The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky marks the first game in this strategy role-playing series to see a stateside release. Plenty of tactical elements keep combat interesting and often challenge you to outmaneuver foes in unique ways, while a high difficulty level encourages you to stay one step ahead of your opponents. Though the gameplay of Trails in the Sky is rewarding, it's the twisting plot of love and deceit that really draws you in.
The enthralling story launches one strange mystery after another, hooking you with rich characters and a romantic subplot. The game opens in the small town of Rolent in the kingdom of Liberl, where a hero's young daughter, Estelle, and her orphaned friend, Joshua, have just completed training to become bracers--civil servants that fight for the good of the people. When Estelle's father, an experienced bracer himself, suddenly disappears, the duo sets out on a quest to find him, unmasking a national conspiracy in the process. The dialogue is a little heavy, but memorable characters keep it lively with amusing banter; you meet a flirtatious bard, a dominatrix gypsy, and a spiky-haired kid with an attitude problem as big as his giant sword, as well as an interesting supportive cast with rich backstories. Estelle and Joshua are fairly complex as they hide their feelings--and true involvement in this political fiasco--from each other while a charming love story unfolds. There is more to this plot than meets the eye, and what begins as a simple quest to save Estelle's father grows into a tale of destiny.
Interesting bracer missions enrich exploration, which makes investigating the game's simple mazes much more fulfilling. Each town has its own unique scenario that advances the story, creatively blending plot elements with dungeons. In one job, you escort a clueless photographer through a monster-infested tower so she can snap the perfect photo; another has you staging an undercover rescue operation in a heavily guarded villa. You also trigger a decent variety of side quests, including monster-extermination jobs and treasure hunts. Though most of the game's dungeons amount to little more than mazes, their hidden corridors and optional bosses keep them enticing.
The turn-based battle system is a little slow but satisfying, and it frequently surprises you with its strong strategic elements. Battles occur on a large grid that limits your movement field, shifting the tactical focus from surrounding out-of-reach enemies to outmaneuvering--or just outpacing--them. To this end, a turn wheel that features battle bonuses comes into play, randomly granting gifts of health recovery and strength boosts that make all the difference in a close fight. You can monopolize most of these bonuses for your allies by delaying enemy turns, but your opponents don't make it easy because they often cast speed spells upon themselves to snag critical hit bonuses with surprising efficiency. Fortunately, devastating attacks, called S-breaks, give you the edge by interrupting the turn order, which lets you snatch an enemy's bonus right before it's used against you. Another good strategy is to quickly wipe out a foe marked with a turn bonus, which you can do by capitalizing on its elemental weaknesses via magic.
An orbment system lets you strategically fine-tune characters to make up for their shortcomings. Orbments--mechanical devices that enable you to use magic--determine your spell variety, depending on the elemental quartz you pair with them. Inserting water quartz lets you cast heal magic; whereas activating wind quartz unleashes whirlwinds. The strength of these spells will depend on your quartz level, with advanced quartz unlocking your most devastating abilities. While collecting quartz and discovering new magic is fun, you can also take advantage of their stat bonuses and support abilities to strengthen your allies. If you want to increase Estelle's defense, for example, you can use an earth quartz to directly modify her defense stat while granting her access to a protective shield spell during battle.
Good enemy variety and clever bosses should keep you on alert. Monsters wield a diverse skill set that rivals your own, and they're crafty enough to adjust their tactics, depending on your actions. Enemies frequently surround your healers or inflict you with such status ailments as confusion if you get too close, which sends your dazed teammates after your mages. Bosses also cast strong area spells or use inventive tactics, calling for backup or exploding upon death to get the last laugh. Despite these numerous challenges, the game's difficulty remains very player friendly by automatically adjusting itself if you experience problems. This handy tweaking covers everything from standard battles to missions. For example, in one segment, you're required to sneak around a town while avoiding enemy soldiers. The game gradually reduces the number of patrolling guards if you're caught, limiting any potential frustration while still prompting you to think.
Detailed 3D environments highlight the game's charming atmosphere, spanning towering architecture and a lush wilderness that is thick with forests and meadows. Towns feature intricate buildings, cute sign posts, and tiny food stalls that add to the picturesque scenery. The game's short characters look a little strange at first, but their detailed outfits and cute portraits quickly grow on you while boosting their personality. A good soundtrack sets just the right tone, supplying a haunting harmonica melody for romantic scenes and peppy Celtic tunes for exploration. Battle effects look and sound good, with S-breaks and advanced spells adding enough flair to keep you interested, although the minimal voice acting is a disappointment.
Trails in the Sky is a 50-hour epic that boasts plenty of side quests to undertake. There isn't much in the way of bonus content once you finish the adventure, but there is a new game-plus mode that lets you experience it all again after selecting which goods you want to carry over, including money and character levels. You can also unlock both hard and nightmare modes, boosting the difficulty level for an even greater challenge.
Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky features a good strategic focus and a plethora of fierce opponents, but its riveting narrative is where it really shines. The transformation of a simple rescue mission into a vast conspiracy against the throne should put you on the edge of your seat, while Joshua and Estelle's budding romance steals the show. The result is a heartwarming adventure that marks a welcome North American debut for the series.