Coming from Nihon Falcom, The Legend of Heroes has always embraced the traditional formula that embodies a classic JRPG. While the series has never quite reached the heights of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, it's still cultivated a passionate fanbase in Japan, and even managed to carve out a niche in western markets. It's seen many stories and casts of characters come and go over the years. However, it's always stuck close to its group of young heroes as they face more significant challenges, grow in strength, and mature. This approach is especially evident in the current sub-series Trails of Cold Steel--a fantasy story of warring empires where military schools train the next band of warriors to defend their land.
With the upcoming western release of Trails of Cold Steel 3, recently delayed to October 22, GameSpot sat down with Nihon Falcom president Toshihiro Kondo to reflect on the growth of the series. At the time of this interview, Trails of Cold Steel 4 has since been out in Japan, marking the end of this particular sub-series, which raises some theories about where the series could go next. Along with an update on the progress of the western release of Trails of Cold Steel 3, he discussed what's coming next for The Legend of Heroes franchise, and how the series could grow from here.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
Looking back on the Legends of Heroes series, can you talk about how the Trails of Cold Steel sub-series fits into it, and what it really brings to the larger franchise?
Toshihiro Kondo: The Legend of Heroes as a whole is a much larger series. When I first joined Falcom, they had just finished Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch in 1994, and they continued work on the following games thereafter--A Tear of Vermillion and a Song of the Ocean. This was part of a sub-series called the Gagharv Trilogy. Eventually, we moved onto a new sub-series called Trails of the Sky, which was technically at that point The Legend of Heroes VI.
In Trails of the Sky, it starts very simply. There's a boy and a girl, they're in the village in the middle of nowhere, and their tale begins taking them from place to place to finally make it to the capital. They get involved in this big plot that's happening with their country and then things continue on from there. It was a traditional RPG about going on this adventure and having the characters grow and evolve. With Trails of Cold Steel, I guess you can say it's even more about the idea of youths forming bonds together, how they form links and grow up together. You could definitely call Trails of Cold Steel much more of a modern RPG than some of the games that came before.
Though Trails of Cold Steel features a lot of modern elements from other JRPG titles like Persona or Shin Megami Tensei, it still shows its roots in more traditional games of the genre. Do you feel that there's a void in the market that needs to be filled?
It's not so much a conscious desire to fill a void that may exist but it has more to do with just how the mindset from which these games are developed. To me, the story is the most important thing when it comes to the series. The Trails of Cold Steel series takes place in what's called the Erebonian Empire. From a story perspective, we found it necessary to explain what the empire is and how its inhabitants are, while also exploring the political systems they have. The story is what informs everything else about these series, it was very important to just go into depth--which is how the game ended up being more linear, more story-focused than some other kind of JRPG that's coming out nowadays.
There are also practical development aspects as well. Since we are a smaller studio, we don't have the resources to create so many assets or craft an open-world game. I will say that no matter how big the studio gets, we'd still focus on story-driven games designed in our particular way. One of the cool things that happen because of this is that while we're focusing on the story, we can eventually lead up to new events that will open the game a bit more. When you're in the final arc, you're able to explore more freely and take on the new activities when you want.
I definitely see a lot of influences from the Persona series, in terms of structure and design.
It's interesting you bring up Persona. When you really want to focus on telling this story, the order in which things have to be seen becomes really important, which necessitates how the game is getting developed. I occasionally talk with Katsura Hashino, who is the director of Persona 5, and he said both of us have the awareness that we're making an old style of game. But we're also very happy to be doing it because this is the kind of game we want to make.
Interestingly enough, there was a time when we wanted to make the Trails series as an action game, but it just didn't work out and so we reverted to a turn-based system. If you take a look at the history of Japanese games that fall under that umbrella, you'll notice that there was a time period when everybody was trying to make action-focused games and then many of them reverted to command, turn-based.
Since this is the third game in the sub-series, was it a challenge to make this game an effective point to jump into the series?
Well, when you do have a long-running series like this it's important to catch people up. You're absolutely right, it can be a challenge to get people up to speed. So, we have a very, very well thought out backstory which explains the events from the previous games in the series. As you can see, character profiles, world introduction, all of these things are there. You're able to read all about them and the world that they have in the other games. This is the first thing you can do to catch yourself up with the previous games.
So the fourth and final Trails of Cold Steel game is already out in Japan. However, the western release of the Cold Steel series is still a bit behind. Can you talk a bit about the process for localizing these games? I imagine it must be very time-consuming.
Well, as creators, we would love for everybody to be able to play the game as soon as possible but the reality is, because these [games] are so story focused, we're actually still fiddling with the text up until the very end, and we won't let localization partners work on it until it's complete. These games are known for their very luminous stories and we just take a long time to translate. This one, for example, has 2.4 million Japanese characters and it really just takes time.
Do you feel that there's still more to explore the setting of the game within the larger Legend of Heroes saga?
Well, regarding the future of the series, Trails of Cold Steel IV ended the Cold Steel sub-series. However, I revealed some time ago before this interview the full world map for this particular world. It turns out that the whole eastern half is pretty much still in shadows. We've hinted at this in places in Trails of the Sky, and so going forward we're going to be exploring that area of the world and its mysteries. It will be different characters and a new story, but it will still be a Legend of Heroes game. Looking at the larger story, I would say that it's about 60% complete. There's still much to be done, and I definitely would like to finish the story of this world while we still have the strength to do it.
The Legend of Heroes series has been active for some time. Can you talk about what still resonates with you most about this series?
For me personally, I joined this company because I love the Legends of Heroes series, and I see the Trails series within that as the true successor to what that was trying to do, even back in its original form. It's not an exaggeration to say that this is kind of my life's work. The Trails series has so many different characters in it and being able to tell all their stories is very gratifying for me. It means quite a lot to me.