A Detailed Beginner’s Guide to Getting Into the Trails Series

The Trails series is a collective JRPG titan boasting engaging character relationships, intricate world-building, overarching plot threads, and much more. With the recent announcements of 4 never before localized entries making their way to the West across the following 2 years, now is a wise time for any intrigued prospective parties to dive into this franchise and give it a shot.

Ordinarily, for a series with such vital connective tissue as this, release order would be the definitive way for players to experience these titles, and it arguably is in some ways. However, there are a few caveats that currently prevent that choice from being possible for Western fans. I also have some reasons why the release order is not necessarily objectively superior to the other orders one can choose to go with.

Regardless, there are 3 games every beginner fan should play, so let’s briefly overview their importance to the series at large and exactly why they should be first alongside the staple combat mechanics.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky FC, SC, and Third Chapter

Trails in the Sky 5

The very first Trails title players should attempt to experience is The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Not only was this entry the first to be localized, but it is also the first game of the series as a whole. Players control protagonist Estelle Bright, a spunky and energetic young girl who becomes an up-and-coming Bracer alongside her adopted brother, Joshua Bright. The two journey across the land of Liberl, aiding townspeople, solving mishaps, making allies, and uncovering a shrewdly veiled conspiracy. The sequel, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC, takes place right after the events of the initial title and concludes the story arc it sets up.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the Third is an unorthodox entry that, while taking place after the conclusion of SC, follows a different protagonist and conveys its story and characterizations in altogether distinct ways for the conventions the franchise has set up to that point. Some say this title is optional, but I couldn’t argue against that notion any more strongly. It is a vital hub, acting as a curtain call of sorts to the Sky saga proper, and it fleshes out certain characters who received minimal times of limelight in the prior 2 entries.

Trails in the Sky 3

Combat in these titles is turn-based, with several elements to take conscious note of. Firstly, characters have 2 gauges aside from their HP. The blue gauges are EP and used for casting Arts, which essentially equates to mana and spells. Enemies all have elemental affinities and the like, and certain spells buff the party and debuff the enemies; standard RPG systems.

The orange gauges are CP and used for performing Crafts, which are character-specific skills with varied utilities. With Crafts being character-specific, they are obviously quite situational and dependent on a player’s context.

Other mechanics permeate throughout the entirety of these games, most notably Sepith values. This impacts the primary gameplay element that offers a considerable degree of player agency comes from equipping characters with Quartz, which grants them stat boosts and specified levels of spells. Each playable character has their own Orbment, which houses Quartz, and each Orbment is specifically tailored for each member of the cast. By this, I mean that some characters have slots that can only allow 1 element.

This system can be confusing to grasp at first, but to put it in as basic of a form as possible, each Quartz element, fire, wind, water, etc., has its own values. Depending on how high an elemental value is for a character’s Orbment, they will learn certain spells.

For example, let’s take the water spell ‘Tear,’ the default Art for healing. Think of it as ‘Cure’ from the Final Fantasy games. If a character knows ‘Tear’ from equipping beginner level water Quartz, they can equip higher-leveled water Quartz, later on, to learn ‘Teara,’ a stronger form of ‘Tear.’ This new Quartz can be equipped in conjunction with the old one that granted ‘Tear’ to continually build up to higher levels of water magic. To make this less confusing, since I mentioned Sepith earlier, Sepith is merely what is contained within Quartz and determines the elemental values.

Trails in the Sky
Placing Quartz into an Orbment

So think of it like this:

  • Sepith is found from monsters, treasure chests, and quests and can be any element. The type of Sepith one finds is dependent on the monsters they kill, for instance.
  • Sepith is then used to make various Quartz with their own elements, and they then go into the cast’s Orbments.
  • Orbments can be thought of as containers that each playable character has. Therefore, equipping Quartz will influence stats and learned Arts. For example, equipping a variety of fire Quartz will grant the character several higher-level fire-related spells since the amount of fire Sepith ingrained within the Quartz determines the levels of spells one obtains.

