RPG fans have certainly been well-catered for on the PSP. In such a late stage of its life cycle, with the Playstation Vita imminent the PSP is still going strong. Trails in the Sky – with the rather provocative acronym ‘TitS’ – is one RPG that stands out from the crowd, and not just because it’s called TitS.
This JRPG is fairly traditional by design. There’s a turn-based combat system, towns, airships and plucky teenage freedom fighters; on the face of it, it’s lacking in originality. However, developer Falcom has been making these games since the 80s, and they know how to spin a good yarn.This title is actually the first of a quadrilogy (this chapter has already been out for eight years in Japan, with the second and third chapters also released.) For this reason the plot is a slow burner; think more along the lines of a novel and you’re halfway there. Its adventure about the exploits of a spunky, tomboyish lass named Estelle and sharp, introverted cool kid Joshua, on a journey around a politically unstable country to become fully qualified ‘Bracers’ – essentially a civilian vigilante group – is an idyllic and cheerful one to begin with.
There is so much painstaking detail (hell, you can find books throughout the game that cover ten pages at a time and are better written than Skyrim’s) that it’s easy to become immersed in the rich quasi-modern world and invested in the interesting multi-faceted people that populate it. TitS is a very wordy game; even your regular NPCs are more unique, and have more to say than many central roles in other games of its ilk. And the story this game has to tell is gripping, full of drama and conspiracy when it gets going, including some fantastic twists before the 40-60 hours are up. And because the characters and setting are given so much room to develop and assert a sense of believability, it becomes a far more involving experience for it.
Moving on to the gameplay side of things. The RPG mainstay of battering monsters to a pulp is addictive and engagingly strategic; the turned based fights are set out on a grid-like plane, the like you might see on a strategy RPG, and it works effectively here; characters can only cover a certain amount of space each turn; each weapon has different characteristics such as range and the ability the hit multiple opponents, and magic can hit enemies at any range if you’re willing to wait for it to charge first. Much like Final Fantasy X you’re given the order of both yours and the opponents turns, which you can cannily exploit to your advantage – some careful management is required, especially for the boss battles. To pop the cherry on the cake, random battles are non-existent.
The lavish towns are a delight to rummage around in. There is so much more life to them than your typical inn, weapon and armour shop combo. They’ll serve as your central hub for each segment of the game, and I found myself attached to them by the time I had to leave. This is largely thanks to the breadth and depth of the side quests, which range from rescuing cats out of trees to far more elaborate missions that over-arch over multiple quests and throw punishing bosses your way.
The side quests are remarkable, because many of them actually add more detail to the central narrative, and are eager to avoid fetch quests. However, quests can disappear if you progress to a certain point in the story before you’ve started or finished them – this can be galling as it’s not always clear at what point they will be cancelled.
There are a few more negatives here and there. The many dungeons, plains and hills are uninspired, and simply a case of getting from A to B, toughing out the monsters in your path – the simplistic level designs and lack of puzzles is disappointing.
Considering the vast scale of this game, it is surprisingly portable happy, mostly due to the fact that you can save almost everywhere at any time; a smart decision which I’d like to see implemented more often in Japanese games. However, the lengthy albeit entertaining dialogue can drag on a bit too long.
The graphics in this circa 2004 game are definitely showing their age; the animation of the 2D characters are weak, and some of the NPCs do that old-world RPG thing of walking on the spot for… some reason. The 3D environments aren’t too hot either, with blurry textures, low detail and too many recycled assets. When a town is discovered for the first time, the camera will pan around the locale, and it’s all quite attractive when you step back – it’s just a shame that the camera is fixated on the ground at every other moment.
The music picks up on the visual slack nicely. Falcom are long standing innovators in the field of videogame music – they’re the first developer to employ vocals in their music and the first to have a dedicated band for their games. Needless to say, they don’t drop the ball here. I couldn’t help but hum to much of the jaunty, high energy soundtrack, especially the battle music. As it’s something that’ll be heard often, it’s a revelation that I loved the jazzy swagger of it so much I would prolong some battles just to hear everything.
For someone that likes to be absorbed in their games, TitS is perfect. The characters are (mostly) believable and are written lovingly – the witty banter is never anything other than natural and hilarious, and once again XSEED have done a convincing job translating the game. The personalities are so charming and at times affecting, and when the plot does unravel itself, it goes all guns blazing and the narrative reveals some startling ambition and depth. The true nature of a spectacular plot emerges and serves to satisfy, and titillate the player of the gargantuan second chapter, which is twice as big. It needs to be released, like yesterday.
Graphics: 2/5 – Weak 2D sprites and a lot of bland textures are occasionally jazzed up by some ballistic special effects in battle. Towns have much charm and personality.
Sound: 3/5 – The music is joyful, and the orchestral stuff in particular is beautiful, though a few tracks are recycled far too much. The lack of voice-acting anywhere bar the combat may irk some.
Gameplay: 4/5 – Compulsive JRPG gameplay, and a huge intriguing world to explore lavished with detail. Some lazy level designs are a letdown.
Longevity: 4/5 – Up to sixty hours of gameplay, and plenty of enriching side-quests. Regardless, there is little replay value for anyone other than completists.
Overall: 4 out of 5
An RPG with a dizzying attention to detail, a great eye for storytelling and bags of character. TitS is highly recommended for all JRPG fans.