Having now finished both halves of Trails in the Sky I feel it is a game that does very little new, but does almost everything incredibly well and with enough charm and character that it is consistently enjoyable to play and highly engaging. I have explained in previous articles how its escalation of scale from small personal problems to an ultimately nationwide threat is well-paced (over around 60-80 hours of gameplay across two games) and turned into a key piece of character development. What is more, the personal aspects (which are what make the game memorable) are very well-woven into the main plot; characters appear in sidequests and then become plot-significant, for example. In a game where a good amount of the story is about trying to work out from zero information what is going on, having the NPCs feel like they are people living lives and carrying out plans that intersect with the party’s travels is a good, immersive touch.
NB: This review touches on plot details from Trails in the Sky SC and FC, and discusses the game’s themes and storyline in some depth.
What is more, while there is a world-ending plot at play, and a series of ever-worse tragedies that presage it, the driving conflict remains a personal one. Saving the world needs doing, but it is so pleasing to see the villain’s master plan explanation be all but ignored by a hero mostly angry about how the villain has tried multiple times to tear her apart from her adopted brother. When the player loses a party member as the climax to the first game, it takes half the second game for them to come back, and even then it is not straightforward. It is hard to overstate how good I feel this is as game writing; mechanically, losing a strong and popular party member makes itself felt from the start. Narratively, the game does not let up on showing how hard this is on the characters you have spent 40 hours of the first game getting to know. And it takes 20 more hours or so to get the catharsis, just at the point where the bigger picture is finally clear.
Something I criticise Bioware RPGs for is almost mechanically separating the moments of good character writing from the main plot; I cannot remember very much of the plot of Dragon Age Inquisition, for example, but I can remember significantly more of its small moments of character interaction – hunting down novels for a secret fan, bizarre Robin Hood-esque pranks and so on. They gave you a reason to like the characters, as broad-strokes stereotypes as they were. But ultimately I feel it was an uneven experience; interesting and amusing characters existed in service to an unmemorable plot that had to remain largely generic to allow for different parties to fit within it. In Trails in the Sky the availability and unavailability of characters is determined by the main story, the sidequests are time-limited by story progression and everything exists in service to the main plot. Many of the sidequests involve fixing problems caused by the chapter’s main crisis, and there are bonuses for taking the “correct” characters for a storyline even when the choice is optional. It is also worth noting that the optional, performance-locked sidequests in, say, Mass Effect or Dragon Age are the main vehicles for character backstory and development – while in a more linear game, as Trails in the Sky is, the backstories are central to the development of the main story. The player learns about the characters as part of the plot so even though the game eventually becomes comparatively open in terms of party composition, it still has a sense that certain characters have important roles to play.
It may be unfair to compare a highly linear RPG with a very open-world one, but I think the comparison should not be so much about game mechanics but about how the games in question present characters and create immersive worlds. Trails makes me believe that the best way to build an immersive cast of characters is to create a more curated experience and use the granting and restricting of character choice as a narrative tool. Many of the more memorable parts of computer games involved times when limits are imposed or lifted for narrative effect because this is an often underrated bridge between mechanics and narrative. What Sky SC does is in its first half force the player to take each character through the first half of their plot arc, and then lets the player choose come the endgame whether they will get closure or not. Neither of these things are left to sidequests; it is not like Mass Effect where a character’s conflict is introduced in their debut but their closure is a missable sidequest, the introduction of and defeat of a character’s rival in Sky SC is just part of the main plot. As a result, the optional content does not so much lock away personal development for the cast but worldbuilding and indeed genuine roleplaying even within a limited and curated game. Helping people is supposed to be your hero’s motivation. The player is given the opportunity to roleplay this by choosing to do optional jobs instead of focusing only on the main plot. Indeed, one of the most subtle things Sky SC does is have a fresh round of sidequests after a chapter’s main plot is over – the crisis is resolved, you can choose to move on to the next city or you can help the people get back to normal and make sure everything is going to be OK. Subtle and thematic.
What all this adds up to is a world and cast of characters that might be broad-strokes stereotypes but they are likeable and worth caring about. I feel the measuring-stick for video game narratives is does the player care about the story, and I definitely feel Sky achieves this. It does not overreach in ambition but focuses on creating a cast of timeworn characters that nevertheless mature and develop over the game’s course. It is most fitting, then, that the mid-story climax is a personal loss rather than the revelation of the villain’s plan. The simple revelation that someone wants to take over the world would be predictable and rather dull. The revelation that the archvillain has specifically hurt your protagonist’s best friend as part of some plan that at this stage you don’t understand feels a lot more impactful – and this is carried through into the final battle. When Estelle finally has her showdown with Weissmann, the ultimate villain of the game, the impression from the dialogue is that she doesn’t care about his grand plan involving an ancient super-technology system because he is the man that has constantly messed with her best friend’s life. Indeed, come the endgame he is not even killed by the main cast, but by a secretive hanger-on who has his own agenda.
Something worth noting is that throughout all of Trails in the Sky the heroes kill only one villain (out of the two who actually die), and even that is not at the hands of the main cast. The boss rush in the final dungeon sees five out of seven enemies simply humiliated or beaten to the point they feel their rivalry settled, one killed by the final boss and the final boss himself killed by a party member working alone after he has been thoroughly defeated and is running away. Numerous enemies are handed over to the authorities (and in a very good scene at the end of SC the final boss of the first game redeems himself after having earlier in the game talked down his vengeful subordinate), and the named bosses of individual chapters all have their personal rivalries hashed out before being left alive. It rather fits the optimism of the whole story – the villains are not simply “fight to the death” idiots and the heroes realise this and want to help them while still preventing them from committing further evil.
All told Sky does enough subtle things extremely well to be one of the best RPGs I have played. Taken as a whole it is generic but extremely well-executed, but considered closely there are subtle aspects that often marry mechanics and theme, or take the story in a slightly different direction, that make it incredibly interesting and memorable.