Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: May 3, 2017
ESRB: T for Teen
The wait to finally see Falcom's The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky trilogy in English feels as emotionally charged as the storytelling within them for just about everyone involved. Publisher XSEED took it upon themselves to localize the nightmare level of difficulty role-playing game series despite their beyond massive in-game word counts, and underwhelming overseas sales, out what seems like an intense labor of love for the source material and their fan base. Fans themselves were left with nearly a half decade of indecisiveness about simply getting the second title alone after a rather cruel cliffhanger in the first Trails in the Sky.
So, following-up the localization miracle that was the second entry in 2015, and even the time passing between console generations, it is beyond surreal to see Trails in the Sky: The Third exist in any English form from its ten year old Japanese counterpart. To add just one more blessing to the whole ordeal, which I will attribute to the Goddess Aidios, I am surprised to count it among one of my favorite RPGs this year which already has such fierce competition.
Now, I would not be surprised if Trails in the Sky: The Third is viewed as a sort of black sheep for the franchise. It is quite odd for a game I originally thought would simply be more of the same -- and it's really not... well, mostly. It is complicated.
Recent The Legend of Heroes releases absolutely thrived upon their world-building and character development to the point where they felt like visual novels in how verbose they were about at times. It was not uncommon to go over an hour without facing so much as a single combat encounter; The Third being no exception. They earned it, however, despite it being quite traditional at times, as the interpersonal moments in particular were far and away the best aspects of the whole experience. It was wonderful to see the energetic tomboy lead, Estelle Bright, eventually evolve into easily one of my favorite gaming heroines outright with her powerful development as a character (as well as those around her) through the course of two games.
Except, oddly enough, Trails in the Sky: The Third is not really about Estelle at all. Her narrative arc was actually pretty thoroughly resolved in Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter. Instead the main character mantle has shifted to the green-haired, holy man of the church Kevin Graham, whom had a brief presence in the previous game, and his newcomer assistant Sister Ries that has a bit of history with the questionable 'Father' as well.
Beyond the big shift in main protagonists, Trails in the Sky: The Third is structured quite differently as a game as well. Whereas previous Trails in the Sky titles had an on-the-road sense of adventure, as you traveled pretty much an entire continent on-foot, The Third is technically isolated inside a single massive dungeon known as the Phantasma. There are not really towns, NPCs to prod for new lines of text each story beat, and barely any sidequests. On paper this probably sounds quite off-putting to returning fans in nearly way possible. By the end of it, however, I think it actually makes a strong case when it comes to improving the gameplay of its predecessors while somehow managing to retain the best aspects of them, that being the storytelling, by simply presenting them differently.
Admittedly, Trails in the Sky: The Third can certainly feel like an the entire game built upon fanservice. Many familiar faces are conveniently whisked in Phantasma only to join your party immediately right after (with a few that would be somewhat unconscionable through the course of the main narrative in the prior two games). Of course, I'll take any excuse to see the goofy bard, Olivier, attempt to spout sweet nothings to any lady or gentlemen of the cast he finds attractive once more.
It also conveniently gives the developers quite a few liberties in how to structure the game as well. Phantasma allows players the means to purchase goods/gear, forge Quartz and strengthen Orbament slots (the series' means of magic-like skills) all at various recovery points placed mid-dungeon without much narrative conceit behind it. Most importantly of all, there is an honest-to-goodness fast-travel to warp both in and out dungeon. This is a total game changer as backtracking was far and away my biggest annoyance with earlier releases. It is also structured more linearly because players are constantly moving up in Phantasma at a pretty steady clip, which I think is to it's benefit compared to the stopgap pacing of previous releases.
Alongside the list of conveniences are plenty of recycled assets, however. Most of the in-game mechanics are the exact same as its predecessors: such as the exact same combat and same skill progression. They're fine, but I admit I found myself flipping the switch to easy mode to save time. That said, for me personally, the presentation did feel like a leap forward simply because I moved from playing previous entries on PSP to the PC just for The Third. So the cleaned up HD assets, higher framerate, faster load times, and the likes specific to the PC release did make it feel like a bigger jump than it actually was. Also, I was able to play with an Xbox 360 controller (or rather, a PS2 controller converter) without any hitches either.
I would guess that if one were to focus purely on the main story it is entirely plausible to see Kevin's journey through Phantasma to its conclusion in less than twenty hours. Heck, one may even arguably not need to play previous two games to appreciate it either (although, one really shouldn't.). It takes a while to uncover but Kevin himself serves an intriguing contrast to light-hearted Estelle as he is far more morally ambiguous in nature despite coming off as a friendly enough guy. Turns out, Kevin's been through a lot and his backstory really does not hesitate to delve into some incredibly dark subject matter that is downright fascinating. I adored learning more about his past, as well as seeing both his and sister Reis's development as characters. Despite all of that, though, one would still be missing out on essentially half the game if they did only that for one key reason: Doors.
Throughout Phantasma there are various suspicious doors mid-dungeon with either a Moon, Star, or Sun symbol on them. Each one, most often enough, will only open based on members in your current party composition. If one meets the requirements to open it they are rewarded with either a mini game to play or a lengthy narrative flashback. For fans of the previous two games the latter, that being narrative flashbacks, are an incredibly big deal despite being entirely optional to uncover.
Both Moon and Star doors are basically the main means of extra narrative closure for the huge cast of characters that aren't Kevin or Reis. There are plenty of details about the aftermath of the previous games like the plans for many characters going forward (one of which hugely sets up Trails of Cold Steel), or certain events to predate even the original Trails in the Sky, so having exposure to the previous titles is basically mandatory to get much enjoyment out of them. As much as I liked Kevin's story, I'd say I probably got the most satisfaction in uncovering the various optional narrative scenes. Oh, and I should mention that some of these flashbacks are quite long, with the bigger ones taking nearly two hours to complete. That's why it's quite possible to double a normal playtime in simply trying to see them all -- and they're totally worth it. Certain events behind these doors are among the absolute best interpersonal moments in the entire series. As usual, of course, XSEED's top-notch localization really makes it so these numerous event are all the more satisfying to discover.
I did not know I wanted Trails in the Sky: The Third as much I did prior to playing it. A cursory impression can make it feel like an unnecessary follow-up to the previous title that did not seem to need it at all, and it cutting quite a few corners with recycled assets does not help its initial case either. However, it somehow manages to feel fresh with its entirely revised gameplay structure and distinctly wonderful new lead characters. The excellent overall storytelling, writing, and incredibly meticulous world-building alone does more than right with the best the series has to offer. Falcom and XSEED clearly put plenty love in Trails in the Sky: The Third to make sure the final chapter in the Liberl arc was a delightful one.
+ Wonderful character development with "Father Kevin" being the key standout
+ Entirely revised gameplay structure eliminates most backtracking that plagued the previous two entries and feels more focused because of it
+ Optional Moon/Sun events have excellent interpersonal events that both add much closure, as well as clever setup for would-be sequel, for the series in general
- Thoroughly underwhelming presentation that directly lifts a lot of visual and gameplay assets from the previous game
- One should really have a frame of reference of the previous two games before even considering touching Trails in the Sky: The Third
Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)
There is no doubt in my mind that Trails in the Sky: The Third is a must-play for series veterans and a satisfying conclusion to such a lovingly-crafted trilogy
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PC code provided by the publisher.