In 2004, when niche JRPG developer Nihon Falcom released The Legend of Heroes VI: Trails in the Sky in Japan, they probably had no idea it would go on to become a widely successful, cross-mainstream franchise that would spawn 5 sequels. At least, that is how things happened in Japan.
Whilst western JRPG fans eagerly await the localization of Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter—the concluding chapter in the Liberl duology—Japanese players have been treated to the subsequent PSP Crossbell duology, made up of Trails of Zero and the follow-up, Trails of Blue. And it’s after the conclusion of the Liberl duology that things become truly interesting, as I found out after playing Trails of Zero: Evolution; a high-fidelity, enhanced port (and the definitive version) of Trails of Zero for the PS Vita.
The game is set in and around the hub city of Crossbell; a prosperous economic hub that sits precariously between the Calvard Republic and the Erebonian Empire; both staking a claim to Crossbell and its vast wealth. The two superpowers jostle for control over Crossbell diplomatically – by proxy of congress officials sympathetic to their causes. But beneath the surface, they mobilize the criminal underworld of their countries to fight their war over Crossbell for them. Caught in this tug-of-war, Crossbell becomes a breeding ground for corruption.
You play as the newly-established Special Support Section. A semi-independent police organization drafted up to deal autonomously with systemic corruption, without being dragged down by top-down political pressure.
You’re up against the mafia, who insist they are “just businessmen”; but you know they are dirty through-and-through… you just don’t have the evidence to prove it. The mafia’s ties to key political figures exacerbate things, making them almost untouchable. The invisible hand of bureaucracy that boxes the protagonists in—limiting their ability to speak out and act freely against blatant corruption— is the major antagonistic force in this game.
These characters aren’t compelled to action through a shadowy Sephiroth, and they aren’t out to save the world. The start of this duology is a smaller-scale, more intimate story than the kingdom-trotting Trails in the Sky: First Chapter. Trails of Zero is broken down into largely self-contained chapters which are made up of a core stand-alone investigation and chapter specific optional sidequests. These chapters systematically examine of each of the key protagonists in turn; giving each chapter the emotional pay-off of getting to know one of the characters better, even if there isn’t always a significant narrative pay-off contributing towards the overarching narrative.
Fortunately, this is unlikely to bother players as much as it did in Trails in the Sky; the plot seeding here is transparent, the player acutely aware of what the little details mean for the powder keg.
Every chapter opens with a briefing of a disturbance that needs investigating. You stock up on sidequests and then head out into the world to close the case; so fighting, exploring and a lot of talking.
You have to play Trails of Zero: Evolution to really appreciate how it respects the players’ time instead, of babying them. It gives them access to game mechanics at a rate that doesn’t leave them feeling they’re having their hand held, or just straight up being held out on. Familiar series elements like the four member party, special skills, magic and the Orbment system (a system that allows you to plug in elemental modules for stat boosts and access to magic of the corresponding element) are all available from the start.
The AT system from Trails in the Sky also makes a return – a turn based battle system that assigns bonuses such as critical hit, healing and double-turn to specific turns. The strategy comes from manipulating character and enemy speeds so that you can cut-in line in the turn order list and steal the turns with juicy corresponding bonuses.
Where Trails of Zero: Evolution isn’t giving you unfettered access upfront it paces itself smartly, introducing mechanics like team-attacks and new skills to keep things fresh. Just as a character threatens to become obsolete they’ll get an ability to bring forward the turns of other characters; their versatility increasing as the game goes on.
No character becomes obsolete, but physical attackers definitely become less useful during the second half of the game. 600HP of attack damage on a single enemy looks cute when you your mages can cast area-of-effect spells that are six times more powerful. Physical attackers are reduced to irate item butlers; shuffling madly between party members to apply bandages – a role which mages can multi-task just fine.
But you can’t just blame overpowered magic casters for neutering the game’s difficulty; the problem goes deeper than that. On whichever difficulty you play, you’ll reach a point half-way through the game where the difficulty drops dramatically, allowing you to get through battles with poor preparation and sloppy decision making.
This is an issue with difficulty curve rather the difficulty level; leaving the player with the tough compromise of choosing a high difficulty level and struggling through the first half of the game so that they can have a well-balanced second-half (and potentially getting stuck in the first half), or choosing a low difficulty level; making the first half of the game trivially easy so they can enjoy a fair second-half. With no option to change the difficulty mid-game, whichever way you split it you’re going to feel the effects of the drop-off.
You could always forgo doing any sidequests (and the reward equipment for doing them) to try and make the game harder. But you’d be doing a disservice to yourself. Sidequests don’t just offer loot; they are their own reward, acting as tutorials that challenge the player to tease out some of the depth in the game, fleshing out characters and working as expositional tools.
In one sidequest, you’re tasked with taking pictures for a tourist brochure but expressly forbidden from snapping the Crossbell-Erebonia border. This is a great way to get you to explore the map and turn you on to areas you didn’t know existed until now, but it also serves to underline the political situation in Crossbell; taking pictures of the border and putting them in print could be taken as declaration of Crossbell’s affiliation with the Empire; provoking the ire of the Calvard Republic.