Once again, this can be relatively overwhelming to grasp. In fact, it took me the entirety of the first Sky game to really understand how these systems worked. Still, figuring out the intricacies of Sepith values and Orbments is half the fun and can easily conclude in players experimenting with character setups for hours upon hours on end.

Aside from combat, the first 2 Sky games, and most of Trails by extension, are experts at creating immersive, populated locales full of memorable NPCs. I’d argue that some games accomplish this task better than others, but each town has its fair share of named NPCs with their own characterizations, plights, and relationships. It is common in JRPGs to explore towns with nameless NPCs that get the basics of world immersion down while not feeling distinct. However, Trails takes this step immensely further and attempts to make each populated area chock full of actualized characters that aren’t just ornate decorative elements to make the world feel lived in.

The best way I can put it is that the people aren’t made for the towns, but towns are made for the people. As a result, most of the NPCs feel genuine and like real people first and foremost. This element is what truly sold me on Trails alongside its other strengths.

Trails in the Sky 4
Yes, there is a fishing minigame

The final element I will touch upon for the Sky games is how it manages to accomplish stellar world-building alongside delivering contained stories set within the confines of its particular setting. The Trails games are all set within the same world on the continent of Zemuria, and each saga of games takes place in a specific region. The Sky games, for example, take place in Liberl. There is constant mention of the other regions of the world, too, though, such as Erebonia, the setting of the Cold Steel saga. The third Sky game hones in this specific facet and ultimately makes the world of Trails a natural and cohesive one.

Hopefully, I’ve done a suitable job outlining and selling the Sky saga. I find these games vital to the collective Trails experience and criminally underrated ones and deserving of fathoms more attention. I have not mentioned other strengths, such as how the XSEED localizations for Sky include humorous, charming dialogue when examining treasure chests and how Sky Third’s localization expanded on this element to straight-up tell stories across the treasure chests. Still, though, I think I have said enough and have managed to generally demonstrate what makes the Sky saga so appealing.

Trails in the Sky 1

On a personal note, this saga is a rather precious and nostalgic one since I followed the games ever since around the time The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was first localized on PSP. It is not my favorite of the Trails arcs, but it is undeniably a masterclass in telling engaging narratives with realistically reactive characters in a genuinely immersive world. The personalized gameplay elements also enhance the immersion that the agency players can embrace with Sepith values.

What makes playing the Sky trilogy somewhat odd for certain audiences nowadays is that the games are only available in a localized fashion on Steam and GOG, with no console ports available. The first 2 games were localized on PSP, and there have been ports of these games on other platforms such as the Vita in Japan with enhanced content, though with additions that don’t sit well with particular fans, such as a changed art style and altered soundtracks.

I find it best and most convenient to play the 3 Sky games on PC via Steam or GOG and not bother with the PSP releases since Third’s English release is absent. The PC versions also have turbo mode, making map navigation and battles a far swifter set of affairs. The way players desire to experience these games is obviously up to them, but I figured I’d throw my own 2 cents.

Next up on the list is the Crossbell duology, consisting of The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero and The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero and The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure

Trails from Zero

Discussing these 2 games will be a bit awkward, as Trails from Zero and Trails to Azure are not yet officially available in English but have received fan translations equivalent to what one would expect from an official job. The most notable of these fan translations are done by Geofront, a group that has managed to translate the entirety of these 2 goliaths of games while also adding in updated graphical capabilities and other enhancements like turbo mode.

The Geofront translations are being used in NIS America’s upcoming official localizations, with Zero releasing in Fall 2022 and Azure sometime in 2023. The news of this official partnership was announced recently, and following it, the patches containing these Geofront translations have since been removed from their website. So, with that said, I’m going to run on the assumption that prospective players reading this article will be waiting for the official releases since I don’t advise scrounging for these removed patches.

I, myself, have played through Zero and Azure multiple times, 3 times for the former and 2 for the latter. Both games have fan translations other than Geofront’s, but they were not up to par in various ways. Speaking of Geofront, I congratulate them on achieving what is quite literally the fan translator’s dream.

