healing ability. Trails emphasizes adaptability, and your choices outside of battle can be just as important as the ones made when squaring off against powerful opponents.
The reason I'm gushing so much over Trails in this format instead of a standard review? It's a looong haul. Eight hours after starting a new game, and I haven't even cleared the prologue. I'm guessing I could have made more progress, but Trails' quest system—which allows you to pick up challenges at will—offers so much variation and valuable rewards that I couldn't let an NPC-mandated assignment pass me by. If you can get over the extremely dated graphics (the original PC release happened ten years ago), Trails in the Sky contains a ton of content for its budget price, which will inevitably see some Steam sale discounts in the future. And if you pick it up soon, that should give you just enough time to finish it before XSEED launches the sequel in the coming months. Oh yeah, and it'll be coming out for the PSP as well.
Yes, a PSP release in 2014. XSEED truly is the Evel Kneivel of game publishers.