The Legend of Heroes: Trails is a massive, sprawling series of deeply interconnected RPGs. Starting all the way back in 2004, it’s seen massive growth and now has a whopping 12 games under its belt. While the series has seen its share of success outside of Japan, one set of games managed to slip through the cracks and remained obscure—until now. The first game in what is referred to as the “Crossbell Duology”, The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero has finally made its way to western shores.
Welcome to Crossbell
Situated between two enormous countries, the City State of Crossbell—now known as “The City of Sin”, is but one of the many culturally rich locales you find across the continent of Zemuria. Crossbell is a melting pot of sorts, where cultures and people of all different shapes and backgrounds come to mingle and enrich each other. Over the past few years of its continued existence, it’s seen major changes thanks to rapid advancements in technology.
All is not as it seems in Crossbell, however. As its nickname implies, the innocent melting pot it presents itself as is but a thin veneer for the seedy, corrupt underbelly that truly defines it. Politicians that are out for their own gain run the city as if it was their own. Ambitious leaders of cults, gangs, and more are out to cause problems for the city’s civilians in pursuit of their own goals. Monsters constantly pose a threat to locals as well. Problems in Crossbell are a dime a dozen, and at the center of it all lies a heinously corrupt police force that has long since abandoned its moral code.
What makes Trails from Zero unique is that the story is less about a particular set of characters, rather, it’s about Crossbell’s inhabitants as a collective. True to the usual Trails mold, there is an utterly ludicrous amount of world detail on offer here. Nearly every single semi-important NPC that you meet is a named character with their own history and life. Throughout the main narrative, these characters will constantly get new dialogue to help advance their own stories to further inform the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life in Crossbell.
This unique approach to the story in Trails from Zero works to wonderful effect. Not only is its worldbuilding some of the most detailed I’ve ever seen in a video game, but it’s also smart. There is a very logical and easy-to-understand throughline that permeates throughout not just Crossbell, but the entirety of Zemuria. Places you’ve never seen before and never visit are referenced regularly, which gives the game a larger-than-life feeling. It’s as if the entire world is still in constant motion while you go about the business of the party characters, which in turn has a ripple effect on the stories that surround them.
Special Support Section, Reporting for Duty
The driving force behind Trails from Zero’s story is the main party, the Special Support Section (‘SSS’ for short). Formed as a last-ditch effort by the police to repair the broken trust of Crossbell’s people, the SSS is made up of a strange blend of characters from different corners of Zemuria. While they’re composed of what appears to be a fairly standard JRPG party on the surface, what’s valuable about each member is the unique perspective they provide on life in Zemuria.
There’s Lloyd, the main character who comes equipped with overwhelming tenacity and keen insight, allowing him to spot connecting threads that most others can’t. There’s also Randy, someone with a mysterious past and inhuman strength who comes with knowledge of warfare and street smarts. Tio is a girl with an equally mysterious past and a bewildering handle on technology in an age where most barely understand what a computer is. Lastly, there’s Elie, who has intimate knowledge of the exact workings of Crossbell’s politics. Each of these characters carry an important weight in the player’s understanding of Zemuria’s inner workings.
Beyond their functions in the story, the SSS is a very compelling cast of characters in an emotional sense, too. It doesn’t take long for a strong sense of camaraderie to shine through them. Each of the main members bounce off each other in a way that’s very natural and charming, and when the more poignant moments hit, they hit hard. What starts as a group of coworkers stumbling to find purpose in their lives eventually evolves into a team that would lay down said lives for each other.
The Many Odd Jobs of the SSS
The main job of the SSS is to fulfill Support Requests, jobs, or help requests posted by civilians and other workers whenever they have troubles. They are essentially this game’s version of side quests, all of which are timed and others are mandatory to move the plot forward. These jobs can range from standard RPG fare like defeating monsters, to more grounded things like helping to return late library books or checking up on house vacancies. While I wouldn’t say these moments are anything particularly special from a gameplay standpoint, they are carried by what are typically engrossing plots. Each Support Request, big or small, is a story in and of itself. Some of these Support Requests can be split into multiple parts, and even at their least involved, they always feel like they’re informing something about Crossbell’s current happenings.
With the completion of each Support Request, you earn Detective Points (DP for short). With more DP, your Detective Rank will rise, unlocking special goodies and opening up certain optional plotlines that you might not see otherwise. Detective Points can also be earned by fulfilling certain requirements in specific boss battles, which will prove vital if you plan on 100% completing the game.
Here’s the thing about Support Requests, though; the game points you in the direction of only some of them. The rest are hidden and require talking with NPCs during specific points in the story to unlock. If you miss your chance to talk with an NPC during that interval, you lose the chance to ever take on that Support Request for the remainder of the playthrough. Miss too many of these hidden requests, and your Detective Rank will fall well below the requisite to access some of the later Support Requests.
While on one end, I do appreciate the game maintaining a sense of continuity during some of these hidden Support Requests, I am equally baffled by them. Throughout many points in my playthrough, the story’s momentum was ground to a screeching halt because I needed to stop and initiate a mostly irrelevant side quest. This wouldn’t be so bad, but monsters, whole explorable areas, and many useful items are locked behind fulfilling these hidden quests. It makes the game an absolute nightmare to 100%, you’ll essentially need a guide open at all times to do such.
Headfirst into Battle
The combat of Trails from Zero is an interesting mix of turn-based combat with elements of strategy games thrown in as well. A typical turn order system helps to define the flow of its combat, but thanks to elements unique to Trails, it manages to stand out. Characters move about wide maps and perform a variety of attacks, buffs, and more that can be further capitalized on by how you choose to strategically place them.
