The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero – Review
Follow Genre: JRPG
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS
Platform: Switch, PS4, PC
Tested on: PC

The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero – Review

Site Score
8.7
Good: Fantastic worldbuilding
Bad: Quartz system feels convoluted and needlessly limiting
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Nihon Falcom’s Trails series is a bit of an oddity: it’s a spin-off series of a spin-off series, with a history that dates back all the way to 1984’s Dragon Slayer on the NEC PC-8801. Even if we’re just looking at the Trails series as its own separate entity, you’ve got 14 games and nearly 20 years of history to look back on. Given that the stories in most of these games are interconnected as well, the Trails series can be difficult to get into: it’s as if you were trying to get into the MCU by starting with one of the more recent entries rather than the original Iron Man film. Thankfully, by porting the previously Japan-exclusive Trails from Zero to the West, Nihon Falcom has opened up a new entry point into the series. How does this title hold up over a decade after its original launch?

Story

The title doesn’t really give it away, but Trails from Zero is actually the fourth game in the Trails series. Fortunately, the story presented here serves as a standalone entry point, so even if you’ve never played a Trails game, you’ll still find your footing here fairly easily. That said, there still are connections to other games in the series, which is sure to delight fans and veterans. The overarching plot of Trails from Zero centers around Crossbell, an autonomous state that seems like a utopia at first glance: a thriving trade hub, a place of technological advancement and scientific achievements, and a seemingly perfect multicultural society. Naturally, this makes Crossbell a very desirable target for annexation, and both the Imperial and Republic factions of Zemuria are eyeing up the city. The only thing that prevents these geopolitical superpowers from absorbing Crossbell is a treaty.

Against the background theatre of politics and the threat of open conflict, we find our protagonists: four members of the Special Support Section, a subdivision of Crossbell’s police force. They’re tasked with dealing with smaller issues that the “real” police doesn’t want to bother with (which translates into a series of fetch quests and side missions in terms of gameplay). The leader of our band of SSS officers is Lloyd Bannings, and he is accompanied by brawler Randy, ranged attacker Elie, and caster/healer Tio. Lloyd and his fellow officers are considered a joke by Crossbell’s residents, who would much rather turn to a rival mercenary group known as the Bracers for help. This setup serves as a framework for Trails from Zero’s basic story structure, which is presented as a series of low-stakes cases for the SSS to deal with. The latter gradually unfolds into a much deeper and darker story filled with political intrigue and a boatload of NPCs that you’ll grow to know and love.

Graphics

Given that this is essentially a direct port of a PSP title, the graphics look undeniably dated, with simple character models and blocky environments. That said, through features like dynamic shadows and improved textures, the game’s chibi-esque visuals are easy on the eyes despite their age. We should note here that the PC version of the game is the definitive one in terms of graphics options and improvements. The Switch version of Trails from Zero benefits from the texture improvements but lacks other options -such as those dynamic shadows- and the PS4 port lacks any visual changes whatsoever. Not all Trails from Zero ports are equal in terms of graphics, it would appear.

Sound

One of the best features of Trails from Zero’s soundscape is an incredibly subtle one: there is a toggle that shows you the title of a music track whenever one starts to play. It’s subtle, but given how extensive the game’s OST is -and how wonderful some of the tracks are- it’s a fantastic little feature because it allows us to look up some of the music online with ease. We actually did so too, which is a testament to just how great the music is here. Add to this that the game also features fantastic voice acting -albeit only in Japanese- and that the battle visuals in particular are enhanced by great sound effects, and you’ve got an amazing soundscape.

Gameplay

Within its specific JRPG subgenre, the Trails series is an undeniable juggernaut. While the series hasn’t captivated the mainstream audience in the same way that Final Fantasy has, it has built up a dedicated niche fan base that absolutely adores the Trails games. With good reason too, as they are fantastic titles. The Trails series’ biggest issue is perhaps the lack of accessibility: the games are story-driven affairs and very much feel episodic in nature. With a history spanning back nearly two decades and releases across multiple platforms, it can be difficult to jump into the latest game without having to go back several years in the franchise’s history. This was the case with last year’s Trails of Cold Steel IV, the closing chapter of a plotline introduced in 2016’s Trails of Cold Steel. Perhaps this lack of accessibility was the driving force behind the release of Trails from Zero. Having never been localized into English before and coming to Western audiences a whopping twelve years after its debut in Japan, the game serves as a great entry point for newcomers and series fans alike.

Granted, this specific reviewer didn’t have any direct experience with the Trails series prior to playing Trails from Zero, but we returned to reviews of previous Trails games on this very website before we dove in. From what we gather, it’s actually a bold move to release Trails from Zero in 2022, as several improvements were made to Trails’ gameplay since, and these weren’t retroactively applied. Rather than completely rebuild Trails from Zero from, well, zero, what you’re getting here is pretty much a straight-up port, warts and all. It’s definitely not a bad game, but it does feel dated. If you’ve played a JRPG over the last decade or so, you won’t find anything new here. Nonetheless, it is probably worth mentioning that the turn-based combat takes place on a grid, similar to a tactics game in the vein of the Disgaea series, rather than what you’d typically see in a JRPG with turn-based combat. There is also a needlessly limiting and convoluted system in place that uses elemental quartz to let you choose which abilities your characters have access to, and from what we can gather, this system was abandoned entirely in later entries in the series because it was so unpopular.

Over the course of 45-ish hours (although you can use high-speed mode to shave off quite a few of those) you’ll gradually see Crossbell open up as you make it through the game’s story chapters. The way the game is structured does feel somewhat dated but this has more to do with a modern-day mindset being asked to adapt to the pacing of a 12-year-old JRPG. In fact, the slow burn actually helps with fleshing out the world and making Crossbell’s residents feel like real people rather than generic NPCs. You’ll start to care about the fate of the city and its inhabitants, as the game takes time to explain why the future of the city-state matters. It’s perhaps Trails from Zero’s biggest strength: the story is given plenty of room to breathe and as a result, your actions as a player feel meaningful as you convince hostile and distrusting NPCs of your merit.

That said, the game does suffer from pacing issues and the lengthy strips of dialogue don’t help. It takes a while for Trails from Zero to really get going. Granted, there are some features here that help alleviate the grind, with the most important one being the high-speed mode we mentioned earlier. The game isn’t overly generous with experience points, so this was a godsend for keeping up character levels with those of enemies as we were able to quickly deal with non-story battles. Other QoL additions are less prominent but they also help in providing a smoother overall experience, such as the option to turn off fading animations when transitioning from and to the map and having only the party leader trigger enemy encounters instead of all party members. While none of these features in particular modernize Trails from Zero to the point where the game doesn’t feel over a decade old, they do help in making this feel like the definitive version of a JRPG classic.

Conclusion

If you’ve been looking to get into the Trails series, we can’t think of a better entry point, and if you’re a series veteran, then you’ll finally be able to jump into a title that has eluded Western audiences for well over a decade. Despite a handful of shortcomings, Trails from Zero has aged gracefully, although it would appear that the PC version is the definitive one as it does come with some additional options that the Switch and PS4 ports lack. But even if you’re limited to either one of those platforms, you’ll still find a fantastic JRPG here with a gripping story, an amazing cast, and solid -if somewhat dated- gameplay. We’re already looking forward to seeing the Crossbell arc conclude when the Trails to Azure port is released next year.

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