“It takes its sweet time.”
That statement describes everything about the Trails in the Sky games. This series demands a slow, deliberate crawl over the dozens of intersecting character ties and attention paid to the various interests at play. Even the massive localization of Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter has taken its sweet time; in fact we’re still months away from an English release as I write this.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that this game has taken so long to be localized. Trails in the Sky is so big that during development it was actually broken up into two games (First Chapter and Second Chapter). It explains why the two games look identical; this second half uses the same conservative style as the original and just as with First Chapter it compensates with almost non-existent loads times and a sharp, distinct, colorful look. Second Chapter feels familiar; you’ll mostly be walking around locales from the first game and hearing the same music you’ve heard before.
And just as with First Chapter, Second Chapter is deliberate in its slow pacing; at its best this series captivates the player with the promise of capitalizing on all the details it has taken the time to lay out; at its worst it frustrates the player by flashing the promise of something more but not delivering (at least not yet).
For better or worse, Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter is very much the same as its forebear; the slow paced narrative of the first game was easy to overlook because First Chapter was introducing you to new characters, new locations or illuminating chains of command and fealties; preparing an attractive stage for the main event.
Now, that main event has arrived but those who were expecting the game to hit the ground running after First Chapter’s dramatic conclusion are going to be hearing the narrative equivalent of brakes being slammed when they realize that, once again, the game wants to take a leisurely stroll through its world; and this time without introducing us to much in the way of anything new.
It is no exaggeration to say that the game takes almost 25 hours to get going. Returning protagonist Estelle’s burning determination to find her brother Joshua stands at odds with the slow pacing during the first third of the game. Estelle and the player want to rush on and seek Joshua out, but the game wants the player to settle down for menial mercenary work.
There is however some very interesting characterization during the first third of the game. It doesn’t quite make up for the slow pacing, but it helps alleviate it. Estelle, distraught without the dependable Joshua is left having to continue her duties as a ‘Bracer’ (an NGO mercenary).
Forcing Estelle to focus on the needs of others in more immediate need of help could have worked against her development as a character by distancing the focal point of the narrative outwards onto other characters. This has been masterfully avoided. Through her work Estelle, having to examine herself now that Joshua is no longer there to pick up the slack, is able to truly understand her abilities and her limits, and the player gets valuable insight into how she thinks when she isn’t just being bright and spunky.
During the formative hours of the game she meets up with a many of characters from the first installment, most of whom help her (and the player) reaffirm her character in light of the changes to her circumstances. The most impressive aspect is that there is no one clear point during which Estelle matures. There’s no hokey revelatory moment or alignment of fate, and yet the progression of her maturity doesn’t sneak up on you from nowhere either. It is handled both subtly and believably.
It also helps that the game takes this time to introduce the antagonists of the game and their ties to each of the supporting party members; this time around your companions have their own vested interests outside of professional obligation and the game later uses this to create some interesting character drama.
As I previously mentioned, Second Chapter takes it sweet time to get going. It took me around 80 hours (stopping for most side-quests) to clear the game -broken down loosely into 3 acts, each with a distinct feel. Each of these parts are around 25 hours each, give or take a few hours.
The first of those parts is the formative beginning mentioned above. During this section you’re introduced to the new Orbment system. In First Chapter you could fit your characters with ‘Quartz'; gems that granted buffs to stats like Attack or Evasion. To grossly simplify, if you equipped multiple Quartz of the same color you were granted access to powerful magic of the corresponding color: equip a lot of blue Quartz and you become able to use powerful water magic. This is all true in Second Chapter, only now you can level up Quartz slots allowing you to equip higher caliber Quartz and gain access to even more powerful spells.
In addition there’s a Co-op Attack where you can chain together attacks from each of the party members and unleash them in a single turn; the later in a chain the party member is, the larger their bonus to attack and the harsher the CP (the very same CP used for special moves) requirements to participate. Neither the Co-op Attack or Slot Augmentation are game changers; they’re more an accent on the FC’s battle system than an evolution of it.
