Trails to Azure Review

The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure is the latest release from NIS America that exists in that weird space of essentially being a “Part II” game. Playing Trails from Zero, which finally made its way West last September, is a must. Keep that in mind because some of the major points of this game hinge on having played the first, and so this review will necessarily touch on some of those plot points. 

As the second half of the so-called “The Crossbell Arc” in the Trails series, Azure takes place two months after the ending of Zero, and picks up where the four core characters left off, in the The Special Support Section, or SSS. Lloyd, the charming and heroic leader, is closing up loose ends from the cult that tore through the city of Crossbell the previous year. His cohorts have been busy as well. Elie is tending to the political tensions, Randy is training up new recruits for those lost from the incident, and Tio is abroad with intent to return in a few weeks. Two returning characters, Noel and Wazy, join the SSS permanently in the meantime.

Much of the groundwork is laid out in all previous Trails titles, if you’ve played one, you tend to know how the game is going to play out. Each major chapter, your characters get support requests that act as the major quests in the game, with the freedom to explore Crossbell City and the surrounding area to complete those quests. Trails to Azure, like other Trails sequels, has your characters starting at level 50, with kitted out orbments and magic attacks all set up already, with only more and more to unlock as the game goes on. It furthers it as a “Part 2” style game, and thankfully saves a lot of the time spent on introducing mechanics and quests, how to turn in quests, and all of the systems from the first game by just introducing them all in the first couple hours.

I’ve always appreciated how Trails approaches its sequels; it doesn’t waste much time assuming you’re just skipping the first Crossbell game and jumping into this, because that would be insanity. Instead it warmly eases you back into the world of Crossbell, there are characters to check in with, old friends and faces to see, and in this case, new members of the party to introduce them. Above all else, Azure and Zero have made Crossbell one of the most interesting locations in this world.

The geo-political landscape of the continent is the heart of the story in Trails to Azure. Crossbell is stuck right between two huge countries, The Empire and The Republic, and they both are vying for territory in Crossbell, both on the surface, with political pressure and lobbying, but also in the seedy underbelly of Crossbell. The SSS is always acting in the best interests of the people of the city, with the first major event that happens in the story being a massive and tense trade conference between all the major countries of the continent, and takes place within Crossbell. It helps set the stage for all these political tensions, and these moments of interconnectivity and realism between the different locales in the Legend of Heroes world is maybe my favorite part about them.

On the surface, it may not seem interesting to invest yourself in the political climate of this world, but Trails always paints it from the perspective of its lead characters. Most of the SSS are from Crossbell, and of course have a vested stake in its politics. You see how the tension of the past has trickled down to normal citizens through the core characters, their relationships, and the people they’ve lost. When the new mayor declares independence for Crossbell, against the wishes of the Empire and the Republic, it sets the stage for the big drama of the story to happen. It feels like a big moment because it’s been built to, not only within this game, but in Trails from Zero before it. 

Without getting too in the weeds with spoilers, I’ll say that there is definitely a tonal shift from the down-to-earth storytelling of moment to moment questing, and then the big, over the top, larger than life villains and plots that come into play later in the story. There isn’t a perfect transition here, with characters having reveals of being some bigger player in the world all along, or turning coat into a villain, which sometimes feels more in service of the plot than the characters themselves. What I loved most about Trails from Zero was its focus; it had the four main characters and it developed their relationships really well, both individually, and as a team. With two new members of the SSS, I was hoping Noel and Wazy would get the same treatment, but I don’t think they do. They have reveals and moments, but it feels more beholden to the extremely over the top antics of the villains and their secret plot. Wazy barely gets any time to actually develop, and it made both him and Noel feel more like side-characters that just happened to be party members rather than true new recruits to the team.

This is a bit of an issue with the Trails series as a whole, where magic and history play a huge role in the stories taking place across the continent, but it faces a good amount of friction with the much more grounded storytelling that happens before things hit the fan. Most of your time you’re just helping people fight monsters, or find lost family members, but now all of the sudden there are ancient magical runes throughout the citystate and super-monsters appearing all over the place. The two don’t bridge to one another as well as I’d like, and while I think the characters are also exasperated by this, I don’t think it lends itself to as strong an overall story.