Trails from Zero 1

With that being said, let’s start with Trails from Zero. The Crossbell saga takes place after Sky the Third and focuses on the new protagonist Lloyd Bannings alongside his teammates in the Special Support Section, frequently called the SSS for short. Lloyd is an up-and-coming detective trying to follow in the footsteps of his now-deceased brother and, with the SSS, aims to aid the citizenry of Crossbell in various ways. They gradually uncover truths shrouded in the secretive underbelly of the city, though, and that’s where the appeal of the arc truly begins to shine. Trails to Azure takes place a while after the finale of Trails from Zero and concludes the arc.

What makes this saga ideal to play after the Sky trilogy is that there are a number of returning characters from those games, and they aren’t merely cameos. Instead, they regularly interact with the newly introduced cast and impact the plot as a whole. Additionally, it is also worth keeping in mind that the events of the Crossbell games take place roughly concurrently with the first 2 Cold Steel games, most notably with Azure.

Trails to Azure
The Special Support Section

Combat in Zero and Azure uses the same systems as Sky with Sepith values while also introducing lite new mechanics to the fray, such as party attacks. Azure drastically alters Orbments with the introduction of Master Quartz, too, giving it a more instilled sense of gameplay identity. At their core though, the combat progression across these games is essentially an updated iteration of what the Sky saga provided.

Unlike the Sky games, where players journey across the land of Liberl, Zero and Azure instead primarily take place in Crossbell city proper alongside the settlements around its immediate vicinity. Speaking of the city itself, Crossbell is arguably the most unique of the regions in Zemuria since its geographical location is rather precarious, right between Erebonia and Calvard.

It is a comparatively minuscule region that is politically important and often desired for occupation by higher military powers. These factors serve to make Crossbell a melting pot of sorts fraught with all kinds of perils unique to itself. The criminal activity taking place in the recesses of the city is only more pronounced with the standout, particular identity Crossbell has found itself engraved with.

The narratives of these games also wield this facet in spades, making it a more politically involved affair than what the Sky saga provided. I’d argue the actual location of Crossbell is where its strengths shine the brightest, as there’s truly no other city in Zemuria boasting its consistently involved depth.

Trails to Azure 1

One of Crossbell’s other strengths is that since it’s mostly confined to a relatively compact map, there is conceptually more intimacy with the NPCs, thereby selling the city’s higher degree of intricacy. The divisions of the city with areas like the Entertainment District where a certain group of popular dancers performs and the Administrative District where the police and other key figures work also further enhance the liveliness and realism.

Personally speaking, the Crossbell games are my least favorites of the series for reasons I won’t get into here, but it is the most beloved saga for several vocal fans. Additionally, its connectivity to the upcoming Trails into Reverie continues to highlight its long-lasting implications and importance to the series at large.

With both of these games coming to PS4, Switch, and PC across 2022 and 2023, they are definitely worth waiting for and are integral parts of the collective Trails experience. However, due to how these games interconnect with Cold Steel I and II, I will offer the suggested play orders after the following section.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel I – IV

Trails of Cold Steel

The Cold Steel saga is the most recently concluded one, with Trails of Cold Steel IV having been localized. These games take place in the region of Erebonia, with protagonist Rean Schwarzer spanning across all 4 games. The first 2 games are roughly concurrent to the Crossbell duology, which is a first, and the only attempt for the series attempting simultaneous world-building and storytelling across various titles.

Cold Steel I focuses on the newly formed Class VII in Thors Military Academy, an unquestionably bizarre student body given that Erebonia has class divisions based on status and upbringing, and Class VII brings all sorts of individuals together, regardless of their background. The newly conceptualized and realized class finds themselves dealing with conventional studies and Field Studies, which take them beyond the borders of their campus all across Erebonia learning more about the plights of the region.

Trails of Cold Steel II

The gameplay in the Cold Steel saga takes a different approach from what was present in the Sky and Crossbell sagas, aiming to be more beginner-friendly. For one, Sepith values are no longer present, simplifying the process of Orbments, and the introduction of Sepith Mass makes obtaining money a less time-consuming practice.

