Trails to Azure

Review: The Legend of Heroes – Trails to Azure

When I got the opportunity to review The Legend of Heroes – Trails from Zero I got a taste of Nihon Falcom’s fan-favourite series. As it turns out, I was completely enamoured by Trails from Zero‘s narrative and the very world that I was introduced to in the first entry in the series’ overall second story arc. So going into this year I knew I wanted to find out what happened to my favourite RPG not-police squad in the finale to the Crossbell duology, The Legend of Heroes – Trails to Azure. Like its predecessor which was released back in September, Trails to Azure is an enhanced port that’s based on the 2011 PSP original that’s the fifth main entry in the Trails series which like Trails from Zero has been stuck in Japan for over a decade until now as it’s set to release next week on PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. The localization was once again handled by fan localization group, the Geofront who partnered up with the Trails to Azure‘s publisher, NIS America to officially bring the almost lost Trails arc to the west to modern devices – with this game’s launch that journey has finally come to a close.

Cameos That Actually Matter

After putting well over 50 hours into Trails to Azure, I can confidently say that Trails to Azure is a fantastic follow-up that perfectly balances the political landscape set up in the first game with the fantastical setting. This is done thanks to the series’ notable world-building through characters from the previous Trails in the Sky popping up in the story, not for the sake of a cameo, but to actually contribute to the narrative’s ramifications that are felt in the latter games like the Trails of Cold Steel tetralogy.  Speaking of which if you played those games, some characters also pop up showcasing that the Crossbell arc is truly an almost lost bridge between the first and third arc of the series.

These are just some of Trails in the Sky Trilogy’s supporting characters, for the Trails to Azure‘s main party really brings their A-game with tons of meaningful character development that ties up storylines set up in the first game and tells a satisfying conclusion. Throughout the game, past demons come crawling back with one specifically to fill in the hole left by Revache to bring my boy, Randy Orlando back to the “dark side.” As for the game’s protagonist, Lloyd Bannings, he deals with the resolving mystery of his adopted daughter, KeA and his own continued struggles with his role as the leader of the Special Support Section (SSS).

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All this is going on during the darkest of times for Crossbell as the tension between the city state’s co-owners, the Erebonia Empire and the Calvard Republic comes to a head with the thought of independence coming into view. It’s hard for me to call Trails to Azure a sequel as it felt more like a continuation almost a second half of a fantastic season that was split up into two meaty halves. The time you put into the series will be rewarded with the narrative beats of other games in the series coming to a head in Trails to Azure but their still so much to enjoy if you’re jumping into the game from Trails from Zero.

A Great Conclusion to the Crossbell Duology

Even though there were more than a couple of storylines that never went anywhere as far as Trails from Zero is concerned, the ending of last year’s Trails from Zero felt surprisingly standalone in the grand scheme of everything that happened. That’s kind of the magic of these Trails Crossbell games, at the same time both games can tie into each other/past games while being a truly enjoyable experience that the narrative it takes you on. For Trails to Azure, that story actually begins a couple of months after Trails from Zero‘s ending, after saving all of Crossbell from a demonic cult and brainwashed soldiers/citizens the SSS are super popular now but currently on a hiatus. Since then the SSS has each member dealing with some personal business like Lloyd doing some training with the first division, Randy doing training drills with a squad of soldiers that were affected by Gnosis, Ellie dealing with political duties, and Tio returning to the Epstein Foundation headquarters in Leman tor further work on the Aeon System.

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Since the team is a bit scattered these days, the SSS brings on two new yet familiar members, one of which is the former Crossbell Guardian Force (CGF) sergeant, Noel Seeker at the start of the game’s prologue and tutorial as you are once again inserted into the shoes of the game’s protagonist, Lloyd Bannings. Lloyd and she are conducting a sting operation with the Bracer Guild’s ace, Arios MacLaine and Crosbell Police Department (CPD) First Division captain, Alex Dudley to arrest former First Secretary, Ernest Reis. During the last game, the cult manipulated him into attempting to murder the Crosbell mayor which the SSS thwarted. He was arrested but easily broke out of prison thanks to the effects of the drug, Gnois that the cult gave him and quickly teamed up with the cult to take over Crossbell alongside them and become mayor. That obviously didn’t work out as he has been on the hunt ever since the end of Trails from Zero.

