The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero Review
At long last, English-speaking Legend of Heroes fans can (officially) experience the first entry of the Crossbell Arc of Falcom’s legendary series with The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero. While franchise superfans are probably already familiar with the game’s history, Trails from Zero was originally released in Japanese back on the PSP in 2010, and it has seen a number of rereleases since then, including an enhanced version in 2012 for the Playstation Vita known as Zero no Kiseki: Evolution, which would later get a remaster on PS4 known as Zero no Kiseki: Kai in the spring of 2020, but none of these versions received English localizations at the time. For those keeping track of the series timeline, Trails from Zero takes place after the events of Trails in the Sky: The 3rd, while featuring a new primary cast and setting.
Trails from Zero focuses on the beginning cases and early days of Crossbell’s Special Support Section, a new Bracer-like group of the Crossbell Police Department. Players of the Cold Steel series of games will recognize many of these faces, including the detective Lloyd Bannings, the markmen and well-spoken Elie MacDowel, child prodigy from the Epstein Foundation Tio Plato, the playboy Randy Orlando, and their no-nonsense boss, Sergei Lou. It’s their job to improve the image and reception of the police but taking on general requests by the public and doing community service that the rest of the force doesn’t get involved in.
Things aren’t quite as innocent and calm as they appear in the bustling streets of Crossbell, though. Sandwiched between the hostile nations of Erebonia and the Calvard, Crossbell is in a precarious position of trying to maintain their independence and preventing their nation from becoming a battleground for their neighbors. While the SSS will deal with their share of “find this” and “kill this scary monster” requests over the course of the 60+ hour game, the team will also find themselves butting up against rival gangs, holding back the city’s nefarious mafia group of Revache & Co., and mysteries of the past that will threaten the very freedom of Crossbell itself. Lloyd and crew will have to rely on friends they make along the way in order to make it through, and in typical Legend of Heroes fashion, there will be plenty of jaw-dropping twists and surprises that players can look forward to that will have wide-reaching consequences for Zemuria at large. Long-time fans of the Legend of Heroes games may also see familiar faces lending their aid along the way.
Since the Crossbell state is far smaller than Liberl. where Trails in the Sky took place, and Erebonia, where Trails in Cold Steel is located, I found Trails from Zero to be a far more personal affair. During various missions, you will explore a few of the small surrounding villages, but most of your time will be spent diving into the secrets of the city-state. By the time that I was drawing the story towards its finale, I had such an attachment to the citizens of Crossbell that I found myself simply walking around the various districts to talk to the NPCs to see what was going on with them that day.
Much of this attachment came through Trails from Zero's liberal use of sidequests that you can take on and find while working to tackle your main goal for each chapter. Outside of the quests that task you with dispatching a particularly tough enemy, most of these will see you directly helping and interacting with the townsfolk of the region. You will hear about their lives, their worries, and how, by helping them, you are making their lives genuinely better. I became invested in their stories and lives and wanted to know how my new friends got along long after I had turned in their requests. It’s a testament to Falcom's skill in worldbuilding with the Legend of Heroes games. With each entry I play, my opinion that this series is leaps and bounds ahead of others is only cemented further.
Trails of Zero was originally released on the PSP not too long after the Trails in the Sky arc finished, and these two series share a lot of similarities in terms of both presentation and mechanics, which may be a bit of a shock to those who have only experienced and are coming from the later-released Cold Steel games. Most characters and monsters are detailed 3D models that have been rendered out as 2D sprites that move around primitive-looking 3D environments that use simple geometry. Rich and vibrant textures are relied on to bring those simple boxy buildings and objects to life and most versions of this release do a splendid job doing so.
