Trails from Zero Review: A Great Place to Start

If you’ve even heard of The Legend of Heroes series, you’ve probably heard it’s very underappreciated or underplayed.On top of that you’ve also probably heard there are ten or more games you need to play to understand what’s going on. While Trails from Zero does take a bit of both those sides of baggage, it’s a really stellar journey that serves as a great starting place to dip your toe into the water and see what all the hubbub is about.

So for those uninitiated here is the boilerplate: The Legend of Heroes Trails Series spans three subseries of games, the Sky games, the Zero games, and most recently, the Cold Steel games. There are more beyond this, but those have yet to make it over here to the West. The games have been released in that order and are slowly making their way to English translations, partly thanks to fan translations that have been supported by publisher Falcom, specifically in the case of this game.

While Trails from Zero is actually the fourth game to be released; it’s a start of its own arc, introducing new characters and a new location. Breaking the conventional mold, from I’d say a lot of JRPGs, Zero has you take on a core crew of four characters: Lloyd, Tio, Elie, and Randy, right from the beginning, as they all return to Crossbell, an independent city state sandwiched right between two huge countries, and the hub of financial and cultural growth in this world. You lead these core four in this same central area through the whole game, and that goes a long way to focusing on just the characters, and building the world out organically around them.

Lloyd and crew are the newest recruits to join the Crossbell City Police Department, and have been outcast to a bit of a new “gamble” of a department, the SSS, or Special Support Section. It’s not all bad, because while they’re starting from zero, so to speak, they have an opportunity to work a bit outside the rules and focus on helping the people of the city directly. From there, it’s off to the races of upending the corrupt underworld of Crossbell City.

On some level it is definitely disorienting to play a JRPG in 2022, that was made in 2012 mind you, about playing a Police Task Force, of some shape. The SSS however are much more akin to a set of brave JRPG adventurers then actual police officers. The formula of the Trails series puts your odd couple heroes together to directly help and interact with people. Trails from Zero ups the stakes well, with the focus on a singular location instead of traveling around, and focusing on governmental policies, politics, and for the majority of the game, a thorough corruption from organized crime. Some of it takes influence from the Italian mafia, other places from the Chinese Triad, but both take a more “wholesome” spin on the concept. That probably sounds weird, thinking of organized crime as wholesome in any way, and it definitely is, but don’t think of this game as your typical crime story video game. This isn’t GTA, it’s a JRPG and the “bad guys” prefer to twirl their mustaches and engage in dialogue more than point guns at people. Both certainly do happen, and to be honest I like the tone a lot of Trails from Zero, it just isn’t going for a wholly realistic take on these headier topics, instead stylizing it all into its world. It works, save some corniness here and there, that I am a big fan of anyway.

The strengths in Trails from Zero are its unconventional approach to being a JRPG. There really isn’t worldfaring or adventuring here, though you certainly get to see the many hidden corners of Crossbell state as a whole. Plus there isn’t the idea of recruiting and building out a team as you go; the core four characters are with you from beginning to end, with some guests making an appearance here and there. 

As you uncover and learn more about the workings of this one, relatively small place, the secondary focus is exploring the characters. Lloyd has his baggage hanging over him because of his older brother, Tio is notably younger than the rest with her own dark history, Randy is trying to move on from the past, and Elie faces her insecurities in trying to help the city that’s been her home her whole life. Each character feels very different from one another, and all four characters get well earned time to grow, develop, and face a little bit of their history.

One of the faults of Legend of Heroes is how many stories often feel unresolved in a single game. There is a lot more to tell with these characters, and at worst it often feels like you’re experiencing the first half of a story.  The characters get great scenes with one another, get to develop, especially around Lloyd, the honest-to-a-fault hero, but it definitely feels like there are more secrets to spill, and that always gets me excited to see what’s next. Still, it’s good to be forewarned you’re not going to see all of where a character is headed in just this one title.

