The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure Review – Inceptive Confluence

    Title: The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure
    Developer: Nihon Falcom
    Release Date: March 14, 2023
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: NIS America
    Genre: Turn-Based JRPG

Regardless of what niche gaming communities may say, this is the best time to be a Trails fan. Alongside the entirety of the Sky and Cold Steel sagas and confirmation of future releases, the west will finally be able to experience the Crossbell duology officially. The first entry, Trails from Zero, launched in the Fall of 2022, earning waves of new fans. And now, The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure will capstone this specific saga.

I have previous experience with this game after playing the fan translations and the Geofront iteration, which is what this release is fundamentally based on, so I knew what I was getting myself into. However, at the time, I was only familiar with the core story, which minimizes the impact of the NPCs, reading material, and general side-content. Now with the greater context of the cast and lore, I was eager to dive back into Azure and see everything as I took my time smelling the burning roses.

Let’s jump right in, after roughly 130 hours; I’m left with a somewhat mixed reception. While Trails to Azure boasts one of the strongest narratives in the series with brilliant political intrigue and tension, most of its cast, perhaps at a cost, suffers from lacking endearment and memorable interactions, causing overall confusion. Still, there’s plenty of fulfilling content to enjoy here for dedicated fans who take the time to investigate all of what this title has to offer.

Following a brief time skip after the Finale of Trails from Zero, Crossbell’s Special Support Section has seen structural changes. Randy Orlando, Elie MacDowell, and Tio Plato are all temporarily pursuing paths of their own, and protagonist Lloyd Bannings is no exception. The Prologue comprises the cleanup of a lingering Zero plot thread, simultaneously emphasizing the direct connectivity for those who may not have been aware beforehand, as well as the new treachery on the horizon of Crossbell. To help, the title screen does contain a Backstory section housing key terms, character profiles, and a narrative summary of Trails from Zero, but these shouldn’t be seen as replacements for the actual experience. Instead, partially due to their brevity, fans of the first game should take a gander at these menus as a narrative recap.

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I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it’s tough to discuss the stories of Trails games in non-spoiler terms since they usually require knowledge of the other entries. In the case of Trails to Azure being both a sequel and saga finale, that difficulty is amplified tenfold. Still, there are several talking points that can be brought up without fear of ruining the plot. For instance, much of Trails to Azure orbits political stakes. Various matters regarding Crossbell’s uniquely precarious geopolitical conflicts were touched on in Zero, but Azure makes those facets far more pronounced and focused. The Erebonian Empire and the Republic of Calvard’s intense vying for the locale cause Crossbell’s citizenry and government to face more tension than ever before, as it even broaches the fantastical notion of independence.

So, there are moments of concurrent inferiority and prosperity within Crossbell. The citizens clash with high taxation beyond their control, alongside a sense that the land and its people do not belong to themselves. As several vain Erebonian and Calvardian visitors not-so-subtly imply, Crosbell resides with one nation or the other, not itself. These political themes are undeniably where Trails to Azure is at its strongest. Not only is the concept compelling since it has the capacity to unite countless individuals of differing backgrounds, but the city is the only one like it in the game’s world.

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If you’re invested in Trails’ lore and worldbuilding, Azure will likely be one of your favorites for those aspects alone. There is plenty here to digest, resulting in a dense, rich world. Further, due to this official English release occurring after the localizations of the Trails of Cold Steel saga, players of those games will glean additional context that will bring to light just how well-written this series is. On that same note, it’s worth bringing up that every localized version of Azure, using the PlayStation 4 Kai Japanese version as the base, includes a few Cold Steel cameos since, for those unaware, the events of Azure happen at roughly the same time as Trails of Cold Steel I and Trails of Cold Steel II.

Now, while I have sung Azure’s praises, some aspects are underwhelming, such as the handling of the cast. In Trails from Zero, I wasn’t much of a fan of the Special Support Section or several of the supporting characters, and that, unfortunately, carries over to Azure. In a sense, this sequel has doubled both the pros and cons of its predecessor. To elaborate, like Zero, Lloyd and Elie are easily the weakest members of the core cast. They have a handful of engaging interactions, yet Lloyd ultimately feels too affixed to the narrative; not given enough scenes to ponder upon his personal challenges. Elie, on the other hand, lacks presence, only receiving integral character conflict in the later hours that is sadly sidelined and only given the bare minimum of attention.

