Well, I just finished Trails in the Sky SC this morning, so I thought I might write a little about it. I’m going to assume you’ve played Trails in the Sky FC and SC (hereon just FC/SC), which is probably not a lot of you! Hopefully even if you haven’t played these you can still get something out of this post,
What is Trails in the Sky???
Trails in the Sky (FC and SC – I’m playing the 3rd currently) are a series of games in which you get interested in reading the in-game newspaper. It’s a game in which you’ll spend extra time in the protagonist’s hometown to make sure you’ve taken care of the things your neighbors need. It’s a game that has the ‘friendship is great’ theme but I think actually does a good job on making it work by showing a wide variety of people at different ages who followed – or didn’t follow – that life advice!
More generally, “Trails” is a franchise of 10 chronological games set in one world, and that makes it really interesting to follow, one-by-one.
If that catches your interest, go read some reviews or the wikipedia page!
Should I play Trails in the Sky
A Town as a Character
I like that Estelle and Joshua are learning about the world’s economic/political systems at the same time that you are. You visit the towns in a round trip, one by one, learning about the towns’ political leaders, citizen lifestyles, main economic markets, history. This is communicated through talking to people around town or quests. What ends up happening is towns have specific… personalities to them? In real life, cities absolutely don’t work like that, but in fiction, the towns having specific personalities make it easy for us to contrast where we live/have lived with whatever aspect of FC’s city is being drawn into focus (Rolent’s focus on mining energy with a slower-paced and welcoming feel, Zeiss’s focus on technology/manufacturing). I’m used to immediately forgetting about a JRPG’s town as soon as I leave it, so how Trails in the Sky approached towns was refreshing.
Within hours it’s clear that making a game like Trails is 100% impossible without a team of over 15+. I go on a lot about why I like smaller things more generally, but Trails feels like an exception – it feels like a successful experiment in ‘how much detail can we put into NPCs and how much can we sell this world to the player?’ Which I like – to be honest, if I’m spending hours doing something in a game, I’d usually prefer it to be reading…
I think there are still takeaways for indie developers despite how hard it would be to make a game exactly like FC/SC. I wouldn’t have to necessarily replicate the scale of the game’s dialogue to borrow from the ways they flesh out a town, for instance. Also, by seeing how the game achieves what it does at this scale, you can pare those techniques down and apply them to your own games.
I wonder how original players of this game dealt with no turbo (to the unacquainted, Trails in the Sky on PC lets you hold a button down to speed up!) You walk a lot in this game! Trails FC is um, Dark Souls, if Dark Souls was a JRPG where you walk around a country… never mind…
Since the game’s world is set on a big circular path, you get a really good sense for how everything fits together. This is useful because when characters refer to locations or events happening in other towns, you can instantly visualize where that was and what happened.
Walking does get a little annoying, sure… but I think that’s because there are too many side quests, and some of them have you running around too much. Regardless of how annoying it is, walking still effectively ‘grounds’ you in the game’s world. I really enjoyed this lack of abstraction (where some games might use world maps) because it felt utilized well for the game’s themes (of Estelle learning about the country on foot). It also kind of makes an argument for walking around your home neighborhood/town more…
Being Socially Grounded
The game takes care to establish Estelle’s relation to Joshua, to her dad, to the Bracer Guild, to her hometown, and its citizens, way before we’re worried about deep state conspiracies or shadowy anime villains. Piece by piece, we zoom out from the person-to-person social relation way before we’re even thinking about the nation-to-nation Liberl-Erebonia relations. Because the game spends time building these pieces at a low level, it makes the world’s national-level events genuinely interesting and exciting (which is why I’m so curious to see how all the other Trails games pan out!). This is why the news ends up being fun to read, it’s also why, during FC’s ending festival with all the NPCs bustling outdoors, there’s a sense of “I’m missing out” while wasting time indoors!
It’s interesting – I’m not usually the type to go for these high-detailed fantasy worldbuilding games, but there’s a lot of memories/emotional resonances that FC/SC make possible because of the sheer detail. I wouldn’t be able to trigger my memory of ‘feeling like I’m missing out during a summer festival…’ if the game didn’t put me into that situation after being invested in the world. (And that’s just one example!)
Some Bad Things
FC/SC aren’t perfect of course! For one, the game frames militaries and cops as benevolent things. Most big problems are solved by Bracers (at times detectives, but also at times, cops) arresting people or by the military’s forces saving the day. It’s a JRPG in a fantasy setting, so of course you end up with stakes around killing people/beating people up which usually leads to military/soldiers/cops being framed that way. But… I’m willing to let that slide because trying to expect explicit abolitionist ideals in every game I play would be miserable. There are just some things I gotta let slide. I just said slide three times… oh well.
The battle system takes too long… it’s unimaginable how long the fights must have taken without turbo…! I had to change my save file in SC halfway through because of how long the battles were taking. The negative effect of this is that it leaves me fatigued to reading more dialogue, so I’d develop negative/burnout-y feelings towards the game at time. I like the battle system and how they balance new character skills acquisition, but after like 100 fights I’m pretty much done…
I’m still not sure how I feel on this, but so many characters having traumatic backgrounds – I mean, sure this game is set 5 years after a war, but I wonder to what extent making your characters traumatized – to what extent that should be used in character development and motivation…?
FC or SC?
Both games are great, but FC feels more memorable by how it paints and builds its world and pairs that with its growing protagonists, creating what feels like a character study of a fictional nation. SC, although set in FC’s world, feels more like a standard JRPG: clear cast of villains, clear escalating stakes, killing a demi-god. SC is done well, fleshes out all the characters you meet in FC nicely, and introduces some great new ones. But to me, SC was kind of awkwardly mashing together the slow build of FC with a SC’s plot, that took forever to take off. By the end of FC you’re already invested in Liberl, so there wasn’t much need to have 4 “kill this monster” quests and 2 “run around for 30 minutes” quests in each town in SC. Just 1 or 2 quests focusing on key locations/minor NPCs probably would have been good enough!
SC’s first half at times felt like a slog, mainly motivated by wanting to make it to Trails The 3rd (which has an experimental narrative structure). But boy, that Liber Ark section is sure something to play through given the world today!
Favorite line in FC/SC?
“That’s some serious sparkage!” (Joshua from FC, in Zeiss, when Professor Russell is trying to saw open the Gospel…)
Mayor Maybelle.. eheh …
(Just kidding. …or?)