The Master Quartz system from Trails to Azure returns and gets progressively more intricate in utility as the games progress. For instance, Sub Master Quartz get introduced, but I’d argue the sense of player agency present with Sepith Values is never quite reached in this saga.

The playable cast is at an all-time high in Cold Steel, with both brand new characters and returning ones from both the Sky and Crossbell sagas. Cold Steel III and IV take place a considerable amount of time after Cold Steel II and Trails to Azure, and is where more of the Sky and Crossbell cast make their grand return.

The Cold Steel saga is certainly the most controversial of the 3 completed ones. Still, it hones in on aspects the Sky, and Crossbell arcs never tackled in an in-depth manner. Character interaction, for instance, is at its height across these 4 games with the introduction of bonding events. On rest days, players can hang out with characters who happen to be free for those particular days. This mechanical inclusion also grants further reason for playing through the games on NG+ beyond just difficulty. It’s rare for JRPGs to smartly encourage NG+, and Cold Steel manages to do so.

Trails of Cold Steel III

Bonding events originated in the Crossbell duology, but they are far more frequent and active in the Cold Steel titles. These events have a mixed reception with fans as they rob some reveals and exchanges of the characters that could have taken place throughout the course of the main narrative. I wouldn’t say this ruins the cast’s likeability or appeal whatsoever, but it can certainly be perceived as a flaw that can potentially sour a player’s experience depending on their feelings of the cast in the main stories.

There is far more casual character banter between the main members of the cast, which, at least in my opinion, serves to make them among the most relatable and genuine of the series so far, even amongst the supernatural elements. Additionally, this arc being spread out across 4 games instead of 2, or 3, makes it so most developments can take their time and instill themselves more directly within the players’ minds and the confines of Erebonia. This isn’t to say the story pacing is perfect, as it still has its fair share of issues, but it more than gets the job done suitably enough, and most importantly, the characters get time to breathe, react, reflect, and converse.

Trails of Cold Steel III 1

One critique some players have about this saga is how full of anime tropes it is, such as Rean having multiple love interests. This critique really originated during the Crossbell duology, where great amounts of lewd fanservice occurred, but it has received far more flack in the Cold Steel saga. However, how these tropes affect the experiences depend entirely on the player’s preferences and are by no means inherent negatives despite what some closed-minded fans may preach. As controversial of a take as this is, I did not find the multiple romance options to ruin or even take away from the saga at large, but I could just be objectively wrong in the eyes of the fanbase, so who knows.

Moving on, combat, while not quite as detailed or complex as Crossbell and Sky might be, still retains the Trails charms and staple mechanics, and the gradual rollout of innovations for the battle systems keeps it all fresh.

Trails of Cold Steel II 1

If I were to summarize the appeal of the Cold Steel saga, I’d say it’s the characters. Of course, not everyone agrees with that take, but I find the approaches and executions to most of the cast to be adept and enticing. The narratives throughout these 4 games are present, but they certainly take a back seat for effective characterizations.

Personally, the Cold Steel arc is my favorite, if that wasn’t obvious enough. However, the fanbase is quite contentious with these 4 games in particular, so I advise playing them and forming your own conclusions first before ever delving into conversations online, as those can easily ruin the experiences these titles provide if one is susceptible to sheep-like internet hiveminds.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II are published by XSEED for PlayStation 3, PS Vita, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam and GOG. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV are published by NIS America for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam and GOG. The PC and PlayStation 4 versions of Cold Steel I and II have turbo-mode and additionally voiced dialogue in English, so I advise sticking with those releases.

One note to keep in mind for Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II is that both of these titles received Drama CDs in Japan, which, for those who don’t know, are audio-centric supplemental media for whatever franchise they are a part of. There is 1 Drama CD for Cold Steel I and another for Cold Steel II. The other Trails arcs also have Drama CDs, but these 2, in particular, are integral parts of the Cold Steel experience. Thankfully, XSEED has officially translated both Drama CDs. (Be wary of clicking that hyperlink as it does lead to potential spoilers if one is not careful)

The Cold Steel I Drama CD is best read after beating the said game, and the Cold Steel II Drama CD is best read after reaching Act II.