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Noel, who is far more present this time around, suffers from a loosely similar issue as Elie, where the crux of her character conflict is initiated and rapidly concluded in the span of a few in-game hours near the conclusion. Plus, essential parts of her backstory are provided during optional dialogue. Granted, it’s not like everyone needs a thought-provoking deep dive every time they’re on screen, but when their characterizations and growth are rushed or lacking in favor of progressing the plot, attachment has a tendency to wane.

Tio is an excellent example of a party member who isn’t a strong focus but provides endearing and effective support. However, this only works because she was such a highlight in Zero, so the foundation of care was already established and developed long beforehand. Thankfully, if you collect all of a character’s room decorations, you’ll initiate a short slice-of-life scene involving them and Lloyd. More events of this variety would have drastically aided the depiction of character relationships.

Moreover, the villains are where I’d argue Azure is at its weakest. Aside from a few select antagonists with gripping and sympathetic motivations, the majority were so typically evil with mustache-twirling dialogue that it was difficult to take them seriously. Most Trails games have this to varying extents, yet it feels most pronounced here. It should go without saying that mileage will vary from player to player. Still, several events that were meant to be emotionally significant fell short because the antagonistic dialogue was usually at odds with the profound and cathartic core narrative.

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Randy is the best character in this game, bar none. His intentions were teased enough in Zero for his arc in Azure to feel naturally fleshed out. In a different vein is Wazy, who, similar to Noel, is more active in this entry yet is far more compelling for reasons I can’t discuss here. Unfortunately, the antagonists who act as their primary obstacles are weakly depicted, resulting in a loss of potential. Still, I always enjoyed these party members’ dialogue which complemented their enduring strife. And aside from Tio, Dieter Crois is the only other character that I found received the necessary focus.

Of course, prioritizing narrative over characterization is never an inherent flaw, but even in the case of the story, there were bizarre occurrences that illustrate either a lack of development time or oversights. There are vital and crucial plot events that are sidelined and only given a few light sentences of summation. I should emphasize that this is not the norm throughout Azure; it just happens at a few points that should have been significantly expanded upon. There was a critical event in Zero treated similarly, so it’s disappointing to see that carry over in a greater capacity.

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Contrary to this, I had a pretty fun time with Azure, and that’s because of how gameplay is approached. Firstly, combat has undergone an evolution, adopting the Sepith value system seen in Zero and the Sky trilogy, as well as introducing Master Quartz, a mechanic many initially associate with the Cold Steel entries. These new Quartz act as vehicles for further character individuality, being instilled with stat increases and select abilities. Additionally, maxing a Master Quartz level grants a notable Art that can turn the tides of battle. It’s a simple yet effective system that enhances progression.

Combat has received the Burst meter, which is only present in climactic story segments, letting the player stop enemy turns once the gauge is full, granting the party numerous turns one after another alongside a slew of benefits. Due to how potent this functionality is, the evident facets of strategy arise from identifying the most effective times to use it. Arts can be immediately used with no charging in Bursts, so they’re certainly the first tool many will first turn to. On another note, Combination Crafts, duo S-Crafts earned in the later hours of Zero, are also present in Azure, except from the start, and the pacing of their distribution is far quicker. These abilities are reliable since, unlike standard S-Crafts, they don’t sap all of a character’s CP if it’s above 100, and they’re typically fantastic for crowd control.

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Quests, cooking, collectibles, and such all function identically to Zero, though the fishing is cleverly implemented. Since players would have already seen most of the fishing spots and the catches in Zero, a mini-storyline was added this time around to justify the reset of progress. Simply put, the Fishing Guild is taken over by Imperial fishers, who control select fishing spots outside of Crossbell city. And it’s up to the main man himself, Lloyd Bannings, to challenge these Imperial fishers, the Elite Four, to wrest free reign of those spots once more. However, the prerequisites for facing off against these foes alter depending on who it is, so the process is kept fresh. I honestly probably enjoyed the fishing too much; it’s as addicting as ever.