Still, the human heart of it all is grounded by KeA, a character the SSS saved in Trails from Zero, and usually little kid characters you want/have to protect are hit or miss with me, but I think KeA is fantastic. She is super lovable, has great interactions with all the party members, and feels like a good emotional anchor for the storytelling, even if the villains are much less interesting.

Trails isn’t just its big story though, the little stories are just as critical to enjoying the experience. I went out of my way to play this like the old school RPG it is, and tried to talk to every ancillary character whenever I could. There are several “Hidden Requests” throughout the chapters of the game that make up the bulk of the optional content in Trails to Azure, and they’re some of the best parts of the story. Many of them just flesh out characters or parts of the world that are more in the periphery, but what I loved and appreciated was how doing these optional objectives would change or enhance the dialogue that happens along the main story. So much optional dialogue opens up by just talking to key characters after important events happen. This goes as far as an optional series of quests that helps the main characters solve the mystery before it is revealed as part of the main story, changing the dialogue in a pivotal cutscene. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty small, but Trails to Azure respects the player’s investment; if you spend time learning all the secrets of Crossbell, you’re absolutely rewarded for it. This is a lot harder to do with big budget modern RPGs, and seeing what feels like a “small game” achieve this so well is precisely what goes to make the Trails games so special. 

Another personal favorite “side story” so to speak are the Chest Messages. Both the Crossbell games and the three Trails games before it feature funny little messages hidden in treasure chests that you can read in empty chests after you’ve opened them. These range from terrible puns, to meta humor on the storytelling, to even a whole mini-story told through 61 separate chest messages you have to piece together. Moreover, toward the end of the game, they become a message from the fan-translation team, The Geofront, that helped make the original translations for these games and were brought on to ratify that translation for the official western release of Zero & Azure. It’s a wholesome thank you to the fans and to Falcom that made this happen, since these games have been missing English releases for over 10 years, and even if you don’t know the circumstances of how these games finally got translated, for the fans that do and have been waiting, it feels like a little love letter to them. 

On the actual mechanical side of things, Trails to Azure introduces a new type of Quartz, which are the equippable items that let you cast magic, called Master Quartz. These are huge passive buffs that can help fill in the gaps in a character’s repertoire and also help them specialize a bit more when it comes to combat. Turns out, this is the first Trails game to introduce them, as Master Quartz are present in some of the future titles, and as a system it makes a huge difference in combat. 

Having passive buffs, in addition to just way more flexibility to the combat, since you start at a pretty high level, led me to understanding and getting much more invested in combat. To me, this will always be the weakest part about Trails, considering there are just so many status effects, and often the challenge of combat is just crowd control before you get overwhelmed. I don’t love and will never love entering a normal mob combat with six enemies and they all go before my team and just wipe me before I even get a chance to attack, and that still happens in this game, but you’re also given a lot more tools to combat that. 

Giving a character a passive evasion buff, giving them all armor and accessories with evasion buffs, and casting spells that make them more evasive, can turn an ally into an “evasion tank”, where they are pulling all the enemy attention away while also being basically untouchable. You can then spec other characters into spellcasting, allowing one member of the party to pull aggro, and the rest of the party to do damage from range. The different quartz and orbment options allow for something like this a lot earlier on in the game, but this is just one example of a build you can make, just a very effective one. There is a lot more experimentation available to you, but also because the game kind of opens up at the end, you’re free to power yourself up a ton before some of the final challenges, and I really appreciate this. Most Trails games lock you into the story at a point, but here you can get better gear at any point through the final dungeon, so if you’re struggling you have plenty of options available to you. 

Closing Thoughts:

Trails to Azure is a great sendoff to the Crossbell arc. It’s wonderful to finally see these games get translated and officially brought to the West, as the missing middle piece to The Legend of Heroes: Trails series. The overarching “big bads” are not great, and there isn’t a seamless jump from the down-to-earth plot into the more anime, over the top finale, but it’s still a fun time because the characters provide the heart of it. If you’ve never jumped into the series before, I think Trails from Zero and Trails to Azure are a great, consumable, and much more approachable mini-arc to start the series with, and I don’t think you’ll leave disappointed.

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