Making its first appearance on the western market only in 2011 on the PSP, Trails in the Sky First Chapter is a game originally developed in 2004 and in many ways shows its age, from its rudimentary (yet pleasant) graphics to the slow battle animations. But these small things are nothing compared to the merits that this gem of a game shows.
First of all let's start from what sets this game apart from all other JRPGs: the WRITING.
This is some of the best writing I've seen in any jrpg; unlike a lot of other titles, the dialogues actually sound like things people would say in a normal conversation; while some of the dialogue might seem a bit superfluous and pedantic, every line and event shows a deeper meaning in the long run and you'll be pleasantly surprised every hour about how natural the interactions between the characters sound.
Which brings me to the second biggest point of the game: the characters.
The main cast of the game is exceptional: the members of the party are more or less all representative of a certain trope (the Genki Girl, the rude but tender-hearted warrior, the Spoony Bard etc.) but they all have interesting quirks about them and falling in love with all of them is pretty easy. Every character has a personality of its own and a role to play in the story. Even the NPCs (ALL OF THEM!) have their own name, personality and parallel story going on in the meantime.
The game presents a level of detail hardly seen in the genre, and the lore is simply astounding. The world of the game presents a very complex socio-political situation and an interesting history spanning more than a thousand years, with so many different elements (cultural, religious, economic etc.) that give off an organic vibe usually present only in novels.
The gameplay side of the game, while it's nothing overly exceptional (it's a 2004 game after all) is well made and fairly entertaining. The battle system is some kind of hybrid between Grandia and Xenosaga, you can move your characters around the battlefiled almost like in a tactical jrpg, and every other turn you can get a bonus like HP healing, critical hits and so on. The battles are pretty easy (and a bit boring) in the beginning but things get quite different after enemies become stronger and more difficult to kill and you have access to more interesting and complex spells and crafts. At the end of the game things can get quite challenging, and there's a boss battle in particular which will feel extremely satisfying to win.
The ability system of the game is quite similar to the one present in Final Fantasy VII, you have these orbs called Quartz, and according to the combination of the Quartz's elements you can access different spells in battle (and also get some passive bonus like +10%HP and so on)
The plot of the game is very solid: unlike most jrpgs where you have to save the entire world from catastrophe, the action is restricted to a single kingdom and there is no thousand-years old deity to slay at the end of the game; the game presents and more "humble" and personal story where two young adventurers set off to a journey to travel around their homeland and end up finding a lot of unexpected things along the way. Nevertheless it's quite intriguing and after a certain point in the game you'll keep playing to see how things turn out in the end.
- Superb writing
- Massive and interesting lore
- Complex and lovable characters
- Good battle system
- Story packed with intrigue and mysteries (after a few hours, though)
- The pacing of the story is not always perfect, and you might yawn a few times during the first hours
- Slow battle animations
- So many missables. Getting everything in this game without a guide is a nightmare
PLAY THE GAME IF: You're into jrpgs, good writing, engaging stories, and you're not afraid to delve into something that might be a lot more complex than you thought.
DON'T PLAY THE GAME IF: You don't like reading and have little patience for a plot that takes a while to evolve. Also if you hate cliffhangers.
Overall, I'd give this game a 8.5/10. One of the best surprises of the recent years!