Further Thoughts on Trails in the Sky

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Image by “Shikei”, found here

Note: This article contains details of the ending and story of Trails in the Sky First Chapter, and should probably be read only by people who have played the game or do not mind knowing its story.

When I began playing Trails in the Sky FC I was impressed by its small scale and sense of unwilling, unusual escalation; it was a game that, I felt, very well justified its game mechanics of levelling up and gaining rewards through diligent searching for secondary objectives by framing the entire story as an extended examination. The two main characters were being tested, sent on a series of journeys to cities which as a quest was completely secondary to the main plot. A lot of games have their heroes put into the main plot by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or through a mission which changes parameters as the “real” villain shows themselves. In many ways, Sky does this, but does it in a subtle and charming way that, I feel, quite credibly justifies why the unlikely heroes continue being heroes.

The actual conflict which defines the climax of the story is foreshadowed interestingly; there are several things wrong with the various places that the characters go to, but each of those crises seems to be easily resolvable and largely unconnected; a property development scam in one town and a series of robberies in another both seem to imply larger-scale conspiracies, but the crimes are easily resolved with the eventual co-operation of local authorities resistant to outside interference. It is revealed by the end of the third main mission, an investigation into a kidnapping resulting from research into an apparently unrelated artefact, that the linking conspiracy is the authorities themselves. All of the small victories have been ways for a group of conspirators to build support for their coup, to discredit their rivals and strengthen the position of their own forces. Thus the final mission involves finding a way to expose the conspiracy, stop it being carried out, and confront the mastermind behind it.

Except the game undercuts this with another interesting development that ties several optional, apparently unrelated sidestories together, and it is this story arc that makes the game’s “villain,” Alan Richard, so interesting. His reasons for villainy are suitably low-key and personal for a game all about building trust and understanding of communities; he is a soldier left in command by his superior’s retirement – the man he is replacing having been a national hero who was crucial to turning the tide of a desperate war. Terrified of his nation’s weakness – it being geographically surrounded by more powerful enemies and possessed of a rapidly diminishing technological advantage which won one war but will probably not have the same effect again – he seeks to strengthen his position by staging a military coup to install a ruler he can influence to increase military spending. It is hardly even a world-domination plot; it is someone with an inferiority complex who feels hamstrung by a government who do not share his concerns looking to simply install a more sympathetic ruler.

It is quite fitting that Richard is ultimately defeated by the children of his former commander, and in the end by the return of the nation’s hero from retirement – and his final conversations, in which his illusions of the stature of the man he worships are shattered by that very hero telling him to grow some backbone, are a very nice ending to his arc. It comes not long in the story after he meets the heroes face-to-face and, rather than grandstanding about his inevitable domination of the world simply talks about how he is purely motivated by respect for a good man he will never live up to. In his previous appearances he has always been the model of efficiency and competence; a scene at the start of the fourth chapter of the game, when his plan is beginning to show flaws, has this slip for ruthlessness, but all in all he is a polite, scheming villain with an interesting twist; smugness not born from a total position of superiority or amorality, but simply from the need to present a strong facade.

On its own the story about Richard’s coup, and the restoration of the true heir to the throne, would be a good low-key adventure for Sky. The way it is built up and resolved is a nice way of rounding off Estelle, the hero’s, personal development arc about her own father’s legacy. But there is a wrongness about Richard’s plan that sets, very subtly, a sequel hook in motion. Throughout the game the various stories all seem to revolve around people acting out of character, suddenly turning to avarice or deeper depths of criminality than usual. The gang of thieves seem to be bolder than ever and then have no recollection of why, for example. It transpires that Richard is under the same effect, because there is a part of his plan that seems completely inscrutable; not only is he trying to seize political power via a succession crisis he engineers, he also wants to head into an ancient temple and do something with an artefact he is passionately interested in acquiring. When he is finally confronted in front of an ancient machine, it is revealed he has no idea what he is doing. He simply believes vehemently that if he brings these things together he will get control over an ancient weapon he doesn’t understand or even know what it is, which will help him make his nation strong.

The thing that breaks him is being told he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That he has worked hard as a manipulator but has spent vast resources on some kind of project he has no memory or understanding of the purpose of. This is an excellent scene; the stage is all set for the villain to begin explaining their total, researched control of an ancient superweapon, except in this case Richard doesn’t even know what it does and the final boss of the game turns out to be an automated security system intended to prevent people from activating the weapon that he accidentally triggers. This then leads into the most interesting part of the story, and the thing that sets the sequel up; someone – and it turns out to be someone who is eminently missable throughout the game – has been subtly influencing a large number of characters to bring his own faction’s plans to fruition – and Richard’s “failure” to control this ancient robot is in fact simply engineering a situation where it would be destroyed so the real mastermind doesn’t have to fight it. And it is this revelation of the power of mind control at play that makes the ending so poignant; Alba, the apparently harmless scientist who can be “rescued” a few times throughout the game, is in fact able to influence the minds of others. He explains to Joshua, one of the two sibling heroes, that in the past he mind-controlled him to provide information to Alba’s faction. And thus the game ends with Joshua realising if he has been controlled once, and as he has seen the effects of this control on Richard, and the thieves, and others, he could be controlled again – and walking out of the life of Estelle.

It is a hell of a sequel hook; the game ends on a cliffhanger, but unlike Trails of Cold Steel, where the ending is very much a hotblooded kind of tragic in the vein of “the villains have revealed themselves and while they are winning now, we are going to fight and win”, Sky‘s revelation is that the heroes are so far out of their depth the kindest, safest thing to do would be to simply lay low and for Joshua to simply leave the people he has been programmed to betray. Alba and his faction have subtly influenced the plot of the game, but barely appear within it – nevertheless, the ending makes them incredibly easy to hate.

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