Minor spoilers only.
It has become common, even cliche, to say that games should be about the mechanical element, the “gameplay aspect.” For instance:
Well then, dear game creators: Play to your strengths! You can do much more than merely aping movies. Maybe concentrate on your gameplay for example. Trust in your audience being intelligent enough to transfer abstract outcomes into emergent stories and learn from those. You might hand them a few incentives in the form of dynamically integrated narrative legos on the way. And even if you want to present a self-contained narrative, always incorporate your players. Take them seriously and do not be afraid of challenging them. Don’t just use your engine as a meaningless mediator, but as a tool of collaborative storytelling between author and recipient. After all, that is what makes your medium special and grants it its unique potential.
You’d get the impression that nothing is worse than a game that is a ‘film with playable parts,’ so to speak. That telling a simple-ish story in the obvious way is doing something wrong, is aping another medium rather than developing a true “video game style” of storytelling.
(Alright, let’s be clear that this a big old debate with a lot of arguments on both sides. I’m cherry-picking one person making an actually quite reasonable and balanced point, as a framing device. But also because I can’t remember the last time I heard someone ask for more narrative-driven games. Saying gameplay is more important just seems like the cooler position for smart media critics)
On an intellectual level, I agree with all this. It’s hard to argue that games should be something other than games, after all. But fundamentally, my heart belongs to narrative. Some games weave their story into the game itself in rich and compelling ways, and those are wonderful, but a lot of games – particularly JRPGs – go more for “series of plot-advancing cutscenes mixed up with plot-irrelevant gameplay.” The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is one of this category, mixing a turn-and-grid-based RPG (one can hardly call it a tactical RPG with a party size of 4, but that would be the right way to think about it) with a narrative that ranks among the best in games. And I loved it. Here are some reasons that you could use to judge whether you ought to give it a try.
Slow start: In my opinion, the best fantasy fiction isn’t terribly grim and dark. The Lord of the Rings is one of my absolute favourites, and fans agree that it’s not so much an epic story about kings and battles (such as shown in the films), as a story about wholesome hobbits doing comfy things, occasionally interrupted by a quest to save the world. Trails in the Sky takes this to an extreme degree: the first half of the first game could easily be from the iyashikei genre. Sure, there are events going on, but they fit the scope of “wandering do-gooder private police trainees doing good deeds of minor consequence.” You help with a school play, for crying out loud. It’s just a really pleasant intro to the series that makes it easy to get invested in the characters since they’re not angsting or struggling in some cosmic battle or anything. By drawing it out longer than normal, the game is able to have a larger main cast, a more endearing world, and a stronger central relationship than is common.
Admittedly, this comes at the cost of discouraging people who will be waiting impatiently for the plot to get going. Therefore my advice is: play this if you want a fluffier kind of game – think along the lines of, say, Stardew Valley, but as an RPG.
Smart characters: There are at least two ways characters can be smart – well, two that I like to see; “his IQ is 400!” and the such are not actually a kind of smartness. The first is to be smartly chosen; Doylian smartness. This is the kind of smartness that made Estelle rather than Joshua the point-of-view character of Trails in the Sky. He’s the more typical JRPG protagonist, but just less fun to spend time with – it’d be harder to maintain the story’s key mysterious elements, and harder to appreciate the optimistic tone, if the protagonist weren’t the character who’d be “the energetic sidekick girl” in any other game. The choice to switch the two feels like a touch of genius, an apparently-small change that cascades to alter the entire game in a positive way.
The second is to have characters that make intelligent decisions. An important part of this is that non-central characters make plans and develop actions off-screen, but the central aspect is not doing stupid things. There are one or two cases where they do, but for the most part, the characters in Trails in the Sky make sensible decisions, are able to make deductions as successfully as the player does, and so forth. They’re also clear on the fact that the in-combat magic is an actually real thing used in pretty much the same way the game presents it, which is nice. Admittedly you do sometimes beat giant robots to death with knives, but hey, JRPG.