To circumvent that, Trails from Zero does a great job developing everything around the characters, building a really rich world they get to have history in. The sidequests on display here are certainly pretty goofy here and there, but add so much rich lore to everything going on. I love how there is clearly a bible of lore always tied to each Legend of Heroes game. The mentions of “The Four Great Houses of Erebonia” seem like surface references for a sidequest here in Trails from Zero, but are a centerstage topic in the Cold Steel games. All the ancillary characters that can show up for a quest about recovering a lost item, or helping someone stuck in unwinnable financial circumstances will always add another wrinkle to the social chains in the world of Crossbell.

Though it wouldn’t be a JRPG without interlocking systems that trickle down into every moment of actual gameplay. In this case, combat is a turn-based affair with two main pillars: special moves, and of course magic, both with simple to understand but progressively more complex systems at their core. Characters can build up CP (craft points) to do their specials (crafts) just by attacking and taking damage, at times allowing them to cut in the turn order to pull off their best moves, but leaving them resourceless to do specials until their meter is up again. CP usage always reminded me of a fighting game, building a meter to pull off the best abilities in the game, but having to balance that with good offense and defense.

Magic on the other hand runs through the “orbment” system, where slotting small gems, Quartz, into each character’s eight available slots will give them both stat buffs, but access to more and more spells. This system ends up being a little too complicated for its own good. The orbs are separated into seven elemental categories, and essentially the more “points” you have for each category, the more spells of that element your character will be able to cast on the field. The whole thing feels like it could be so much simpler, and often it’s not clear what you might need to do or which quartz you should use to get “the best fire spell” or “the best area of effect healing spell”.

This cumbersome system then clashes a bit with the other problem the combat has: too many status effects. There are 14 different ailments your characters can suffer, with six different effects being able to disable a party member, either by killing them instantly or making them down for a number of turns. This isn’t new to the Legend of Heroes combat, and I have not loved it in every single one of the games I’ve played. I think there is certainly a point where it becomes less of a problem, given that the only way to protect against these effects are accessories, which you’re drowning in usually by the mid-to-late portion of the game, but it still feels like too much. Too many variables, too many ways for your whole team to get downed and then absolutely run over in just a couple of turns. Trails from Zero does feel so much more approachable though, introducing a few effects early on, and a few more at a time after that. I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed save for a few moments at around the 1/3rd point of the game, and that’s a success compared to some of the other entries in the series, further pinning it as a great entry point.

These three major factors mesh into a pretty standard JRPG combat experience, but each character having and learning special moves that even evolve as the game goes on is still a plus. Some will heal your whole party, debilitate or interrupt enemies casting spells, and when you get a flow of the turn order you can really make yourself unstoppable. No system is too cumbersome here, and it doesn’t get in the way of itself, which is a win when there are arguably too many moving parts.

It’s all those spinning simultaneous plates that contribute to what makes Trails from Zero so enjoyable, and The Trails Series  as a whole so unique in the grand JRPG landscape. While on paper they may seem like pretty standard turn based JRPGs, it’s the magic sauce of this massive world of Zemuria that Falcom has helped create, all the interlocking cultures and histories, and most importantly, the characters and their stories. How the SSS comes to one another’s aid, work together, and grow together is very memorable, and even the side characters like Arios, the local hero, Sergei, the police chief, and KeA, the mysterious girl aided by the SSS, all come together to make for a memorable cast with some just lovely and heartfelt moments. 

Closing Comments:

I think Legend of Heroes as a series passes a lot of avid RPG fans by, and it can feel overwhelming to even talk about the games to a newcomer. Trails from Zero has all of the best parts of the series mixed up in it. It’s also one of the best paced, leading you on a journey with a small and memorable cast that certainly crosses over into some of the previous entries in the story, but never to a confusing degree. If you want to enter this really fascinating and anime-as-hell world Falcom has created, play Trails from Zero. I can say pretty confidently that you won’t be disappointed, and much like myself, you’ll look at the other entries wanting even more. 

This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 system with a review code provided by The Publisher.