Familiar Faces Join the SSS

As you get used to Trails to Azure’s mechanics, you’re forced to split from your higher-levelled party members as Lloyd and Noel after a boss fight, you take the long way to find demonic Ernest where the two of you take on a 1:1 sequence of the final boss from the last game. After that, Ernest returns back to normal with the help of the Septian Church secret agent and Trails in the Sky the Third protagonist, Kevin Graham uses magic seals to restore his sanity. Now we get into the swing of things as Trails to Azure puts the player to work as the SSS is officially back in business as Lloyd, Elie, Noel and your other new SSS member, Wazy Hemisphere tackling some support requests. This leads to actually getting your own police car as a way to fast travel around the map which helps way better than taking the bus like in Trails from Zero. As you go through the early chapters, Randy and Tio slowly join back the team for the biggest case for the SSS, yet.

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The following events all lead to a direct and indirect confrontation with Sigmund Orlando, the leader of the Jaeger Militia the Red Constellation… who is Randy’s bloodthirsty uncle that wants him back to carry on the torch after the death of the group’s leader and Randy’s father. Kind of teased this earlier but Randy basically abandoned them after a face turn and a want to do some good in Crossbell; eventually, his past catches up to him in Trails to Azure. His family’s militia is much more of the game’s proxy antagonist force of the game as they are hired by multiple antagonists to stop the SSS, even one you’ll never see coming.  Out of respect for the game, I don’t really want to harp too much about what happens later in the game as Trails to Azure is a real treat alongside a full-course meal of juicy narrative beats.

Trails to Azure Takes Narrative to Another Level

The overall narrative feels like a culmination of a lot of work that developer Nihon Falcon put into the very writing of Trails to Azure as it feels like a truly bold and fantastic piece of fiction that builds off the storyline introduced in the previous games and takes its characters to another level in a satisfying conclusion while leaving enough story open to what’s coming to Crossbell in the future with the early Trails of Cold Steel games. I think the best compliment going for the game is that it made me want to play much more of the other Trails games in my Steam library to get more context in a second playthrough as Trails to Azure really reiterates the series’ different and unique approach to storytelling with interconnected and woven threads that lead to a living/breathing world that may as well be the best and only example (in my mind) of Video Games’ MCU.

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For Trails to Azure, it’s the last of an era as this is the last “2D” game in the series in this engine with the square-like grid system and much more the early games were known for being sunsetted as the developer switches up the engine in the Trails of Cold Steel games. Getting into how Trails to Azure actually plays, if you’ve played Trails from Zero well it kind of plays more of the same with the same gameplay systems that the earlier entries are known for but with a couple of new additions. The first is one I’ve already mentioned and that is the ability to fast travel, now Trails from Zero had somewhat of a fast travel system via the bus transit lines but that was limited to a single road out of the four Crossbell exits which you had to go into the city itself and walk to the other bus stops. This time around it’s much more streamlined. One cool feature of your car is that you can customize it to your liking with the paints you’ll find littered around the world and the purchasable upgrades to ‘pimp your ride’ through in-game currency.

BURST MODE

Another gameplay addition is a new function known as Burst which is a top-right gauge that fills up as successfully land hits on enemies but also goes down if your party gets hit. When you’re ready to do a normal attack hold down the right directional button to reveal the ‘Burst’ mode option to activate it in battle. Doing so changes the environment to an Azure background, in Burst mode you will immediately cure any status ailments, heal your party members, give you much more CP bonuses, and boost up your arts/craft attacks. Plus you can attack as much as you want for a limited time that ‘Burst’ is activated, overall it’s a cool ‘ace up your sleeve’ addition that will give you an edge in battle when you really need it in something like a hard boss battle. The only negative of Burst is that it only becomes available in specific moments, and it’s not actually something you can bring out in every battle.

