It’s often refreshing when an RPG — a JRPG specifically — finds the willingness to restrict its own scope. In a genre that so often relishes the opportunity to take players and in-game characters alike on a wild continent-spanning trek to decide against said vastness can seem an unusual prospect. But hey, the Yakuza series has managed to pull it off time after time — going one further and confining most of its expansive storytelling to that of a mere district of a city — so why not? Of course, to say the two games in the Trails sub-series, referred to as the Crossbell Arc, are solely focused on the goings-on of its central city setting alone wouldn’t entirely be true.
The Liberl Arc prior with three Trails in the Sky releases and the Erebonia Arc succeeding — the original Cold Steel an excellent entry into this vast series so far as fantastic gameplay and storytelling — were more than happy to revert back to genre traditions (and then some). But what makes a game like Trails from Zero — a mid-point in what would be Nihon Falcom’s grand, interconnected, narrative masterplan — so interesting is that aforementioned deliberate holding-back. Sure, there are villages to hop to and locations that fall outside the borders of the titular city itself, but Trails from Zero is no globe-trotting adventure full of fantasy and wonder. Hence the first of those name-drops: in many ways, it feels more Yakuza-esque in its delivery than any of the other Trails games. And not just because its opening narrative involves an in-world crime syndicate that has its fingers in pretty much every aspect of Crossbellan society.
But this is why Trails from Zero‘s premise sparked such an interest to begin with. One whose narrative themes would get further fleshed out in subsequent games, but at the time cemented developer Nihon Falcom’s commitment to making their worlds rich and believable locales. This, in a JRPG full of monsters, magic and McGuffin technology — which again, would only be added to in the series’ third story arc — Crossbell itself, as a state built on shaky ground it’s quickly revealed, is but the start of why this shorter-spanning Arc should not go unnoticed. And now, twelve years and a commendable fan localization (of which I’m glad I checked out years prior) later, The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero finally makes its way West in remastered form. The twisting and conspiratorial narrative — with a main cast you quickly get behind and garner intrigue in learning more of — is reason enough for JRPG fans new and old. It’s what Studio PH3 have done in assisting with the porting of this game that deserves praise on top.
And not just from the basis of getting it to run on PC and consoles of varying capabilities to begin with, but the extent to which PH3 have gone about improving environmental textures and surrounding space. Playing this on the Switch no less; where you’d think Nintendo’s machine would be the one device to see shortcomings or even just receive the least of those benefits is instead met with a pleasant array of additions. Be it sharpened patterns or even character models that have found a way to look improved without coming off like the details have been smudged over or lost due to some odd AI learning algorithm. Flashes of that former fan localization effort on PC somehow translating across into a version running on Nintendo’s own machine.
Granted, Trails from Zero on Switch isn’t perfect when it comes to performance — an occasional, though brief, frame drop or two when transitioning between settings or locales is noticeable if not entirely damaging or long-lasting. And neither is the general port innocent of still throwing up a low-res effort amidst the excusable presence of flattened foliage here and there. But one has to be hunting for these unfortunate oddities to make any discernible dent in what is a remaster that, for a long while it’s seemed, is deserving of that descriptor. Even minor inclusions like a log of prior character dialogue — something which the original game didn’t have — might seem insignificant, but in a game that so quickly introduces all of its own self-contained factions, organizations, groups and entire infrastructure, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by so much Nihon Falcom are bringing into the Trails fold all over.
It’s only because the story, once more, is as fascinating to unravel does Zero — like so much of its brethren — manage to side-step the risk of feeling convoluted for convoluted’s sake. Even when it moves closer to the more fantastical and calamitous events in its latter phase, what keeps players fixated throughout is the writing and more importantly, the setting’s believability as a functioning (technically) self-governing state. Of which is sandwiched between the frequently-referenced Cold Steel hub that is Erebonia and the [soon-to-be fleshed out] Republic of Calvard. Indeed, Zero’s narrative appeal owes much to its world-building and how the main cast, led by Lloyd Bannings, are a party not drawn together by some prophesied fate or destiny. Rather: a rag-tag group that in all likelihood are mere pawns in someone else’s tedious, bureaucratic game. A simple concept but it works and from hereon, the combination of plot-threads, world-building and personal character interactions keep the pockets in-between gameplay hard to turn away from.
Then you factor in the series’ signature turn-based gala of strategies, opportunities and sudden twists to consider and you have a JRPG that even after a decade, still feels mechanically satisfying to get right. There are a few deviations from what most are used to perhaps from the Cold Steel games. The first are the brief requirements that pop up from time to time, in protecting a story-crucial NPC from getting hit by enemies on the field. Sometimes it’s a static object, sometimes it’s one or even a handful of characters that wander aimlessly and worse, can’t fight back. It’s not the most engaging prospect of Zero’s entire progression and in hindsight, it’s understandable why these moments are perhaps lesser to the point of non-existent in future titles.
Regardless, though Zero predates Cold Steel’s refinement and its own smart inclusions like the Order system in Cold Steel III, Zero‘s requirement in balancing standard, special and over-powered moves is the pillar with which all combat revolves around. Zero’s more tile-based restriction on movement may seem archaic for those coming into this straight from more recent Trails entries, but that usual flow and feel of battle isn’t lost. Determining when it’s right to save up for a powerful 200CP S-Craft, or how to manipulate turn order so that those ocassional aids, like a certain percent of health recovered or even the ability for a character to act twice, apply to one’s self rather than an enemy, is just part of that long-standing appeal that marks Trails down as a fascinating utilization of skill and smarts in a combat system. And what’s more, it’s pleasing to find that even in an entry more than a decade old as Zero is, it’s perhaps the one design choice from Nihon Falcom that has aged as well as it has.
A major reason perhaps why the more major encounters — be it story-critical, optional monster hunts or even the occasional side-quest requiring you hunt down foes in a contained area or building — are as joyous to engage with as they are to finally triumph over. Repeated praise this may be from that of more recent entries, as complex and hard to fathom Zero‘s more intricate systems may seem at the start — knowing what Quartz and what abilities to assign to which character, already a potentially troublesome area long before combat even really kicks in — it goes without saying that the more you invest in the nooks and crannies, the more you’ll get out of what these types of games can offer. And it’s because Zero once again makes sure to pace things appropriately so as to not overwhelm too quickly why players will fondly remember why Nihon Falcom’s style of combat remains one of the best in the genre.
Though Trails’ usual splendor of combat options here should come as no surprise, what’s striking with this year’s remastering is how well this once portable-only entry has translated across to more modern-day portable screens alike. Improved textures, a modernized presentation and sensible quality-of-life inclusions are but the fitting accompaniment for one of the series’ least talked-about entrants and now more than ever, deserving of recognition for how much, a decade-plus later, it gets right. How well this game’s world-building on top of its gameplay has held up is praise in of itself, but it’s PH3’s assistance this time round in freshening up the overall look that helps Trails from Zero shine as a deserved look-in, no matter one’s prior experience with the series. An intriguing tale full of interesting world-building and appealing character moments alike, brief visual and performance issues aside, The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero — specifically for those on Switch — should not go overlooked.