At the beginning Second Chapter is on the right side of hard, just like First Chapter was. This is especially true of the boss fights – during for the first 4 chapters of the game they play out like puzzles; you need to get close to a boss to damage them but get too close and he will viciously attack you. Get too far away however and he will dish out massive amounts of damage. Consequently, the fight becomes a tense jostle to maintain optimal position.
As in the first installment, Second Chapter also employs an XP scaling system. The scaling applies a multiplier to lower level characters to allow them to catch up quickly. It’s useful because it eliminates the need to dedicate time to grinding, but it also avoids the pitfall of automated leveling of non-active party members where the cathartic experience of seeing your characters get stronger is stripped away. And you will probably see characters level up a lot, as unlike the first game – which lent you out a new character per chapter – here you have access to a large party almost at all times; someone has to stay on the bench.
You can fight every enemy you see and keep your characters levels topped-up, or do as I did and run past what I’d estimate to be 70% of the enemies, picking select fights that result in high XP gain, allowing you to compensate for having fallen behind with leveling up with little effort. To its credit, the game doesn’t force you to play it either way. This isn’t a game where seeing enemies on the field is entirely for decoration and you have to grind your way through them anyway.
Then there’s the middle section of the game. During this section the plot thickens, character back-stories come thick and fast and generally a lot just happens. It’s here where the difficulty level wanes. The build-up to the end of the 5th chapter is let down by a boss fight that allows you to be sloppy and get away with being ill-prepared. What’s more is that this is the start of a trend for many sub-bosses, monster mobs and full bosses from that point onwards in the game. With a few exceptions, after the first third of the game a majority of the boss fights start to feel like routine encounters with damage sponges.
In Japan, Second Chapter has so far seen a release on the PS3, PSP and PC. In the West, we’re expecting to see a PC and PSP release only. For reference, it’s worth noting that the PC and PSP versions of these games differ slightly. The PC version only has one difficulty (Normal) whereas the PSP version let’s you choose from multiple difficulty settings . This review was written based on the PC version of the game, so your experience may vary if you play the game on the PSP. Players who are interested in playing the game multiple times for challenge might be dissuaded from going for the PC version.
The last third of my play-through (the closing section of the game) felt different still from the previous two sections. Clocking in at 20+ hours the ‘end’-game here is deceptively long and by the time the actual end comes into sight the game has already worn-out some of the goodwill engendered by the epic plot twists that proceeded it. These chapters offer an interesting insight into how the kingdom of Liberl and its people deal with extreme conditions. In addition, the politics of the world that have been hinted at throughout FC and most of SC start coming into play.
This section of the game is the weakest in terms of design; each time you think you’re near the end, you’ll have another dungeon (and another boss fight) put between you and your destination. In the end you even end up fighting most of the major antagonists twice. There are some late game character and mechanics inclusions (as well as a torrent of increasingly powerful equipment) that help keep things interesting but you get the feeling that the game should have ended sooner.
All in all, Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter takes its sweet time to get going and to conclusively come to any kind of end. The slow pacing during the first third is balanced out a bit by some interesting characterization and the slow pacing at the end of the game is balanced a bit by the late-game introduction of new skills and equipment. But the fact remains that the pacing for almost two-thirds of the game is weak. The difficulty is generally on the sweet side of hard but later gives way to routine humdrum that is offset a bit, but not entirely, by the aforementioned skills, abilities and equipment. You’re probably noticing a theme here; Second Chapter is good, but good in a way that feels like a compromise.
Second Chapter could have been better balanced in terms of pacing and difficulty but it ultimately succeeds at what it set out to do; it wraps up Estelle and Joshua’s story. Even though some of its plot threads are left “for next time” this particular chapter feels resolute; a new beginning that the characters can set off on with renewed vigor rather than an adventure that ends on a cliff-hanger. If you want to see how the story pans out you have no reason not to buy this game, just reasons to not enjoy it as much as you could have.