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One last addition is the inclusion of the ‘Master Quartz’ which is basically more powerful than your average quartz. Players that receive one naturally through the campaign can use it as a basis of ENIGMA II combat orbment, a device that allows you to use Orbal Arts which is Trails version of magic in battle through mined purified Septium known as Quartz. When equipped your character gets a couple of bonus stats, abilities, and Sepith after an encounter. When you level up a Master Quartz all the way you will unlock ‘Master Arts’ which is a pretty powerful attack or effect you can use in battle. It’s kind of cool to see this introduced here as the Master Quartz feature doesn’t go away and makes its return in the Trails of Cold Steel games.

I do feel I’m much more generous with Trails to Azure than my nitpicks of Trails from Zero, as I did get to review on PC through my Steam Deck and easily got the game easily running at 60 fps at a native resolution so very happy I got to play a Trails game at my preferred frame rate as Trails to Azure runs perfectly on PC. This is also not a basic port compared to Trails from Zero on PS4 as Trails to Azure feels much more like a modern port with enhanced pixelated visuals that look truly beautiful on my Steam Deck. One welcomed addition is that ongoing characters introduced in Trails from Zero that never had character art, but that is thankfully fixed in Trails to Azure which was a shock because it’s such a cool addition as getting to see their actual ‘anime’ expression changing face was such a treat – way better than the dead-pan pixelated face I was getting most of the time.

WANTED: Trails to Azure English Dub

One legit down I have for Trails to Azure which builds off my criticism of Trails from Zero is the lack of an English dub. I get it, I can see the publisher already having the localized script from Geofront and wanting to fast-track the release to get into the hands of fans as fast as possible. The idea of adding extra production was probably less than favourable. The actual process of casting characters and hiring the voice actors of already casted actors with how many voiced scenes there are in Trails to Azure would have probably just delayed the release by months. It’s just disappointing as the dub in the Trails of Cold Steel games was pretty good and actually wanted to hear the English voices of all these characters, especially Lloyd’s voice actor, Robbie Daymond with the number of moments (serious/humourous/harem anime trope) that the game is known for which would have been great and only added to the game

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While there isn’t much extra content to be had, there are a couple of mini-games to dive into including Fishing, Horror Coaster, and Pom Pom Party which is basically Trails’ version of Puyo Puyo Tetris. The game didn’t have much of a presence in Trails from Zero other than one of your party members playing it in their off time. This time for better or for worse it is more front and center as the early form of this world’s internet is testing out multiplayer gaming with the mini-games as you talk with NPC you can get their “Gamertag” to play them in your free time. I’m not that big on the mini-game usually as more of a fan of regular Tetris but one thing I hated was actually using the mini-game as a part of the game’s narrative where you’re actually forced to win a game to push the story forward.

Verdict

The Legend of Heroes – Trails to Azure is a fantastic and bold sequel that easily surpasses its predecessor while hammering down on character development. This is done in tandem while picking and tying up previous unresolved storylines in a satisfying conclusion to the Crossbell arc duology. While the gameplay is mostly the same, developer Nihon Falcom adds some cool additions that bring their approach to the same game engine from the past five games to its perfect form with the game’s smooth pixelated art style. The lack of an actual English dub is still disheartening for this duology but having access to these games in the west without jumping through hoops to play them in English through fan translation kind of makes up for it.

Recommended

[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]

Reviewed on: PC

Trails to Azure
Summary
Liked
A Fantastic and Satisfying Conclusion to the Crossbell Duology
Adds onto the World Building of the Already Released Past and Future Games
Ties up Loose Ends Set Up in the First Game
Previously Introduced Characters Finally get their own Character Art
Didn't Like
Using minigames to to push the narrative forward
Lack of English Dub support