The types of moves you can pull off come in two forms: Arts and Crafts. Arts can range from casting magic of a variety of different elements to casting buffs on your party or debuffs on the enemies. The potency and power of an Art affect casting time, with stronger ones taking a longer time to cast and weaker ones taking less. Arts are also unique from other attacks in that they can be cast no matter where you are on the map. They’re slow and committal, but can be game-changing when applied effectively.
Crafts, on the other hand, take up Craft Points (CP for short), a resource that can be regenerated by taking and receiving damage. Crafts are powerful character-specific skills that don’t have casting times and also take more thoughtful positioning to use effectively. Some Crafts cover a wide area, others will send you hurdling across the map, and others only have a small range. When combined with Arts, Crafts make for a nice and nuanced battle system that constantly encourages new strategies, but that’s not all there is to Crafts.
When a character’s CP hits 100 or 200 points, they’ll gain access to S-Crafts, which are essentially the game’s equivalent to Limit Breaks. You can cast unique buffs, heal and revive party members for full HP, or use extremely powerful attacks with S-Crafts. You can also perform S-Breaks, allowing you to use S-Crafts at any time during a battle, regardless of whether it’s your character’s turn or not. So, for example, if you’re about to be hit with a lethal attack, you can use Elie’s S-Break to get a character back to full HP and tank the attack. While there are multiple S-Crafts, you can only have one S-Break equipped at a time, so understanding which one is the best for a given situation is important.
Overall, I would say the combat is mostly successful at what it sets out to do, but there’s one huge thing holding it back: the Turn Order. Oftentimes in battle, the game will display a random buff that will take place for the actor who moves in a given turn. These buffs can range from guaranteed Critical Hits to healing as much as half of your HP for free. It’s meant to encourage you to use S-Breaks, so you can disrupt the Turn Order in your favor. But these random buffs happen too often for a player to feasibly keep a handle on this. While I do enjoy a degree of luck in JRPGs, the Turn Order system takes it too many steps too far for my liking. Many battles wind up becoming protracted exercises in guesswork because of this.
Oh, Oh, Orbments!
One of the most important aspects of combat is something handled completely off of the battlefield. Orbments are items that come in a variety of different elements that can be equipped to your character in a menu separate from what is used for standard weapons and gear. When equipped, Orbments grant a number of different perks for your characters on top of determining the Arts you can use in battle.
Orbments are extremely vital to how you wind up using a character, and are usually the deciding factor in whether you’ll win a battle or not. Trails from Zero is not a particularly difficult game, even in Nightmare Mode, but some tricky battles require a good build in order to overcome. With the right builds, you can have your character be focused on evasion and counterattacks, to quickly casting buffs for the party, and more. It’s a strong system and adds a layer of progression that is more satisfying than simply leveling up.
Get Over the Language Barrier
With the English version having been more than 10 years in the making, one of my main concerns heading into Trails from Zero was its localization quality. Luckily, a strong effort from the Geofront makes this concern a thing of the past. The overall writing quality is strong and things like terminology seen in future games have been seamlessly blended into the English script. Trails is a series that relies heavily on continuity, so parity like this is important when it comes to trying to understand everything. The Geofront was up to the task, and as a result, the game reads beautifully.
There is one big problem, and that’s in the game’s voice acting. Nearly every single Trails game released in English up to this point has had an English dub, but bafflingly, Zero is an exception to this. Japanese voice acting is your only option, made all the more confusing when these characters are heard speaking English in all of their other appearances. The lack of a dub when knowing that the rest of the series is not like this unfortunately gives the impression that this game was seen as lesser compared to others. It’s my biggest grievance with the game, as elsewhere it is as good as I’d hoped.
Art and Sound
Being a game originally made for the PSP, Trails from Zero is inevitably a simple-looking game. Much like most Falcom games of that era, it uses a mix of pre-rendered sprites and 3D backgrounds. Its visuals prioritize function over form, but I feel it’s elevated thanks to strong art direction for every area and good color usage. No one area is rendered without purpose, and it feels like everything you see helps to tell you just a little bit more about Crossbell.
The main area of the visuals that grate on me are actually in the animations. They don’t look bad, but they are agonizingly slow. Battles and moving about Crossbell can take forever just because of how long it takes to do anything, making the game’s already slow pacing feel just a bit worse. Throughout the broad majority of my journey, my finger was left babysitting the speedup button just to get anywhere in a reasonable timeframe.
Thankfully, things start to pick up when talking about the game’s music, which is amazing across the board. Trails from Zero’s soundtrack mostly expresses the atmosphere in the constantly moving, constantly changing city. It has its share of slow, emotional pieces, but much of the music is a strong blend of industrial and synthetic. Falcom is renowned for their consistently high-quality soundtracks, and Zero is no exception to this rule.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero is yet another solid game in Falcom’s rich legacy of RPGs. Issues like the lack of an English dub, slow game speed, and the strange sidequest system add up and do bring the experience down somewhat. Despite these issues, Trails from Zero is a game that manages to successfully and smartly craft an experience that stands out from its contemporaries.
THE LEGEND OF HEROES: TRAILS FROM ZERO IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Reef Entertainment for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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A hobbyist who took up the pen to write about their favorite pastime: games. While a lover of many genres, Isaiah Parker specializes in Platformers, RPGs, and competitive multiplayer titles. The easiest way into his heart is to have great core gameplay mechanics. Self-proclaimed world’s biggest Sonic fan. Follow him @ZinogreVolt