Combat is also very similar to the Sky trilogy, with combat taking place on a grid as opposed to the open arenas of Cold Steel. Arts (the Legend of Heroes version of magic) and Quartz (pretty much materia) return, where you will need to socket your Quartz into your special Enigma device. Each Quartz you equip will contain a certain amount of the world's various elements to varying degrees. By bringing those element totals up to certain points, you will gain access to various Arts that you can use based on said elements. It can be a bit of a chore to figure out, depending on which if any other games in the series you have played, but by utilizing the lists of Arts in your detective handbook, the system should click before too long.
If you feel a little burned out on missions and don't feel like grinding levels, there are plenty of fun side activities to take a break with. The series' staple side excursion, fishing, is here for all you Fishermans Guild members out there with a whole new roster of catches to find in the region's numerous fishing spots. Each fish you catch will net you either Sepith or items, making fishing a relaxing and beneficial activity. If you're running low on funds, you can always hit up the casino in the entertainment district and try your hand at Blackjack, Poker, Slots, or Roulette and exchange your winnings for money or rare items! If once you're done fishing and gambling, you can work to improve your cooking and recipes by making delicious (and occasionally dangerous) treats that will help you out when you get back to the story and start facing enemies again.
For all that is great about this game, and it is a great and wonderful RPG, unfortunately, Trails from Zero’s English release also feels like a missed opportunity or two for NIS America, particularly the PlayStation 4 version. To start with, everything amazing about the PC version (and Switch version, as I understand it) was the result of hard work and dedication from passionate Trails fans. This includes the wonderful translation work from the Geofront group, from whom NIS America bought the script, and Durante's bountiful quality-of-life port improvements. These improvements include adding in a chat log, UI scaling options, adjustable High-Speed mode settings, and more, all of which are only present in the PC and Switch releases and completely absent from the PS4 release. All of these improvements, the fan-translation included, were released for free for players to apply to their Japanese PC version of Zero no Kiseki (Trails from Zero’s title in Japan).
Missing features and improvements aside, visual details are considerably lower on the PS4, even when compared to the Switch version. Textures, those same vibrant and rich ones that I mentioned earlier, are blurry and smudged for players on the PlayStation, which can be seen from the very first moments of the game. Character sprites also appear far more jagged and rough when compared to the other platforms' versions which look smooth and clear. I can’t think of another scenario where the Switch release of a game blows the PlayStation version out of the water by such a wide margin. I would only recommend the PS4 release if it’s the only avenue available to you to experience this wonderful game because while it is still very much playable, it is far from the optimal method that this game deserves.
What really has really made Trails from Zero falls somewhat flat is the fact that even though so much of what they have used is the result of previously released fan projects, NIS America opted not to bring back the English voice actors to reprise their roles. The Japanese voice cast does an amazing job, but the omission of the English cast just made this release - a game that fans have been begging years for and is so important to the timeline of this series- feel all the more like a release out of necessity and ease, rather than passion and urge to tell this story. I would have gladly paid $60 (yes, I am also purchasing a copy of the game) for the return of the voice actors. Especially since it has already been confirmed that the upcoming Trails into Reverie will feature the returning voice cast.
Considering its availability on modern platforms, The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero is potentially the best and easiest starting point currently for players to easily jump into this behemoth of a series. With this release, it is the easiest of the games to play while spoiling the least amount of events from other games and also having a solid and slightly more modern feel to it. I fell even more in love with the SSS after finally being able to see their beginnings and experience the start of their stories together and their home of Crossbell. I loved exploring the hills of Amorica and the mines of Maize, heading off the goons of Revache while befriending the gangs of the Downtown district. I loved reading every witty response from each treasure chest I opened (seriously, after opening a chest, check it again for some great messages and puns), and each new reveal I uncovered. Having primarily played this on my Steamdeck, it led to many late nights and hushed gasps as I tried not to wake my wife after a shocking twist, a feeling that Falcom seems to have mastered.
Falcom’s Legend of Heroes: Trails series deserves to be held in the same high regard, if not higher, as other AAA RPG studios out there today. The wait for Trails to Azure, releasing next year, will be rough, but hopefully, this extra time will let NIS America release all the versions of the game to the high standard it deserves.