What’s even more impressive, is that the events in the sidequests don’t exist in a vacuum. Characters will bring up and make references to events that occurred in sidequests, even during the main story; thus treating them as part of the established canonical narrative, just as you would expect them to treat any other event in that happened around them. This is yet another reason to play the sidequests, even if they destabilize the difficulty level.
If you play Normal you won’t have to work too hard to fight your way through the game. Fortunately resource management at least is engaging on any difficulty level. Money is scarce and the best way to get it is to trade in Sepith dropped by monsters; the very same Sepith you use to craft upgrades to the Orbment system and create new elemental modules.
Do you spend the Sepith to get more money for the newest weapons and armor? Or do you spend it on improving your Orbment slots so you can get access to better magic? How many of your characters can you afford to outfit? Do you have the resources to not only buy the equipment but also forge the upgrades? Maybe instead of buying those items you could get them in an exchange at the pawn shop? Does the cost of acquiring the items from the pawn shop outweigh the cost of the crafting the item new?
Agonizing over how to divide resources like this (whatever choice you make and however you make it) gives you a sense of ownership over your party. It’s not as simple as updating your Orbment slots and calling it a day because how, if, and when you decide to do that is going to differ for each player; it’s a choice informed by the way you play the game.
When you aren’t fighting you’ll be exploring. The world of Trails of Zero: Evolution might be small, but Crossbell and its outlying areas are a joy to explore because of how diverse it all is. Crossbell alone features a Chinatown, slums, seedy back alleys and a Vegas-esque entertainment quarter.
You’re unlikely to get lost in this world as each area is not only visually distinct, but framed uniquely thanks to a scripted camera that pans, zooms and changes angles; ensuring that entrances and exits are never obscured behind other parts of the scenery. This leaves the player to navigate the world intuitively by memory, instead of artificially by map and compass.
It isn’t just the navigation that is player-friendly; the entire game feels like Nihon Falcom’s progressive low-tech solution to the genres’ pitfalls: Why have random battles when you can see and avoid enemies on the map? Why force
the player to grind when you can just scale EXP and let the player choose how many fights they want to get into? Why would you bother fighting low level enemies when you can kill them on the map without ever needing to formally engage them? And why would you laboriously backtrack around the world when you could use Fast Travel?
Trails of Zero: Evolution provides answers to questions many other games in the genre don’t bother asking. It’s upwards of 50 hours long, without a single minute wasted on grind or repetition. And that philosophy carries over to the dialogue: the game understands that if characters have to explain something that the player already knows to each other, a simple “character x explained everything to character y” text box is the best way to get the job done.
Even so, Trails of Zero: Evolution is still heavy on dialogue; but the term “big-boned” might be more appropriate. The conversations run on because each character voices their unique understanding of the events around them; some characters are more politically in-tune and well-informed on the relative standing between organizations, chains of command and so on, whilst others are natives of Crossbell; familiar with the local customs and history of the city. Trails of Zero: Evolution is a game that is ultimately about the characters. In every scene, each character will voice (or give a suggestive silence) on what they think about proceedings. The characters come across as well developed, likable and by 30-40 hour mark there is an almost familial, well-established sense of camaraderie between them.
The characterization in the game is excellent across the board, but Tio’s character, brought to life by Kaori Mizuhashi’s (the voice of Navi from Ocarina of Time!) standing-ovation-worthy vocal performance, stands out as the highlight. Tio is a cool headed character of few words, many silences and subtle emotions.
This is a character that in the wrong hands could have come across as a sulky loli. Mizuhashi has masterfully taken the little-sister trope and made it palatable, relatable even, even to the most hardened cynic. It also doesn’t hurt that her backstory is the most tightly intertwined with the overarching narrative of any of the protagonists’, making her the most enigmatic of the bunch. And she’s both the most versatile and powerful character in battle. Overpowered sure, but along with her deeply human characterization it is just one part of what helps elevate her to inevitable fan favorite status.
When all things are said and done, Trails of Zero: Evolution only resolves a handful of the story arcs it presents, but unlike Trails in the Sky: First Chapter’s cliff-hanger ending, this game feels resolute, with the major threat banished just as another rises to take its place. On a complete playthrough you’ll put in 80 hours, and the chances are you will still want to go back for Newgame + to spend more time basking in the camaraderie that typifies the feel-good zone the members of the Special Support Service occupy. Other games feel bloated by their long running-time; Trails of Zero: Evolution justifies its length.
Trails of Zero: Evolution walks the fine line between telling a detailed political story and a relatable character-based story with self-assured grace. It never gets so bogged down in its own politics that it forgets to tell us why the characters – and you, the player – should care. It might be low-tech, but that hasn’t stopped it from giving the genre the middle-finger and being progressively player-friendly in its own ways. In fact its poor difficulty curve is the only one (major) point I can fault it on. But even then, it’s good enough that it dethrones even the excellent Persona 4 Golden as the best JRPG on the Vita. And that’s saying something.
There are currently no plans for a Trails of Zero: Evolution localization. But hopefully Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter will do well to spurn one on so that western gamers will be able to get their hands on this gem someday.