Nihon Falcom Corporation celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, making the Japanese developer one of the longest-running in the business to date.
Unlike its peers, Falcom has avoided many recent industry trends: It has retained its independence from mergers and acquisitions, it has staunchly decided to develop its own game engine rather than adopt a third-party solution like Unreal Engine, and it still makes games primarily for Japan in an increasingly global market.
Falcom marches to the beat of its own drum, then, and you can see some of that character in its long-running, most popular series of role-playing games: The Kiseki series, known as “Trails” outside of Japan. Gentle evolution on top of a solid foundation is the recipe behind such steady success, and this latest release, Trails from Zero, is no exception.
That said, describing Trails from Zero as the latest Trails game is actually a bit of a misnomer, since the game’s origins go way back to a Japan-only release on PSP. This latest western release of the game is based on a more recent – again Japan-only until now – PS4 remaster, making its belated arrival somewhat awkward as its predecessors (Trails in the Sky) and successors (Trails of Cold Steel) have long left Japan.
You assume the role of Lloyd Bannings, a Police Detective Academy graduate who recently joined the Special Support Section (SSS) of the Crossbell Police Department (CPD), along with three other fresh recruits. While Trails from Zero sports a very familiar structure underneath, there are two key differences which do wonders in making the familiar fresh again – 1 shift in setting to the industrialised trade hub that is Crossbell, and your role within the SSS.
While you may be led to initially believe that the SSS was set up as a means of helping Crossbell’s citizens with their everyday issues – like the Bracer Guild that you worked for in Trails in the Sky – what is quickly apparent after the game’s prologue is how being a police unit grants you special access to secret affairs the Bracer Guild cannot get involved with in Crossbell state.
As a result, Zero’s narrative ups the ante faster than its surrounding subseries did. Even the meaty prologue signals to you that something is off in the capital of Crossbell City, where you eventually discover that two rivalling gangs are being silently controlled by a mafia group in a bid for power. And it soon becomes clear that peace in the independent state of Crossbell is hanging by a mere thread, where political scandals, espionage and a criminal underbelly threaten the birth of new conflict.
From there onward, proceedings only escalate, but the beauty of the game’s scenario design is in how it reaches each impactful event, unfolding from layers upon layers of gentle revelation.
New chapters begin with you investigating what appear to be menial tasks and requests. You might be patrolling an anniversary festival or looking into vandalism caused by monsters. Yet things are never as simple as they first appear, and your role as detectives is used to great effect here – as a case reaches its conclusion, you’re often asked to put on your thinking cap and piece together what’s really happening.
Perhaps it’s the world design that impresses the most, especially for an RPG that’s older than its more recent peers. Crossbell City is a melting pot of varied characters, districts, and secrets where you’ll spend several hours of the game just getting familiar with every nook and cranny of it.
In Falcom’s typical detail-oriented fashion, every character within this capital city, and its surrounding villages, is convincingly modelled based on their current role in society. Even the most minor of characters will behave in a certain way or tell you an observation which serves to further add believability to Crossbell state in the here and now of the story.
A simple scene where you board a bus back home from a hospital sees you travel back with visitors that you previously saw on location. Random passers-by become familiar faces over time, often discussing recent current affairs. An injured gang member becomes talk of the hospital he was sent to. A woman remarks about passing pizza delivery drivers an hour before you apprehend a hacker who lives off eating the stuff.
This attention to detail all adds up to make everything feel like it’s happening in the same interconnected game world, which is a rare feat to achieve in a game with such a wide scope of characters and events.
As is par for the course with the series, Falcom has taken care to make sure many of the SSS’s optional requests don’t devolve into meaningless fetch quests and monster subjugation filler. Yes, there are fetch quests and monsters to be slain, but each of these requests are given purpose within the game world, rather than feeling like a box to check off a quest list. These quests are often used to introduce important figures, events, locations, and activities within Crossbell.
If Zero’s handling of side quests follows the series’ thoughtful design principles, then what of this RPG’s combat? Again, keeping with tradition is the name of the game. As with other Trails titles, character positioning and turn order are both key strategic tools to consider, since enemies are always moving around, and your skills only reach a certain distance. Utilise both in tandem and you’ll often feel like a genius as you set off chains of devastating attacks while simultaneously avoiding damage from foes.
And yet the sheer number of enemy encounters prevents the combat from reaching its true strategic potential much of the time. Even on Hard difficulty non-boss foes are dispatched with relative ease, leaving the more satisfying boss battles to threaten a game over screen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does give even the most dangerous-looking dungeons an ill-matching atmosphere, as you repeat tried and tested strategies to deftly dispatch even the most threatening looking of foes.
Still, there is strategic potential beyond the battlefield. Tinkering with Quartz – stones that grant abilities when equipped to your characters– is a game in itself; different arrangements unlock different skills while tweaking combat parameters. The ability to mix things up is available at any time should battling dozens of enemies become stale, or when boss battles seem insurmountable.
Unlike more recent titles in the series, and many recent RPGs, Zero largely manages to avoid the scaffolding of project management hanging over it, too. Each chapter in Zero doesn’t fall victim to following a predictable, repetitious cycle as in, say, Trails of Cold Steel III, a newer game that reached formulaic lows as each chapter began with the same field exercises, the same treks through the same dungeon, and the same box-ticking bonding events with your party members.
While Zero does feature a returning dungeon called the Geofront, its appearance in the game’s story – without spoiling anything – comes across as natural, rather than something shovelled into the game for the sake of padding out the running time.
On a technical level Zero clearly shows its PSP origins, but that’s not a negative. The overhead camera angle is utilised to great effect, allowing you to navigate the most labyrinth of locations with relative ease and speed. And the pre-rendered, stylised character sprites are timeless.
Furthermore, this new Switch and PC port features brand new textures created via a mixture of hand-drawn assets and AI upscaling, giving a sharper and more consistent look to the now-high-definition graphical output. The more advanced water, lighting and ambience effects from the PS Vita “Evolution” version are absent, though, suggesting this version was derived from the PSP original.
While Trails from Zero is, predictably, another high-quality release in a long-running series of RPGs, it is clearly not devoid of surprises. With this older game, Falcom has delivered a tighter, less formulaic adventure when compared with its newer, shinier descendants, its unique and interesting setting putting a refreshing spin on the tried and tested.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero is out 30th September on Switch, PS4, and Steam (27th). Published by NIS America.