The Play Orders

Trails of Cold Steel IV

And so, we have finally reached this concluding series of points. So, before jumping straight into the play orders, you may have noticed I have not discussed The Legend of Heroes: Trails into Reverie and The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails. The reason being that the former takes place after The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV, the latest localized release, and the latter is a self-contained spinoff not requiring knowledge of any of the other games to understand and enjoy. Since that is the case, assume that each of the following play orders has Trails into Reverie at its very end. Then, you can play Nayuta whenever you feel like it.

The following list is the play order going by each of the game’s release dates. This is usually the most recommended order and is certainly more than suitable enough for any prospective players to follow. However, the Crossbell duology not receiving official localizations in full until 2023 could make this order a slightly frustrating one for those who speed through these titles.

  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the Third
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV
Nayuta
The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails (Which You Don’t Have to Worry About)

This next list is my own personal preferred play order. It deviates from release order, so it is contentious, but I do have my reasons. The one change is how Cold Steel I’s and II’s placements are swapped with Zero’s and Azure’s. This is because due to these games occurring roughly concurrently with one another, there are occasional spoilers dropped for the other arc in-game. For instance, Azure contains spoilers for key twists in Cold Steel II and vice versa.

Now, this is just my personal preference here, so it really depends on how you feel, but I find the ways that Azure spoils Cold Steel II to far outweigh the gravity of what Cold Steel II shows and tells for Azure.

Additionally, while one can theoretically first play Zero, then Cold Steel I, and then jump into Azure or Cold Steel II, I find that to be a bit too messy for the jarring alterations in gameplay design and presentation one would have to contend with repeatedly.

Keep in mind that the Crossbell titles are my least favorite in the franchise, so it is very likely that my adverseness to certain elements of that arc shapes this preference. Regardless, I shall provide my advised play order for those willing to give it a shot.

  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the Third
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV

Trails of Cold Steel IV 1

The next, and final list, is my advised play order for those who just can’t find themselves getting into the series when beginning with Sky since, for as great as those games are, may not be some players’ cups of tea in regards to presentation. Granted, those games and Crossbell (which has the same art style) will need to be played for full comprehension later on, but Cold Steel’s lack of comparative datedness may make players push past that initial graphical turn-off.

  • The Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel I
  • The Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the Third
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV

I don’t have Trails from Zero first in any of these play orders because, as I’ve mentioned, it contains notable returning Sky characters that are pretty integral to the events that play out. The returning characters in Cold Steel I and II are not in the same vein of necessity for knowing.

If there are 2 advisements I have for whichever order you choose, be it from this article or somewhere else entirely, I strongly believe the Sky trilogy is best experienced first. I also find Cold Steel III and IV to be best experienced after the Crossbell duology since the former 2 games take place after the narratives in Crossbell conclude.

Trails to Azure

A final specific recommendation I have has to do with how you will find collectibles such as books spread out across each of these games telling their own contained stories and missable quests both in your face and not. To be blunt, you will certainly need guides to not miss any of these components. This is one of the major faults with the series, but if you intend on doing everything you can in a playthrough, using a guide is the wisest move to do as there is a variety of missable content.

Also, please take your time with playing these games. Their charm ultimately lies in their dialogue, and rushing through their stories and interactions will serve to lessen the potential impact these titles may have on you. But, again, there is no rush, as there is currently plenty to play and digest in the West for complete newcomers.

This article was an immense undertaking, so I hope there are those who derive some vital information here for how to approach the Trails series in any which way. Trails is my second favorite franchise in all of gaming, and I want as many people to experience these games as possible.

The fanbase may not be welcoming or kind to those who prefer certain titles over others, but don’t let that stop you from experiencing all of these stellar games. Knowing that 4 of the titles will finally be receiving localizations across the next 2 years has me exhilarated beyond words.

If you’re curious about the Ys games, developer Nihon Falcom’s other prominent franchise, check out our deep dive into it and how a newcomer can approach tackling the myriad of games it houses.


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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual. Fan of JRPGs, Action, Platformers, Rhythm, and Adventure titles.