Free will ain’t all that: My position on choices in games is that if you can’t offer meaningful choices, you shouldn’t offer meaningless ones. Trails in the Sky doesn’t screw around with any pick-your-hair-style character design, pick-your-waifu romance, or pick-your-palette-swap endings. This doesn’t mean you have no choices. You still have choices to make in the actual gameplay, choices about who to talk to and what sidequests to undertake, that kind of thing. If “meaningful” means “altering the story,” then no, nothing you do matters. But that’s not really the kind of meaning that makes good narrative or good gameplay – a choose-your-own-adventure book lets you determine the ending, but the gameplay is awful. And if you have to make every NPC only connect in any depth to the main character – because they need to be available as a romantic path, or because you don’t know which NPCs the player will interact with, that kind of thing – you miss out on a massive amount of potential interactions that deepen the game world and strengthen immersion.
This is to say, I’m perfectly happy to have a linear story. Multiple paths tend to lack depth for any one path.
Liber’l conspiracy: I’ve said before that I’m not above admitting when I like or dislike the political aspect of a work. And these games were out to pander to me from the very start. Not only that, but it seriously discusses some of the difficulties of such a political position, look:
Sure, it could go further, but it’s a game, not a debate. And Estelle can hardly be expected to have as well-developed a political philosophy as a queen, after all.
This is a stark distinction from the typical prelapsarian narrative of fantasy fiction in general. Liberl is a constitutional monarchy, sure, but it actually explains how it’s functionally different from just a monarchy. Compare, say, Final Fantasy XII, where it’s not really clear why the monarchy you’re in is really any better than the monarchy you’re being invaded by. I suppose the reactionary argument would be that you don’t need a reason to love your country except that it’s yours, but tough luck, I do actually.
This isn’t even to say it’s completely unfair to the Empire or the Parliamentary Democracy that comprise the other major political factions involved in the story, though. All the nations’ governance systems seem to have some merits and some drawbacks, and if the game is including some distortion in favour of the point-of-view state, well, that’s only to be expected. Can one have an “unreliable cultural narrator”? In short, the story’s ideas are thought through in a way that’s not all that common, and that I don’t think you could do with sprawling multi-narratives or subtle emergent narratives.
Worldbuilder: This is the really big one, the thing everyone praises the broader Trails series for in general. The world is vivid beyond the scope of most video games to attempt. NPCs that wouldn’t even merit a name in a lot of games have complicated on-going stories; historical events are explained in depth; there are some surprisingly lengthy stories found in books in libraries that are relevant not in some abstract literary sense but in the everyday sense of “people in the world reference having read the books, or having written them.” There are port towns being hollowed out by increasing air trade, side-quests that introduce you to important metaphysical concepts, even more NPC stories to follow. The whole world feels alive and dynamic, as opposed to the “timeless” atmosphere that a lot of fantasy RPGs aim for even when they’re in the middle of similar magi-industrial revolutions.
It’s really hard to describe the sheer scope of it – it’s something that games can do better, even linear narrative-driven games, because you can freely include irrelevant details and side-stories without alienating the audience so much, when people can just ignore it if they prefer. That said, your enjoyment of the game is going to be much higher if you do prefer to explore the world to the fullest – the game isn’t pretending like it’s just as good if you don’t.
Not even a bad game: And you know what? It’s not even like it’s a bad game held up by good writing, for all that the writing is stellar. It’s a good game! The combat mechanics are easy to grasp but allow a lot of depth. Figuring out different magitek configurations to access different spells is surprisingly fun, if somewhat annoying to interface with at times. Party members have substantial mechanical differences, while still giving you plenty of freedom to arrange your strategy as you like. The soundtrack – is that part of the game, or part of the narrative? Either way, it is amazing. The aesthetic style as well works amazingly well for capturing the cosy and the epic alike while keeping it clear what’s going on.
All that said, none of this is unique to this game at all. You can find comparable gameplay elsewhere. But are games about gameplay? Yes, in some sense that’s true. But they have a lot of other stuff going on as well, and it’s important not to get so caught up in horticultural analysis that you forget to smell the roses. Trails in the Sky is without doubt one of my favorite games of all time not because of the okay gameplay, but because of the everything else. Recommended without reservation.