Falcom and Ghostlight's latest has all the trappings of just another uninspired and unwelcoming PSP JRPG.
It's a re-release of a seven-year-old game, from a niche developer unheard of outside role-playing circles, and a name that's as forgettable as, you know, that thing.
But The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a title that proves you can't judge a game by its manga-plastered cover. It's one of this year's best traditional JRPGs.
You oversee the journey of Joshua and Estelle Bright, an adolescent brother and sister pair who set out to become Bracers - amalgams of knights, police officers, and private investigators – and who get involved in a conspiracy that sees them travelling across the Liberl Kingdom, adding new recruits to bolster their team.
It's a world of swords, sorcery, and Orbments - a technology powered by crystals that creates the necessary conditions for a curious universe where large mechanical structures such as airships can exist in a mediaeval fantasy setting.A Liberl amount of naturalism
The game is gigantic, with heavy emphasis on detailed dialogue within a grand narrative. Conversations aren't just simple exchanges to move the story forward - they're full of the etiquette of the day and realistic interactions with characters.
If Final Fantasy is melodrama, then Trails in the Sky is Stanislavskian naturalism - it's not realistic per se, but it's believable. The counterpoint to this is that there's a lot of text to read and speech to listen to, making for a slower, more deliberately paced experience.
The translation from the original Japanese is excellent throughout, leaving the light-hearted humour and delicate tension between Estelle and her adopted sibling intact, though an odd bug does seem to replace all instances of quotation marks with square brackets, which can become irksome.
Nevertheless, Liberl is an inviting place to trek through. 2D character models are set against a bright and colourful 3D backdrop, and there are picturesque environments at every turn. The many town houses and dungeons are detailed and distinct, with highly crafted homesteads and shops that have clearly had a lot of time put into them.
But it's how the game slowly unfolds that beckons you deeper into its world. Working within the parameters of a traditional JRPG - such as turn-based combat, experience-based levelling, visiting towns to buy and upgrade weapons – Trails in the Sky refines these and adds its own ideas into the mix.
For one thing, getting into scraps is optional (you can see enemies in the overworld) and you can easily escape from them if you find them tricky.
You can also retry battles should your party be wiped out, meaning that the crushing sense of defeat that so often follows several hours of effort in RPGs is absent here, encouraging exploration and experimentation in a story full of side-quests and secrets.
Encounters themselves verge into the strategy role-playing game genre, too, playing out on a grid system with attacks that have specific reaches and areas of effect.Clearly brilliant
Fighting foes is a pleasure rather than the chore it often becomes in less imaginative RPGs. The game not only gives you plenty of options in combat, but it also gives you advice when you need it.
As well as letting you see which character will move next, the left-hand side of the screen also denotes any status effects that may affect an upcoming decision, such as whether the next strike will be a Critical Hit.
This isn't to say the game is easy - it's just fair. You never feel the engine is hiding any of its tricks from you, allowing you to strategise without the need for trial and error on every occasion. Enemies are still smart, though, and can become significant problems if not handled quickly and effectively.
There are so many more minor features that we don't have space to go into: its technical elegance on the now-aged Sony hardware; a deep crafting and upgrade system; a gigantic cookbook of recipes for items; three levels of map navigation for any situation. But these are ribbons on the gift that is Trails in the Sky's core offering.
This release from Ghostlight is a mightily impressive proposition. Fans of the genre will revel in the complexity and vastness of the story and systems of play, while those who don't like the traditions of the format will be welcomed in by its forgiving attitude and believable characters.
If you have a PSP and an interest in JRPGs, this needs to be on your radar.