We don't blame you if you’re intimidated by Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails series. This massive saga is now up to its twelfth mainline game in Japan, with the West falling behind at an alarming rate. However, one piece of the puzzle has been missing for years – Crossbell. After years of begging, fans are finally getting these “missing” games, starting with The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero. And, it turns out, there’s a reason people have been desperate to see these games get an official English localisation – Trails from Zero makes a pretty strong case for being one of the best entries in the entire series.
As with every Trails game, there’s always a caveat when trying to get into the series: Where do you start? The Switch, in particular, doesn’t make this easy, with only Trails of Cold Steel III and IV available on the platform in the West. But Trails from Zero is nowhere near as impenetrable as these future entries, with a plot and cast of characters that feel pretty self-contained. Of course, some characters from the Trails in the Sky games (which are currently only on PSP or PC here) make an appearance, references to past events slip in, and one primary plot thread is resolved from the Liberl arc, so it’s hard to deny that Trails from Zero is at its most rewarding if you’ve played Sky. But it’s much more accessible than the other two Switch offerings in the series.
Part of this is because of the setup, with fresh new protagonist Lloyd Bannings and the new location, Crossbell. Lloyd, a rookie police detective, is recruited into Crossbell Police Department’s Special Support Section (SSS), a new experimental team meant to act as a sort of odd-jobs department. Joining Lloyd in the SSS is Elie MacDowell, an intelligent, well-mannered woman; Tio Plato, a young and reserved teenager; and Randy Orlando, a laid-back man who loves a party and a drink.
Things begin as a pretty humble affair as you work at restoring Crossbell’s faith in the police department. You’ll deliver packages, find lost library books, and exterminate the odd monster. But the Trails games are slow burns, and with every page turn, something small – sometimes unassuming – gets unveiled. Trails from Zero does have similar pacing issues as other games in the series, but the smaller cast and tighter setting make it all feel much more bearable.
The game’s excellent writing – with a localisation based on The Geofront’s famous fan translation – does so much to elevate the game’s more intimate setting and cast. The game’s much smaller core cast benefits them greatly, with each member getting their time to shine. Watching Tio warm up to the group and begin to tease the other members is a delight, and Lloyd’s speeches about friendship and “overcoming barriers” are cheesy, sure, but they’re also immensely charming and encouraging. You’ll also be yearning for the side to get even more screen time. Leader of the Testaments Wazy Hemisphere, SSS chief Sergei, and star A-rank Bracer Arios MacLaine are just a handful of highlights, all with intriguing teases and personalities that will have you cheering, laughing, and sometimes even tearing up. An excellent Japanese dub only helps to enhance the emotion.
However, Trails from Zero's real star is Crossbell itself. Crossbell City acts as your base of sorts, while the game confines the action to the relatively small state where there are multiple named NPCs you get to know intimately through this 40-50-hour story. The Trails series has always been known for its intricate dialogue, where NPC lines change over time to match the situation, but the tight-knit nature of Crossbell state means it feels more personal, more intense. As a result, Crossbell itself feels like a character; as more individuals get involved with it – both the city and the state – and plot threads begin to unravel, you start to perceive Crossbell differently. This small city-state underdog sandwiched between two political powers soon becomes a fractured cauldron bubbling with shadowy secrets, sincere people struggling, and corrupt authorities clashing.
With Crossbell as your hub, you’ll get to visit the various locales within the city-state throughout the game’s five main chapters (plus a prologue). There’s a lot of walking early on, with fast travel and bus routes only opening up once you’ve visited each location. You’ll become very familiar with the surrounding paths, especially if you’re tackling the game’s many sidequests. We’ve already touched on the variety of these, and they can sometimes feel a little tedious. There are only so many times we can tolerate going back and forth between Crossbell, the city, and the mining town of Mainz. Thank goodness for that fast-forward feature that’s become a staple in the Trails series.
This handy little feature also comes in clutch during combat, which would otherwise feel a little slow. If you’ve only played Cold Steel before, then Trails from Zero’s battle system might feel like a bit of a step back, but it makes sense, given that this is a game from 2010. You encounter enemies on the field, and battles take place on a grid-based field, but it’s not a strategy RPG. Characters can move a certain distance depending on their Move stat, and various spells (Arts) and skills (Crafts) cause damage and effects in a small area, such as a line, an area around the character, or a circular spot from a distance. S-Crafts also make their return as super-charged moves that deal high amounts of damage to either one or a group of enemies or provide tremendous support to the party.
Unique to Trails from Zero is Team Rush; this can occur randomly during a fight or if you manage to stun the enemy on a field and cause a Pre-Emptive Encounter. Your character will then be able to command a team attack in a large circular area around a field. Team Rushes help make combat feel that extra bit snappier, as you can sometimes wipe out entire mobs of enemies in one hit or whittle down more formidable foes significantly while barely lifting a finger. Working out the best enemy to target with these AOE skills is one of our favourite aspects of combat, which, while it isn’t revolutionary, makes for a solid system.
One returning aspect is the series’ traditional Orbment system. In Trails from Zero, equipping quartz – gems that give your characters access to magic and boost stats – requires a bit more care. Each character’s ENIGMA combat orbment has a line, or various lines, that link all quartz to an orbment in the centre. Every single quartz has a different elemental value(s), and the total elemental value of your ENIGMA affects what spells your characters can use.
Blue quartz, for example, will give them access to healing arts, but you’ll only get higher level spells with higher values of the Water element, and some Mirage spells are reliant on having multiple elemental values. It takes a minute to get used to, but we enjoyed working out what elements gave you access to certain spells and building characters to our advantage.
With some of these older elements, Trails from Zero can take a minute to adjust to. Its visuals are another area that, even when it came out in Japan in 2010, looked a little dated. We think the little clay-like character models are pretty charming, and the character portraits and animations do a lot to build upon the already stellar characterisation the writing provides. But lots of similar-looking environments don’t help to alleviate the sometimes-tedious backtracking. Fortunately, the Switch version has been polished up nicely, so the backgrounds look smooth and the character models are more detailed. Plus, the game runs like a dream on Switch, with only occasional slowdown when transitioning quickly between areas. Its length, coupled with its cute look, makes for the perfect handheld RPG in our minds.
One thing Falcom never disappoints with is music, and Falcom Sound Team jdk delivers another banger of a soundtrack in Trails from Zero. Crossbell’s various themes range from chirpy and cheerful, to energetic, to severe and sombre. At the same time, almost every battle track is phenomenal and rank highly among an incredible variety of tunes throughout the series.
Trails will forever be one of those series that reward the patient, and there will be no changing that. Even Trails from Zero is mainly laying the table for what looks to be an explosive entry in next year's Trails to Azure. Falcom is meticulous with its characters and plotting, sewing seeds that sometimes take hours – even games – to fully blossom, and it’s almost always worth the payoff. But Trails from Zero, even in setting up for a sequel, has a quaint, self-contained feel that both rewards fans who’ve explored Liberl in Trails in the Sky and grasps the hands of newcomers in a gentle enough way to make them not feel overwhelmed.
In a series renowned for its stellar writing, twisting plots, and wonderful characters, The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero is a stand-out RPG. Narrowing the focus of its story to one state, and honing in on a smaller cast of characters, makes for a fantastic and engrossing adventure that is about both intimate relationships and huge, secretive scandals. The fact that this is just one half of a duology means that, while the story wraps up nicely here, we have tons of questions that we’re itching to get answers to in Trails to Azure. If you haven't played Trails, it's time to overcome that barrier, because there’s no better place to zero in on this fantastic series than in Crossbell.