As a brief aside, there’s a slight problem with the cooking. Unlike Zero, the party houses more than four members on a usual basis, also allowing for additional opportunities for preparation. Unfortunately, cooking only allows the four characters in the active party to be selectable, so any characters who are in the backline can’t be chosen unless you manually change the party lineup. This problem is incredibly minor, but it’s at least worth acknowledging since it’s a definite oversight. I suppose this lets me somewhat cleanly transition into a bug I encountered randomly concerning the car.

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Fast travel is easier in Azure, partially thanks to the early availability of a vehicle the cast can utilize to get anywhere immediately. It’s more convenient than bus stops since you aren’t restricted to specific spots. Further, you can instantly warp the car back to the SSS’ garage whenever you like. But for reasons I can’t pinpoint, there were some occasions where the car would just straight-up vanish.

Ordinarily, the car is presented as an icon on the map, but I found myself in scenarios where it was gone entirely. And using the warp function to spawn it at the garage would result in a softlock where the game did not know what to do, leaving me stuck on the map screen with no way to exit other than closing the game. Thankfully, at least on the PC version, there are autosaves, so I didn’t lose too much progress. Still, this glitch reared its ugly head around four times for me, so just be careful and maybe save beforehand if you ever use the car.

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Regarding cities and towns, Azure suffers from the same flaw as Zero, where despite the low number of areas, they’re presented to be far smaller and less dense than they actually are in the context of the story. And in Azure, where politics take centerstage far more than ever before, this issue comes off as more prominent. I could very well be in the minority here whose immersion was broken by this since every game ever made requires a suspension of disbelief.

Yet, when considering the massive scale and premise of Azure’s narrative and how the other sagas aren’t contained within a singular city, the minuscule depiction of Crossbell city proper, not to mention its surrounding villages, causes a collective loss of impact. I guess the best way to put it is that it’s easier and less contrived to suspend disbelief in scenarios where you explore a multitude of areas since expecting fleshed-out depictions across them all just isn’t feasible.

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If you played Trails from Zero on the same platform as Trails to Azure, clear data can be transferred, impacting countless interactions subtly depending on what the player did throughout the former. For instance, several scenes slightly change if you cleared certain sidequests in Zero, spoke to particular NPCs, and who Lloyd had his final bonding event with. This implementation is not new, as Trails in the Sky SC and the Trails of Cold Steel games did something similar, but its strengths can’t be overstated. The meticulous effort does not go unnoticed since everyone’s playthrough will be tailored based on their previous actions. Of course, it’s not like the narrative will alter dramatically, but if you take your time to speak to all NPCs and pay attention during select exchanges, you’ll catch onto specific references that a default save file would not have.

And speaking of NPCs, Trails to Azure thrives on them. Throughout the narrative, there are some named NPCs with mini storylines of their own that are fun to follow. While it is very possible I missed dialogue here and there, especially given this title’s script size, I took my time and aimed to talk to everyone in the game across every instance of changed dialogue. As for the usual elephant in the room, the localization, I did encounter several minor typos, usually just missing or misplaced periods or commas, with the occasional merged word. Although I did also see two text boxes that erroneously copy-pasted the text from the previous text box. Other than those slip-ups, though, the localization appeared magnificent, so I would not worry about its quality.

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Despite it being a time-consuming process, it was a rewarding experience since it partially aided in me feeling a higher degree of affinity for the townspeople. Further, with the stronger political focus, seeing different perspectives and thoughts from the common folk rather than simply the big players was a nice change of pace.

Granted, the overtly diminutive size of Crossbell harmed the believability of certain developments, but the NPC quality was by no means poor. Lastly, like Trails from Zero, Trails to Azure contains New Game+-only content, providing a few new boss battles and a super boss. These encounters aren’t overly significant since they are only there for those seeking achievements, but replay value in games like these is always appreciated.

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The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure is an entry every fan should experience in all its glory. Aside from its integral narrative importance to the series at large, its gameplay progress, divine soundtrack, and brilliant political engagement make it a worthy sequel. While I don’t think it comes close to other entries in the franchise due to the story focus taking precedence over the cast and missed events that would have provided greater impact, I was hooked all the same.

The intricacy of Trails rivals most gaming series you’ll find out there, and in a personal sense, Azure demonstrates that even if it stumbles with delivery, it still manages to comprise an unforgettable experience.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual.